August 6, 1945 — the effective end of World War II in the Pacific, the beginning of the long cold era of international nuclear threats even amid the horrific suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States is the only nation in human history ever to use a nuclear weapon. The weapon ended a long and terrible war, thus leading many people to justify its use even today. But the “A-bomb” also inflicted such awesome death and destruction on the Japanese people that subsequent generations of Americans, including successive presidents from both parties, have felt the urgent need to exert leadership to ensure that no nation ever again uses nuclear force.
Sadly, American amnesia was on display today throughout the media — while some of the major news outlets ran what seemed like obligatory stories on the 70th Anniversary moment, most media gave headlines and far more attention to the second-string presidential debate circus or the end of a popular television comedy show.
Hundreds of thousands of Japanese perished in an instant in Hiroshima that day, and days later in Nagasaki. Millions of lives in all nations around the world were lost in World War II. Whether the United States acted morally, whether we saved more lives by taking this terrible step, whether there was another solution — where is our ethical sensibility nearly three-quarters of a century later at least to pause, reflect, have a real debate about means and ends, war and peace — a real debate, and not some synthetic confection whipped up to amuse viewers like the fictional people in the Capitol watching the Hunger Games?
50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy — a World War II veteran, a war hero, still a young man holding out great promise for the future of the world — spoke at American University about the imperative of forging a peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union. Fresh from the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which nuclear annhiliation was a genuine threat for both the U.S. and Soviets (in 1963, we American school children practiced air raid drills by hiding under our desks, little good that would have done…), President Kennedy was intent on establishing the framework for international peace and security. He laid the foundation for the nuclear test-ban treaty and detente with the Soviets. His speech — as most of his speeches — is brilliant, a complete lesson in rhetoric and persuasion, the beauty of well-chosen words and linguistic effectiveness. His speech is even better on film, hearing his voice and seeing his passion in the delivery. In that speech he said:
“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace – – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living — the kind that enables man and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – – not merely peace for Americans by peace for all men and women – – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” (President John F. Kennedy at American University, June 10, 1963, Address on Nuclear Detente with the Soviet Union)
It’s not about the U.S. — US! — chest-thumping and sabre-rattling. It’s about making the world a better place for all people across all generations to come. How little we hear of that today in the political rhetoric of our time.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama also spoke at American University on the topic of nuclear arms and peace for all times. He deliberately chose the place to echo Kennedy’s ideals and legacy. But the threat of nuclear weapons remains all too real in today’s world, more worrisome because of the emergence of rogue states and terrorist organizations that respect no treaties or moral structures. The nation of Iran has posed a grave threat to world peace by harboring terrorists and building its nuclear capacity. The Obama Administration has spent years trying to find a way to move Iran back from the brink of disaster, to bring Iran into the modern world in a way that fosters peace and security. President Obama has brokered an agreement with Iran to diminish its nuclear capacity and to restore its economic engagement in trade relations. But many opponents find the “deal” unacceptable because they are not convinced we can trust Iran, and particularly in Congress where it seems everyone is running for president, the mood continues the preference for confrontation and war that started after 9/11 and continues in some places today.
President Obama responded to the critics in his speech:
“We live in a complicated world — a world in which the forces unleashed by human innovation are creating opportunities for our children that were unimaginable for most of human history. It is also a world of persistent threats, a world in which mass violence and cruelty is all too common, and human innovation risks the destruction of all that we hold dear. In this world, the United States of America remains the most powerful nation on Earth, and I believe that we will remain such for decades to come. But we are one nation among many.
“And what separates us from the empires of old, what has made us exceptional, is not the mere fact of our military might. Since World War II, the deadliest war in human history, we have used our power to try to bind nations together in a system of international law. We have led an evolution of those human institutions President Kennedy spoke about — to prevent the spread of deadly weapons, to uphold peace and security, and promote human progress.
“We now have the opportunity to build on that progress. We built a coalition and held it together through sanctions and negotiations, and now we have before us a solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, without resorting to war. As Americans, we should be proud of this achievement. And as members of Congress reflect on their pending decision, I urge them to set aside political concerns, shut out the noise, consider the stakes involved with the vote that you will cast.
“If Congress kills this deal, we will lose more than just constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, or the sanctions we have painstakingly built. We will have lost something more precious: America’s credibility as a leader of diplomacy; America’s credibility as the anchor of the international system.
“John F. Kennedy cautioned here, more than 50 years ago, at this university, that “the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war.” But it’s so very important. It is surely the pursuit of peace that is most needed in this world so full of strife.” (President Barack Obama, August 5, 2015 at American University) (watch the speech)
We must insist on working for peace. Forging pathways to disarmament, using all diplomatic means to create sound opportunities for peace — these are the characteristics of the genuine moral leadership we need so urgently. Sadly, in spite of thousands of years of proof that war only wreaks havoc on human life and progress, we still have to sit through debates about guns (the domestic version of keeping the stockpile stoked) and war. True leaders take the risk to do something about waging peace. We need to expect every leader to be that kind of risk-taker.
On this 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima, I would like to extend Trinity’s greetings and good wishes around the globe to our sister schools in Japan — Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Notre Dame High School in Hiroshima. As I write I can hardly believe it’s been 20 years since I had the honor of visiting those remarkable schools. The Sisters of Notre Dame started their ministry in Japan in 1924, and the schools thrive to this day. I was particularly moved when I visited the school in Hiroshima — the scars of August 1945 are still visible, and yet, what a magnificent place, what a great gift of hospitality and welcome I received from the SNDs and teachers there.