Ethical Quote Of The Week: President Obama, Threading The Needle In Hiroshima

Obama at hiroshima

“We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.”

—-President Obama, speaking at the Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park in Japan, in a controversial visit to the site of the Unites States’ decisive use of the atom bomb to defeat Japan without an invasion in 1945.

Good job. Whoever drafted the speech—it may well have been Obama himself—perfectly threaded the needle, simultaneously making a compassionate diplomatic gesture and yet including an unmistakable reference to who was really at fault for the carnage. Those Korean casualties were captured and enslaved citizens of a sovereign nation, acquired as Imperial Japan swept over Asia like locusts. Those prisoners were prisoners of war, and horribly mistreated ones.

The passage of time made Obama’s subtlety more appropriate than President Harry Truman’s typically blunt response to an Aug. 9, 1945 telegram from  Samuel Cavert, the general secretary of the Federal Council of the Churches in Christ in America, saying he was “greatly disturbed” by Truman’s use of the bomb:

“I appreciated very much your telegram… Nobody is more disturbed over the use of the atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war.”

I guess I still like Harry’s comment better. I also don’t much care for the timing of the visit, occurring as it does so near to  Memorial Day. I find myself wondering what my father would have thought about this, knowing that he was already training to take part in the Japan invasion when Truman opted for a nuclear strike instead.  My guess: the visit would have irked him greatly.(Dad always liked the word “irk.”)

It is also easy for me to imagine cynical reasons for Obama’s visit, such as bolstering the weak arguments for his reckless and irresponsible Iran deal.  The theme of his gesture was to “spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons,” as he wrote in the memorial’s guest book, and as he said in his speech, “…to ponder the terrible force unleashed in the not so distant past. Amongst those nations like my own that own nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”

That’s nice. It’s also obtuse, naive and dangerous….and typical of Obama, who leads according to how he would like the world to be, and not as it has been and always will be. The only reason the ceremony was in Hiroshima and not the rubble of what was once New York, Chicago or Washington is because Japan and Germany didn’t get the bomb before we did. It was close, though. When the United States disarms itself as Obama wants, that will be the cue for Armageddon. I suppose after Iran reduces Israel to a giant radioactive parking lot, that may become more apparent, so there is a chilling sort of hope.

That little problem aside, the President’s rhetoric did not, as some feared it would, let Japan escape the accountability its deserved when the bomb dropped and still deserves now.



Sources: Daily Beast 1, 2; Washington Post


26 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Week: President Obama, Threading The Needle In Hiroshima

  1. I think Obama should invite Prime Minister Abe to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. He won’t of course.

  2. Jack,
    I’ve never understood the argument that it was “good” that we got the bomb first. Why — because exceptionalism makes Amercia the only nation worthy to be it’s keeper? I’m not getting into the messy business regarding the ethics of our having used it; only the idea that we know better than most when it’s appropriate to use.

    Had Japan or Germany used the bomb on us (and I agree they would have), would they have been any less justified in the context of a war? Yes, they started it, and yes, their reasons for fighting may not have been as “noble,” but they were trying to win just like we were and they would have been within their sense to use whatever tools were most able to achieve that means. [I realize this isn’t a strong argument, but I’m writing in a hurry and don’t have time to properly flush it out.]

    I’m sure a number of Japanese fisherman, those living in the Bikini Atolls, a number of soldiers at Trinity, and all those effected by Project Plowshare might question how “reserved” our uses have been in the years since.

    Also, rhetoric aside, no one (including Obama) believes that a world without nuclear weapons is possible. Were a bill to be placed on his desk today that could guarantee to do just that (with equal assurances that every other nation would follow suit), he would never sign. Or, would sign, but then create all sorts of procedural roadblocks that would make it’s ultimate enforcement impossible. He’s not “seeing the world as he wants it to be;” he’s telling people what they (think they) want to hear.


    • “I’ve never understood the argument that it was “good” that we got the bomb first.”

      You’ve never understood why it was better for the world for the United States rather than Nazi Germany or Japan to win the war?

      It is the same question, you know. I don’t think I can delve more deeply into that without insulting you, no matter how hard I try.

