Tragedy and crisis bring out the best in Barack Obama. He was elected in part because of his eloquence in the face of the 2008 financial meltdown. He soared in the wake of the Newtown School massacre and after the shooting that gravely wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona.
If the moment of suffering happened over six decades ago, he can still tap that well of empathy and compassion. It was perhaps preordained that before leaving office he would visit the site of the single most profound act of destruction by the United States of America, Hiroshima in Japan, obliterated by the atomic bomb dropped by Harry Truman on 6 August 1945.
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell,” he declared after laying a wreath in Hiroshima’s Memorial Peace Park on Friday. “We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry.”
“Death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” he went on. “The flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
He used the moment not explicitly to offer an apology – although his partisan critics at home instantly saw it as such – but to reprise the call he first made in Prague in April 2009, at the start of his two terms in office, for the world to work towards ridding itself entirely of nuclear weapons.
“We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons,” he wrote in the park’s guest book before meeting two survivors of the atomic blast that killed 140,000 people. A second bomb was dropped three days later in Nagasaki, killing 70,000 more. Together they forced a Japanese surrender.
After Prague, some accused him of talking utopian nonsense; the Nobel folk saw fit to award him the Peace Prize. Then and again in Japan Mr Obama was sufficiently connected to reality to acknowledge that a nuclear-free world might not happen in his lifetime.
“This is a distant goal, and we have to take specific steps in the interim to meet this goal,“ he said in his Prague speech. ”It will take time. It will not be reached probably even in our own lifetimes. But in seeking this goal we can stop the spread of nuclear weapons, we can secure loose nuclear weapons, we can strengthen the nonproliferation regime.”
“We may not realise this goal in my lifetime but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe,” he said again in Hiroshima. “We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles.”
You can argue over whether the country with the largest stockpile in the world is best or worst placed to make such a call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Was Mr Obama guilty of inspired leadership in Prague and in Hiroshima or of twisted hypocrisy?
He was seen hugging and smiling with the two survivors, 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi and 79-year-old Shigeaki Mori, (reporters were too far removed to hear what was said), but those with the keenest eyes might have spotted the military attache who is never far away when an American president travels. He is the one carrying the so-called “Nuclear Football”, actually an armoured briefcase containing the codes for a president to authorise a nuclear launch.
Mr Obama’s record since Prague demands a mixed grade. He has convened regular nuclear security summits – notably on keeping dirty bombs from terrorists – as promised, the latest of them in Washington DC this spring. In 2010 he signed a significant a treaty with Russia obliging both countries to reduce their stockpiles to 1,550 strategic warheads each.
Yet, Mr Obama has also not shied from approving programmes to upgrade America’s nuclear capability at a likely cost of $1 trillion over three decades. It will include the building of a new fleet of nuclear warhead-carrying submarines, 12 of them, while the Air Force is working towards a new nuclear stealth bomber. (Likely cost: $55bn.) Also envisaged are new nuclear Cruise missiles and a replacement for the 1970s-era Minuteman III missiles.
Maybe this is merely necessary maintenance of a nuclear deterrence that has precisely spared the world another Hiroshima. Or perhaps it illustrates the raw reality of America’s love affair with nukes exposing the emptiness of the President fine rhetoric in Japan on Friday.
If he had really meant it, he might have summoned that military attache, cut the cable attaching the “football” to his wrist, and tossed it into the eternal flame that burns in the Peace Park.
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