As Obama Makes Historic Visit to Hiroshima, Scholars Urge Action to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Posted May 25, 2016

MP3 Interview with Paul Kawika Martin, political and communications director with Peace Action, conducted by Scott Harris


Barack Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack during the waning days of World War II. Obama, who will be in Japan for a G7 Summit meeting, will tour Hiroshima on May 27, the city where an estimated 140,000 civilians died after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. A second American nuclear bomb targeted the Japanese city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Japan surrendered less than one week later.

The president says that his visit to Hiroshima will emphasize the friendly ties between former enemies, but that he would not apologize for America’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan’s civilian population. While a majority of Americans see the bombings as justified to end the war and save lives – a view disputed by many historians – most Japanese believe that the use of atomic weapons wasn’t justified, according to opinion polls.

In response to the president’s announced visit to Hiroshima, more than 70 prominent scholars and activists, including Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Oliver Stone, signed a letter calling on Obama to take concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament during his remaining months in office. Some of those signatories oppose the president’s support for spending $1 trillion over the next three decades to build a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris interviewed Paul Kawika Martin, communications and political director with Peace Action, who talks about the significance of Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, and the letter calling on him to take action to move the world closer to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

PAUL KAWIKA MARTIN: This is the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. It is a big deal for the Japanese. If you look at any Japanese media, they're going crazy over there about this visit. They celebrate this and commemorate this very intently with tens of thousands of people attending the commemorations in August. And they have expectations of what this might mean to them, so it will be interesting to see exactly what Obama's remarks are and what he does over there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Paul, your group, along with more than 70 scholars and activists signed a letter in support of the president's trip to Hiroshima, but called upon him to use his remaining months in office to take substantive action to move the world closer to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Maybe you could talk about this letter and specifically what you and the other signatories want the president to move towards while he's still got some time in office.

PAUL KAWIKA MARTIN: Sure. I mean, the president deserves praise. Not only this trip, but he also put together and pushed forward through the Senate the passing of a new START treaty. That reduced the number of strategic warheads in the U.S. and Russia. Both have now (limits) to like, 1550. He also pushed through last year, the Iran agreement. That has put Iran from having the capabilities of possibly putting together a crude nuclear weapon in three months to now over a year, plus having verification and monitoring of their nuclear program, which will keep them from having a nuclear weapon in the immediate future. He's also held a number of nuclear security summits that have done things to close the loop on loose nukes and nuclear materials to make sure it doesn't get into the wrong hands. That's all great.

On the other hand, the administration has been putting forth a plan to upgrade all of our nuclear warheads and all the delivery systems – bombers, submarines and missiles – to the tune of about $1 trillion over the next 30 years. So on one hand, he's saying let's get rid of these things and have a world free of nuclear weapons, but on the other hand, we're funding, upgrading and building them into the indefinite future. Certainly a couple of steps he could take would be one, let's reduce that funding. He could start with the simple thing, which is funding to try to build a new nuclear cruise missile – it's called the long-range stand-off missile – that could be cut in some sort of way. I mentioned our strategic warheads, many in the military say we could say can get down to 200, 300, 400 strategic warheads and still have a deterrent. So he could cut and put a challenge to Russia to also cut, but he could go easily from 1,500 to a 1,000, which the Pentagon has already approved for even deeper cuts there. That's something he could do. And a lot of people don't know that we still have our warheads set on something called "hair-trigger alert," which means if we think that we're being attacked, the president could actually launch a nuclear weapon within about 10 minutes. That puts a lot of pressure on someone; this hair-trigger alert's also in Russia. Mistakes that happen where we've actually thought that we're being attacked here in the U.S.; at one point where actually the (Russian) national security adviser to (Leonid) Brezhnev was about to call the (U.S.) president and found out it was actually a false alarm. So there's several of those of things that have happened so he could take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.

And lastly, we also have several thousand warheads called "reserve" in case something goes wrong with a warhead, you could replace it. We really don't need several thousand to replace 1,500; we could start dismantling. Some number of things he could do to push us towards going to zero: also reaching out to Russia. Even in this hard time of our relations between us and Russia – something that Russia might even agree to and actually could help our relations with us and Russia – is to reach out for some sort of other agreement. So there's a long list of things that he can do; we hope that he at least talks about one or two of these in the coming weeks and actually takes actions before he leaves office.

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