If Obama Visits Hiroshima

24 Apr



There are mounting hopes that Barack Obama will use the occasion of the Group of 7 meeting in Japan next month to visit Hiroshima, and become the first American president to do so. It is remarkable that it required a wait of over 60 years until John Kerry became the first high American official to make such a visit, which he termed ‘gut-wrenching,’ while at the same time purposely refraining from offering any kind of apology to the Japanese people for one of the worse acts of state terror against a defenseless population in all of human history. Let’s hope that Obama goes, and displays more remorse than Kerry who at least deserves some credit for paving the way. The contrast between the many pilgrimages of homage by Western leaders, including those of Germany, to Auschwitz and other notorious death camps, and the absence of comparable pilgrimages to Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscores the difference between winning and losing a major war. This contrast cannot be properly accounted for by insisting on a hierarchy of evils that the Holocaust dominates.


The United States, in particular, has a more generalized aversion to revisiting its darker hours, although recent events have illuminated some of the shadows cast by the racist legacies of slavery. The decimation of native Americans has yet to be properly addressed at official levels, and recent reports of soaring suicide rates suggests that the native American narrative continues to unfold tragically.


The New York Times in an unsigned editorial on April 12 urged President Obama to make this symbolic visit to Hiroshima, and in their words “to make it count” by doing more than making a ritual appearance. Recalling accurately that Obama “won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 largely because of his nuclear agenda” the editorial persuasively criticized Obama for failing to follow through on his Prague vision of working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. A visit to Hiroshima is, in effect, a second chance, perhaps a last chance, to satisfy the expectation created early in his presidency.


When it came to specifics as to what Obama might do the Times offered a typical arms control set of recommendations of what it called “small but doable advances”: canceling the new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile and ensuring greater compliance with the prohibition on nuclear testing by its endorsement coupled with a recommendation that future compliance be monitored by the UN Security Council. The Times leaves readers with the widely shared false impression that such measures can be considered incremental steps that will lead the world over time to a nuclear-free world. Such a view is unconvincing, and diversionary. In opposition, I believe these moves serve to stabilize the nuclear status quo have a negative effect on disarmament prospects. By making existing realities somewhat less prone to accidents and irresponsibly provocative weapons innovations, the posture of living with nuclear weapons gains credibility and the arguments for nuclear disarmament are weakened even to the extent of being irrelevant. I believe that it is a dangerous fallacy to suppose that arms control measures, even if beneficial in themselves, can be thought of as moving the world closer to nuclear disarmament.


Instead, what such measures do, and have been doing for decades, is to reinforce nuclear complacency by making nuclear disarmament either seem unnecessary or utopian, and to some extent even undesirably destabilizing. In other words, contrary to conventional wisdom, moving down the arms control path is a sure way to make certain that disarmament will never occur!


As mentioned, many arms control moves are inherently worthwhile. It is only natural to favor initiatives that cancel the development of provocative weapons systems, disallow weapons testing, and cut costs. Without such measures there would occur a dangerous erosion of the de facto taboo that has prevented (so far) any use of nuclear weaponry since 1945. At the same time it is vital to understand that the taboo and the arms control regime of managing the nuclear weapons environment does not lead to the realization of disarmament and the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.


Let me put it this way, if arms control is affirmed for its own sake or as the best way to put the world on a path of incremental steps that will lead over time to disarmament, then such an approach is nurturing the false consciousness that has unfortunately prevailed in public discourse ever since the Nonproliferation Treaty came into force in 1970. The point can be express in more folksy language: we have been acting for decades as if the horse of disarmament is being pulled by the cart of arms control. In fact, it is the horse of disarmament that should be pulling the cart of arms control, which would make arms control measures welcome as place holders while the primary quest for nuclear disarmament was being toward implementation. There is no reason to delay putting the horse in front of the cart, and Obama’s failure to do so at Prague was the central flaw of his otherwise justly applauded speech.


Where Obama went off the tracks in my view was when he consigned nuclear disarmament to the remote future, and proposed in the interim reliance on the deterrent capability of the nuclear weapons arsenal and this alleged forward momentum of incremental arms control steps. What is worse, Obama uncritically endorsed the nonproliferation treaty regime, lamenting only that it is being weakened by breakout countries, especially North Korea, and this partly explains why he felt it necessary back in 2009 to consider nuclear disarmament as a practical alternative to a continued reliance on nonproliferation, although posited disarmament more as a goal beyond reach and not as a serious present political option. He expressed this futuristic outlook in these words: “I am not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.” He never clarifies why such a goal is not attainable within the term of his presidency, or at least its explicit pursuit.


