- Kai BirdPulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist. He and co-author Martin Sherwin won the Pulitzer Prize for their book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
President Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima since U.S. warplanes dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. The bombing killed 140,000 people and seriously injured another 100,000. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 74,000 people. Speaking at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Obama offered no apology for the bombings but called for a world without nuclear weapons. “Among those nations like my own that own nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them,” Obama said. Despite his call for an end to nuclear weapons, the United States has been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. We speak to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kai Bird, co-author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to global news about Japan and the United States. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, President Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima since U.S. warplanes dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. The bombing killed 140,000 people; another 100,000 were seriously injured. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 74,000 people. Obama spoke today at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, but offered no apology for the bombings.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky, and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself. Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in the not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking in Hiroshima, President Obama went on to call for a world without nuclear weapons.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil. So nations and the alliances that we formed must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics. And yet, that is not enough, for we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mindset about war itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite President Obama’s call for an end to nuclear weapons, a new study by the Federation of American Scientists has determined the Obama administration has reduced the nuclear stockpile at a far slower rate than any of his three immediate predecessors, including George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. In addition, the United States has been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades.
To talk more about President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, we’re joined by Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist, co-author of the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Kai, thanks so much for being with us from Miami. Start off by responding to this historic trip, President Obama the first sitting U.S. president to go to Hiroshima. President Carter did, but that was after he was president.
KAI BIRD: Well, thank you, Amy. I’m very glad to be here on your show. And I’m actually quite excited that Obama made this decision to go to Hiroshima. It’s really an extraordinary thing for an American president to go to this site. And while he offered no apology, his presence there, his mere presence in Hiroshima, is an implicit acknowledgment that something terrible happened. And, yes, he is a very complicated and contradictory president. And he’s radical in some ways. He calls for a nuclear-free world. And on the other hand, as you just pointed out, he can—in his presidency of more than seven years now, he has reduced the number of U.S. nuclear warheads by about 13 percent. And many of us think, you know, we need far fewer than the 4,500 warheads we have today. And, yes, he’s engaged in a modernization program that is going to be very expensive and dangerous. So, he’s a very contradictory president. But going to Hiroshima and speaking the words that he spoke today is a real step forward to try to emphasize the danger of these weapons.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about that speech, and I really encourage people to read the text of the speech, the full text, because it really seems to me one of the most eloquent speeches he’s ever given. It’s almost as if he’s deciding, in his final months in office, he’s got to have a Gettysburg-like speech to take down in history, because it really does talk about the dilemma of war throughout civilization, but at the same time, as we’re saying, there’s this enormous contradiction between the words and the actual actions.
KAI BIRD: Exactly. You know, he’s a very cautious president in some ways, very pragmatic, and yet always eloquent in these situations. He understands the symbolism here. His instincts, I think, are correct. But he understands, as a pragmatic politician, that you wade into this issue with great caution as a U.S. president, because it’s such a hot button. Even 71 years after we obliterated Hiroshima with one bomb, the notion that we should apologize, the notion that it was a bad decision, is still extremely controversial.
You know, more than 20 years ago, I was involved in this horrendous debate over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian, which, you know, just harshly divided the country. And yet, that exhibit, I’m still wounded by what happened there. Four million Americans went and saw that exhibit, and it was filled with lies. It was censored. You know, real history—you know, they censored the words of, for instance, President Dwight Eisenhower, who was a critic himself of the decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima. And yet, at the time, the American Legion and the Air Force Association had such political power that they could force our National Museum to censor Eisenhower’s own words in an exhibit.
So this is a very hot-button issue. And so, we—you know, for that reason, I’m encouraged that Obama went to Hiroshima and spoke eloquently about the nature of these weapons of mass destruction and what they can do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in terms of that, the whole issue of the lies, the main myth that you have tried to unmask or expose is that if not for the dropping of the bomb, the war would have continued, that the bombs ended World War II, at least in terms of the fight with the Japanese.
KAI BIRD: Right. And, you know, Obama, when he was about to go to Hiroshima, he said, “I’m not going to offer an apology.” He was very explicit about that. He said, “That is—that historical incident, that—what happened in Hiroshima, the decision to use the bomb, I will leave that for the historians.” Well, you know, 70 years later, the historical consensus, looking at the documents and all the evidence from both sides, has really shifted enormously. And we now understand that the decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima was a redundant thing. It was not necessary. What really persuaded the Japanese emperor and the military generals around him to surrender was the entry into the war of the Soviet Union. They feared the Bolsheviks invading the Japanese home islands. And that’s really—that was the tipping point. So the bomb was redundant and, ultimately, unnecessary.
And by using it, though, we legitimized the use of nuclear weapons. And by legitimizing nuclear weapons, we made ourselves, for the last 50 years, 70 years, extremely vulnerable. And we are very lucky that these weapons have not been used on a third occasion in anger. And people forget that the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, within three months of Hiroshima, was saying things like, “If we continue to go down this road and rely on nuclear weapons and they are used again someday in war, people will curse the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” And so we’re still living with that threat.
AMY GOODMAN: And that issue of this dropping of the—a second atomic bomb three days later, after 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, 100,000 wounded, on August 6, August 9, 1945, dropping that second bomb, Kai Bird?
KAI BIRD: Well, yeah, there’s enormous controversy over that, too. Why the second bomb, and so quickly after Hiroshima? Well, one of the answers is that Harry Truman, the president at the time, didn’t even know that a second bomb was going to be used so quickly. He had given his acquiescence to the use of the bomb. It was General Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, who decided on the timetable. And Hiroshima happened on August 6, and they wanted—Groves wanted to use the second bomb, which was a different—a technically different bomb. So there were two different types of bombs, and he wanted to, in effect, test both. And, you know, three days was not enough for the Japanese emperor and the military establishment there to respond. They had no idea really what had happened in Hiroshima. It took them days to absorb the news and fathom what had happened. And, in fact, you know, their decision to surrender came when the Soviets entered the war just a few days later. That was the tipping point.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And briefly, if you could tell us the enormous regret that Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, had about what his invention had led to?
KAI BIRD: Well, Oppenheimer was a very complicated man, and he himself never, quote, “apologized” for the bomb. He never apologized for quantum physics, for his role in inventing the bomb. He thought that this science was inevitable, the scientific journey of discovery to understand our world, our physical world, was inevitable, and that what he did was, you know, inevitable and a part of the human journey of self-knowledge. But he very quickly—you know, again, within months of Hiroshima, he was giving speeches, which shook the military establishment in Washington, saying things like, you know, this bomb was used on an essentially already defeated enemy. Now, you think about that. That’s a very striking thing for the father of the atomic bomb to acknowledge, just within months of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the bomb was used on an essentially defeated enemy.
AMY GOODMAN: And—
KAI BIRD: So he was acknowledging there that it was not necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Kai Bird, his famous quoting of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds”?
KAI BIRD: Yes, well, Oppie—that was his nickname—you know, he was a polymath. He studied quantum physics, but he also loved French poetry, and he also loved the Hindu Gita. He learned Sanskrit so that he could learn it—read it in the original. And so, a few weeks after Hiroshima, when a New York Times reporter asked him what he had thought—and I think they caught this on camera, too—the words popped into his head from the Gita: “I am Death, destroyer of worlds.” And so, he will be forever remembered with that phrase from the Gita.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Kai Bird, for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, journalist, co-author of the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Go to our website at democracynow.org, when we broadcast from Japan several years ago and went to Hiroshima, taken around by a Hiroshima survivor. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by yet another survivor, Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Stay with us.