War, Peace and the Obamajority

Two weeks ago I stood on the banks of a river that 64 years ago had been clogged with so many bodies that you could literally walk from bank to bank on the backs of carbonized corpses.

The horror of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki, it is difficult to describe. No matter how prepared you are intellectually, no matter how much you think you know of the history, the events, and the outcomes, physical confrontation with the remnants of an atomized city and its largely civilian population is simply overwhelming.

I was traveling in Japan with my husband Ted Edwards, after a week of meetings in Kyoto where the focus was on water, biocultural diversity, and future needs in light of global environmental change. We visited Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and then set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to ground zero and to the museums and memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We encountered few Europeans on this journey, and even less of our fellow Americans.

At the entrance to the Atomic Peace Museum stands a clock. On the day we visited it was 23,436 days since the first dropping of an atomic bomb. And it was 133 days since the latest nuclear test.

This we knew, before crossing through the museum doors: The atomic bombing of Japanese cities at the end of World War II is history, part of our past. But the pain and suffering of survivors and surviving generations continue, and the radiogenic legacy still plays out. And, nuclear militarism is all too much a part of our present.

We ventured into a very crowded Atomic Peace Museum with Japanese school children swarming and darting through the exhibits, taking in, in bits and pieces, the painful and poignant vignettes: survivor testimony of searching or finding evidence of loved ones; the tattered and melted possessions of school children, mothers, babies, teachers, elders lives; the horrific photos of the dead and near dead; photos of vibrant and then atomized landscapes. Surrounded by hundreds of children and their teachers (visiting the atomic museums is part of the national grade school curriculum) we felt increasingly uncomfortable. We encountered not only the horror and shock of displays that place you in the heart of the city, in its homes, in its families, that allow you to capture a glimpse of life’s concerns before, during, and after the atomic bombing. We encountered the uninhibited and hostile gaze of children who recognized an American in their midst.

We were extremely uncomfortable, and as Americans, rightfully so. Our country created a hell on earth, two cities of agonized souls, atomized in an instant or left to suffer painful deaths in the days, weeks, months, years, and decades to come.

And then, in the bookshop where a side gallery of videos clips could be watched (and we could sit alone and rest our aching feet), we unexpectedly encountered a very different sense of what it means to be today, at this moment in time, an American in Hiroshima. We sat in a booth and watched a video of Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba as he read the 2009 Hiroshima Peace Declaration to the crowd of citizens and global delegates attending the 64th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on his city.

His August 6th, 2009 speech:

That weapon of human extinction, the atomic bomb, was dropped on the people of Hiroshima sixty-four years ago. Yet the hibakusha’s suffering, a hell no words can convey, continues. Radiation absorbed 64 years earlier continues to eat at their bodies, and memories of 64 years ago flash back as if they had happened yesterday.

Fortunately, the grave implications of the hibakusha experience are granted legal support. A good example of this support is the courageous court decision humbly accepting the fact that the effects of radiation on the human body have yet to be fully elucidated. The Japanese national government should make its assistance measures fully appropriate to the situations of the aging hibakusha, including those exposed in “black rain areas” and those living overseas. Then, tearing down the walls between its ministries and agencies, it should lead the world as standard-bearer for the movement to abolish nuclear weapons by 2020 to actualize the fervent desire of hibakusha that “No one else should ever suffer as we did.”

In April this year, US President Obama speaking in Prague said, “…as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” And “…take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” Nuclear weapons abolition is the will not only of the hibakusha but also of the vast majority of people and nations on this planet. The fact that President Obama is listening to those voices has solidified our conviction that “the only role for nuclear weapons is to be abolished.

In response, we support President Obama and have a moral responsibility to act to abolish nuclear weapons. To emphasize this point, we refer to ourselves, the great global majority, as the “Obamajority,” and we call on the rest of the world to join forces with us to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2020. The essence of this idea is embodied in the Japanese Constitution, which is ever more highly esteemed around the world.

