The Debate

Obama’s Hiroshima Speech: A Missed Opportunity

Despite Obama’s talk of a nuclear-free world, he has overseen one of the largest modernization programs in U.S. nuclear history.

Obama’s Hiroshima Speech: A Missed Opportunity
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

As the first sitting American president to visit and speak at Hiroshima, site of the first wartime usage of nuclear weapons, Barack Obama’s every word will be thoroughly parsed for meaning. While American far-leftists and conservative Japanese groups are agitating for an apology, the White House has tried its utmost to sidestep questions of morality and decision making. Instead of re-litigating history, then, Obama’s speech will hopefully be a rallying cry for an international liberal system besieged by revanchist challengers, and will otherwise “honor the memory of all innocents who were lost during the war.”

However eloquent the president’s speech and commemoration may be, though, this historic occasion does not arrive without considerable irony. Obama has often paid lip service to reducing America’s bloated nuclear stockpile, having signed the “New START” arms reduction treaty with Russia and lent his voice to the  quixotic “Global Zero” movement. For all of Obama’s talk of a “world without nuclear weapons,” though, the upcoming Hiroshima speech comes in the midst of one of the largest modernization programs in U.S. nuclear history — a program expected to touch every warhead and delivery system and projected to cost up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years.

While some of the new systems like the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) will be dual-use, other aspects of the modernization program, like the tens of millions being spent to expand the Oak Ridge Uranium Processing Facility, hundreds of billions for an Ohio-class replacement submarine (SSBN(X)), and life extension programs for every warhead, represent a continued commitment to maintaining the status quo, systems-wise. For a president who has quite clearly staked much of his legacy on counterproliferation and other nuclear issues, the vast modernization program and his continuation of the Bush administration’s pursuit of a working ABM system severely undercut the president’s declared attempts to change U.S. nuclear policy, a claim he is sure to repeat at Hiroshima.

This double-dealing extends to U.S. nuclear strategy as well. While Obama will surely leverage Hiroshima’s unique and tragic history to relay the horrors of nuclear weapons to the world, much of American nuclear doctrine is still mired in Cold War-era bromides. Just as it was during the twentieth century, the entirety of America’s land and sea-based ICBM fleet is ready to launch within ten minutes, and the last U.S. nuclear posture review (the only one of Obama’s tenure), the document meant to provide a broad overview of the importance of nuclear weapons to America’s defense policy, contained mostly cosmetic changes. While the review did promise a refusal to build new varieties of weapons like the proposed “nuclear bunker-buster,” and did renounce first use against non-nuclear states in compliance with the NPT, there was nothing to suggest a shift in U.S. ICBM or SLBM alert level or a blanket renunciation of first strikes. Much of Obama’s nuclear proselytizing reeks of this hypocrisy, both on a systems and doctrinal level.

There is little to indicate that Obama’s Hiroshima speech will carry with it a decisive change to either America’s nuclear strategy or nuclear delivery systems. Aspects of the trillion dollar modernization initiative have already begun, and large ticket weapon systems like the LRS-B, SSBN(X), and new air-launched cruise missile tend to attract vociferous support from the congressmen whose districts construct and house them. Politically, it would be unwise for Obama, with only months to go in his presidency, to launch a major review of America’s deterrence strategy worldwide with the goal of establishing so-called “minimum deterrence” or another radical shift that may eliminate a leg of the nuclear triad. Such a move would undoubtedly encounter tremendous opposition from both Congress and members of the expert community, who would find the notion of a lame-duck president altering long-held tenets of American nuclear policy outrageous. While Obama did campaign on a pledge to remove ICBMs and SLBMs from high alert status, this promise has entirely fallen by the wayside. With no indication from the White House communications team that either systems or American nuclear doctrine will be a topic of the president’s speech, it would seem that the Hiroshima visit will bookend eight years of window-dressing alterations to America’s nuclear policy.

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In spite of this missed opportunity to utilize Hiroshima’s solemn place in Atomic Age history to announce major changes to U.S. nuclear doctrine, the visit will still have tremendous importance. Only two or three generations after the United States and Japanese Empire were locked in a war for superiority over the Pacific, the visit will strengthen the alliance between the former belligerents. Obama’s move will also give political currency to alliance managers (and politicians) who have been angling for a prime ministerial visit to Pearl Harbor. While the United States and Japan have done much to further concretize the political-military aspects of the alliance, a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Pearl Harbor would be a reciprocating gesture that illustrates how both nations are approaching not just a shared political understanding of stability in the Asia-Pacific, but a common view of history as well. Given Abe’s impeccable rightist credentials, the Hiroshima visit will further inoculate him against conservative critiques of a trip to Pearl Harbor, just as conservative critics of the comfort women deal have been unable to land truly damaging attacks on the accord or Abe himself.

Though Obama’s trip to Hiroshima will play an important part in strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, the fact remains that the trip will be the final chapter in a series of failed promises and half-measures regarding America’s nuclear policy. Obama’s refusal to confront entrenched congressional interests in the nuclear modernization programs and his reluctance to modify nuclear doctrine will be a jarring contrast to the sure-to-be sweeping vocabulary he will use at Hiroshima. For a president who has for better or worse prided himself on challenging the “conventional wisdom” of foreign affairs, the juxtaposition in Hiroshima between rhetoric and record will reveal a leader whose nuclear policy has done little to chip away at the status quo.

Ben Rimland is an MPhil student in the Modern Japanese Studies department at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he researches maritime security and East Asia defense issues. He tweets at @brim1and.