Michael KreponEvaluating the Visit to Hiroshima

What are we to make of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima? To my ear, President Obama’s speech was oddly unequal to the occasion – and not just because he signaled no new efforts to move in the direction of his aspirational goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama was obliged to repeat this goal at Hiroshima; offering nothing by way of recommitment was one of the reasons why his words fell flat.

Granted, this was not the time or place for a policy-oriented speech, but Administration officials have given no indication of renewed efforts to follow up on the President’s remarks. A president who insists on sprinting to the finish line of his second term on other agenda items appears to have run out of steam when it comes to reducing nuclear dangers and weapons. Perhaps he feels that the Iran nuclear deal and the Nuclear Security Summit during his last year are sufficient for his baton pass. Or perhaps he is ill-served by aides suffering from Battered Arms Controller Syndrome. One sure indicator of BACS is the defensive crouch that results from dealing with opponents who have succeeded in rolling back ambitious policy objectives and who now focus on dismantling hard-won gains. Having served in the Carter Administration, I know the feeling. Another signs of BACS is not communicating openly with domestic allies because there is no good news to convey.

When Mr. Obama truly rises to the occasion, his words soar and his spirit moves. His trip to Hiroshima was meaningful, but his words didn’t soar. Instead, I sensed a president fully aware of the painful irony of getting trapped in paying a very steep price for securing the Senate’s consent to extremely modest reductions in New START – a term that the Administration has tellingly backed away from.

President Nixon enthusiastically linked new starts in strategic offensive arms in return for reaching accords on strategic offensive and defensive systems. Successive presidents have felt obliged to engage in this domestic bargaining process, with the exception of Republican presidents in office during (or after) the precipitous decline and the fall of the Soviet Union. Democratic presidents have been especially unwilling prisoners of this dynamic – none more so than Mr. Obama. Convincing words at Hiroshima couldn’t be found without convincing actions to roll back programs that the Pentagon cannot afford. Mr. Obama seems unwilling to do this. Nor has he explained why.

President Obama sidestepped the apology at Hiroshima that some wanted and others could not abide. I approach this issue, as you might expect, from an institutional as well as a personal perspective. Henry L. Stimson was the Secretary of War who advised President Harry Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Stimson later wrote about his calculus of decision, calling it “the least abhorrent choice.” There were still twelve million U.S. servicemen in uniform at the time of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three-quarters of a million soldiers were preparing to invade Honshu to secure Japan’s unconditional surrender. War hawks in the Imperial Cabinet refused to accept defeat. The brutal fighting on Okinawa, during which the first atomic bomb was being assembled on Tinian Island, resulted in 75,000 U.S. casualties, including 20,000 deaths.

During World War II, Stimson’s name was signed (by auto-pen, I believe) at the bottom of over 416,000 letters of condolence to the families of U.S. servicemen. I have one of these letters. It was sent to my grandmother for the son she lost during the Italian campaign at Anzio – the uncle I am named after. My father-in-law received two Purple Hearts for parachuting into close combat in the Philippines and New Guinea. I cannot imagine what trials these men and their brothers in arms experienced. Truman and Stimson had one priority above all others: to end the war as quickly as possible.

History does not heal deep wounds. Individuals heal wounds, with help from their leaders. Mr. Obama has taken an important step by visiting Hiroshima. The Japanese people received him with introspection and courtesy. I hope my fellow citizens will do the same when a Japanese Prime Minister has the courage to visit Pearl Harbor.


  1. E. Parris (History)

    I really wonder why people don’t understand what has been going on. Our nuclear strategy is now being legitimized before the whole world. The big sin was killing innocent populations such as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We realize that those weapon drops could be seen as a big mistake, although scientists were able to validate diverse weapon designs. But the future will not be upsetting. Indeed, some see a valid path for world peace. The big problem is the sending of young, unprepared American sevicepeople into hot spots around the world when the battle is more important than the territory. Our losses have been extremely painful, and the gains, if any, have been minimal. Meanwhile, some have noticed that our stock of oversized nuclear warheads has actually put us at a disadvantage. Why not rework those nuclear warheads, using current technology, so that they could be used in a tactical/battlefield context? Could they be delivered by drones? I would expect so. There is a lot more to this, but it would be an effort to impose peace in regions of tumult–a sort of “Invisible Hand.”

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      What, exactly, are you advocating here? “Our losses have been extremely painful, and the gains, if any, have been minimal.” & ” but it would be an effort to impose peace in regions of tumult–a sort of “Invisible Hand.” ” Are you advocating that we should pacify difficult areas of the world by nuking them? Even with, or maybe especially with, “tactical” nuclear weapons? Once upon a time, within this century, there was a rising advocacy for us to develop new tactical nukes for such missions as bunker-busting, etc. (the usual suspects). Even though the then administration advocated the naked use of force, they then conducted a public demonstration of a weapon named “The Mother Of All Bombs”. I would like to suggest that MOAB was a demonstration, for all and sundry (sundry being our own legislators and generals), that the great powers, at least, can accomplish any conceivable tactical mission without resorting to tactical nukes. The cry for new tactical nukes subsided. Also, in the future (and I strongly suspect in the present), we have the “Rod from God” weapon. All in all, it is my opinion that we do not need the additional psychic and physical poison of nuclear weapons even if we think we must kill and destroy in some inaccessible corner of the world.