        • I was merely curious how you’d take that. You already think of me as a moron, so I’m just trying to play the part.

          The trained seal strikes again!

          • Now you’re just fishing for compliments.

            If I thought you were a moron, I would have banned you. I have banned many commenters on the grounds that they weren’t bright enough to comment here. There’s a no moron rule, Always has been

        • “I’ve never understood the argument that it was “good” that we got the bomb first. Why — because exceptionalism makes Amercia the only nation worthy to be it’s keeper?”

          You’re really asking two questions there, Neil. The first is, historically why was it better that America developed nuclear weapons than any of the other nations? Which can’t be answered with absolute certainty, but can be answered by reasonable conjecture about what the other nations would have done with the weapon, and how often they might have used them.

          The second question seems to be “is America (still) the best choice for playing gatekeeper to nuclear technology?”

          On the First Question:
          If you’ve never understood why people say it was a good thing that the USA of that era developed and deployed atomic weapons first, you’ve never seriously thought about the other regimes that were developing the technology during the war, and the conduct they engaged in. Arguing that one of them going nuclear wouldn’t have been worse for humanity, in the long run, than America having gone nuclear, is only possible in that way. America, at the time, was (mostly) a non-expansionist, non-interventionist country… claims that can not be made about any of the other powers in the equation.

          While there can be no proof of how they might have acted with nuclear weapons, the actual actions they undertook without them can be considered to show signature significance. Moreover, when we look at the current attitudes of their populations towards those actions we can make fairly compelling arguments about how they would have regarded the actual use of those weapons.

          Japan alone could be (and has been) the subject of extensive dissertations. This was a nation, which after signing multiple treaties prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare (Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907), willfully instructed their air force to make use of said weapons (which said forces did), and has never accepted censured or admitted wrongdoing for having done so. Why? Because when those treaties were written, they didn’t mention air forces, specifically. Estimates on the number of people killed by their use of germ warfare and human experimentation are 580,000. They attempted to weaponize the bubonic plague (you know, that tiny thing also known as the black death), and took captive soldiers to the universities in their homeland for vivisection in front of students.

          And many members of their society, both then, and even currently, maintain that these things did not happen, despite clear evidence that they did. Their current prime minister maintains the historical soldiers never raped or kept captive women. Many others maintain that historically well documented situations, such as the Nanking massacre were much smaller, or completely fabricated, than evidence supports. Often they do so by adjusting the time frame or physical geography in which the event occurred, and acting as if the use of these definitions makes anything that happened outside those definitions something that didn’t, actually, happen. It’s a cultural thing, tied into the Japanese mentality about truth, face, and their language: a thing which is not officially observed to have happened can be treated as if it did not actually happen, creating a distinction between the “official truth” (what is agreed to be true by relevant parties), and actual truth as we outsiders see it.

          So, Japan with the atomic bomb? Would probably never have acknowledged any of the aftereffects, and would have considered the repeated use of the weapon against enemies, or occupied territories to maintain their rule. They would have, in all likelihood, decided it was perfectly acceptable to use weapons of mass destruction to pursue their expansionist goals and control captured populations… as their germ warfare record indicates, they saw no concerns in potentially uncontrolled weapons of mass destruction, so it is extremely doubtful they would have seen any concerns in making use of actually controllable ones.

          Germany? Do I even need to say more than the name? Except for the willfully deluded, everyone knows what their record on human rights and expansionism were at the time.

          To argue that these would have been the same or better as America’s actions while possession of the weapon turned out to be is… rather ridiculous. It’s also highlights what it is that makes America a better choice than either of the others: As a government which was (nominally still is) answerable to its people, its people feel responsible for the actions of those governments (even past ones they had no control over), and are sufficiently ethical to feel guilt over actions those governments took.

          As to the second question…
          There seems to be a distinct lack of other nations willing to step up to the plate. And since the UN is so very effective at dealing with weapons proliferation (yes, that was sarcasam)… in the absence of viable alternatives… yes. America is still the best keeper for this particular gate. Even if Obama seems determined to let less responsible countries have a key.

  3. “The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had brought the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.”

