You might say Steve Leeper knows something of the highs and the lows.
As chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, he’s responsible for management of the city’s peace museum, which recreates the experience of the city’s atomic bomb survivors with graphic displays and images of the horrific reality of nuclear warfare.
He’s also the man behind much of Hiroshima’s unique push to propel world peace efforts. Organizing seminars with survivors, he has helped spread their message of forgiveness and global cooperation around the world.
The first American to hold his position, Leeper is also intimately involved in Mayors for Peace, which has grown to include nearly 5,000 cities in 151 countries since he served as its North American director in 2002.
NCR spoke to Leeper in his Hiroshima office Aug. 7, just a day after the city’s annual commemoration of its 1945 destruction by a U.S. atomic bomb.
In a 90-minute conversation, the activist and museum director reflected on the unique message the city’s atomic survivors have for the world, and how it can be used to engender a new “peace culture.” Following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
NCR: As an American, visiting Hiroshima can be very difficult. There’s an obvious sense of guilt, or at least profound sadness, at its destruction. What perspective do you think an American brings to your role?
Leeper: Well, the last mayor of Hiroshima always said that this city does not walk the path of revenge and retribution. We are only interested in reconciliation. We are not even looking at the past. We are looking at the future; we are looking for nuclear disarmament.
If the house is burning down -- as the world is, so long as it continues to have nuclear weapons -- you don’t start arguing about who set the fire. First you get out of the house, then you can talk about who set the fire and things like that.
I am a physical embodiment of this fact that Hiroshima is not into revenge and does not hold a grudge. They do not see America and Americans as the problem. The problem is the war culture and the problem is nuclear weapons. The problem is how to avoid violence and especially nuclear violence.
There are many who are still alive who survived the atomic bombing. As the survivors get older and pass away, what impact do you think their testimonies will have?
The experience of those who know what an atomic bomb did to this city is the driving force for the effort to get rid of nuclear weapons. There is no city in the world that puts more time and effort into peace, and especially nonnuclear peace, than this city. That’s made possible by the awareness of the population of the importance of that.
It’s interesting. Mayors for Peace has allies in about 5,000 cities, but the ones that are most committed are almost all cities that were destroyed by war in one way or another. Ypres, in Belgium, where we have our international secretary, was the first city to be destroyed by chemical weapons. The whole city was knocked out.
In November of this year, we will have an executive conference in Grand Marnier, Spain. It was one of the first cities to experience an aerial bombing. One of our sister cities is Chong Quin, China, another one of the first cities to experience an aerial bombing. They were totally wiped out by Japanese bombing.
I think once a city has had an experience like that, there’s this kind of consciousness that what happened to us is not just something that happened to us. It’s something that is a threat to human survival on the planet and we need to do something about it. It shouldn’t happen again. That is really why Hiroshima does what it does.
The further we get from it, the less powerful is the memory. It’s definitely weakening and we are in a very dangerous time now because the antiwar forces are weakening.
We are really deciding right now whether we’re going to get rid of nuclear weapons, including American ones, or if they’re going to spread all over the world, especially to the Middle East.
That’s why Mayors for Peace is doing an emergency campaign to ban nuclear weapons. I personally am pretty optimistic about that, but the problem is that, at the grass-roots level, nuclear weapons aren’t seen as such a big concern. If you go out to people, even most of the people in this city of Hiroshima are totally unconcerned about this. They say it’s not a problem. The Cold War ended. Nobody’s going to be using nuclear weapons. What are you worried about?
How do you try to get people to think about this or to engage this?
We need a global campaign for a nuclear weapons convention. It will have to be one that gets going and gets signed whether the U.S. and Russia like it or not. It has to be that way. Costa Rica and Malaysia have been asking for this for 16 or 17 years, but most countries and even quite a few [nongovernmental organizations] have been against it.
They’ve been against it because they say, “What’s the purpose of a treaty if you don’t have Russia and the United States in it?” But the whole purpose is what we just said. Do you remember the land mine ban in the ’90s? That campaign turned land mines into public enemy No. 1. We had Princess Diana on the TV all the time talking about how land mines were so bad.
We were in newspapers and magazines. It was a big deal to get this land mine convention and that created a consciousness or a conventional wisdom that land mines are bad and the people who use them are bad. All of a sudden, even though the U.S., China and other producing states hadn’t signed, and still haven’t signed, the production and use have gone way down. The de-mining efforts have gone way up.
Yet we’re having not enough of an effect at the international level, even though 177 nations vote to get rid of nuclear weapons whenever there is a chance to do that. We are not able to turn it into a negotiated process. We’re not even able to turn it into a treaty because we don’t have a country to lead the process. Only countries can do that and everybody knows that.
The problem is that the natural leader on this, Japan, is not leading. Japan should be doing this. Japan is the natural, obvious one. It has been bombed. It has the peace constitution. It has three nonnuclear principles. It is best friends with America. It’s got a huge amount of business with China. It has a pretty good relationship with Russia. It does business with everybody.
If Japan were to say, “Yes, we need a nuclear weapons convention,” 170 countries would sign the next day. It would be no problem. We need Japan to do that, so that’s the focus of our Mayors for Peace campaign.
You have something of a unique perspective, as you can speak to both the American and Japanese experience with nuclear weapons. What you would say the Japanese perspective has to say to the American perspective on continuing investment in nuclear weapons programs?
Well, I do not think of it as American and Japanese. In fact, all around the world, this issue is a deeply divisive issue in all countries. It’s not like Japan wants something and America doesn’t. In America, there are very strong forces for abolition now, even in the Pentagon. All the retired admirals and generals come out every few years and talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons.
Rather, I think of it in terms of peace culture and war culture.
The civilization of power is the pursuit of power and dominance, the competition to see who can be the boss, and aligning yourself up according to power relationships. The civilization of love has an emphasis on making sure everybody is happy, making sure that everyone is communicating and we are all working to make heaven on earth here.
These two different approaches to the world are what I think is the fundamental structuring issue that human beings are dealing with now. The war culture people are still very concerned about dominance and they want to be controlling the oil, the water, the land, labor and markets. They want to increase their wealth and power because that’s how you establish and maintain dominance.
We are not into that now. We are peace people. Peace people are trying to make the world into a place where everyone is happy.
War culture people will talk about discipline. It’s a total disconnect between these two groups because they have an entirely different attitude about what the problem is and how to solve it.
One good analogy I heard is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. At first, the butterfly cells are perceived as foreign by the caterpillar cells, so they attack them and kill them. Then the butterfly cells become too numerous and they can’t. The butterfly cells eventually transform the caterpillar and turn the whole thing into a butterfly.
This is basically what’s happening here, I think. We are gradually evolving, and more and more people are becoming peace people. The difficult thing is to fight in a way that embraces people, and shows them how beautiful the movement is.