For the past 64 years the name "Hiroshima" has conjured a nightmare vision for all humanity: the unthinkable specter of instantaneous atomic annihilation. Only by personally visiting Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the two cities that have experienced atomic bombing, can one begin to grasp the threat posed by the world's present arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Just one bomb, dubbed "Little Boy," devastated Hiroshima in a split second. By comparison, the potential destructive power of the more than 20,000 nuclear warheads deployed or stockpiled today by the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India and Pakistan gives bizarre new meaning to the term "overkill" — and proliferation continues.
Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S. puts nuclear weapons in the hands of Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Israel is widely believed to have its own arsenal, North Korea has a test program, and R&D in Iran and reportedly Myanmar threatens to further destabilize already volatile regions.
Today, who does not fear even a single atomic bomb in terrorist hands?
While Hiroshima illuminates the world's darkest forebodings, it is also a beacon of hope — a witness reminding us at every opportunity that nuclear weapons must never again be used. Hiroshima's citizens stand certain in their knowledge of what the "atomic option" really means, and insist that our planet must be nuclear-free, a truth beyond politics or the ideology of nationalism.
This message is now global: Mayors for Peace, a Hiroshima/Nagasaki- initiated international network of local authorities campaigning for the elimination by 2020 of all remaining nuclear weapons, is supported by more than 3,000 cities in 134 countries and regions. Every visitor to Hiroshima and its Peace Museum comes face to face with a history from which we must all learn — or risk repeating.
Who better to visit Hiroshima, witness its message firsthand, and speak to the world's nuclear fears, than the commander in chief of one of the world's largest nuclear-equipped militaries?
Now, as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Japan on Nov. 12 and 13 offers him an unprecedented opportunity to build already-established momentum toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.
If Obama were to speak from Hiroshima (as no other sitting U.S. president ever has), this would allow the entire world to imagine a future no longer held hostage by fears of cold war, nuclear winter, or nuclear terrorism. As Obama has stated, political will and support for a nuclear-free world first requires imagination. An address from Hiroshima would be bold, historic and compelling.
Obama's groundbreaking April 5 speech in Prague — mentioned by many speakers at memorial events in Nagasaki and Hiroshima this past summer and widely reported in the Japanese media — shows just how closely attuned he is to the essence of Hiroshima's viewpoint:
"Now, understand, this matters to people everywhere. One nuclear weapon exploded in one city — be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague — could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be — for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.
"Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable."
Obama showed his determination to confront this vital issue Sept. 24 by chairing a head-of-state U.N. Security Council session that unanimously passed an unprecedented resolution for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. As yet, Hiroshima is not known to be on the U.S. president's November Japan itinerary. He already has, however, received an open invitation from Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, thousands of Hiroshima's schoolchildren and many hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors).
Such a visit would be well-timed: It would appeal to Japan's eagerly progressive new administration, which has just swept the country's long-dominant conservative Liberal Democratic Party out of office. It would signify to the international community that the U.S. once again embraces a more farsighted and responsible role in international diplomacy.
It would demonstrate at a crucial juncture that the U.S. recognizes the horrific potential of nuclear weaponry (as President Harry Truman showed in his restraint during the Korean War) and is ready to join others, both in Japan and worldwide, in making much-needed efforts to eliminate that threat.
A November "Hiroshima Address" need not dwell on the circumstances of the past. More constructively, it could affirm the potential for everyone to learn from Hiroshima's experience and move decisively toward a nuclear-free future. Here is an opportunity to truly change history, dwarfing even U.S. President Richard Nixon's journey to China — an embodiment of "the audacity of hope," to which millions around the world have responded, and still yearn for.
President Obama, fulfill the promise of your Nobel Peace Prize — speak to the world from Hiroshima!