President Obama: Go to Hiroshima

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | July 10, 2015, 3:30 pm EDT
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On April 5, 2009, the newly elected Barack Obama gave a now-famous speech in Prague that focused on the threat of nuclear weapons. In it he gave “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He stated:

“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. … [A]s 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.”

Obama in Prague (Source whitehouse.gov)

Obama in Prague (Source whitehouse.gov)

Based largely on this call to action, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later in 2009. Almost exactly a year after the Prague speech—on April 8, 2010—he was back in Prague to sign the New START treaty with Russia, which cut nuclear arsenals and put back in place a strict verification regime that had been dropped by the Bush administration.

A loss of focus

But unfortunately the administration has dropped its focus on what steps the United States can and should take to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” as Mr. Obama said in Prague. To do this, the rhetoric must be matched by actual changes in U.S. nuclear policy and nuclear war plans, namely, in how the U.S. thinks about and plans to use its nuclear arsenal. As Commander-in-Chief, Mr. Obama can make these changes—without Congress, without Russia, and without weakening the deterrent posed by the large number of U.S. nuclear weapons based on submarines.

For example, the President should take U.S. land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove options from U.S. war plans to launch nuclear weapons based on warning of an attack. This option has led to the increased risk of a nuclear launch a disturbing number of times in past decades, and has been called for by high-level military and political officials—including President Obama.

He should also declare a policy of “sole purpose,” that is, make it U.S. policy that the only use for its nuclear weapons is to deter, and if necessary respond to, a nuclear attack. Today, the United States reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first.

He should require that the U.S. not develop new nuclear weapons, but instead refurbish U.S. warheads as they age to keep the U.S. deterrent credible. Currently the administration is proposing a new, untested warhead design that may lead to pressure on a future administration to restart nuclear testing. A resumption of testing would undermine the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Go to Japan

It’s time for President Obama to regain his focus on nuclear weapons and take steps in the remaining 18 months of his presidency to reduce Cold War thinking and reduce nuclear risks.

August 6 and 9 will mark the 70th anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We and other organizations and experts have sent a letter urging the president to go to Japan for the anniversaries, as a way of drawing attention back to nuclear weapons issues and making clear the president’s intent to take meaningful steps before he leaves office. More than 11,000 activists have joined this call by sending emails to the White House.

Going to Japan would be an important symbolic action. But taking the actions we’ve outlined above would be more than just symbolism—it would make the United States and the world more secure.

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  • Richard Solomon

    KUDOS to UCS and other organizations for encouraging the President to go to Hiroshima. Its symbolic significance cannot be underestimated.

    I believe he should use it,or some other occasion noting the 70th anniversary of the end of WW II, as an opportunity to do one other thing: to apologize to Japan for the use of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although these actions seemed warranted at the time, the death and long term destruction they caused to thousands of surviving Japanese civilians has been horrific. Such an apology would bring howls of protests by many Americans. But it would show the kind of courageous leadership needed to truly put these actions into a more constructive perspective.

    It might also nudge PM Abe of Japan to take more responsibility for Japan’s misdeeds in China, Korea, and other Asian nations during the War. Up to now Abe has avoided taking the next steps needed to truly make amends with Japan’s Asian neighbors. Perhaps if President Obama led the way, PM Abe would take heart and do something similar.

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