    • EParris (History)

      Greg, I’d like to comment on your comment. I am not advocating anything in my opinion piece. I am saying that important decisions have been made, and I do this totally by what I read in the newspapers. The American people are sick of losses in foreign wars. Thus, without popular support, there is no foreign policy. I am saying that a new family of tactical nukes has been created to be used with drones; and the goal is not to conquer new territory, but to decimate the radicals on the battlefield.

  2. 31415 (History)

    They should take Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and give it to W, who cut the most nukes, quietly.

  3. anon (History)

    I agree that the speech fell flat — in both the cadence and the content. I expected a more emotional response to the location, history, and hopes for the future. Also, the speech was not really about nuclear weapons. He used it to indict war and human nature. He said that the technology of nuclear weapons can make the realities of war and human nature so much worse. While I am sympathetic to those who argue we should control the technology since we can’t control human nature, I think there is more than a kernel of truth to this, and it is a relevant consideration for the push forward into the next phase of debate. A world without nuclear weapons may be less likely to lead to global suicide, but a world without nuclear weapons is not a world without war. And war, even without nuclear weapons, is, in many cases, an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe. Nuclear weapons cannot (and were never intended to) prevent all types of wars, but unless one can be certain that the probability of major power war (or even major regional war) is not affected by the presence of nuclear weapons, one needs to look at both the benefits and risks of both the presence and absence of nuclear weapons.

  4. anon2 (History)

    Statements like this bother me: “A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.” I wish that Obama’s speech writer had remembered Schelling, Chapter 1 of Arms and Influence: “It is not true that for the first time in history man has the capability to destroy a large fraction, even the major part, of the human race…Against defenseless people there is not much that nuclear weapons can do that cannot be done with an ice pick.” The difference is “Nuclear weapons can do it quickly,” and that changed everything. The opening lines distract from his broader message that nuclear weapons make the realities of war and human nature much worse, as anon 6/1/16, 8:56 am notes.

  5. johnrburroughs (History)

    If as the post indicates the use of nuclear weapons was justified to bring about the unconditional surrender of an already contained enemy, presumably you think that such use is justified in far more compelling cases, which as an expert in the field you can readily imagine. And if the use of nuclear weapons is perceived as legitimate, it takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the arms control effort – perhaps part of the problem?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Tough and worthy questions. They apply “big time” (as Dick Cheney would say,) to Nagasaki. I have written about the second bomb elsewhere, and the lesson it tells about the machinery of warfare in general, and nuclear warfare in particular. My focus here was on Hiroshima.
      You mischaracterize my argument. I did not write that “the use of nuclear weapons was justified to bring about the unconditional surrender of an already contained enemy,” I argued that Truman and Stimson expected considerable losses if they chose not to use the A-bomb to change the deadlock in the War Cabinet and to end a world war quickly. Nor could they explain to a war-weary nation why additional losses were taken while a “war winning” weapon wasn’t used as soon as possible.
      The pictures of the devastation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused by a single bomb had a chastening effect on them both. (We have at the Stimson Center a copy of the briefing Gen. Groves gave to bigwigs after the smoke cleared, and these images still have the power to shock, 70+ years later.)
      Stimson left the War Department and supported efforts at international control of atomic energy — even if it meant trusting Stalin. Truman claimed not to have been affected by these images, but when it came to the question of using nuclear weapons to end a hopeless slog on the Korean peninsula, he couldn’t go there again.
      Once was enough to end a world war with many, many millions of dead soldiers and noncombatants. Twice was too much. Other carnage from large-scale conventional wars has followed. Nuclear weapons have not been used on these battlefields. The circumstances of future use that would meet the standards of the World Court regarding the laws of war — standards that have been resurrected and strengthened after World War II — are extremely narrow.
      Yes, I can imagine circumstances where national leaders would be advised to use nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945. I can also imagine what is likely to follow.

  6. John2 (History)

    MK is continuing the official myth that Truman/Stimpson used the atomic bombs to end the War quickly.
    But, there are other credible views on that fateful decision; among many, here are three dissenting voices,
    as quoted from Wikipedia’s “Debate over the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki”:

    1) “The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons … The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children;” (Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman, 1950) (Leahy sounds more honest and courageous than hypocritical Obama, although it was good that he went there.)

    2) “Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa wrote the atomic bombings themselves were not the principal reason for Japan’s capitulation.[82] Instead, he contends, it was the Soviet entry in the war on 8 August…”; and

    3) “A further argument, discussed under the rubric of “atomic diplomacy” and advanced in a 1965 book of that name by Gar Alperovitz, is that the bombings had as primary purpose to intimidate the Soviet Union, being the opening shots of the Cold War.[174] Along these lines some argue that the US raced the Soviet Union and hoped to drop the bombs and receive surrender from Japan before a Soviet entry into the Pacific war.” (so that US could occupy Japan alone, instead of dividing it into several occupation zones as the Allies did in Germany.)

    The debate is far from over.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    George W. Rathjens, professor emeritus of political science, dies at 90
    MIT professor contributed to theory and practice of nuclear arms control and established the MIT Security Studies Program.
    MIT Political Science
    June 10, 2016