HIROSHIMA, Japan — President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima on Friday where he invoked the memory of “a flash of light and wall of fire” that destroyed the city during World War II.
At a moving ceremony at the city’s Peace Memorial Park, Obama told an audience that included survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing that the tragic events of that fateful day should never be forgotten.
“That memory allows us to fight complacency,” he said. “It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.”
Obama’s landmark visit has inspired hope among many that it will lead to a more holistic teaching of World War II history and the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan.
Survivors like Keiko Ogura could be vital to such a re-evalution.
Ogura was eight years old when the B-29 superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb over the Japanese city on Aug. 6, 1945. She believes she survived because her father kept her home sick from school that day. Thousands of students were downtown on government orders, clearing rubble and working in factories. Many were vaporized immediately. Others died later from horrific burns.
Ogura tried to help. Some survivors who came to her house near the city’s outskirts begged her for water. Few knew that drinking so soon after a catastrophic injury could increase blood flow, hastening death.
“I know that after drinking water from my hand, some of them died,” Ogura, now 78, said during a February visit to the memorial museum. “I feel so guilty.”
Traditionally, first-person accounts like Ogura’s have not been widely taught in the United States. Seventy years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is still an aversion to directly facing the scope of the humanitarian fallout of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use the bomb.
Historian Charles Strozier, who has studied the threat posed by nuclear weapons for 40 years, says that when contemplating policy decisions related to nuclear arms, it is important to consider the human impact of their use.
“You can’t understand it unless you begin from the experience of those who lived through it,” said Strozier, the founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
In his speech Friday, Obama did not revisit the decision to use the bomb nor did he offer an apology. His focus was on moving toward a world that would “ultimately eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.”
That is fine with Ogura, who said the future was more important than an apology.
“It’s a kind of a symbol of hope, hope to avoid nuclear weapons,” she said. “As a human being, I want him to feel like we shouldn’t use nuclear weapons anymore. That’s the most important.”
Rep. Mark Takano, whose Japanese-American parents were in an internment camp in the U.S. during the war, recalled his own pilgrimage to Hiroshima more than a decade ago that left him with a strong sense of the importance of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.
“It wasn’t in my mind about the rightness or wrongness of Truman’s decision,” said the California Democrat, whose great-aunt survived the Hiroshima bombing. “What occurred to me first is anybody who controls the nuclear arsenal should have to come and understand the magnitude of their power.”
Obama’s visit to Hiroshima has broken with decades of presidential tradition. The politics of visiting Hiroshima or Nagasaki invited too many questions about the morality and military necessity of dropping the bomb and ushering in the nuclear age.
“It’s always difficult for a country to come to terms with its own atrocities,” said Robert Jay Lifton, one of the foremost U.S. psychiatrists to have studied the psychological impacts of the bombings on Japanese survivors, as well as the collective American psyche.
He cites two developments among Americans about Hiroshima. “One has been its fading from our memory along with what I call psychic numbing — the diminished capacity or inclination to feel — toward what happened in that city. But at the same time, when the subject is raised, there has been an increasing willingness to recognize the pain it has caused its victims and survivors,” he said.
That’s a change from 1995, when the Smithsonian Institution came under fire for a planned exhibit on the bombings that would have included artifacts from the Hiroshima museum that would illustrate the humanitarian impact.
“You had this new generation of historians who are very serious and dedicated to looking at the story objectively,” said Jeremy Kinney, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum aeronautics department, as he explained the initial thinking behind the exhibit. “But that can also be seen as a way of questioning and placing judgment on the past.”
At that time, most common estimates held that between 500,000 to 1 million lives were saved because the atomic bombings prompted Japan’s surrender without the need for an invasion. Those estimates have been called into doubt today as too high by a number of historians, as have the reasons for Tokyo’s capitulation.
The final Smithsonian display, which ran from 1995 to 1998, consisted of just a portion of the Enola Gay’s fuselage and a small plaque. The fully restored Enola Gay can be viewed today at the National Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles International Airport. The accompanying text focuses on the development, technological capabilities and combat history of the bomber and others like it.
“It’s very important to realize the power of artifacts in museums. The Enola Gay is a stirring example of that,” said Kinney, adding the Smithsonian has no plans to develop a comprehensive exhibit about the atomic bombings. “We may have that opportunity in the future when we think about a new exhibition on the National Mall, but nothing like that has solidified or been approved internally.”
From his vantage point as a history professor at American University, Peter Kuznick said his students are more open to a “more critical analysis of the bomb decision.”
“The old Cold War orthodoxy or triumphalist narrative that celebrated the atomic bombing as a necessary and even moral alternative to a U.S. invasion has been subjected to extensive scrutiny especially at the university-level,” he said. Kuznick relied on Soviet, Japanese and U.S. archival documents to arrive at his conclusion that Truman dropped the bomb to forestall Soviet territorial expansion in Asia.
“If people think that the world we have now is the only way the world could have turned out, then they can’t begin to imagine a different and better future,” Kuznick said