World Leaders In Hiroshima When Nuclear Tensions Are On The Rise

On August 6, 1945, following President Harry Truman’s orders, the Enola Gay, a B-29 aircraft, released an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This event led to the deaths of over 100,000 people, the city’s devastation, and accelerated the conclusion of World War II. As the 75th anniversary of the bombing approached, Joe Biden, who was campaigning for the presidency at the time, reflected on the horrifying images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stating that they “still horrify us.”

He emphasized that these events serve as a reminder of “the hideous damage nuclear weapons can inflict, and our collective responsibility to ensure that such weapons are never again used.” Now-President Biden is set to visit Hiroshima during the G-7 summit, where he and other global leaders will address various issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change, and the worldwide economy.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in Japan’s legislature, expressed his hope that the summit’s location would draw attention to the nuclear weapons threat. In this context, the leader of the nation behind the bombing will undoubtedly play a significant role in any commemorative activities. Former President Barack Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city in 2016, speaking at its Peace Memorial.

Although he did not apologize for the use of atomic weapons, he honored the victims and highlighted the importance of human institutions’ progress alongside technological advancements. He said, “Hiroshima teaches us this truth.” Jon Wolfsthal, who worked on nuclear proliferation during the Obama Administration, shared his experience of planning Obama’s trip and its emotional impact on the people of Hiroshima.

Biden’s visit, though different due to the G-7 context, still holds symbolic importance. As Wolfsthal noted, “You have a sitting U.S. president, a man with control over the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal, going to the place where nuclear weapons were first used. That has impact.” This visit comes at a time when nuclear tension is at its highest since the Cold War. North Korea’s missile tests and threats towards South Korea have led Biden to reiterate the U.S.’ commitment to defending South Korea with nuclear weapons. Additionally, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal, Iran is pursuing nuclear weaponry, and Russia remains a significant concern.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has worsened, putting the future of the New START nuclear arms control treaty, set to expire in early 2026, in jeopardy. Furthermore, President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials have consistently threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, prompting Biden to warn Putin of severe consequences.

Nuclear experts are stunned by this ongoing nuclear posturing. Susan Burk, who worked on nuclear issues at the State Department for decades and is currently on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that even during the coldest days of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviets maintained a substantive dialogue on nonproliferation issues. She finds it alarming that Putin frequently references Hiroshima and Nagasaki to highlight that the United States was the first to use nuclear weapons against another nation, stating, “The fact that it was done once doesn’t mean that it would be OK for someone to do it again.”

Burk is among those who have signed a letter urging Biden to seize the opportunity of his visit to Hiroshima to deliver a significant speech on nuclear threats. Jon Wolfsthal argued that regardless of when or where it occurs, Biden must soon outline a clear policy for de-escalating the various growing nuclear threats the world faces.  He questioned, “What is the policy that is going to tie these different pieces together? On China, on Russia, on North Korea, on Iran? On our own nuclear arsenal?”

A National Security Council spokesperson downplayed the possibility of a major nuclear speech during Biden’s visit, stating that he plans to “pay his respects to the innocent who lost their lives” and “reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.” However, they noted that the broader G-7 agenda remains the primary focus.

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