Obama's Hiroshima visit an effort to move public opinion

Douglas Roche

PEACEMAKING TODAY

May 30, 2016

I hope U.S. President Barack Obama's May 27 visit to Hiroshima gives him the same gut-wrenching experience I had when I first visited the site of the first atomic bomb used in warfare. Then he will leave no stone unturned to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which have rightly been called the ultimate evil.

As I toured the Hiroshima museum in the mid-1970s and saw the artifacts left over from indescribable suffering and talked to the hibakusha, the survivors, who pleaded that no one anywhere ever suffer as they did, my life changed.

Never again would I be able to think of nuclear weapons as just an abstraction of military policy. The complete elimination of nuclear weapons as the only morally defensible policy going forward, became the hallmark of my professional life.

Ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, the world has struggled about what to do with such a devastating weapon.

This depiction of nuclear bombing shows burned skin peeling and hanging from hands at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima.

CNS PHOTO | OCTAVIO DURAN

This depiction of nuclear bombing shows burned skin peeling and hanging from hands at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons has been only partly contained, with nine countries possessing them. However, the major nuclear weapons states - the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China - are all modernizing their nuclear arsenals and a new nuclear arms race has broken out.

Obama understands this. Shortly after assuming the presidency in 2009, he delivered a stirring speech in Prague in which he challenged the world to get on with nuclear disarmament.

He said: "One nuclear weapon exploded in one city - be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague - could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be - for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival."

To thunderous applause, he added: "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." The Nobel Peace Prize soon followed. But little action.

In 2010, Obama chaired a summit meeting of the UN Security Council on nuclear disarmament and has convened other summits dealing with tightening the security on nuclear materials used for peaceful purposes.

However, world conditions worsened with Russia's invasion of Crimea and a parallel spread of terrorism. The U.S. blamed Russia for poisoning the atmosphere and ignored its own threats to Russia through the enlargement of NATO right up to Russia's borders and continued development of ballistic missile defence.

Russian-American relations, which after the end of the Cold War showed signs of blossoming, went into a frozen state.

The U.S. began a nuclear weapons modernization program that will cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years. All the nuclear states joined in upgrading their nuclear stocks.

This provoked the start of a new humanitarian movement, now numbering about 150 states and scores of civil society organizations determined to start a process of negotiating a legal instrument to ban all nuclear weapons. But the U.S. and the other major nuclear powers are boycotting the process.

So how come, you might ask, is Obama going to Hiroshima to raise the profile of nuclear disarmament while, at the same time, his own country is leading the way in perpetuating nuclear weapons? This seeming contradiction highlights the core of the nuclear dilemma.

So powerful is the military-industrial complex, whose lobbyists virtually control the machinery of the U.S. administration, that not even the president, who obviously wants to move ahead on nuclear disarmament, can budge them. Obama is relying on the power of public opinion, which he is clearly trying to mobilize by being the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima.

OTHERS MUST SPEAK

Obama cannot be just a lonely figure crying out from the mountaintop. His words need to be taken up by a chorus.

The new Canadian government should back him instead of acquiescing to continued NATO policy that says nuclear weapons are the "supreme guarantee" of global security. Canada needs to stand up for human survival now threatened by the 15,800 nuclear weapons still in existence, more than enough to destroy a thousand Hiroshimas.

Pope Francis communicated his deep concern in a speech to the United Nations last fall.

He said: "An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction - and possibly the destruction of all mankind - are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations. . . . There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons."

Obama and Francis are on the same page. Are we listening?