To Barack Obama from Setsuko Thurlow
August 6, 2016
In June Setsuko Thurlow was awarded the Arms Control Person of the Year Award and a group of us travelled to Washington DC to celebrate with her. During this time she met with Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s speech writer, who accompanied him to Hiroshima this past Spring. Setsuko and Ben had a friendly exchange of views, during which time she ask him to hand deliver a letter to President Obama. Although she left the envelope open so Ben could read the contents before passing it on, he declined stating: “I want the President to be the first to read you letter and I promise to have it in his hands by late this afternoon.” We still haven’t heard a response from Mr. Obama to Setsuko’s heartfelt critique of his Hiroshima speech and nuclear policy. While we wait, she wanted our ICAN colleagues to read the contents and see how each one of us inspires her continued passion and action for disarmament. – Kathleen Sullivan, Hibakusha Stories
Dear President Obama,
Since your historic visit to Hiroshima in May, several people have been asking me to share my thoughts. What would I have said to you directly if we’d had an opportunity to sit down and speak face to face?
The first thing that comes to mind that I would have shared with you is an image of my four-year-old nephew Eiji — transformed into a charred, blackened and swollen child who kept asking in a faint voice for water until he died in agony. Had he not been a victim of the atomic bomb, he would be 75 years old this year. This idea shocks me. Regardless of the passage of time, he remains in my memory as a 4-year-old child who came to represent all the innocent children of the world. And it is this death of innocents that has been the driving force for me to continue my struggle against the ultimate evil of nuclear weapons. Eiji’s image is burnt into my retina.
Many survivors have been passing in recent years with their dreams of nuclear abolition unfulfilled. Their motto was, “abolition in our lifetime”. The reality of our twilight years intensifies our sense of urgency, now met with stronger commitment. When you say: “it may not happen in my lifetime”, this gives us enormous grief.
I was not in Hiroshima when you visited, but I understand it was packed with media, and I could tell that of course your visit was carefully controlled and choreographed: who sat where; who were invited to approach you; the children and hibakusha who were hand picked by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. But still you came. Your speech was heartfelt but it avoided the issue. I know from my personal experience as hellish as all war is nothing can be equivalent to nuclear violence.
You said, “Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” To me your words echoed those of former German President Richard von Weizeker’s inspiring speech on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Germany’s surrender. Many Japanese people were deeply inspired by the manner in which he confronted the past and dealt with wartime atrocities with integrity, when he said, “We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion… There can be no reconciliation without remembrance.”
The Japanese Government should emulate this profound sentiment in confronting the past and dealing with our as yet unresolved relationships with neighboring countries, particularly Korea and China. Tragically, the current Abe Administration is seeking to expand Japan’s military role in the region and forsake our much-cherished Peace Constitution.
And in the United States, as you are no doubt aware, an unfortunate remembrance has been underway. The National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Unlike the memorials at Auschwitz and Treblinka, the United States seeks to preserve the history of the once top-secret sites at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, as a sort of celebration of that technological ‘achievement’. Among the first so-called ‘successes’ of this endeavor was creating hell on earth in my beloved Hiroshima.
Is this how we should ensure that the “memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade”?
As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb. A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud, dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air.
Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city. Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out.
Through months and years of struggle for survival, rebuilding lives out of the ashes, we survivors, or ‘hibakusha’, became convinced that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumane, immoral, and cruel atomic bombing. And it is our mission, to warn the world about the reality of the nuclear threat; and to help people understand the illegality and ultimate evil of nuclear weapons. We believe that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.
And still today, to paraphrase President Kennedy, the sword of Damocles dangles evermore perilously. Most experts agree that nuclear weapons are more dangerous now than at any point in our history due to a wide variety of risks including: geopolitical saber rattling, human error, computer failure, complex systems failure, increasing radioactive contamination in the environment and its toll on public and environmental health, as well as the global famine and climate chaos that would ensue should a limited use of nuclear weapons occur by accident or design.
Thus, we have a moral imperative to abolish nuclear arsenals, in order to ensure a safe and just world for future generations. As you said in Hiroshima, “we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”
Why then, with all due respect to you Mr. President, is the US government boycotting the United Nations disarmament negotiations born of the Humanitarian Initiative, the most significant advance for nuclear disarmament in a generation?
Within the last five years, I have witnessed the rapid development of a global movement involving states without nuclear weapons and NGOs working together to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. This movement has shown beyond all doubt that nuclear weapons are first and foremost a grave humanitarian problem, and that the terrible risks of these weapons cast all techno-military considerations into irrelevance. Following three International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons – inexcusably boycotted by your administration – 127 nations have joined the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. These nations are calling on Nuclear Weapon States and those who stand with them, to begin a process for nuclear disarmament.
To repeat the words of Richard von Weizeker: “We must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.” The truth is, we all live with the daily threat of nuclear weapons. In every silo, on every submarine, in the bomb bays of airplanes, every second of every day, nuclear weapons, thousands on high alert, are poised for deployment threatening everyone we love and everything we hold dear.
Last month in Japan you poignantly said: “That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here, 71 years ago.”
I beg you to reframe this profound sentiment to understand that the people we love, our smiling children, the embrace of loved ones, these precious moments and precious people are all under threat of annihilation because of the existence of nuclear weapons, and the policy of deterrence that you currently authorize and provide for nations under the US nuclear umbrella, including my home country Japan. This perversion, in its truest sense, means that the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack in war now seeks its own protection through far more diabolical hydrogen bombs. And you Mr. Obama, the only sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, came accompanied by a duty bound officer with the nuclear briefcase, should you need the codes to command a remote missileer to insert a floppy disc as a prelude to the end of life on earth.
If you truly wanted to hasten our “own moral awakening” through making nuclear disarmament a reality, here are three immediate steps:
1. Stop the U.S. boycott of international nuclear disarmament meetings and join the 127 countries that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to create a new legal instrument and new norms for a nuclear weapons ban treaty as a first step in their elimination and prohibition.
2. Stop spending money to modernize the US nuclear arsenal, a staggering $1 trillion over the next three decades, and use this money to meet human needs and protect our environment.
3. Take nuclear weapons off high alert and review the aging command and control systems that have been the subject of recent research exposing a culture of neglect and the alarming regularity of accidents involving nuclear weapons.
President Obama, you uniquely have the power to enact real change. This could be your legacy. To usher in an era of real disarmament where lifting the threat of nuclear war could ease all people to “go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child.”
Photo credit: Paule Saviano