“Historic” Empty Suit Visits Hiroshima

President Obama lays a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. (photo: AP)
President Obama lays a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. (photo: AP)

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

05 June 16


“Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.”

he sterile language of a detached president illustrates how far we are from facing the reality of our own government’s deliberate atrocities. Hiroshima was certainly destroyed, abstractly, with “a terrible force unleashed” – but by no one? In the president’s passive parsing, it’s as if he thought it was an “act of God.” More honestly told: President Truman approved the atomic bombing of Japan, which was carried out on August 6, 1945, by a Boeing B-52 named Enola Gay, after the pilot’s mother, that dropped a uranium-235 fission bomb cutely nicknamed “Little Boy” on a largely civilian city, killing an estimated 140,000 people (thousands of whom were vaporized without a discoverable trace, while thousands more died from radiation effects over ensuing years, a death toll made worse by US denial of radiation danger and strict censorship of any public discussion during the occupation). Hiroshima was one of the greatest military massacres in history, eclipsing American massacres of Native Americans by several orders of magnitude.

In his initial announcement of the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman said, misleadingly, that the bomb had “destroyed [Hiroshima’s] usefulness to the Army.” In a radio broadcast three days later, Truman falsely characterized Hiroshima as “a military base.” Hiroshima was not a military base, though it had some relatively unimportant military installations. Hiroshima was chosen as the A-bomb target in part because it had so little military significance that it was one of the few Japanese cities that had gone almost un-attacked by the daily American bomb runs. Because it was largely intact, Hiroshima was ideal as a place to demonstrate the A-bomb’s total destructiveness.

The US chose an almost undamaged city full of civilians as the target that would best bring the Japanese to their knees. Now that is something to “ponder,” as Obama suggested, but chose not to do. It doesn’t take much pondering to begin to wonder whether incinerating thousands of civilians might not be a war crime. It would be, if it happened today. During World War II, the laws of war made it a war crime for armies on the ground to attack, harm, and kill civilians. The laws of war did not specifically apply to aerial warfare, and so all sides cheerfully murdered civilians from the air with the kind of legalistic self-righteousness only corrupt lawyers can create. That’s why there were no war crimes trials for any of the horrendous bombings of the war – Rotterdam, Shanghai, Coventry, Cologne, Warsaw, Tokyo, to name a few.

Are war crimes actually war crimes until they’re illegal?

The Anglo-American firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 burned tens of thousands of people alive, including mostly civilians and prisoners of war (one of whom was Kurt Vonnegut, who survived). The actual death toll is unknown, with good faith and politically-motivated estimates ranging from 25,000 to 500,000. The US firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed more than 15 square miles of the city. By any reasonable moral reckoning, all these air campaigns were war crimes, crimes against humanity in the most obvious sense. American history teaches us that World War II was a just war, “the last good war,” and there’s a case to be made for that. It was also, on all sides, a ruthless criminal enterprise.

None of this very real history was part of Obama’s speech in Hiroshima. American presidents are not expected to be truthful, and would likely be crucified if they were. Once Obama acknowledged the “terrible force unleashed” out of nowhere by nobody, he shifted to a conventionally maudlin but politically shifty call “to mourn the dead,” whom he listed by category. First he somewhat lowballed the Japanese dead, consistent with US policy for 71 years now. Then he mentioned “thousands of Koreans,” a reference to Korean forced labor that would play well in Seoul if not Tokyo. And then he referred to those 12 “Americans held prisoner,” for decades an official secret, in part because other POWs who survived were suffering from radiation sickness and the US government didn’t want anyone to know about that.

Now the first sitting president of the US has visited Hiroshima, has solemnly visited a scene of American crime, and has been greeted with equally hypocritical solemnity by a Japanese government whose own hands are just as dirty and whose own current ambitions are as imperial as America’s in Asia. Obama’s speech would have you believe that that his goal is to “eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons” and to mark “the start of our own moral awakening.” That doesn’t fly when he’s making nice with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose goal is to re-militarize Japan and eliminate all pacifist tendencies from its constitution. Obama is an enabler of Japanese militarization, not only for the sake of arms sales, but also as a “response” to China’s agitation over US provocations under the strategic umbrella of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

Why does Obama address Hiroshima in the passive voice?

