My Turn: Obama should listen to and learn from Hiroshima survivors

  • In this Aug. 6, 1945, photo, smoke rises 20,000 feet above Hiroshima, Japan, after the first atomic bomb was dropped. On two days in August 1945, U.S. planes dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, one on Nagasaki, the first and only time nuclear weapons have been used. Their destructive power was unprecedented, incinerating buildings and people, and leaving lifelong scars on survivors, not just physical but also psychological, and on the cities themselves. AP file

  • President Obama talks at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 1. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2016 12:20:15 AM

News that President Barack Obama is considering a trip to Hiroshima brought back memories of meeting him on his first trip to Concord, early in his presidential campaign. Given a heads-up that the Illinois senator was headed for the Eagle Square Deli, colleagues and I went there in time to order lunch, find a table and wait for his still small entourage.

Obama worked the room, escorted by Ann McLane Kuster, then a local attorney, now our Representative in Congress. When he reached our table I asked the senator a critical question about “free trade” agreements, but that’s a story for another day.

As Kuster was trying to get him to the next table, Erin Placey, my 24-year old colleague, grabbed Obama’s hand for a shake. Once she had his attention, Erin said she wanted to know if Obama would pursue the abolition of nuclear weapons should he become president.

Obama responded quickly that he had dedicated considerable attention to halting nuclear proliferation, but Erin was not satisfied.

“Under Article 6 of the Non Proliferation Treaty,” she said in no uncertain terms, “we are obligated to work for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

The former law professor was a bit taken aback by Erin’s directness and the specificity of her statement. He let on that he needed to look into it more deeply.

Look into it he did.

Six months after meeting Erin Placey in Concord, Barack Obama delivered a speech at DePaul University where he pledged, “Here’s what I’ll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.”

Five days later, Erin Placey saw Obama again at an apple orchard campaign stop in Londonderry. By then, she had been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a delegate to the World Conference on Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. There, she met peace activists from all over the world, including several “Hibakusha,” as the survivors of the atomic blasts are known in Japan. The Hibakusha, dwindling in numbers as the years pass, are the moral leaders of a movement that demands nuclear weapons must never be used again and must be abolished.

For Erin, who grew up in southern Maine with family members employed at the local nuclear submarine base, the trip had a profound effect.

“Thank you so much for your comments at DePaul, and also for your comments about applying and adhering to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” she told Obama in Londonderry. She continued to say how moved she had been by meeting with Hibakusha and learning first-hand about “the horrible atrocities that they went through.”

After taking office as president, Obama still seemed to be paying attention and took his nuclear-free vision to the world stage. In a much-heralded speech in Prague, Obama told the world, “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Despite a promising start, the president has not lived up to his stated commitment. He did complete negotiations and won ratification of the New START Treaty, which achieved modest reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. He initiated a series of “nuclear security” summits aimed at lessening nuclear dangers. And against serious political odds he reached a deal with Iran that can prevent another country from joining the nuclear “club.”

But instead of continuing on the path toward “a world without nuclear weapons,” his administration is now backing a trillion-dollar plan for an entirely new generation of nuclear warheads, along with new bombers, submarines, and missiles that could deliver them to targets across the globe. “When Obama stopped pushing his nuclear policies in 2011 (save for Iran), the nuclear-industrial complex took over,” Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund commented in a recent article.

Speaking recently at MIT, former Secretary of Defense William Perry said, “The danger of a nuclear catastrophe is higher today than at any time during the Cold War.”

“It may not be too late,” Cirincione says. “Before a new arms race begins in earnest, Obama could move to delay or cancel some of the new weapons, notably the new nuclear cruise missile and the new ICBM, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry urges. There is no shortage of other recommendations. But he will have to be bold, as bold has he was at the beginning of his presidency.”

And that brings us back to Erin Placey.

Erin still wants Obama to have an experience like the one she had in Hiroshima 10 years ago. “Don’t just visit ground zero,” she wants to tell him. “Spend time with the people. Make time to meet publicly and privately with the A-bomb survivors, the Hibakusha. Allow your soul to be moved by their lifelong, unwavering commitment to ensuring that this level of human atrocity never happens again.”

“Allow your resolve to be strengthened by theirs and use your remaining time in office to get us back on the path toward a nuclear free world,” Erin advises.

(Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program.)




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