    That’s the closest I can find to any Japanese accountability in the entire speech. And as I read that, it seems to lump all the players together – axis and ally alike. I see a whole lot of ‘Nuclear bombs and warfare and violence are terrible’ – but it was no “base instinct for domination or conquest” which brought us into the war, nor was it connected in any but the most tangential of ways to the actual dropping of the bombs. I realize they may be allies now, and it would be gauche to say directly – but in WW2, Germany and Japan were the villains of the piece.

    “We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.” Or, you know, tell them the truth.

    • I’m more with you, Aaron, than Jack. I think Jack’s being way too kind to our President. The speech is, as expected, just more anti-colonialist baloney. I suspect Noam Chomsky wrote it. I’m not sure which the President will run out of first: foreign countries to apologize to or days in office. As I told my kids when he was first running for President, Barack Obama will make Jimmy Carter look like Winston Churchill. He’s made doing so a priority during his tenure.

      • I remain baffled as to why anti-colonialism is wrong. Can you explain that to me, Other Bill?

        Also, where exactly is the apology in this speech?

        • In the hands of most American lefties, anti-colonialism is a cover for anti-Americanism. But which countries did the United States colonize? The Phillipines? Cuba? Both were freed from Spain and then turned over to their inhabitants. Puerto Rico? It won the lottery and became effectively a state. Same with Hawaii. Should Hawaii have been a Japanese colony? Alaska had been colonized by the Russians and then purchased by the U.S. Does the U.S. assert its interests abroad? Sure. But it’s unfair for the U.S. to do it but when Russia invades Ukraine, Stephen Cohen and Katrina Vanden Heuvel says it’s just ducky. Anti-colonialism is also code for blaming decades of incompetent and corrupt self-rule of countries upon their having been colonized in the increasingly distant past. I forget who said it, but I’m a fan of the notion that perhaps the problem with the third world is not too much colonization but too little. Our president is absolutely marinated in this kind of thinking and it oozes out of everything he says. He’s big on engaging with our enemies because he thinks our enemies have a legitimate beef with us. I’m surprised he’s not going to North Korea on his current trip to apologize for the Korean War.

  4. Jack,

    There is more to the story of Hiroshima than the public knows, yet. I do not know all the details myself, but I know there is much more to be revealed:

    Professor Paul Kazuo Kuroda risked his life to let the public know that frightened world leaders united nations and national academies of sciences on 24 OCT 1945 to hide from the public the primary source of energy in the solar system:

    Click to access The_Beginning_of_the_World.pdf

  5. Who was it who said history is written by the victors? (It might well have been Homer.)
    The only effective way to end the fighting with Germany and Japan — especially Japan — was to bring those nations to their knees. In addition to the atomic devices, the allies had the fire bombs for Japan; these destroyed more acreage than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions combined. By the summer of 1945, the fliers had developed a formula to inflict the most damages: so many phosphorus bombs mixed with so many explosive bombs at specific intervals along the bombing runs. Had the atomic weapons not been used, Japan’s cities would have been slowly and thoroughly scorched.

  6. Truman bombed Hiroshima because the Japanese would never have surrendered, and this was one way to save at least a million more Allied soldiers’ lives through an invasion of this sick, cruel, militaristic nation. Hindsight is great, but how could Truman envision Hiroshima that it would usher in a nuclear age?

    Pearl Harbor is only one — relative small, comparatively — horrific act by the Japanese, who did in fact swarm like locusts through southeast Asia in the last 1930s and ’40s, killing, raping, imprisoning, and torturing millions. It is estimated that 10 million died at the hands of Japan. And we’ve made Germany beat its breast for a generation about the Holocaust. Japan though, was our bulwark against Red China, so they were not subjected to this pressure.

    They remain a warlike nation — though now it’s an economic approach — and still view the WWII as a war of US aggression and teach it that way. But then again, they still believe their Emporer is a direct descendant of the Sungod.

  7. Thank, E2 (née Elizabith I) for mentioning the Sungod of Japan. Were the rays of energy, emerging from the very center of the “Rising Sun” flag of Japan, ordered removed from the flag as part of Japan’s unconditional surrender after WWII?

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