The conventional wisdom and mainstream media call Obama’s trip to Hiroshima “historic” because he’s the first US president to go there, not because there’s anything actually historic about the visit. Politically, the Hiroshima event appears to be pretty reactionary on both sides. Before Obama in 2016, Richard Nixon went to Hiroshima in 1964, before he was president, and former president Jimmy Carter went there in 1984 when he, too, pledged to “eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of this earth.” Early in his presidency in 2009 in Prague, Obama echoed this sentiment:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. [Applause.] I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.” [Applause.]

But this was only a sentiment, expressed in campaign rhetoric. America had made no such commitment, even if the president was sincere. America is a long, long way from making such a commitment. American presidents and candidates still talk about using nuclear weapons as if that were a sane option. Yes, the Obama administration negotiated a new treaty (START) in which the US and Russia each agreed to deploy no more than 1550 strategic nuclear warheads and bombs each. That’s a cap, but a high cap. And it applies to no one else, leaving the UK, France, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, and even North Korea a rational basis for each having its own 1550 nukes. The US currently says it has 1528 warheads and bombs deployed, ready to use. The US also says it can“maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while safely pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the level established in the New START Treaty.” [Emphasis added.]

Both Bushes reduced nuclear weapons more than Obama

At its peak in 1967, the US had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads, both deployed and in reserve. By September 30, 2014, the total was 4766 warheads. This represents roughly a 10% reduction since Obama took office. Among other presidents, Reagan maintained the US nuclear arsenal at well over 20,000; George H.W. Bush cut the greatest number of warheads of any president (41% of more than 20,000); and George W. Bush cut the greatest percentage, 50% of slightly more than 10,000 when he took office).

To get Republican support for the START treaty in 2010, President Obama had to promise to improve and expand the US nuclear arsenal in other, creative ways. Obama’s nuclear “modernization” plans, insofar as they’re known, will cost the US an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years (more than $30 billion a year). “Modernization” includes things like nuclear-tipped cruise missiles or new, “smaller” bombs that might be politically easier to use. By today’s standards, the Hiroshima bomb is “small.” (Nuclear modernization is also intended to upgrade “a command and control unit tasked with coordinating the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces [that] still uses 8-inch floppy disksand runs on an IBM / Series 1 computer … first produced in 1976” even though the Pentagon says “it still works.”)

Factors like these – the slow pace of reducing redundant weapons and the willingness to risk a renewed arms race with nuclear “modernization” were enough to arouse one Democratic senator – but only one, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts – to criticize the president:

If Obama wants to keep the pledge he made in 2009 to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security,” he must rein in this nuclear spending insanity. The lesson of Hiroshima is clear: Nuclear weapons must never be used again.
If the United States wants other countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and restrain their nuclear war plans, it must take the lead. It cannot preach nuclear temperance from a bar stool.

Preaching nuclear temperance has been done to inebriation, as it were

Picturing Obama preaching from a bar stool might seem harsh. But the United Nations’ Open-Ended Working Group on multilateral nuclear disarmament, with more than 100 countries, has been working for two years – without US participation. Also without participation by China, France, Russia and the UK – and they don’t even preach from barstools. Nor do many of them visit Hiroshima. The vision of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is the complete international abolition of all nuclear weapons and the promotion of world peace. It’s where officials go to engage in lip services.

If Obama had wanted to be genuinely historic, he could have visited Nagasaki. There was no excuse for Nagasaki; it was a pure war crime. Unlike Hiroshima, there’s no credible military argument that Nagasaki had to be destroyed to get Japan to surrender. Hiroshima on August 6 was probably enough. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria and declaration of war on Japan on August 8 was surely enough. The class was done, all the grown-ups had to do was collect the papers and start grading them. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito publicly accepted the terms of unconditional surrender on August 15. The Soviets, who had been begged by the Allies for months to enter the war, continued fighting till the official surrender on September 2.

