Is Obama Back-Tracking on a Nuclear Weapons-Free World?

By Kevin Martin, Executive Director

On his first trip to Japan as president, Barack Obama appears to be backing off his previously and oft-stated commitment to seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. How this will play in a country where Obama is wildly popular (I know from first-hand experience, having been to Japan in August) but where the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and others are very serious about eliminating the scourge of nuclear weapons should be very interesting.

President Obama is undoubtedly the most engaged and committed president on nuclear disarmament we’ve had in the nuclear age. He garnered deserved praise for his rousing speech in Prague last April calling for a world free of nuclear weapons, yet the speech contained a disturbing caveat, that the elimination of nuclear weapons would “…perhaps not be achieved…” in his lifetime. The president is a relatively young man, does he really think this can’t be done in the next 40 years or so? Or, more to the point, that we can live in a wildly unpredictable world with the danger of thousands of nuclear weapons more or less indefinitely?

Yesterday in Japan, the president, in a joint press conference with new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, called the abolition of nuclear weapons a “distant goal” that “…will not be reached probably even in our own lifetimes…”. So he has gone from nuclear abolition “perhaps” not being achievable in his lifetime to “probably” not in just a few months.

Not surprisingly, though disappointingly, the president dodged a reporter’s question about whether the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was the right decision. He did say he would be honored and that it would be “meaningful” for him to visit the two cities sometime during his presidency (yes it would, I’ve been to Nagasaki and Hiroshima three times and it is always a moving experience, and the mayors and citizens of those two cities wish fervently for him to visit).

The president may not know this, but his apparent back-tracking on his rhetoric regarding eliminating nuclear weapons will likely be an extreme disappointment to the Hibakusha, many of them enduring radiation-caused illnesses and all of them elderly at this point, as they seek to abolish nuclear weapons in their lifetimes so that no one else ever experiences the unspeakable horror of a nuclear attack.

Obama’s statements created a bit of a buzz among peace movement leaders from around the world, including Japan, gathered last night at an opening reception for this weekend’s International Peace Bureau conference here in Washington, DC. I will seek comments from our Japanese peace movement allies on Obama’s statements and post them here soon.

Much more important than my analysis of Obama’s remarks is what we do to push him and other world leaders to banish the scourge of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. To that end, Peace Action and dozens of local, national and international organizations are organizing to demand the beginning of negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban in conjunction with next May’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the UN in New York City.

Over the next few days here in Washington we will be furthering our planning for this campaign, but you can take action today by signing our petition to Obama and encouraging your friends to do so as well. Please go to our on-line petition, and you can also download a paper petition to circulate the old-fashioned way, on a clipboard in your neighborhood, at your school or place of worship at http://www.peace-action.org/nukes/campaigns/nptpetition.htm

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