Would Visiting Hiroshima Change Your View on the Atomic Bomb?

This week President Obama announced that he would be making a historic trip to Hiroshima—the first time a sitting American president has ever gone to the city since the 1945 bombing during WWII (Jimmy Carter dropped by, noted a photo on the wall of the city’s Atomic Bomb Museum…but it was three years after he left office). Although Obama has made it clear that he will not be apologizing for America’s actions, some are still concerned that visiting the city is an implicit apology (and, they say, that’s not acceptable, given they believe dropping the bomb precipitated the end of the war and saved American lives). A week ago, my husband and I did exactly that–visited Hiroshima and the city’s a-bomb memorial.

Visiting Hiroshima was…disturbing. To be honest, I hadn’t thought too much about Hiroshima since we learned about WWII in high school (although, of course, nuclear nonproliferation agreements do make the news). I remember the lesson back then being essentially that while the a-bomb did instantaneously kill 140,000 people in Hiroshima (and, due to radiation, more than 300,000 total over time, according to the Hiroshima museum), it was necessary to end the war.

Twenty years later, I was nervous to visit. Would the people there be angry? Resentful? Did they hate Americans (even if I personally had no say in the choice to drop the bomb)?

First, we found the city rebuilt and more—livelier than many other Japan cities we visited. People were extremely kind and cordial (although two times elder peeps—who are known for their impeccable manners—abruptly bumped into me…the only time it happened in Japan, even on the busy streets of Tokyo). There was even an international beer festival across the street from the memorial…we dropped in and had lunch.

Near the Hiroshima museum, three middle school-aged girls approached Olivier and me (they assumed we were American) to ask if seeing Hiroshima changed how we felt about nuclear weapons. A question that we discussed at length the rest of the day.

Seeing the Atomic Bomb Dome was moving. As Olivier noted, I don’t know how seeing it–and, for sure, living near it–could not make a Japanese person feel angry. The dome was almost directly under where the bomb was dropped; a busy market, many people died and most of the building was obliterated. Though because of the bomb’s trajectory part of the building—some brick walls, plus the skeletal metal outline of the stairwell and dome—remained. And after some debate the city decided to keep it as a memorial to the atrocities of nuclear weapons. The city’s stance: No one, anywhere, should have atomic weapons.

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome

At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum, the displays were almost too real to handle—singed school kids’ clothing scraps (middle school kids were sent out to clear the damage from the bomb days after it was dropped–and many died within weeks), blackened food in a tin lunchbox, the remnants of a tricycle, the actual spotted tongue of a man who died years later of cancer. One of the docents at the museum was careful to point out—twice—that it was the Americans and an American bomb that did this once he learned I was American.

Hiroshima after bombings

What Hiroshima city looked like after the atomic bombing

Did I walk away with a different perception of the atomic bomb and our decision to use it during World War II? It’s not that simple. I think most Americans would say that killing innocent civilians is wrong. Was it OK in this instance because it was war, and it needed to end? I can’t say. We do try to forbid chemical and biological weapons with relative success (so far fingers crossed…though it was used in Syria). The big question, would it be really possible to get rid of every last nuclear weapon everywhere?

A single big step the U.N. has taken is to forbid nuclear testing, which makes it much harder to conceal a nuclear arsenal (if you try to test a nuclear weapon–and you have to if you want to have a working nuclear arsenal–it’s really difficult), so that’s somewhat reassuring). What’s more, if you can’t test your arsenal, you don’t even know if the weapons still work (and they might not). Still–there’s a good chance they do. And, given the tensions between countries like North Korea or Iraq and the U.S., it seems impossible any nuclear country would be the first to totally back down and get rid of any weapons they have. It’s a classic example of prisoner’s dilemma.

Olivier brought up an interesting point–that is, in March Trump said that if he was president, he would stop funding the military to support Japan and other countries…let them get their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves. Would Japan do so, if it was forced into that corner? I wouldn’t blame them…even given Hiroshima’s staunch stance against nuclear weapons.

Most people, Republican or Democrat, say they’d agree nuclear weapons should never be used again. Still, I think everyone, if possible, should see the site where the bomb detonated to witness firsthand its aftermath. It makes the event infinitely more real. In some sense it did change my opinion on nuclear weapons, because it forced me to come face to face and think about the consequences. And that’s more than most of us can say we did with our current education on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


  1. Colleen,
    I finally got a chance to look at your blog. Have only been through the Hiroshima article as of now. I’m impressed, looks very professional! I want to see the things you are seeing. Seems like it must be a lot of effort to produce what you are writing, lots of background research. Nice job.

    Keep having fun, and say Hi to Olivier.

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