Some historians argue persuasively that the US used the atomic bomb more as a warning to the Soviet Union than as a military necessity, although these are not mutually exclusive – not for Hiroshima in any case. The bombing of Nagasaki was gratuitous overkill with no demonstrable military value in the field. But testing the Nagasaki bomb had real value as a military experiment. Unlike the uranium fission bomb that obliterated Hiroshima, the Nagasaki bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was the last atomic bomb the US had, and it was different: it was an implosion bomb with a plutonium core. Its prototype had worked in the first atomic explosion in a controlled test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, less than a month earlier. But would it work operationally? Military planners wanted to know and, without any order from the president, they successfully destroyed Nagasaki and some 70,000 people (even though the bomb was two miles off target). The experiment proved that the US could build two kinds of atomic bomb, and both worked.

Truman had his fill of killing “all those kids,” as he said

Apparently surprised by the gratuitous wiping out of Nagasaki, Truman issued an order that no more A-bombs be used, apparently unaware that the entire US atomic arsenal had been expended.

Obama seems to hope, like any rational person, that nuclear weapons will never again be used, but he has done little to change the governmental reality that holds nuclear weapons high on its list of final military solutions. Obama could have gone to Nagasaki and talked about Truman’s order to use no more. He could go to Alamogordo and express sadness that the first test worked. He could go to Bikini and finally make things better for Marshall Islanders who were victims of US nuclear testing. He could go to the Nevada proving grounds where the US government used American soldiers as guinea pigs in assessing the effects of ionizing radiation, and he could apologize for that and so much more. But he didn’t, he hasn’t, and probably he won’t. Crocodile-tear rhetoric is the best we’re likely to get. And maybe that’s because the dream of nuclear disarmament is impossible to realize in a world where the US can’t be trusted.

Even as the president was all hopey-changey in Hiroshima, his government was in its second year of participating in a criminal war in Yemen, where the US is helping the Saudis and their allies slaughter civilians from the air. It took over a year for the US to stop selling internationally condemned cluster bombs to the Saudis. And every time this president orders another drone strike on someone he decides with no due process is an enemy, he commits another of his own war crimes. “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil,” Obama said at Hiroshima – a homily he illustrates with his failure to confront evil. As the country approaches the 2016 election, Obama has created a context where the president can act as assassin-in-chief with impunity and where the development of miniaturized nuclear warheads for drones is a possibility. Sounds like the ingredients for making America great again.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.



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+19# RMDC 2016-06-05 14:29

Thanks fore this article. it is a good deconstruction of Obama’s lecture. His emptiness in many of his speeches is just appalling. In 2008 this emptiness was not so apparent. But now it is just intolerable. I’ll just be glad when he is gone and I never have to listen to him again. But the future looks bad – it could be Trump or Clinton and they would be empty too. ‘

+20# sashapyle 2016-06-05 17:10

I don’t think the words were sterile; in fact some of what Obama said was lovely and thoughtful. BUT those words will be HOLLOW, which is worse than sterile, if the planned trillion-dollar “modernization” –military upgrade– of our nuclear bomb factories is allowed to happen.
Words are one thing; sucking your own nation dry of resources to keep weaponeers fat while the rest of us struggle, that’s another. I live in New Mexico and the nukes industry has us in a stranglehold, economically and environmentally as coal has historically had West Virginia. The decision to prioritize bomb-making when we have a perfectly good deterrent in our existing arsenal is shocking, tragic, and dangerous.

+5# futhark 2016-06-05 18:36

This is the economic addiction to militarism which we must overcome for ethical reasons and for our own survival as a species. Addictions are fairly easy to slip into, but take determination, planning, and patience to overcome.

Step 1 is always recognition of the problem. Yes, it is unfortunate that so many people, mostly civilians, would suffer from financial dislocation as their current employment developing or manufacturing weapons or just providing maintenance services at military bases is wound down and terminated. There may also need to be a conversation over the role of the military in developing responsible citizens. As things are in my community, many see the military as an institution in which young people develop proactive approaches to life and acquire useful skills. These need to be questioned and peaceable alternatives need to be developed.

Step 2 then is to identify useful employment for such affected persons, making the necessary transition to genuinely constructive work as painless as possible. This requires society reorienting its goals and possibly redefining the term “national security”.

These necessary steps can only be accomplished if we choose leadership that displays wisdom and courage. Falling back on the old mantras of “Making America great”, etc. is not going to result in any tangible progress.

-1# MidwestTom 2016-06-05 19:09

Whenever I heard people talk about finding employment, I know that they are not in the hiring/firing end of a business. Most of the people employed in our military supply firms are highly skilled or engineers earning big wages. Replacement jobs for them simply are not out there. Those with lesser skills now find themselves fighting for positions with people who are here illegally who are willing to work for lower wages (guess who gets hired).

Our military industrial group has trapped us. They are the highest payers, and as a group one of the largest industries, if not the largest. Cut them back, and you will accelerate our economic decline. Stop creating wars, and the market for our biggest exports drops. If the complex declines, so does our standard of living. Only the Wall Street types make money as the country declines, and the fly-over zone gets crushed.

-1# Promoting Peace 2016-06-05 20:31

Does this mean that killing thousands of innocent people is far more important than some Americans having to retrain for jobs that creat value, rather than destroy other people and our environment, and possibly the world as we know it??? When will we ever develop the guts to transition from war and destruction, to people’s health and happiness??? One day I hope we develop the wisdom and courage to begin putting people ahead of money and greed!!!

0# economagic 2016-06-05 20:46

Tom, I’m busy with a computer problem and shouldn’t take the time, but I can’t let that pass. I can’t let it pass because it points to a dead end, no solution, might as well roll over and die.

That is bullshit and on some level you know it. There are two kinds of solutions, some of which are idealistic and highly unlikely to occur, others realistic and practical, if not as perfect as we could wish. Solutions of the first kind include electing a president not hell-bent on projection of US power and extension of the empire. Such solutions by stipulation if not by definition are unlikely, but they serve as a guide to where we would like to go.

The second kind of solution is far from ideal, at least in terms of our current thinking, but they have the great advantage that they can actually be implemented by individuals and communities. We’ve been hearing about the “jobless economy” for a decade now, and it’s here to a large extent. The “sharing economy” in terms of Uber and Air b ‘n’ b is TOTAL bullshit, the worst of the Old economy with none of its benefits. But where there are human needs to be met there are opportunities. How will jobless people “buy” what they can’t do for themselves? The same way we always have: We barter, we invent money (“whatever people agree to use as money”), and probably before all else fails, we share. Seriously.

I’m out of time and characters, but to say there is no way out is to create that reality. How many “good” jobs are there even now?

+4# JayaVII 2016-06-05 19:05

Yes, there’s altogether too much of the “lovely and thoughtful” in Obama’s rhetoric, too little of the straightforward and forceful. In the home stretch of his presidency, he still presents himself as a candidate, not as a wielder of power. Hollow is a good word for this man.

-1# wantrealdemocracy 2016-06-05 20:22

No mention by our Peace Prize President about the nuclear weapons we have used in Faluja. Scientist working to figure out why the cancer rates of children in that city was so high. They tested the ground to determine if the cause of the problem was our use of depleted uranium weapons. To their surprise, (and horror!) they found high levels of high intensive weapons levels of uranium in the soil. This proves that the United States has used nuclear weapons in these endless wars in the Middle East. Our nation is the terrorist champion of all the world. We are the bad guys, no doubt about that. The citizens of this nation must change our corrupt and evil government. The sooner the better. Don’t vote for any D or any R, there is no lesser evil between these two.