In this regard, and with respect to Obama’s legacy, the visit to Hiroshima provides an overdue opportunity to disentangle nuclear disarmament from arms control. In Prague, Obama significantly noted that “..as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” [emphasis added] In the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the judges unanimously concluded that there was a legal responsibility to seek nuclear disarmament with due diligence. The language of the 14-0 ICJ finding is authoritative: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” In other words, there is a legal as well as a moral responsibility to eliminate nuclear weapons, and this could have made the Prague call for a world without nuclear weapons more relevant to present governmental behavior. The Prague speech while lauding the NPT never affirmed the existence of a legal responsibility to pursue nuclear disarmament. In this respect an official visit to Hiroshima offers Obama a golden opportunity to reinvigorate his vision of a world without nuclear weapons by bringing it down to earth.


Why is this? By acknowledging the legal obligation, as embedded in Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, as reinforcing the moral responsibility, there arises a clear

imperative to move toward implementation. There is no excuse for delay or need for preconditions. The United States Government could at this time convene a multinational commission to plan a global conference on nuclear disarmament, somewhat resembling the Paris conference that recently produced the much heralded climate change agreement. The goal of the nuclear disarmament conference could be the vetting of proposals for a nuclear disarmament process with the view toward establishing a three year deadline for the development of an agreed treaty text whose preparation was entrusted to a high level working group operating under the auspices of the United Nations, with a mandate to report to the Secretary General. After that the states of the world could gather to negotiate an agreed treaty text that would set forth a disarming process and its monitoring and compliance procedures.


The United States, along with other nuclear weapons states, opposed in the 1990s recourse to the ICJ by the General Assembly to seek a legal interpretation on issues of legality, and then disregarded the results of its legal findings. It would a great contribution to a more sustainable and humane world order if President Obama were to take the occasion of his historic visit to Hiroshima to call respectful attention to this ICJ Advisory Opinion and go on to accept the attendant legal responsibility on behalf of the United States. This could be declared to be a partial fulfillment of the moral responsibility that was accepted at Prague. It could even presented as the completion of the vision of Prague, and would be consistent with Obama’s frequent appeals to the governments of the world to show respect for international law, and his insistence that during his presidency U.S. foreign policy was so configured.


Above all, there is every reason for all governments to seek nuclear disarmament without further delay. There now exists no geopolitical climate of intense rivalry, and the common endeavor of freeing the world from the dangers posed by nuclear weapons would work against the current hawkish drift in the U.S. and parts of Europe toward a second cold war and overcome the despair that now has for so long paralyzed efforts to protect the human interest. As the global approach to nuclear weapons, climate change, and neoliberal globalization should make clear, we are not likely to survive as a species very much longer if we continue to base world order on a blend of state-centric national interests and dominant actor geopolitics. Obama has this rare opportunity to choose the road not often traveled upon, and there is no better place to start such a voyage than at Hiroshima. We in civil society would then with conviction promote his nuclear legacy as ‘From Prague to Hiroshima,’ and feel comfortable that this president has finally earned the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize prematurely bestowed.








9 Responses to “If Obama Visits Hiroshima”

  1. Gene Schulman April 25, 2016 at 12:50 am #

    Of course Prof. Falk’s wish for Obama to visit Hiroshima on his coming trip to Japan would validate his words in Prague. But it is naive to think that such an event would come to pass. Or if it did, it would mean any more than the empty words he has spoken throughout his presidency. Obama has done more than any other president; America has done more than any other country, to propagate nuclear weapons. Anything he might say at Hiroshima, apologies notwithstanding, would be no more meaningful than anything else he has said during his administration.

    I know this might be kicking the wasp’s nest, but I can’t wait to see how the usual hasbarists who appear on this blog will somehow twist this essay into being an anti-Semitic attack on Israel. They usually find a way, no matter how distant the subject might be from their obsession to criticize Prof. Falk.

    • Gene Schulman April 29, 2016 at 4:36 am #

      Amazing. http://www.counterpunch.org ran this essay in its weekend edition, but it raised only two comments here. I wonder why?

  2. rehmat1 April 25, 2016 at 5:39 am #

    Dr. Falk, bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki or slaughter of over five million American Natives, or hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Korean, or half million Iraqi children are not the only victims of American Holocausts. Currently, Washington is running its genocide policy in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, and many other places.

    I remember Dr. Edward Said’s prophetic statement that Arabs will get their freedom only when American get their freedom from foreign lobby groups.

