05/27/2016 05:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama In Hiroshima: What He Said, Why It Matters, and What People Think

The president's making another state visit. Snore, right?

Not so fast--this visit was to Hiroshima, one of the two cities in Japan where America dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II.

President Obama is the first sitting president to visit a city we rained death and destruction on, so the whole world is watching and listening to what he's saying and doing there.

What happened in Hiroshima?

The bomb drops on Hiroshima in 1945 taken by a man aboard the plane that bombed the city. (Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron/Wikimedia Commons)

For those who missed it in history class, here's a quick review.

Atomic bombs have only actually been dropped twice in war, ever. Both by America. Both in Japan.

In 1945, World War II was nearing its end. The Allies had already defeated Hitler's Germany, but Japan, Germany's ally, was determined to keep fighting.

On August 6th, a US military plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, destroying 90% of the city and killing 80,000 people on the spot. Another bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing another 40,000.

Survivors lived through a horrific aftermath of severe burns and radiation sickness.

The destruction caused by the bomb in Hiroshima. (US government, Post-Work, Wikimedia Commons)

The bombings became one of the most hotly contested decisions in history. Did President Harry Truman have no choice? Did those bombings prevent further deaths? Or was it a horrific act that caused ridiculous amounts of suffering? Could it have been prevented? Is it ever OK to bomb civilians on purpose?

Seventy-one years later, America and Japan are friends now, and Obama is the first president to show up in person in Hiroshima. America has never apologized for dropping the bombs, so everyone wondered what Obama would say when he visited the site, now a memorial to those who died in the bombings.

What did he say?

President Obama works on his remarks for his visit to Hiroshima during a break at the G7 Summit.

A photo posted by Pete Souza (@petesouza) on

When Obama attended the Hiroshima Peace Park, he wrote in the guest book,

"We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons."

He then laid a wreath on the memorial mourning the deaths caused by the bombs, and gave a passionate speech commemorating the dead.

In his speech, Obama said,

"We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow."

Obama also used his speech to advocate for peace and unity as well as an end to nuclear weapons. He said,

"We may not be able to eliminate man's capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe."

This is especially poignant if you've heard President Truman's chilling statement to the American people after the bombs had been dropped. (American citizens didn't know about the bombings until after they happened, BTW.)

"It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East."

Why is this such a big deal?

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial. (Richard Cassan/Flickr)

In total, there are over 15,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled in nine different countries around the world. Many of these bombs are way bigger--like, 5,000 times bigger--than the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. Just imagine what that kind of firepower could do.

Obama's speech puts renewed importance on not repeating history by dropping any of these deadly bombs.

He also re-emphasized the humanity of the tragedy and called countries with arms to destroy those nuclear weapons--a bold statement from the country with the second highest number of nukes. Russia has the highest number at 7,300. We only have a measly 6,970.

What didn't he say?


Ever since the A-bombs nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Man fell and decimated two cities, people in both the US and Japan have waited for an American authority figure to recognize or apologize for the carnage the nuclear weapons caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So ... Notice something missing from Obama's speech? Anything at all?

That's right, for all his outcry over the horrors of war, Obama did not actually officially or unofficially apologize to Japan.

He made it clear before his visit that he wasn't going to say sorry.

So, no apology then. But does what he said count as an acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the bombs?

Why is this such a big deal?

Some hibakusha, or nuclear bomb survivors, are still alive, but they probably won't be for much longer. It looks like they most likely won't get an apology during their lifetimes.

It also shows that debate over whether the US should have bombed Japan is still alive, and many Americans would be angry if Obama apologized.

And the Japanese government may want it that way. Wikileaks revealed that, in 2009, Japanese vice foreign minister Mitoji Yabunaka said,

"President Obama visiting Hiroshima to apologize for the atomic bombing during World War II is a 'non starter.'"

This is possibly because an apology might force Japan to apologize for their horrific actions during World War II also.

What are the Japanese saying about all this?

Pamphlets about Obama in Japan. (buyalex/Flickr)

No one expected an apology, and no one got one. OK.

But several survivors said they felt moved by Obama's speech and were grateful to him for coming, although some still had criticism. Miki Tsukishita, a hibakusha, said,

"I'm afraid I did not hear anything concrete about how he plans to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. Atomic-bomb survivors, including me, are getting older. Just cheering his visit is not enough. As a serving U.S. president ... I wish he had been more specific and concrete."

What are Americans saying?

Some people applauded Obama...

...some said he was too mournful...

...while others said he didn't do enough.

This article was written by Lily Altavena and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.