+13# keenon the truth 2016-06-05 17:11

Thank you, Mr. Boardman. As I said in a previous post, I knew from the start of the very first sentence that we were in for a hypocritical speech. Death fell from the sky? No, it didn’t fall, it was dropped, and we all know who did it. In fact, the Japanese translator choose a different word for ‘fell’, a word much closer to ‘was dropped’, and the Japanese audience was duped.

The Japanese language is rather indirect, often with no obvious subject in the sentence. It can feel rather unsubstantial and Obama’s speech was easy to translate. Many Japanese people I spoke to were happy about it.

At least the BBC drew attention to the hypocrisy when remarking on the presence right behind Obama of the official carrying the briefcase with the nuclear codes.

+16# capt400 2016-06-05 17:21

B-52??? How about a B-29 named Enola Gay?

+4# WBoardman 2016-06-05 19:17

capt 400 is so very correct, but I did get the name right ;-)))

+4# zach 2016-06-05 18:57

The article is both right in criticisms as well as have done.
President Obama had to make this a cold, academic ‘deus ex machine’ event, otherwise his use of drones looks too much like the same thing. After all, if you are roasted to a crisp by a terrible force from the sky, does it really matter how many ÿou’s” there are?
Perhaps he should have said, there were 5 “high value targetsA”elimin ated with regrettable, but unavoidable, collateral damage.
The problem is that “war is hell.” Once the dogs of war are unleashed, there is no knowing where it leads, but usually it leads to terrible consequences. The arrogance of power temps us to think war is a video game, that this time it will be different.
Obama, for being a very smart man, is a fool.

+3# zach 2016-06-05 19:00

Apologies for some errors. My glasses are broken and I am having a hard time seeing.

-1# Caliban 2016-06-05 19:00

Perhaps the President will have a speech more to Mr. Boardman’s liking on December 7, 2016.

+2# WBoardman 2016-06-05 19:20

Caliban is cute, but irrelevant.

That’s the day Shinzo Abe has promised
to lay a wreath at Pearl Harbor….

0# angelfish 2016-06-05 19:11

After 60+ years this is the ONLY American President to have EVER ventured to this site! WHY is he getting NOTHING but criticism? I call BULL-PUCKEY! on Mr. Boardman and ANYONE who tries to diminish this deed! Harry Truman DROPPED the Bomb, President Obama DIDN’T! Harry took the Heat. WHY is everyone so quick to jump on this President? I have hope that SOME DAY we will practice War NO MORE. It is a USELESS occupation and is based SOLELY ont the Greed and desires of the Mega-Wealthy who LIKE the Status Quo and want to reinforce it to the Hilt! Just another reason to support Bernie Sanders for the Presidency. He is the least likely to bomb aanyone or go to useless War without REAL cause. Get OVER the Hill and the Hair and FEEL the Bern!

-1# angryspittle 2016-06-05 19:25

Jesus, get an editor. It was not a damn B-52, they weren’t even produced until 1952. It was a B-29…….

+2# economagic 2016-06-05 19:56

Mentioned above. It’s a good idea to read the comments before commenting.

0# lfeuille 2016-06-05 19:54

Yeah, but Obama is detached about everything. Drone warfare, government and Wall Street corruption, income equality,survei llance state. It’s all intellectual games to him. The only time I’ve ever seen him really engaged is the Sandyhook massacre and other gun atrocities. Maybe he identifies as a parent. But he doesn’t seem to have the imagination to put himself in others shoes on any other issue.

+1# CarolYost 2016-06-05 20:24

Boardman is right on target. I thank him. One more thing to mention is that before the atom bombs were dropped, the Japanese were defeated and ready to surrender; they just needed assurance of the Emperor’s safety. The US held off on that assurance so that it could have an excuse to drop the atom bombs. Despicable! Unspeakable horror!

I find most of the comments very useful, except for the complaint that we should lay off on criticizing Obama. He needs a lot more. He’s murdering people. And that speech was so empty!

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