The Hiroshima Speech Obama Won’t Give


The Japanese national flag flutters at half-staff at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in western Japan on August 6, 1998.ENLARGE
The Japanese national flag flutters at half-staff at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in western Japan on August 6, 1998. PHOTO: REUTERS

The White House said this week that President Obama will visit Hiroshima during his visit to Japan later this month, setting off speculation about what he would say in the city where America used the atomic bomb to end World War II without an invasion. Here’s the speech we don’t expect Mr. Obama to give—though he’s more than welcome to it.


It is with mixed emotions that I stand before you today. Seven years ago, in Prague, I committed my Administration to the goal of bringing about a world without nuclear weapons—a cause I have championed since my student days. My country has since sharply reduced its nuclear arsenal through the 2010 New Start treaty with Russia, and my Administration has negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran. We have organized regular summits on nuclear security. And we have toughened international sanctions on North Korea after its nuclear tests.

Yet a nuclear-free world seems further out of reach today than when I entered office. As I near the end of my Presidency, I feel obliged to tell you how I think I went wrong.

I should begin by saying that the problem has not been a lack of good intentions. Though you have rebuilt your city from the ashes of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are permanent reminders of the incredible destructiveness of even rudimentary atomic weapons. Even those of us who believe the use of these bombs was necessary to bring a swift end to a terrible war, thereby saving American and Japanese lives, are mindful of the awful price the fission blasts exacted on tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

As President, I have no greater responsibility than to work for a world in which these weapons will never be used again—or fall into the wrong hands. At our recent nuclear-security summit in Washington, we obtained commitments from countries around the world to reduce their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and to better safeguard nuclear materials that might otherwise be stolen, sold to terrorists, and used in dirty bombs.

Unfortunately, as I’ve learned the hard way, a nuclear-free world cannot be achieved merely through summits and the good will of democratically elected leaders. On the contrary, it seems that every time democracies seek to disarm, autocratic regimes accelerate their military designs.

North Korea continues to make strides toward miniaturizing an atomic warhead that can fit atop ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan and the United States. Despite my effort at a diplomatic reset, Russia has tested intermediate-range cruise missiles in violation of its treaty obligations, and it may soon withdraw from the 1996 nuclear test ban to field a new class of weapons. China is in the midst of an extensive nuclear modernization, as is India.

Pakistan has significantly increased its nuclear arsenal, despite that country’s internal volatility. Our deal with Iran has not stopped it from testing long-range missiles whose likeliest military purpose is to deliver a nuclear warhead. Prominent Saudis have discussed acquiring their own nuclear weapons.

These are facts that prudent leaders cannot ignore. Instead of moving toward a nuclear-free world, we seem to be entering a second nuclear age of more destructive bombs in the hands of more dangerous regimes. The Cold War involved one arms race between my country and the Soviet Union. Now we are looking at a world of regional arms races: in the Middle East, South Asia and perhaps even here in East Asia. The potential for miscalculations, accidents or sudden escalation is growing.

Intellectual honesty compels me to admit that arms-control agreements have done little to prevent this. President Clinton believed his 1994 deal offering economic aid for disarmament promises would prevent North Korea from getting a bomb, but it failed. I would like to think my deal with Iran won’t suffer the same fate, but that’s no certainty. Some countries can’t be trusted to keep their word, especially when they pay a negligible price for breaking it.

I also placed too much hope in my belief that, by slashing America’s arsenal and deferring investment in nuclear modernization, other countries would do the same. Instead, the U.S. now has an aging and possibly unreliable stockpile of weapons while adversaries race ahead. My successor will have to make a nuclear upgrade a priority, assuming we intend to maintain a safe and credible deterrent.

But perhaps my biggest mistake was thinking that the central problem of nuclear weapons is the weapons themselves. The real question is the character of those who possess them. Nuclear weapons pose no threat to global security when they are held by mature democracies such as the U.S. and Great Britain. They are dangerous when dangerous regimes get them. I hope I offend nobody in this audience when I say it’s a blessing that in 1945 it was the United States, and not its enemies, that had the bomb. And let’s never forget that my great Democratic predecessor, Harry Truman,used the bomb to end a war we did not start.

People of Hiroshima: We live in a nuclear age, and it would be dishonest to pretend that we will soon return to a time when we didn’t. The responsibility of democratic statesman isn’t to promote dreams about a nuclear-free world, as I once did. It is to ensure that nuclear weapons serve the purposes of deterrence and peace, not terror and war. It took me the better part of my Presidency to learn that lesson, but I hope my successors learn from my experience.



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