Posts Tagged ‘non-proliferation’


Hiroshima, 6 August 2013


Today I had the opportunity to visit the site of the first atomic bombing, Hiroshima, and participate in the annual commemoration. Events began at 8:15am this morning, sixty-eight years after the world entered the atomic age. I have written and taught about the atomic bomb for more than a decade, but I never really understood the meaning of this powerful weapon until today. Everyone who thinks about international security, foreign policy, and nuclear issues should visit Hiroshima on August 6.


Numerous scholars have written excellent books about the American decision to drop the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the effects of the bomb on the ground, the geopolitical consequences, the distorted memories of the event, and the uses of Hiroshima for political purpose. The permanent museum in Hiroshima addresses these issues in a partial and often biased way, but that is to be expected.


The museum, the haunting Atomic Dome, and the Peace Park are not the things that moved me at the commemoration today. Nor did the speeches by the visiting dignitaries, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accomplish very much. Standard words about “suffering victims” and the “imperative for peace” did not have much effect.


What moved me was the assembly of young Japanese and Americans this evening around the site of the atomic blast. I have been to many demonstrations, but I have never seen anything like this before. Thousands of men and women below forty (I am on the borderline) decorated candles, made paper lanterns, and played music that evoked a shared hope for peace. There were no political slogans, no efforts to assign blame, no calls for easy answers. This was just a moment of supreme and sincere solidarity.


It was also a moment of deep Japanese and American friendship. The Peace Park was filled with Americans: students, military servicepeople, businesspeople, tourists, and parents. I have not seen so many Americans in Japan before. They walked side-by-side with Japanese they had never previously met, engaged in friendly but serious conversation, reflecting on the meaning of this moment.


None of this was organized or contrived. The young Americans and Japanese came to remember the tragedy of August 6. They enacted a common bond. The young Americans and Japanese also assembled to imagine a better future. They advocated a shared mission.


Again, there were no simple slogans or efforts to assign blame. There were no pretensions to easy answers. This was a moment of aspiration, an unscripted cross-cultural performance of young people who recognized the tragic history in Hiroshima and wanted to make it real for themselves. They made it real by transcending, at least for a moment, the angry arguments of politicians, pundits, and scholars.


The men and women who visited the atomic bomb site tonight took clear inspiration from a monumental tragedy to find new ways to come together. They modeled dialogue, civility, forgiveness, and cooperation because of what happened here sixty-eight years ago. They made a very dark history into a forward-looking light of hope. You could see it on their faces: solemn and hopeful, cautious and confident.


The time has come for historians, including this one, to re-write our histories of the atomic bomb. Here is what I will say the next time I lecture on this topic: On 6 August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, in hopes of ending the Second World War. The bomb caused enormous damage and suffering and it contributed to a Cold War. The experiences of the bomb, in both Japan and the United States, also brought these two warring societies together in startling, unpredictable, and enduring ways. The strength and depth of Japanese-American friendship since 1945 is a testament to how human beings can turn the worst weapons into catalysts for common action.


Contemporary leaders can learn a lot from this final insight. It was on display tonight, amidst all the partisan division in both Japan and the United States. Sometimes the best policy insights come from those who are concerned about the past, but not stuck in it.

This blog post originally appeared at


Leadership, like all historical phenomena, moves in cycles. Periods of boldness (think of the 1940s, the 1980s, and the early 2000s) are followed by years of very limited horizons (think of the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s.) We are living today in a time of terrible self-constraint. Our leaders face difficult economic, political and military challenges, but they are no worse than what their predecessors confronted. Remember the Great Depression, the Second World War, even the oil shocks and Vietnam War of the early 1970s? The problem today is that our leaders remain stuck in the low cycle of self-limitation. They just cannot manage to think big and turn our crises into opportunities.

What does this mean? If the history of the last century proves anything, it is that careful management of crises and political “muddling through” can only get you so far. The great leaders who made serious contributions to human betterment took calculated, bold risks in exactly the kinds of circumstances we face today. Franklin Roosevelt did not try to “manage” the Great Depression as Herbert Hoover had done; he took risks to transform the American (and world) economy. Winston Churchill did not try to “manage” British decline in the face of German Fascism; he rallied his people to rebuild their military and their empire. Ronald Reagan did not try to “manage” the Cold War; to the consternation of his advisors, he imagined and pursued a new form for superpower relations. Great challenges require grand visions, with a tolerance for some risk-taking.

Our global problems have become worse in the last year because our leaders at all levels of all societies lack vision, imagination, and the courage for calculated risk-taking. Republicans and Democrats in the United States cannot transcend their tired, counterproductive rhetoric about tax-cutting and entitlement protection. European Union leaders cannot escape the band-aid efforts to patch together a failing currency that must be re-made with more effective institutions. United Nations diplomats, especially those from Russia and China, continue to defend Iranian sovereignty as they watch that country pursue what everyone recognizes as a nuclear weapons program that will produce a regional war if it is not stopped soon.

We do not need to focus on politics alone. Take our “great” universities. Has anyone met a bold educational leader recently. The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University, following recent scandals at the University of Miami and Ohio State, shows that the presidents of the world’s wealthiest and most distinguished institutions of higher education are asleep at the wheel. Universities are hemorrhaging money from academics, but they continue to pour resources into glitzy athletic programs that overpay coaches, under-educate students, and frequently break the law. Boosters at the University of Miami hired prostitutes for players. A coach at Penn State abused young boys. The story continues but university leaders do nothing systematic. They meekly apologize and move on with more of the same.

It is not too late for bold leaders to emerge. It is not too late for new directions. It is not too late to proclaim that the evident failures in our inherited institutions and policies mean that we must try something serious and something new. That is the discussion Americans should have in the 2012 presidential election. That is the discussion Europeans should have as they contend with new national governments and a failing currency. That is the discussion the international community should have about nuclear non-proliferation, inequality, and education for a new century.

I am a historian so I remain confident that the wheel of time will turn again, producing bold (probably young) new leaders. That is why I like the “Occupy” movement, which is now spreading from urban downtowns to college campuses. The students in sleeping bags and tents do not have the answers, but they are asking the right questions. Why should we accept limited horizons? Why should we support failed institutions and unimaginative leaders? Can’t we do better?

I hope our most ambitious and talented citizens our listening. Now is their time. Now is their opportunity. A time of bold change is upon us.


This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.