Obama’s Hiroshima Speech and Human Nature

Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday set aside to remember those who died fight for our country. 

President Obama gave a speech in Hiroshima on May 27 at the site commemorating the first time an atomic bomb was detonated in war.  In that speech he shifted the focus from honoring those Americans who died in wars to remembering all people who died because of armed conflict between nations.

I want to focus on the implications of what he said on how we think about human nature.

He talked about what he refers to as “humanity’s core contradiction: how the very spark that marks us a species — our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”

Most people, I think, would agree with our president that human nature is a mixture of the capacities for doing both good and evil.  What divides liberals from conservatives, it seems to me, is the percentage of good vs. the percentage of bad and how evenly those percentages are distributed in humanity.

Or, to put it another way, over a century ago William James in the Varieties of Religious Experience used the term pessimistic religion for religions that teach that sinfulness makes up a greater part of human nature and optimistic religion for those who view human nature as basically good. 

Obama begins his Hiroshima speech sounding like a pessimist.  He said,

“Their souls [the 100,000 people who died in the blast] speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.  It is not the fact of war that sets Hiroshima apart. Artifacts tell us that violent conflict appeared with the very first man. . . .The war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes. An old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.”

Then he seems to switch from emphasizing the bad in human nature to saying that it’s a mixture of bad and good.  He said, “Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction: how the very spark that marks us a species — our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

And then, he becomes more hopeful and sounds more optimistic about human nature, saying, “But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change. And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.”

“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. . . .We must change our mindset about war itself to prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy, but by what we build. And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.”

An article posted on the Daily Wire’s website criticized Obama’s speech as being too optimistic about human nature.  The tone of the piece was nasty, sarcastic, disrespectful and misrepresented what the president was saying—the headline being President Obama Gives One Of The Most Repulsive Speeches In American History In Hiroshima—but if you redact out most of the mean barbs, the content of the article is worth taking seriously, especially regarding what it says about human nature.

  • Obama doesn’t want realism. He wants the remaking of the world in his personal image. He wants humanity itself changed.
  • But Obama thinks that the way to stop war is to kill ideology altogether, not to support and strengthen proper ideologies. This is John Lennon’s Imagine on crack. And in practice, it’s meant the death of hundreds of thousands of people as Obama has pulled out of Iraq, sinking the region into total war up to and including the use of chemical weapons; the murder of thousands in Ukraine, as Obama has left the field clear for Vladimir Putin; the strengthening of the Iranian and North Korean terror regimes. Obama’s foreign policy leads to Hiroshima faster than Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength.  
  • Hiroshima happened because the world slept as fascism rose; Obama wishes to sleep on evil again (or worse, forward it), hoping that national narcolepsy becomes contagious internationally, and we share the same peaceful dreams. We don’t. If we go to sleep again, our enemies will use that reverie to rise. But Americans increasingly believe in Obamaism – more Americans now think using the A-bomb was wrong than right. The result will be more Hiroshimas after 70 years of nuclear peace
  • Some religions are worse than others. Some ideologies are worse than others. But not according to Obama. We’re all equal in sin, according to the President of the United States – and the only solution is to destroy American nationalism, and replace it with some sort of Obama-created philosophy of peace.
  • Here’s an answer: take pre-emptive action to stop tyrannically fascist states from starting wars and then vowing to fight them to the last man.
  • To deprive some nations of nuclear weapons while leaving moral nations with them would violate his code of moral equivalence. That’s why Iran will go nuclear within the next decade, why North Korea has gone nuclear, why rogue states around the world are rushing, in the absence of American power and influence, to arm up.