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President Obama will be the first US president to visit Hiroshima while in office. His visit, on May 27th, has historic potential. It comes at a time when nuclear disarmament talks with Russia and other nuclear-armed nations are non-existent and all nuclear-armed nations, led by the US, are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The US alone has plans to spend $1trillion on modernizing every aspect of its nuclear arsenal, delivery systems and infrastructure over the next 30 years.
Hiroshima is the first city ever to be attacked by a nuclear weapon. It is a beautiful, modern city, but at the same time a city that symbolizes the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, small by today’s standards, and it killed more than 70,000 people immediately and more than 140,000 by the end of 1945. These statistics do not do justice to the suffering and death inflicted on Hiroshima with the bomb the US had nicknamed “Little Boy.”
I have visited Hiroshima many times and also the second atomic-bombed city, Nagasaki. What I have found in these cities are survivors of the atomic bombings who are eager to assure that what happened to their cities never happens to other cities. In these cities, there is a very different orientation toward nuclear weapons than there is in the US.
What we learn in the US about nuclear weapons is a perspective from above the bomb. It could be paraphrased in this way: “The bomb was a technological triumph that we used to win the war.” In this view of the bomb there are no humans or other forms of life – only technological triumph and statistics. The perspective on the bomb in the atomic-bombed cities is just the opposite; it is from beneath the bomb. It is filled with stories of massive destruction, death and human suffering.
When the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it did so with impunity. Japan was already defeated in war and did not have atomic bombs with which to retaliate against us. That was more than 70 years ago. Today there are nine nuclear-armed countries capable of attacking or retaliating with nuclear weapons. Missiles carrying nuclear weapons can travel across the globe in a half-hour. No one is secure from the consequences of a nuclear attack – not only the blast, fire and radiation, but also those of nuclear famine and nuclear winter.
With nuclear weapons, there is no security, even for the attacking country. In addition, nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal. They also undermine democracy and waste financial and scientific resources that could be used to improve life rather than destroy it.
Shortly after assuming office, President Obama said that America seeks the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and that the US has a responsibility to lead the way to achieve that goal. For those reasons and for the sake of children everywhere, the president must offer a significant proposal for achieving nuclear zero while the world’s attention is focused on him in Hiroshima.
What should he do? I suggest that he bring three gifts to the world with him when he travels to Hiroshima: his courage, his humanity and a plan to end the nuclear insanity. His courage and humanity surely will travel with him; they are part of who he is and will be inherent in any plan to end the nuclear insanity. His plan must be bold, show true leadership, and move beyond rhetoric to action.
I suggest that the plan be simple with one major element: offer to convene the nine nuclear-armed countries to begin good faith negotiations for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament, as required by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law. For the future of all humanity, these negotiations must begin and succeed.
If the president wants to go further and reduce the possibility of accidents or of nuclear weapons being used while negotiations are taking place, he could offer to work with the Russian Federation and the other nuclear-armed countries in reciprocally taking all nuclear weapons off high-alert and in cancelling plans to modernize nuclear arsenals.
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima may be humanity’s last best chance to step back from the nuclear precipice and to start down the path to nuclear zero.