    Take for example, Madeleine Albright, who in the past justified murder of 500,000 Iraqi children who never posed threat to Israel, and later cried in front of TV cameras over the news of a Jordanian border guard killing three Israeli teenagers. In a recent interview she gave to Austrian newspaper DiePress.com called Russian president Vladimir Putin “a smart but a truly evil man.” She claimed that Putin is trying his best to destroy European Union and NATO, two of Israel’s allies.


  3. Kata Fisher May 3, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Professor Falk,

    This is interesting article.


  4. Kata Fisher May 3, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    Professor Falk,

    This is very important video. What is difference between China and Israel – in their international disobedience?

  5. Laurie Knightly May 4, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

    It would seem questionable at the Ise-Shima part of the G7 meetings to address crimes of WW2. The two day heavily laden agenda is for the discussion of current economic and political issues world wide. At the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials, it had been decided not to criminalize aerial bombing because of the rampant guilt and rules earlier proposed had been rejected by several governments – Germany and Russia had not even been consulted. Strategic bombing during WW2 included non military targets routinely.

    Also, it would seem very hypocritical of Obama to express remorse for Hiroshima when he has recently approved a ‘modernization’ plan for US nuclear weapons estimated to cost 1 trillion dollars. What for? The US has not ratified the Test Ban Treaty and apparently does not object to Israel, and others, being rogue nuclear states. Only Iran must currently conform to the rules of NPT – and N Korea in passing. Israel bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq 1981 and Syria 2007. Five nuclear scientists were assassinated in Iran which Israel neither affirms nor denies. The video above, The Samson Option, is a good profile of a nuclear power without oversight and heavily subsidized by the US. Shall we discuss the Marshall Islands as well?

    What about Fukishima? The decommissioning will cost 10’s of billions in dollars and last 30 – 40 years. perhaps some reflection might be appropriate regarding both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. With Japan being affected in both cases, it seems apropos.

    Now is of far greater importance, albeit we should have become wiser knowing about then.

    • Fred Skolnik May 5, 2016 at 12:45 am #

      For everyone’s information, the Samson Option is a complete fiction cooked up in the imaginations of various writers who either don’t like Israel very much or enjoy playing with far-out scenarios. Israel’s nuclear capacity, or, properly speaking, speculation about Israel’s nuclear capacity has always been meant to serve as a deterrent. Israel has certainly never threatened anyone with destruction. The most that might be said speculatively is that Israel would use such a weapon against a nuclear aggressor or maybe even as a last resort when on the verge of extinction under conventional attack. The idea that it would use such weapons indiscriminately against peaceful nations to get back at the world is simply malicious.

      • rehmat1 May 5, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

        Deterrent against whom? The Zionist entity is the only nuclear power in the region.

        “What would serve the Jew-hating world better as repayment for thousands of years of massacres but a nuclear winter? Or invite all those tut-tutting European statesmen and peace activists to join us in the ovens? For the first time in history a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away have the power to destroy the world. The ultimate justice?”– Professor David Perlmutter, writing in the Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2002

        “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force…We have the capability to take the world down with us, and I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.”– Martin Van Creveld, Israeli Historian.

        The renowned Jewish investigating journalist and author, Seymour Hersh in his 1991 book ‘The Samson Option’ – mentioned in details about Israel’s nuclear and neutron bombs; its nuclear blackmailing Richard Nixon during 1973 Israel-Arab War; PM Yitzhak Shamir giving some of American secrets stolen by Jonathan Polard to USSR; Israel’s stealing of the US satellite reconnaissance intelligence and Hersh quoted Ariel Sharon saying: “We are much more important than (American) think. We can take the Middle East with us whenever we go”.

        In her book Israel’s Sacred Terrorism, Livia Rokach documented how Israelis have used religion to justify paramilitary and state terrorism to create and maintain their occupation of Arab land.


  6. Laurie Knightly May 7, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    ‘Civilized warfare’ was a nineteenth century concept and not necessarily self-contradicting. In 1899, it had been agreed to forbid, albeit for a limited period, the use of poison gas, dum-dum bullets and even the dropping of bombs from the air – the latter considered to be a very cowardly act.

    More productive for me than a comparison of atrocities with the Japanese, might be a review of how we progressed to that point. What was really going on when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931? I had not realized that Japan had been a Charter Member of the League of Nations – and one of the four members of the League Council. How could things go so wrong? The Western colonial powers,,,,,,,Japanese economic depression etc. If these issues had been resolved, there might not have been a Hiroshima.

    Would that times, and people, had changed! What’s new?

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