Now, with more than 3,000 member cities worldwide, Mayors for Peace has given concrete substance to our “2020 Vision” through the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol, and we are doing everything in our power to promote its adoption at the NPT Review Conference next year. Once the Protocol is adopted, our scenario calls for an immediate halt to all efforts to acquire or deploy nuclear weapons by all countries, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which has so recently conducted defiant nuclear tests; visits by leaders of nuclear-weapon states and suspect states to the A-bombed cities; early convening of a UN Special Session devoted to Disarmament; an immediate start to negotiations with the goal of concluding a nuclear weapons convention by 2015; and finally, to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2020. We will adopt a more detailed plan at the Mayors for Peace General Conference that begins tomorrow in Nagasaki.

The year 2020 is important because we wish to enter a world without nuclear weapons with as many hibakusha as possible. Furthermore, if our generation fails to eliminate nuclear weapons, we will have failed to fulfill our minimum responsibility to those that follow.

Global Zero, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament and others of influence throughout the world have initiated positive programs that seek the abolition of nuclear weapons. We sincerely hope that they will all join the circle of those pressing for 2020.

As seen in the anti-personnel landmine ban, liberation from poverty through the Grameen Bank, the prevention of global warming and other such movements, global democracy that respects the majority will of the world and solves problems through the power of the people has truly begun to grow. To nurture this growth and go on to solve other major problems, we must create a mechanism by which the voices of the people can be delivered directly into the UN. One idea would be to create a “Lower House” of the United Nations made up of 100 cities that have suffered major tragedies due to war and other disasters, plus another 100 cities with large populations, totaling 200 cities. The current UN General Assembly would then become the “Upper House.”

On the occasion of the Peace Memorial Ceremony commemorating the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing, we offer our solemn, heartfelt condolence to the souls of the A-bomb victims, and, together with the city of Nagasaki and the majority of Earth’s people and nations, we pledge to strive with all our strength for a world free from nuclear weapons.

We have the power. We have the responsibility. And we are the Obamajority. Together, we can abolish nuclear weapons. Yes, we can.

Listening to these words all we could say was wow. The Obamajority. They are, and we are, the Obamajority.

This was a powerful revelation: That such people who have endured such history, who have struggled for decades to secure a remedy that includes never again, that such people see in the words and actions of the United States President Barack Obama that not only is a change in the course of human history possible, this change is truly underway.

What we found in Hiroshima is the reflection of Barack Obama as world leader. His words, policies, and approach to governance have the power to re-energize the most desperate and despondent peoples. His actions in this past year, and the world response to his actions, signal an important shift in global notions of the true meaning of security. Through his policy and ongoing negotiations Barack Obama is building the space for us, the majority of global citizens, to work together towards the possibility of a peaceful world. It is true that we are not there yet, it is true that there is so much to do. It is also true that the world’s peoples are hungry for peace. They are hungry for the promise of a future. And they are relieved to see in our American President a champion of such a vision.

Flying back to San Francisco we encountered the news that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. And, like so many, my husband when first hearing the news, said “for what?”

To him, and to every person who said, for what? I say, for re-establishing an American commitment to human rights and the rule of law. For rejoining international conventions and treaties that our previous administration ignored and dismissed. For indicating his intent to join the many still lacking US involvement. For halting in the heat of global war and taking the slow but obvious step of refocusing agendas, to turn around and engage, to take another course. For articulating a vision of security based on peace, not war. For recognizing that building peace requires building respectful relationships, restoring a healthy environment, and shaping social and economic systems to sustain, not destroy. For embracing the notion that change occurs because of citizen action and civic engagement.

On August 6 2009, in Hiroshima, Japan, Barack Obama received his true Peace Prize, embodied in the Hiroshima Peace Declaration and it’s the hopes, aspirations, and re-invigorated belief that we, the Obamajority, can abolish nuclear weapons.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Look for her latest book from Left Coast Press, Life and Death Matters: Human Rights, Environment, and Social Justice, to be released in July 2009.  She can be reached at: bjohnston@igc.org.

Tadatoshi Akiba is the Mayor of Hiroshima, Japan and President of Mayors for Peace (www.mayorsforpeace.org). A video of his speech can be found on many websites, including the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.