Neither apologizing for nor re-examining the decision to drop the bombs here and at Nagasaki, Obama said the shared pain must now become a shared responsibility to wake up again to the nuclear threat — not a flowery call for peace for the sake of peace, but for the sake of stopping any more parents and children from the suffering unleashed here seven decades ago.
“Those who died — they were like us,” Obama said, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his side.
“We’re not bound by genetic codes to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story,” Obama said, urging the world to think of Aug. 6, 1945, “not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our moral awakening.”
It took less than three seconds to incinerate this city, but more than 70 years — and nearly eight for Obama trying to get here himself — for a sitting American president to arrive (Jimmy Carter was here after leaving the White House in 1984). A short visit grew longer as Obama spoke, and then as Abe followed him, echoing a speech by the president that was delivered in the cadence of a eulogy but had the script of a call to action.
“It is the responsibility of us who live in the present to firmly inherent these deep feelings,” Abe said.
Obama had no set meeting with survivors as part of the trip, but after speaking, greeted two of them who were seated in the front row. The second, 79-year-old Shigeaki Mori, who created a memorial for American prisoners of war killed in the blast, said he felt Obama wanting to hug him, so he reached in for an embrace.
“The 12 American soldiers who died must be looking down from heaven and feeling very happy to see this,” Mori said afterward that he told Obama, according to a translation.
Mori said that he and the other survivor who met Obama, Sunao Tsuboi — chairman of a group of survivors of the bombing — hadn’t realized they’d be meeting Obama, so hadn’t fully prepared mentally.
Asked what the president said to him in their long talk before the hug, Mori joked, “I knew that everybody would ask, so I tried to remember, but couldn’t.”
They feel the bomb in their guts here — literally, with the cancers that are blamed for still coming down through the chromosomes of people who survived the blast, but also in their collective memory and collective insistence that more be done to stop nuclear proliferation.
Obama arrived to complex circumstances: In many ways, this appearance closed the loop on his 2009 nuclear non-proliferation speech in Prague — when he called for a world without nuclear weapons — but then he was a president in his first year, looking ahead to all he hoped to do. Now he is a president in his last year, with only seven months left to deliver on any promises he might make, preparing to leave office with complaints that he hasn’t done enough to cut back America’s nuclear arsenal and knowing that North Korea is a greater threat than when he first got to the White House.
But instead of making the trip entirely about symbolism — as photo ops go, there’s not much competition for a shot of the American president standing in front of the memorial cenotaph, behind him the flame that officially is to burn until all nuclear weapons are eliminated and the iron frame of the dome that survived the blast — Obama tried renewing that forward-looking vision to go beyond his presidency and, he acknowledged, likely beyond his own lifetime to arrive at a nuclear-free world.
“The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well — that is why we come to this place,” Obama said. “We have a shared responsibility to look into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently.”
The speech and the lead up to it were tricky navigations at home and in Japan: how to express regret without coming anywhere close to the apology he was careful to avoid and that the Japanese government really didn’t want him to give.
If not for the memorial park, the museum with the mannequins with melted skin and the famous pocket watch stopped dead at the moment the bomb blew, and the haunting ruined dome overlooking it all, there would not be much in this city to suggest the complete destruction here just 71 years ago — what photographer Yoshito Matsushige, then 32, called “a vision of hell” of bloody babies calling for their mothers in his recorded survivor history playing at the museum.
Now Hiroshima looks much like any Japanese city, or city anywhere, and the growth continues, with cranes at new buildings visible beyond the A-bomb dome.
The excitement around Obama’s visit was evident, not just with the mass of Japanese reporters who crowded the site, but with such a rush of onlookers trying to take pictures with the wreaths after Obama left the site that 20-officer phalanxes had to rush in to disperse them for safety.
Meanwhile, Mori sat on smiling on a bench, his hands fiddling with his cane, answering question after question from reporters in Japanese.
“The president’s hand was very warm. It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “I suffered so much, so today was the best day that was given by America.”
“We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in the not-so-distant past,” Obama said. To mourn the dead, but also to hear their “souls speak to us and ask us to look inward, take stock of who we are and what we may become.”