An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President,

In April, you will be embarking on a trip to Asia. Clearly one of the most important decisions you face is whether or not to visit Japan. One could conclude that if you do choose to visit Japan, it will be a sign of support for the nationalistic, far right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a chance to promote a trade deal that appears to be NAFTA on steroids, and part of your overall grand "Asia-Pacific pivot," which includes a larger military presence in the region.

Mr. President, I am asking that instead of bolstering Abe's embrace of militarism, you visit Japan for another reason. This April will be five years since your Prague speech. It was in the former Czech Republic that you stated:

As 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... Let us bridge our divisions, build upon our hopes, accept our responsibility to leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it. Together we can do it.

Like you, I have advocated for nuclear disarmament for years. As Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute (NSI), I, along with Director Peter Kuznick annually take students from around the country to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to explore Japanese wartime aggression, the human and physical devastation wrought by the atomic bombings, and the current efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. Our students, along with others from Japan, Korea, and China hear from professors, policy experts, hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), and Asian victims of Japanese atrocities, attend commemorative ceremonies, and visit various peace museums throughout Japan.

I still remember what it was like in Hiroshima the summer following your Prague speech. Hiroshima's former mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, one of your staunchest supporters, was so inspired by your words that he coined the phrase "Obamajority" for antinuclear activists who shared your vision. Every time I mentioned I was from America, a Japanese citizen smiled and said, "Obamajority!" On the morning of August 6, I was walking through the Hiroshima peace park and met a Japanese man who handed me a stack of letters to send to you (which I did). One supporter wrote: "I've read the whole of your speech at Prague... I do want to join your honest pursuit of peace. We must ignore the voices who tell that the world cannot change. Please come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and let me join your voice for peace and progress: Yes, we can." Another read, "Mr. President: I am 76 years old. I have grandchildren, many relatives, friends, and good neighbors. For their happy safe lives, I will do my best and will continue to work for the peace of the world. I am really happy to hear your speech, which had made me feel invincible."

Support for you only increased when you signed the new START treaty, held multiple nuclear summits, got numerous countries to give up their nuclear weapons making materials, and sent Ambassador Roos to the ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

This past August however, support for your policies decreased considerably. From the conversations I had with students, citizens, and hibakusha, it is clear that much of their disappointment was due in large part to your proposals to spend billions of dollars modernizing our nuclear arsenal, ordering multiple subcritical nuclear tests, and of course our military buildup in the region under the banner of the "Asia-Pacific pivot."

I write all of this because Mr. President you have a real opportunity coming up in April, and the way I see it you have three choices. You can play it safe and skip Japan altogether, which I am sure some in your inner circle are currently advising. You can meet with Abe and prove right those who argue you favor military aggression and big business. Or you can visit Hiroshima. While I may be in the minority, I believe that abolishing nuclear weapons is still one of your biggest goals as president. If I am correct, then why not visit Hiroshima? Former Ambassador Roos stated he thought you would visit Hiroshima before you left office. Now is the time Mr. President. You no longer have to worry about reelection. Yes, your critics will call you weak. But they do that now anyway. Indeed, when Ambassador Roos visited Hiroshima, Gene Tibbets, son of Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets, immediately attacked you and described it as an "unsaid apology." There will always be those who refuse to admit that visiting Hiroshima and honoring U.S. troops who fought valiantly in the war are not mutually exclusive.

Last summer, I asked an atomic bomb survivor the same question I have asked so many others since your election: "If you could talk to President Obama what would you say?" He responded, "I would just ask him to visit and tell him never again. No apology is needed. Just eliminate nuclear weapons."

I will be returning to Hiroshima this August. However, I know this year, like last, there will be considerably less of the hibakusha to meet with my students. They are dying Mr. President, and for many their last wish is a world without nuclear weapons. Mr. President, please visit Hiroshima in April. Thank you.

Vincent Intondi

Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of African American History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book on Stanford University Press, Links in the Same Chain: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Global African American Struggle for Freedom, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.