Hiroshima: Anniversary of Armageddon

09/01/2010 09:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. sent its first official delegation to a ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima last month, but I have my own story about how another group of Americans reacted to the cataclysmic and horrifying devastation caused by the first nuclear weapon unleashed against a civilian population.

It was 14 years ago, on June 12, 1996, a day every bit as hot and humid as in Washington, and I was finishing up a 10-day speaking tour that had taken me from one end of Japan to the other when I encountered a group of some 60 young Americans who, like me, were visiting Hiroshima for the first time.

They were Marines from the Third Marine Expeditionary Force who had just arrived in Japan for a one-year tour of duty at the nearby Iwakuni Marine Base. They were wholesome-looking young men and women I met at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum at the epicenter of the explosion that killed some 140,000 people three days before a second atomic bomb killed some 80,000 people at Nagasaki.

I asked one of them, a young woman, for her impression of what we had just seen. "It makes me very sad," she replied. Then I noticed one of her male comrades writing a message in the book where visitors were invited to offer their comments. Being a nosy journalist, I waited until he left and then copied down his words.

"Peace is not a thing to achieve through treaties or governments," he wrote in uneven penmanship. "The city and people of Hiroshima have the deepest soul and biggest heart possible. Thank you for showing the world what peace means."

I had met dozens of Japanese from all walks of life during my visit to Japan and had heard many different opinions and concerns about U.S.-Japanese relations. But it was my encounter with the young Marines at the A-Bomb Dome that made the greatest impression on me.

As I wrote in The Hill on June 19, 1996, it was a time when many in Congress, and many other Americans and Japanese as well, were questioning the need for the nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan at the time. I observed that the young Marines were a reminder that America's military presence in Japan was essential to maintaining the stability and security that had made Japan's -- and most of Asia's -- great economic boom possible.

I noted that despite strains in the then-26-year-old U.S.-Japan security relationship, the American bases and facilities provided by the Japanese had enabled the U.S. to maintain its commitment to help keep the peace in an historically unstable region. I was flattered when the commandant of the U.S. Marines, Gen. Charles Krulak, wrote me a personal letter saying that he'd ordered my column to be reprinted at every Marine base in the world.

Now, however, more than 14 years later, it appears that U.S.-Japan relations are even more strained than they were at the time. The struggling government that took over in 2009 after ousting the entrenched Liberal Democrat Party that had been in power for 40 years is embroiled in a dispute over relocating the 8,000 Marines at the base in Futenma, Okinawa, which supplies troops and equipment to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

This at a time when mainland China has surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economic power -- the Chinese were already the strongest military power in Asia after the U.S. -- while India and South Korea are challenging Japan's economic power, North Korea has become the most irrational member of the world's nuclear club, and we are once again bogged down in not one, but two wars in Asia.

I'm no expert on Asia, but after six trips to Japan, beginning with Vice President Walter Mondale's state visit in 1973 when I accompanied him as his press secretary, two speaking tours in 1996 and 2004 that took me from one end of Japan to the other, and a week-long journalists exchange program in June 2009, I think I know something about U.S.-Japanese relations.

If I were to write about U.S-Japan relations again, I would see no reason to change what I wrote in 1996, to wit:

"The Marines I met in Hiroshima know that they may be called upon to risk their lives to defend Japanese territory and American interests at the same time. But they also understand, in a way that most other Americans, and probably most members of Congress, don't, that failure to maintain a strong U.S. military presence in Asia is an invitation to the kind of regional conflict that could produce another Hiroshima."