President Obama has been compared with a number of former presidents, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. But on Friday morning, when he spoke in Hiroshima of forging a future “that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted,” he renewed a connection between his presidency and that of a predecessor who finished his service before Obama was born: Dwight David Eisenhower.
The 44th president has, as did the 34th president, used his bully pulpit to speak of what Eisenhower referred to as “the chance for a just peace for all peoples.”
Eisenhower’s presidency began with a speech on the cost of war, when he explained in 1953 that
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Eisenhower’s presidency finished with a speech on the need to strengthen civilian checks and balances against a war-based economy that might warp the domestic and foreign policies of a republic. He opened with a warning from James Madison: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” More than 150 years later, Eisenhower observed that “we annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations,” and counseled that
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Eisenhower was no pacifist. But his words earned him the enmity of the right wing of his Republican Party. As a man whose background as a general had done much to make him president, however, he believed it was necessary to question unthinking militarism.
Obama is no pacifist. But, with speeches throughout his tenure, he has advocated for alternatives for war in ways that have earned this Democratic president the enmity of a Republican Party that is a good deal more extreme than in Eisenhower’s time. As a man whose opposition to an unnecessary war did much to make him president, however, he has continued to speak of the prospect for peace.
That is what he did as the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, where he began a remarkable address by recalling the day when an American atomic bomb fell on the city: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
Obama delivered a speech that challenged not just other leaders and other nations but his own administration and his own nation to do more to avoid that destruction.
“The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well,” Obama said. “That is why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow. 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.”
Obama’s critics attacked his visit with language as harsh at that once directed at Eisenhower. “Obama’s shameful apology tour lands in Hiroshima,” read the headline of an article by former ambassador John Bolton.
At the same time, Obama has been prodded by advocates for nuclear disarmament, such as Peace Action’s Paul Kawika Martin, who notes that
The President has taken the important steps of completing the New Start Treaty, the Iran agreement, limiting the role of nuclear weapons and several Nuclear Security Summits. At the same time, his administration has proposed the largest increase in spending on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in recent history—$1 trillion over 30 years. Additionally, during his term, the reduction of US nuclear weapons has been the least since post cold war. President Obama has six months to solidify his nuclear legacy and ensure that his early Nobel Prize was deserved. This historic presidential visit to Hiroshima by Obama needs to be followed by historic nuclear weapon reductions.
Like Eisenhower before him, Obama in Hiroshima acknowledged the challenge of promoting peace in a world where so many countries are prepared—and preparing—for war. “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them,” said Obama, who explained,
We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.
And yet that is not enough. For we see around the world today how even the crudest rifles and barrel bombs can serve up violence on a terrible scale. We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.
That recognition of a common humanity echoes Eisenhower’s talk of “a just peace for all peoples.”
This is as powerful a message now as it was at the dawn of a Cold War that has never quite finished. What distinguishes Obama from Eisenhower is that Obama’s presidency is not done. In the months ahead, this president will encounter many chances for peace. He should seize them, because he is right about the people of this country and all countries: “They do not want more war.”