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"Historic" Empty Suit Visits Hiroshima

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By William Boardman

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"Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner."

The sterile language of a detached president illustrates how far we are from facing the reality of our own government's deliberate atrocities. Hiroshima was certainly destroyed, abstractly, with "a terrible force unleashed" -- but by no one? In the president's passive parsing, it's as if he thought it was an "act of God." More honestly told: President Truman approved the atomic bombing of Japan, which was carried out on August 6, 1945, by a Boeing B-29 named Enola Gay, after the pilot's mother, that dropped a uranium-235 fission bomb cutely nicknamed "Little Boy" on a largely civilian city, killing an estimated 140,000 people (thousands of whom were vaporized without a discoverable trace, while thousands more died from radiation effects over ensuing years, a death toll made worse by US denial of radiation danger and strict censorship of any public discussion during the occupation). Hiroshima was one of the greatest military massacres in history, eclipsing American massacres of Native Americans by several orders of magnitude.

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In his initial announcement of the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman said, misleadingly, that the bomb had "destroyed [Hiroshima's] usefulness to the Army." In a radio broadcast three days later, Truman falsely characterized Hiroshima as "a military base." Hiroshima was not a military base, though it had some relatively unimportant military installations. Hiroshima was chosen as the A-bomb target in part because it had so little military significance that it was one of the few Japanese cities that had gone almost un-attacked by the daily American bomb runs. Because it was largely intact, Hiroshima was ideal as a place to demonstrate the A-bomb's total destructiveness.

The US chose an almost undamaged city full of civilians as the target that would best bring the Japanese to their knees. Now that is something to "ponder," as Obama suggested, but chose not to do. It doesn't take much pondering to begin to wonder whether incinerating thousands of civilians might not be a war crime. It would be, if it happened today. During World War II, the laws of war made it a war crime for armies on the ground to attack, harm, and kill civilians. The laws of war did not specifically apply to aerial warfare, and so all sides cheerfully murdered civilians from the air with the kind of legalistic self-righteousness only corrupt lawyers can create. That's why there were no war crimes trials for any of the horrendous bombings of the war -- Rotterdam, Shanghai, Coventry, Cologne, Warsaw, Tokyo, to name a few.

Are war crimes actually war crimes until they're illegal?

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The Anglo-American firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 burned tens of thousands of people alive, including mostly civilians and prisoners of war (one of whom was Kurt Vonnegut, who survived). The actual death toll is unknown, with good faith and politically-motivated estimates ranging from 25,000 to 500,000. The US firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed more than 15 square miles of the city. By any reasonable moral reckoning, all these air campaigns were war crimes, crimes against humanity in the most obvious sense. American history teaches us that World War II was a just war, "the last good war," and there's a case to be made for that. It was also, on all sides, a ruthless criminal enterprise.

None of this very real history was part of Obama's speech in Hiroshima. American presidents are not expected to be truthful, and would likely be crucified if they were. Once Obama acknowledged the "terrible force unleashed" out of nowhere by nobody, he shifted to a conventionally maudlin but politically shifty call "to mourn the dead," whom he listed by category. First he somewhat lowballed the Japanese dead, consistent with US policy for 71 years now. Then he mentioned "thousands of Koreans," a reference to Korean forced labor that would play well in Seoul if not Tokyo. And then he referred to those 12 "Americans held prisoner," for decades an official secret, in part because other POWs who survived were suffering from radiation sickness and the US government didn't want anyone to know about that.

Now the first sitting president of the US has visited Hiroshima, has solemnly visited a scene of American crime, and has been greeted with equally hypocritical solemnity by a Japanese government whose own hands are just as dirty and whose own current ambitions are as imperial as America's in Asia. Obama's speech would have you believe that that his goal is to "eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons" and to mark "the start of our own moral awakening." That doesn't fly when he's making nice with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose goal is to re-militarize Japan and eliminate all pacifist tendencies from its constitution. Obama is an enabler of Japanese militarization, not only for the sake of arms sales, but also as a "response" to China's agitation over US provocations under the strategic umbrella of Obama's "pivot to Asia."

Why does Obama address Hiroshima in the passive voice?

The conventional wisdom and mainstream media call Obama's trip to Hiroshima "historic" because he's the first US president to go there, not because there's anything actually historic about the visit. Politically, the Hiroshima event appears to be pretty reactionary on both sides. Before Obama in 2016, Richard Nixon went to Hiroshima in 1964, before he was president, and former president Jimmy Carter went there in 1984 when he, too, pledged to "eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of this earth." Early in his presidency in 2009 in Prague, Obama echoed this sentiment:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. [Applause.] I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can." [Applause.]

But this was only a sentiment, expressed in campaign rhetoric. America had made no such commitment, even if the president was sincere. America is a long, long way from making such a commitment. American presidents and candidates still talk about using nuclear weapons as if that were a sane option. Yes, the Obama administration negotiated a new treaty (START) in which the US and Russia each agreed to deploy no more than 1550 strategic nuclear warheads and bombs each. That's a cap, but a high cap. And it applies to no one else, leaving the UK, France, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, and even North Korea a rational basis for each having its own 1550 nukes. The US currently says it has 1528 warheads and bombs deployed, ready to use. The US also says it can "maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while safely pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the level established in the New START Treaty." [Emphasis added.]

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Both Bushes reduced nuclear weapons more than Obama

At its peak in 1967, the US had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads, both deployed and in reserve. By September 30, 2014, the total was 4766 warheads. This represents roughly a 10% reduction since Obama took office. Among other presidents, Reagan maintained the US nuclear arsenal at well over 20,000; George H.W. Bush cut the greatest number of warheads of any president (41% of more than 20,000); and George W. Bush cut the greatest percentage, 50% of slightly more than 10,000 when he took office).

To get Republican support for the START treaty in 2010, President Obama had to promise to improve and expand the US nuclear arsenal in other, creative ways. Obama's nuclear "modernization" plans, insofar as they're known, will cost the US an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years (more than $30 billion a year). "Modernization" includes things like nuclear-tipped cruise missiles or new, "smaller" bombs that might be politically easier to use. By today's standards, the Hiroshima bomb is "small." (Nuclear modernization is also intended to upgrade "a command and control unit tasked with coordinating the operational functions of the nation's nuclear forces [that] still uses 8-inch floppy disks and runs on an IBM / Series 1 computer " first produced in 1976" even though the Pentagon says "it still works.")

Factors like these -- the slow pace of reducing redundant weapons and the willingness to risk a renewed arms race with nuclear "modernization" were enough to arouse one Democratic senator -- but only one, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts -- to criticize the president:

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Vermonter living in Woodstock: elected to five terms (served 20 years) as side judge (sitting in Superior, Family, and Small Claims Courts); public radio producer, "The Panther Program" -- nationally distributed, three albums (at CD Baby), some (more...)
 
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