I woke up early this morning, before 4 a.m. in fact, to head to NPR to be live when President Barack Obama spoke in Hiroshima. As I drove across a dark and quiet Washington, DC, the president was already beginning what has to be his most moving speech to date. As my city was waking up, the entire Japanese nation was listening to our president, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the atomic bombings. If you have not heard it, you should take a moment to read it here.
President Obama began by taking us back to that precise moment that changed human history, “a bright cloudless morning” when “death fell from the sky.” He reminded us why we must continue to visit Hiroshima, to remember “the terrible force” that took the lives of over 100,000 men, women, and children, among them not only Japanese but Koreans and even Americans held as prisoners of war. "Their souls," he continued, "ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are, and what we might become.” War fought throughout human history, by powerful and wealthy nations, he argued, affected most those who are “the innocents.” And he reminded us that our future is a choice. In echoes of his first speech on the need to find our way forward to a world without nuclear weapons, President Obama suggested that August 6, 1945 should be seen not as the “dawn of atomic warfare,” but as the “start of our moral awakening.”
Throughout his speech, President Obama sought to put faces and feelings on the lives of those who were alive then, and on the human costs of war. He focused on our children. Early on he depicted the confusion of those children who were there in Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bombing, some of whom in fact were in the audience as survivors, or hibakusha. He spoke of the children of Hiroshima today who go through their days in peace –a precious thing, he noted, that must be “protected and extended to every child.” And, he spoke to the stories that we must choose to tell our children, the narratives that we provide that can lead us to reconciliation instead of war –a story of “a common humanity... [where] cruelty is less easily accepted.”
Moreover, President Obama highlighted the choices that will determine our future, which lie in the hands of the world’s leaders. Leaders must understand what he said “ordinary people” already know—those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy-one years ago were “like us,” with lives and families like ours. He noted that the nations that fought World War II were the wealthiest and most powerful, with magnificent civilizations, art, and culture. Yet he laid blame on “the base instinct for domination,” an instinct today that is “amplified by new capabilities” for destruction. He called on leaders to “reimagine our connection to the human race…to one another,” and reminded them to “learn” from Hiroshima and to “choose” to avoid and prevent the catastrophe of war.
This plea to avoid the call of nationalism and competition, instead seeking the path of diplomacy and compromise, could not come at a better time for Asia. With North Korea in pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and China rising as a more assertive regional power, many across the region worry about a new inevitable competition across Asia. With even more destructive power, and with some –even in the United States –suggesting that nuclear weapons are inevitable for those like Japan that remain steadfastly opposed, President Obama’s reminder of the human cost of war is prescient.
He also put World War II into a global context, reminding us that the scale of deliberate civilian killings in that conflict far outstripped any previous war. He spoke of the sixty million who died in that war—men, women, and children killed and “shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, and gassed” in the horrible “depravity” of that war. He noted too the many sites elsewhere around the world depicting the suffering of so many, reminding us that Hiroshima was not the only site of human suffering. But he did emphasize how the shock of the “mushroom cloud” brought into stark relief how far that global contest had taken us, how close we were to using our technology to “eliminate” human life.
Carried in his pocket were four origami cranes, a symbol of hope and rebirth in Japan that has particular salience in Hiroshima. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a special memorial statue was built to honor the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who was four at the time of the atomic bombing and later died of leukemia at the age of twelve. During her illness, Sadako folded more than a thousand cranes, a practice thought to help realize wishes in Japan. Her brother, Masahiro Sasaki, took it upon himself to continue to share those cranes with those who sought peace, even taking one to the 9/11 Memorial Museum as well as to the Pearl Harbor Museum. Her story has been written about in many languages, and read by many children across the globe. One child who read the book was the son of Clifton Truman Daniels, the oldest grandson of President Harry Truman. In 2012, Clifton and Masahiro together toured the museum that President Obama visited today, finding a path to friendship in their common pursuit of peace.
Seventy-one years later, the voices of the wartime generation are growing faint. Veterans who fought the war, and those that suffered its worst brutality are now in their final years of life. That generation has been at the forefront of reconciliation dialogue and outreach between Japan and the United States, reaching out to those they fought against or those who families like theirs were decimated in war. Not all forgive, however, and sensitivities in both countries remain over those who suffered.
My inbox today is already full of emails from all generations of Japanese and Americans deeply moved by the president’s visit and by his profound reminder of our shared responsibility in building peace. In Japan, there is widespread gratitude for the president’s visit; in the United States, our election may provide the opportunity for a more partisan reading.
I was too deeply moved, and as an American, sincerely proud to watch our president finally demonstrate just how far our two nations have come.
I hope leaders across Asia, indeed across the world, take heed of President Obama’s appeal to this generation to reach across national borders and to find courage in our shared humanity.