Today President Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima and pay his respects at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
AHF President Cynthia C. Kelly commented, “Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui and Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue met last year with the Atomic Heritage Foundation to express their concerns that the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park include ‘what happened under the mushroom cloud.’ The President’s visit reinforces the National Park Service’s commitment to include the Japanese perspective as part of the Manhattan Project story.
“At the same time, the President did not apologize for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs. The decision must be considered in the context of World War II and Truman’s determination to end the long and costly war—with some 60 million lives lost—as soon as possible.”
Reflections on President Obama’s Visit
Richard Rhodes, author of many books on nuclear weapons including the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb and member of AHF's Board of Directors, reflected on the historic significance of Obama's trip. “A visit of an American President to the site of the world’s first atomic bombing has been long overdue, not to apologize-war is cruel and America’s World War II leadership sincerely believed this new weapon would decisively end the cruelest war in human history-but to contribute to turning a place of tragedy into a place of inspiration. That inspiration, as the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have appealed repeatedly across these past 71 years, must be to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from the arsenals of the world.”
Robert S. Norris, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and member of AHF’s Board of Directors, explained the historical significance of Obama’s trip: “President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and his remarks there closes a chapter seventy years old and points to a future of cooperation with the Japanese in banning nuclear weapons.”
Manhattan Project veterans who are still alive today recalled the race to end World War II and the project’s goal of bringing the war to a speedy conclusion. Many also expressed fervent hope that nuclear weapons will never be used again.
Physicist Benjamin Bederson, who helped wire the switches for the Fat Man bomb on Tinian Island, stated, “We remain convinced that dropping the bomb helped end the war and helped save many lives, Japanese and American. At the time, that was the only consideration that counted.”
In an interview for Yahoo Japan, chemist Lilli Hornig, who worked on the Manhattan Project along with her husband Don Hornig at Los Alamos, reinforced those feelings: “I think it was too bad, but we were at war. Those are the things that happen in war. I think there would have been enormous casualties if we had tried to invade Japan…Would Japan apologize for Pearl Harbor, to start with? Or any number of other attacks? No. It’s what you buy into when you are at war. But that’s why you should stop having wars.”
For more thoughts and reflections by Manhattan Project veterans and experts, please visit our website.
President Obama’s Speech
Obama began the day in Hiroshima with a short visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. He and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe then each laid a wreath at the cenotaph commemorating the victims of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Later, Obama signed the Park’s guestbook with the message, “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
In his speech, Obama discussed why we must remember the bombing of Hiroshima: “Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.” South Koreans have praised Obama for recognizing the Korean victims of the atomic bomb.
Recalling the horrors of World War II, Obama recounted: “In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.”
Technology, he noted, can be a double-edged sword. “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.” He called for a world without nuclear weapons: “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”
He concluded his speech with hope for a peaceful future. “The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
A number of hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, attended the speech. Obama exchanged a hug with Shigeaki Mori, a hibakusha and historian who is especially known for his work to recognize the twelve US airmen who were POWs in Hiroshima and died in the bombing. Among the survivors who attended the speech was Tsugio Ito, whose son died on September 11, 2001, in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Thousands of Japanese lined the streets to witness President Obama's historic visit and hear his speech, and much of Japan watched the moment on television. Many of the bystanders expressed gratitude that Obama had chosen to visit their city.
President Obama’s visit should inspire closer cooperation between the United States and Japan, and may encourage Prime Minister Abe to make a similar visit to Pearl Harbor. The Washington Post reported, “The White House has said it would welcome Abe to Pearl Harbor, where plans are underway to mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7. One senior U.S. official said he would be surprised if Abe did not come, though the prime minister said at a news conference this week that he had no such plans at this time.”
In an interview with the Japanese media in 2015, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis stated that the NPS hopes to feature artifacts from the bombings at the three Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites, to provide the Japanese perspective of the bombings. The Atomic Heritage Foundation looks forward to working with the National Park Service and Japanese experts and museum officials to interpret this history in a balanced and comprehensive manner.