Today President Barack Obama made the first-ever presidential visit to Hiroshima, site of the first use of nuclear weapons in warfare. That Obama was the first president to ever visit the city–where a single American bomb killed about a hundred thousand people–betrays a great deal about how we still can’t cope with the fact that the U.S. is the only nation in history to ever use nuclear weapons in anger.
Obama’s remarks were, as usual, eloquent and thoughtful:
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 in Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Koreans; a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
This is asking a lot–of both Obama himself and America as a whole. Obama can make well-reasoned, humane statements about the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing and war in general, but at the same time his administration continues to modernize our nuclear weapons stockpile. It’s been a few decades since the U.S. produced a completely new nuclear bomb, but modernization programs continue to this day.
“The United States maintains a modern arsenal of about 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and Strategic Bombers,” the nonprofit Arms Control Association said in this December 2015 post. “The U.S. military is in the process of modernizing all of its existing strategic delivery systems and refurbishing the warheads they carry to last for the next 30-50 years.”
Obama is hardly the first president to face this quandary. We love to quote President Dwight Eisenhower on the costs of modern war and the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but seldom remember that during his eight years in office, he built thousands of nuclear bombs (the U.S. stockpile was a mere 299 in 1950, but had climbed to 18,638 by 1960). The closest Obama came to addressing his own ambivalence about nuclear weapons occurred about halfway through his remarks:
Still, every act of aggression between nations; every act of terror and corruption and cruelty and oppression that we see around the world shows our work is never done. We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations–and the alliances that we’ve formed–must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.
It’s easy to think of this as an abstract issue far removed from our shores, but it really isn’t. In fact, I couldn’t help but think about Obama’s visit today in the context of a news release sent out yesterday by U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, D–Hawaii. That release talks up the millions of dollars in defense funding the senator said he helped secure for Maui.
“Today, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bipartisan defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2017,” states the May 26 news release. “U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, helped secure $222 million for the Army’s High Performance Computing Modernization Program, which supports the Department of Defense’s Regional Supercomputers, including the Maui High Performance Computing Center.”
The U.S. military uses high performance computing for a variety of tasks and purposes. But it also has long played a role in the development and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“High Performance Computing (HPC) has been a principal nuclear design tool since the beginning of the nuclear weapons program,” states this 2009 Defense Science Board report. “Following the cessation of nuclear testing in 1992, HPC has taken on the primary integrating role in ensuring the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile.”
This is America today. We say thoughtful things about the evils of warfare while building and modernizing the very weapons that make a future war between the world’s great powers indistinguishable from complete genocide.
Still, at the end of his remarks today, Obama noted that the way we feel about our actions at Hiroshima can change the world for the better. Yes, we’ve build the most dangerous engines of war in history, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to use them.
The world was forever changed here. But today, the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is the future we can choose–a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.
The choice is ours, and our childrens’.
Photo of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons