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Obama in Hiroshima: More symbolism than substance

Obama in Hiroshima: More symbolism than substance

US President Barack Obama’s Hiroshima speech (May 27) is a very carefully crafted document and merits some scrutiny - both for what it contains and what is ostensibly excluded. Predictably, Obama did not apologize for what the US did in August 1945 and this was stated even before he began the Japan visit.

The visit itself was high on symbolism for it was the first time in 70 years that a White House occupant has chosen to visit Hiroshima and Obama is to be commended for this decision.

Yet there is a sharp contrast in the high symbolism and the less than modest substantive outcome of the visit. Hiroshima is recalled annually every August to remind the world of the apocalyptic death and destruction that a nuclear weapon can wreak. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are deep scars that remain indelibly etched on the global consciousness.

Whether the US was justified in using this capability remains debatable even now - seven decades later. But as in all such cases of historical import, it may not be valid to critique in hindsight certain decisions taken by a nation's highest political authority in the dust and fog that a protracted conflict such as World War II poses.

The question that still lingers is: Should the US apologize for Hiroshima? Whatever be Obama's personal determination, it was evident well before his visit that a formal apology was not on the table and his Japanese hosts did not expect one.

However, the spirit of forgiveness is invoked in an elegantly elliptical manner - an Obama trait - when the US president noted: "We see these stories in the hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima). The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself. The (Japanese) man who sought out families of Americans killed here because he believed their loss was equal to his own."

Thus, in an adroit and elegant manner, the imperative of forgiving is underlined. and the Japanese interlocutor is being acknowledged for forgiving, and empathizing with the American adversary of August 1945.

The appropriate reference to a nuclear weapon-free world has been made by Obama at Hiroshima - but as in the case of the 2009 Prague speech, the caveat is unambiguous: "We may not realize this goal in my lifetime."

Yet it must be averred that this visit is important and the Obama speech draws attention to the nuclear sword of Damocles and the need for a solemn commitment that they will never be used again.

As much as 93 percent of the global nuclear weapon inventory is held by the US and Russia and their perception about the use of a nuke in certain exigencies is both instructive and disturbing. Since the current focus is on the US, the policies adopted by the White House are anomalous and alarming.

Over the last year, the US has cautioned Rusia against nuclear sabre-rattling but chose to remain curiously ambiguous about the Pakistani threat to take recourse to tactical nuclear weapons against India. And, going back to 2003, the rectitude and integrity of the US was irreparably sullied in matters nuclear when it unilaterally decided to attack Iraq on charges of nuclear transgression that were palpably untrue.

Will the US do a Hiroshima-Nagasaki again? This is the central question that remains excluded from the Obama speech and while the US remains sceptical of a commitment to no-first-use as a dilution of the efficacy of deterrence, societal trends are cause for concern.

Scott D. Sagan, an eminent nuclear expert in the US, has reviewed a number of surveys carried out among average Americans in relation to the use of a nuclear weapon and Obama and the nuclear apex in the Beltway would be well-advised to ponder over the findings.

Certain exigencies were posed to respondents in a poll and these included an Al Qaeda target and a 21st century variation of Pearl Harbor carried out against US assets by Iran. A fairly high percentage - 59 percent - supported the use of a nuclear weapon against Iran. The corresponding figure in August 1945 against Japan was 23 percent.

Based on these poll findings, albeit with very small numbers, Sagan concludes (Wall Street Journal, May 19): "Would we drop the bomb again? Our surveys can't say how future presidents and their top advisers would weigh their options. But they do reveal something unsettling about the instincts of the US. public: When provoked, we don't seem to consider the use of nuclear weapons a taboo, and our commitment to the immunity of civilians from deliberate attack in wartime, even with vast casualties, is shallow. Today, as in 1945, the US public is unlikely to hold back a president who might consider using nuclear weapons in the crucible of war."

Now that the Republican nomination is sealed, it will be instructive to note what candidate Trump will say about the Obama speech and the relevance of nuclear weapons in the US security strategy. The Obama nuclear vision outlined first in Prague and reiterated eloquently in Hiroshima will have a Barmecidal contour to it if the current American orientation is not objectively reviewed and progressively altered towards nuclear restraint and related fidelity.

(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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