June 15, 2016

Susan Southard is the author of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.

On Friday, May 27, 2016, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki since the end of the Pacific War in August 1945. After visiting the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum and laying a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Obama stood before a microphone, urging the world to remember the import and consequences of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in history.

Obama’s message is particularly relevant for Americans, who have not been adequately informed about—and who have mostly ignored and even denied—the suffering of the victims beneath the atomic clouds and in the seventy-one years since. The United States had used its newly developed nuclear weapons with little scientific understanding of their impact on the human body. Within weeks of the bombings, which had killed tens of thousands of civilians instantaneously, news reports in both Japan and the United States began to reveal the horrifying symptoms and deaths that were occurring throughout both cities due to whole-body, high-dose radiation exposure. By mid-September, however, General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. post-war occupation of Japan, imposed a strict Japanese press code that effectively suspended reports of the human effects of the bomb in both Japan and the United States until 1949.

After articles and editorials by U.S. scientists, journalists, and religious leaders appeared in the U.S. media questioning the morality and military necessity of using the bombs, U.S. government and military leaders began a campaign to quell opposition to the bombs. Their efforts culminated in Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s 1947 article in the Atlantic Monthly in which Stimson justified the deployment of the bombs. By virtue of his authority and careful (though extremely selective) reasoning, Stimson created a singular atomic bomb narrative with such moral certitude that it superseded all others and became deeply ingrained as the truth in American perception and memory: The atomic bombings ended the war and saved a million American lives by preventing a land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

This perception, and Americans’ memory of Japanese wartime brutality, still prevents many Americans from even acknowledging the survivors’ suffering as they navigated an uncertain future with punishing injuries, acute and late-onset radiation-related illnesses (including high rates of leukemia and other cancers), severe psychological suffering, and haunting fears that they would pass on genetic disorders to their children and grandchildren. Few Americans know about survivors’ efforts to fight employment and marriage discrimination, petition for health care support from their own government, or counter cultural norms to publicly tell their very personal stories in order to ensure that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the last atomic-bombed cities in history.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and President Barack Obama shaking hands at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima gives Americans permission to see the victims in ways we haven’t been able to before. As he held Japan accountable for its role in initiating the war, Obama also spoke to what Hiroshima and Nagasaki can tell us, if we listen. After his remarks, Obama embraced two of Hiroshima’s aging survivors. By doing so, he established at the highest rank in our nation the possibility for all of us to see beyond blame and dehumanization of the “other,” our former enemies, to understand the suffering—at our hands—of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who had no control over their country’s wartime choices.

It is time for our nation to look back, listen to and hear the stories of the only people in history to have experienced—and survived—nuclear war. By doing so we cannot help but at least question our choice to use the bombs—not because we are excusing Japan’s wartime atrocities or denying our nation’s passionate desire in 1945 to bring the war to an end, but because in grasping the truth of the survivors’ experiences, we see the enormity of their suffering, unprecedented in human history because of the instantaneous destruction wrought by single bombs and the effects of radiation exposure that continue to impact many survivors’ health today.

In looking back, the survivors’ stories personalize the realities of nuclear war. The United States has built a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy much of human life on the planet. Beyond deterrence, we seem to lack the imagination to understand the consequences of the use of even one nuclear weapon, intentional or accidental.

President Obama’s remarks, and the survivors’ stories, call us to a deeper intelligence, one that transcends historical outrage and allows us to understand where we have been, where we are now, and how we need to expand both our compassion and our imaginations in order to find new ways to resolve conflict without justifying the mass murder of civilians or, perhaps, destroying ourselves and our planet. The question at hand is: Are we willing and able to summon the courage and intelligence to do so?