First appeared on Blogcritics.
President Barack Obama visited the site of the first atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima, Japan, and by doing so became the first sitting United States president to go there. He took the opportunity to call for “a world without nuclear weapons.” This poignant moment at the center or ground zero of the blast, where now stands the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, resonates as something historical and reinforces the concept of “Never Again” that has been used many times before in regard to other incomprehensible events.
The symbolic significance of having this moment occur close to America’s celebration of Memorial Day – when we honor our men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country – cannot be overlooked. While we can think of the ruins and the catastrophic loss of life caused by that blast, we also recall Americans lost at Pearl Harbor and throughout the long and arduous years of World War II, causing both Japanese and Americans to understandably embrace the words “Never Again” with vigor.
21 years ago in August 1995 (the 50th anniversary of the blast) I visited Japan and went to Hiroshima. I missed the actual ceremony by several days, but in a way this gave me a chance to have a much more quiet and contemplative visit. It is overwhelming to stand there, to stare at the remnants of the former Museum of Science and Industry and the resilient twisted skeleton of its dome that was the only thing to survive the atomic blast, and think, “My country was responsible for this.”
However, as I sat and thought about so many lost lives, I also thought back over those fifty years to a young American soldier in Paris, France. My father, who spoke fluent French, was working with the forestry service to locate and disarm undetonated bombs in the region. One morning as he started to go out into the field, he was called into his commander’s office and was told the bad news – “Pack up, we’re all going to the Pacific to prepare for an invasion of Japan.”
When I spoke to Dad about this event years later, he showed me a photograph of him visiting the grave of a friend whom he lost on D-Day. Since he was part of that day’s events, Dad always recalled it as the worst day of his life. Now he looked at me with dry eyes and said, “Invading Japan would have required a hundred D-Days.” And as I stared at that photograph, I knew he also meant that the number of Americans who would have died would have been magnified beyond comprehension.
So when I went to Japan I had this story in my mind, knowing that when President Truman approved dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later, he probably saved my father’s life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers.
While I walked around the area of the memorial I came across a makeshift shrine, where origami messages were left along with some pictures of those who had died that fateful day. I saw a young Japanese man around my own age standing with an older woman, and they had left something on the scaffold and as they walked away they noticed me. I spoke to them for a time and the man told me that his mother had survived the blast as a little girl, and as we were talking I watched the woman’s watery eyes as she looked at me, and I started wondering if she blamed me.
Her son, who spoke fluent English, said, “She cries because of what our country did made your country do this to us.” He went on to say that there was more shame than blame, and that now “Japan loves America” and “America should love Japan. We have peace now.”
All these years later as I watched President Obama on TV, I noted that he said something about Japan and America having “not only an alliance but a friendship,” and that makes sense to me now, as incongruous as those words probably would have been to the young man back in Paris in 1945 who dreaded being shipped off to Japan.
Watching Mr. Obama placing a wreath at the memorial, I thought of the words that young Japanese man had said to me, and there did seem to be something serenely peaceful about the moment, a resonance that connected to what my father had said, “None of us wanted to go to Japan.” The only way my father would not end up kneeling before many more crosses – or having to lie beneath one – was when the unthinkable became a reality and we dropped those bombs, instruments of destruction that proved so frightening that (hopefully) no one would ever want to use another one again.
After President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke, Mr. Obama had an opportunity to meet Sunao Tsuboi and Shigeaki Mori – two of the blast survivors who were there for the ceremony. Later Tsuboi said that he held the president’s hand and they didn’t need an interpreter noting, “I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.” What a rare opportunity this moment captured – one of acceptance, understanding, and compassion.
My father is gone now, but I would have liked to hear what he had to say about Obama’s visit because I valued my Dad’s opinion more than anything. I have a feeling though that he would have liked the idea of promoting peace and closure after all these years, of taking a stand on wanting to prevent something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki from ever happening again anywhere in the world, because after what he had experienced, I know he never wanted anyone to ever have to go through that kind of horror again.
On Memorial Day we honor all those who didn’t make it home, and I count my blessings that my father lived through a war that many did not – all those men and women lying silently beneath those crosses in Europe and all over the world, those who never came home in order for us to still have one.
As Mr. Obama recognized the Japanese losses at Hiroshima and the event that caused them, there is a resonance for Americans who are remembering their own losses this Memorial Day weekend. We can symbolically join hands now with the Japanese and vow to work toward a world where nothing like that will ever happen, a world of peace for our children and generations to come where “Never Again” is a reality.
Photo credits: CNN