Barack Obama made history on Friday, making the first ever visit by a sitting US president to Hiroshima, where he emphathised with the victims of atomic bombing but left the city reduced to rubble by an American bomber almost 71 years ago without offering an apology.
“Years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” Obama said at the city where 140,000 perished in the first ever use of nuclear bomb on August 6, 1945.
“A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city, and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself,” the commander-in-chief of US armed forces said about the event, which still remains in the realms of unsettling history and unresolved debate.
As expected, the Nobel peace prize winner called for an end to nuclear weapons, something he tried hard during his Presidency with some amount of success.
Writing in the guest book at the Hiroshima peace park, he urged for summoning the courage to “spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
Many visitors swarmed around the Hiroshima park to meet Obama, who was accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior officials such as US national security adviser Susan Rice. Obama paid tribute to the dead at the cenotaph in the park.
“Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become,” Obama said during his 20-minute speech.
“It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. Our early ancestors having learned to make blades from flint and spears from wood, used these tools not just for hunting but against their own kind”, he said. “And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.”
Days after the Hiroshima attack, a second US atomic bomb in Nagasaki killed a total of 80,000 which led to the surrender of Japan and end of second world war.
Discussions on various themes had raged in Japan and US ahead of Obama’s much-anticipated visit. “That (nuclear bomb) was weapon of war. I thought it saved my life, and I think it saved millions of Japanese lives”, Jerry Yellin, the US fighter pilot who flew the last combat mission during the Pacific war, told Japan Times on Thursday.
Obama said that the wars of the modern age teach technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. “The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well”, he said.
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell ... we listen to a silent cry,” said Obama, who also visited the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, south of Hiroshima, before arriving at the peace park.
Abe called Obama’s visit courageous and long-awaited. He said it would help the suffering of survivors and echoed the anti-nuclear sentiments.
“At any place in world, this tragedy must not be repeated again,” Abe said.
The visit presented a diplomatic tightrope for a US president trying to make history without ripping open old wounds.
Critics believe Obama’s mere presence in Hiroshima will be viewed as an apology for what they see as a justified attack. But he has also drawn praise from those who see it as a long overdue gesture for two allies ready to bury a troubled past.
Obama’s remarks showed a careful awareness of the sensitivities. He included both South Koreans and American prisoners of war in recounting the death toll at Hiroshima — a nod to advocates for both groups that publicly warned the president not to forget their dead.
Obama spoke broadly of the brutality of the war that begat the bombing, but did not assign blame.
After his remarks, he met with two survivors, but his remarks to the aging men were out of ear shot of reporters.
At one point, Obama could be seen laughing and smiling with 91-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, and he embraced Shigeaki Mori, 79, in a hug. But mostly, Obama just listened the men as they spoke through an interpreter.
The visit was meant to demonstrate the strength of the US-Japanese alliance, and Obama and Abe took each step together. The men walked along a tree-lined path, past an eternal flame, toward a river that flows by the domed building that many associate with Hiroshima.
They went to the lobby of the peace museum to sign the guest book: “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama wrote, according to the White House.
The president’s call for a nuclear-free world was a far cry from the optimistic rallying cry he delivered as young, newly elected president. Obama did not employ his campaign slogan — “Yes, we can” — as he did in a speech in Prague in 2009. Instead, the president hoped for the “courage to escape the logic of fear” and spoke of diligent, incremental steps.
Those who come to ground zero at Hiroshima speak of its emotional impact, of the searing imagery of the exposed steel beams on the iconic A-bomb dome. The skeletal remains of the exhibition hall have become an international symbol of peace and a place for prayer.
Bomb survivor Kinuyo Ikegami, 82, paid her own respects at the cenotaph on Friday morning, well before Obama arrived, lighting incense and chanting a prayer.
Tears ran down her face as she described the immediate aftermath of the bomb.
“I could hear schoolchildren screaming: ‘Help me! Help me!’“ she said. “It was too pitiful, too horrible. Even now it fills me with emotion.”
Han Jeong-soon, the 58-year-old daughter of a Korean survivor, was also at the park Friday.
“The suffering, such as illness, gets carried on over the generations — that is what I want President Obama to know,” she said. “I want him to understand our sufferings.”
Obama’s visit is a moment 71 years in the making. Other American presidents considered coming, but the politics were still too sensitive, the emotions too raw. Jimmy Carter visited as a former president in 1984. (With inputs from AP)