Obama, Hiroshima anniversary, and the future of nuclear weapons

For the first time, a top US official will attend the annual memorial service for the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Keeping alive the memories of the effects of this attack is essential to nuclear nonproliferation. Beyond that, the debate over Hiroshima lives on.

Lanterns float down the Motoyasu River in Hiroshima at night during the 2009 anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombing. In the background is the skeleton of the former Chamber of Industry and Commerce building.

President Obama’s campaign to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons takes on a symbolic twist this Aug. 6. For the first time, a top US official will attend an anniversary ceremony in Japan marking the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The American ambassador to Japan, John Roos, will join the annual memorial service for the bomb’s victims. Also attending for the first time will be a UN secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon. Japan wants to highlight this 65th anniversary of the attack – which helped end World War II at a terrible cost – by bringing together as many foreign dignitaries as possible.

It is certainly fitting for both Japan and Mr. Obama to keep alive the memories of the kind of devastation that a nuclear weapon can cause on a civilian population. More than 100,000 Japanese died from the bombing. Since 1945, a pacifist and democratic Japan has been a leader in world efforts to achieve nuclear nonproliferation. And it now welcomes a US president acting boldly toward a goal that seems so elusive, even impossible.

My first memories of Hiroshima came from my father. As a Navy lieutenant in the postwar US occupation of Japan, he flew over the city just a week after the bombing, seeing the widespread devastation. One of his friends was able to walk through Hiroshima a couple weeks later, taking the first color movies of the devastation – at a time when color film was quite rare even in the US.

Decades later, I visited the city a few times as a journalist, impressed at first by its rise from the ashes to become a thriving economy. But then, like many visitors, I was taken aback when I saw the skeleton dome of the city’s former Chamber of Industry and Commerce building. It was the only big structure still standing near the center of the atomic blast. My reaction was tempered a bit, however, after talking to some visiting Japanese teenagers who mistakenly believed that World War II actually began with the US attack.

Hiroshima (the attack, not the city) still evokes strong emotions and hot debate over many lingering questions.

Was the bombing, along with the one Aug. 9 on Nagasaki, really necessary? Are young Japanese today taught enough about the war’s history to put this event in the context of Japan’s aggression in Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbor? Is warfare on civilians – especially with atomic weapons – ever justified?

It is unlikely that Ambassador Roos, or Mr. Obama during a visit to Japan this November, will even come close to apologizing for Truman’s decision to use the bomb. Indeed, the remaining veterans of World War II on both sides do not likely see eye on eye on Hiroshima’s meaning.

For now, though, the US can help the world recall the effects of an atomic bomb, as Japan has long done, in order to look ahead and try to prevent such military tactics from being used again.

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