The Hiroshima Speech



Those fearing that President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima would generate a humiliating apology—John Bolton provides a typically angry variant—vastly underestimated the president’s finesse. Starting the day with a reaffirmation of the alliance in a speech to American and Japanese servicemen and women, the president managed to avoid the quicksand associated with a reflection on the Pacific War per se (text herevideo here). Rather—and in quite typical fashion—Obama reached for a more abstract formulation. He put Hiroshima in the context of the depredation of the wider global conflict, emphasizing that it was fought among the richest and nominally most civilized of states. He reflected on the duality of humans as both the most creative and destructive of species. Noting the multiple sources of war—including not only imperial expansionism but religious self-righteousness—Obama discussed the need to use conflicts of this magnitude for moral reflection, to contain our technological capabilities and to solve conflicts through diplomacy. The theme of a world without nuclear weapons was introduced, but lightly; the president both acknowledged the role that alliances played in the security of the region and the fact that nuclear zero was unlikely in his lifetime. Above all, he emphasized not forgiveness exactly but the fact that “we can learn, we can change.” Few relationships embody this pious wish than the alliances the US has forged with Japan and German.

Subtleties mattered. Coming to a site fraught with a victims’ narrative, Obama did not bow after laying the wreath. And in discussing the bombing itself, he quickly but effectively swept aside the Japanese monopoly on suffering by noting that thousands of Koreans and even a dozen Americans were also killed in the Hiroshima bombing. His emphasis throughout was not on perpetrators and victims, but on the innocent.

Sadly, Prime Minister Abe’s remarks exhibited much less finesse and subtlety, or perhaps too much of it. The Prime Minister did reference his 70th anniversary speech, his reflection on the “harsh history” and extended condolences to the American youth lost in the conflict. But his pivot to Hiroshima was almost patronizing, noting how President Obama’s visit allowed him to witness the effects of the bombing first hand. From then on, it was precisely the focus on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that so diminished the Prime Minister’s comments, with the bombing, not the war to which it ultimately put an end, that was “the tragedy that must not be repeated again.” This language repeats the lexical ambiguity in the park’s cenotaph, which is inscribed “please rest in peace, for [we/they] shall not repeat the error.” (安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから", which could mean that either we (Japan) or they (the US) shall not repeat the error.

Yet despite these miscues, both Obama’s and Abe’s restatement of the multiple virtues of the alliance, including its security function, make the deep point that the president wanted to convey: that historical learning is possible and that even countries responsible for untold violence and destruction can be remade.  

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