Obama's visit to Hiroshima should be informed by the words of Pope John Paul II

I once had a friend who worked in the White House writing speeches with the president. If he were there with President Obama today I would suggest that, as they prepare for Obama's historic speech at Hiroshima, they take a look at a talk delivered there in 1981 by Pope John Paul II.

Speaking to an audience of "distinguished representatives of science, culture and higher learning" of many nations and all faiths and none, the pope tried to give historic meaning to the atomic bomb attack 35 years earlier.

"The frightful wound inflicted on the cities of Japan that bear the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said, "affected the whole of the human family."

Humanity had made "a terrible discovery" he continued. "We realized with horror that ... this terrible weapon had been used, for the first time, for military purposes. And then there arose the question that will never leave us again: Will this weapon, perfected and multiplied beyond measure, be used tomorrow? If sο, would it not probably destroy the human family, its members and all the achievements of civilization?"

Thus the destruction of Japanese cities in 1945 posed the most basic of questions about moral responsibility.

Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.

"In the past" John Paul said, "it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country. Now, it is the whole planet that has come under threat. This fact should finally compel everyone to face a basic moral consideration: from now on, it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive."

For citizens as well as governments, everywhere, intelligent, dedicated peacemaking is required. "The task is enormous; some will call it a utopian one. But how can we fail to sustain the trust of modern men, against all the temptations to fatalism, to paralyzing passivity and to moral dejection? We must say to the people of today: dο not dοubt, your future is in your own hands. The building of a more just humanity or a more united international community is not just a dream or a vain ideal. It is a moral imperative, a sacred duty."

Today, 35 years later, such sentiments are rarely heard in our American civic discourse. Instead announcement of Obama's intention to make the first official presidential visit to Hiroshima led to questions about possible apology for using the bomb, another America-first debate, as if the United States is all that matters. Presidents are bound, of course, to think of America first, as President Truman did in 1945. As commanders in chief they worry most about the life and death of those entrusted to their care, most especially those called upon to kill and perhaps die for their country. And what is true for them is true for all of us as citizens, for whether our presidents make war or seek alternatives to it, they do so on our behalf. And their choices inevitably reflect the choices we make.

Hiroshima, and the brutal war it helped end, proved beyond doubt that security must be common or not at all. And, as John Paul said, peace must be desired, thought about, and worked for -- "conscious choice," "deliberate policy" -- or it will be nothing more than words. Nuclear non-proliferation is intimately linked, like it or not, to nuclear abolition, and both depend on finding alternative methods of securing justice. Pope John Paul placed the events of August 1945 in the context of humanity's long history of civil wars: for lovers of humanity all wars are civil. But the pope's historical imagination, better than most, embraced the future as well as the past and present. He used the memory of Hiroshima to raise the question of everyone's historical responsibility: how it all turns out is up to all of us.

At the end of the talk, Pope John Paul said that the heavy task of constructing "a more united international community" will require all of us to care for one another: it will require love.

In his vision, as in that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, immersed in the suffering of victims, love is not a sentimental feeling but a sometimes "harsh and dreadful" demand.

At the start of the war that the atom bombs helped end, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote that "we must love one another or die." Our president occasionally, like at a more hopeful moment seven years ago the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, risks a reference to the serious love we should have for one another. Never would such an appeal for love and what the pope called the "sacred duty" of peacemaking love requires, be more appropriate than at Hiroshima in 2016. May that love one day be what all Americans mean when they speak of what is first for America.

[David O'Brien is Emeritus Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.]


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement