Hiroshima and Obama’s nuclear disarmament legacy for future generations

By Masako Toki

Since President Obama made his monumental Prague speech over seven years ago calling for a world without nuclear weapons, people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have enthusiastically hoped that the president visits their cities.

Now, with less than one year remaining in his presidency, with much disappointment in his nuclear disarmament policy, his call for a world free of nuclear weapons may sound an empty promise. Many feels that Obama’s Prague agenda has lost almost all the momentum in the face of the harsh realities of both international security and domestic politics. Especially, the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia has been directly impacting both countries nuclear weapons policies that made a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons almost completely improbable.

President Obama at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic, in 2009

President Obama at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic, in 2009

However, President Obama will soon face his final opportunity to vindicate his seriousness to work for a nuclear free world, refuting such disappointment and criticism on his nuclear disarmament policy, and reinvigorate the momentum in effort toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

The G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Hiroshima that convened on April 10th and 11th became the prelude to Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

The Hiroshima meeting is a great opportunity for Japan to appeal its commitment to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. At the same time, this meeting gave a chance to the United States to vindicate Washington’s commitment to a peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons as a world leader. 

US secretary of state John Kerry laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Memorial Park and Museum

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Memorial Park and Museum on April 10

The spotlight of this Foreign Ministers meeting is the first sitting United States Secretary of State visits the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. And now, there is a possibility that Kerry’s visit would pave the way for Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima as a first incumbent President of the United States.  People in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have long hoped for nuclear abolition, and Obama’s Prague speech gave these elderly atomic bombing survivors, “Hibakusha” a silver-lining.  

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who is originally from Hiroshima, is known to be committed to enhancing Japan’s role in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Securing G7 leaders’ visit to the Memorial Park itself is one of his most significant diplomatic achievements.

After Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Hiroshima, President Obama will decide whether he should visit Hiroshima during the G7 Summit that will be held in May in Ise-Shima.

For many years, senior US government officials avoided going to Hiroshima because of political sensitivities. It is a generally accepted view that dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 accelerated the end of the Second World War, thus it was considered to be justifiable.

Given this U.S. consistent view on the use of nuclear weapons was necessary evil, what president Obama said in his Prague speech was groundbreaking, and it is still resonating in many nuclear disarmament advocates’ mind, especially, people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obama’s Prague Speech clearly stated America’s responsibility, “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

He also stated that “We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”

Hiroshima bombing in 1945

Hiroshima bombing in 1945

Japan, as the only country that has experienced wartime nuclear devastation, but relying on the US extended nuclear deterrence since then, has unparalleled and unique responsibilities in nuclear disarmament as well. Japan has played an important role in both nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. At the same time, due to the US extended nuclear deterrence, Japan’s disarmament policy cannot be too radical such as advocating nuclear weapons elimination with a specific timeframe or advocating banning nuclear weapons legally.

Japan’s disarmament credential was also ruined by its massive stockpiles of separated plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons development. While Japan places all of its nuclear technology, materials, and facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to make sure that Japan’s nuclear energy will never be diverted into military purposes, these plutonium stockpiles continue to generate concerns among the neighboring countries, especially China. In order to be a more effective and reliable nuclear disarmament player, Japan should send the world a strong signal that Japan is a genuine supporter for a world free of nuclear weapons through its concrete policy.

In this sense, Japan’s initiative to promote disarmament education, especially among young generations, by conveying the horrific effects of the use of nuclear weapons deserves more attention.

It is very important for world leaders to visit atomic bombing museum to see first-hand the effect of the use of nuclear weapons against humanity.

A Hiroshima bombing survivor

A Hiroshima bombing survivor

Because the age of the average atomic bombing survivor “Hibakusha” is now over 80, it is a race against time to pass on their experiences to the next generation. Hibakushas testimonials are poignant. Once you listen to them, describing the effect of the use of nuclear weapons against human being, indiscriminate mass murder that included not just instantaneous death for some but lingering deaths from radiation sickness burns and spontaneous bleeding, among other horrific effects, as well as psychological agony you will surely have different perspectives toward nuclear weapons.

The humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons does not discriminate nationalities. This is universal to all humanity. Therefore, the humanitarian initiative for nuclear disarmament should not be a source of division between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapon states. Unfortunately, this issue has become one of the sources of rift among countries. But this is the very issue that can bring all countries together to seriously tackle the danger of nuclear weapons for all humanity.

Nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states have different views in terms of ways to achieve peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons. Some countries believe that the recent international security environment is not so conducive to nuclear disarmament, or that nuclear disarmament is not a desirable goal.

Some of the nuclear weapon states’ policy makers label nuclear disarmament advocates, particularly, supporters of humanitarian initiatives, as “anti-nuclear radicals.” Labeling people who have different opinions as “radical” regardless of issues is very unproductive, to say the least. It is dangerous.

Japan is in a good position to bridge between countries in a different view toward nuclear disarmament given Japan’s experience with nuclear devastation, as well as Japan’s relationship with the United States.

President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima will definitely contribute to accelerating the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons although it may not happen in his life time as he stated in the Prague speech.

Therefore, we have to teach the next generation the real effects of the use of nuclear weapons, and how to prevent them from being used again. With the security environment surrounding nuclear weapons, it is important for the next generation to think of effective measures to prevent nuclear use, minimize threats, and make progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Japan’s initiative in promoting disarmament and nonproliferation education needs to be more universally accepted, and this requires support from nuclear weapons states.

The power and promise of education to achieve this goal should be more widely recognized by world leaders. If Obama visits Hiroshima and makes his final speech on nuclear disarmament as a president, he should emphasize the importance of disarmament and nonproliferation education for a safer and more peaceful world without nuclear weapons. Doing so would be the best way to vindicate his commitment to nuclear disarmament, and immortalize his legacy.

Masako Toki is a Research Associate and Education Project Manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, US.

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