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Biden is going to Hiroshima at a moment when nuclear tensions are on the rise

President Biden arrives at an event at the White House on May 11, 2023. This week he will travel to Hiroshima, Japan for the G-7 summit.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
President Biden arrives at an event at the White House on May 11, 2023. This week he will travel to Hiroshima, Japan for the G-7 summit.

On August 6, 1945, on the order of President Harry Truman, a B-29 named the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The blast destroyed the city, killed more than 100,000 people, and hastened the end of World War II.

On the 75th anniversary of the bombing, in the middle of his campaign for the White House, Joe Biden marked the moment, writing that the images of destruction in Hiroshima — and, three days later, in Nagasaki — "still horrify us."

"They reach through history to remind us of the hideous damage nuclear weapons can inflict, and our collective responsibility to ensure that such weapons are never again used," Biden said.

Later this week, now-President Biden arrives in Hiroshima as a man who holds that responsibility in his hands.

In this Aug. 6, 1945 file photo, the "Enola Gay" lands at Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands, after the U.S. mission against Hiroshima. Enola Gay dropped the 4-ton "Little Boy" uranium bomb on the city.
Max Desfor / AP
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AP
In this Aug. 6, 1945 file photo, the "Enola Gay" lands at Tinian, Northern Mariana Islands, after the U.S. mission against Hiroshima. Enola Gay dropped the 4-ton "Little Boy" uranium bomb on the city.

Biden will visit the city for the G-7 summit, where he and other world leaders will focus on a range of issues, including Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, climate change, and the global economy.

But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in Japan's legislature, has said he hopes the setting of the summit will bring a focus to the danger of nuclear weapons.

And in that setting, the leader of the country who carried out the bombing will inevitably play an outsized role in any events commemorating it.

Former President Barack Obama and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hiroshima in 2016. Some 140,000 people were killed in the atomic bombing of the city during World War II.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
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AP
Former President Barack Obama and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hiroshima in 2016. Some 140,000 people were killed in the atomic bombing of the city during World War II.

Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016

Former President Barack Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city, speaking at its Peace Memorial in 2016. Standing alongside then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said that "death fell from the sky and the world was changed."

Obama pointedly did not apologize for the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but paid tribute to the people who died, and tried to put the threat of nuclear weapons in context. "Hiroshima teaches us this truth," Obama said. "Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us."

Jon Wolfsthal, who worked on nuclear proliferation in the Obama Administration, helped plan that trip. A year later, he found himself talking to a local official during a visit of his own to Hiroshima.

"I explained that I had helped President Obama prepare for that trip, and she broke into tears. Because for the people of Hiroshima to know that they were seen, and that the president of the United States was there not to apologize, but to simply recognize the role that Hiroshima plays in the world, had a big emotional impact on the people," Wolfsthal recalled.

Biden's visit is different, but still carries symbolic weight

In 2016, Obama was making a clear decision to visit Hiroshima and confront what happened there.

But Biden's trip will be a bit different, given that he is coming to meet with other world leaders at the G-7. They are expected to begin the summit with a visit to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial, and may meet with survivors of the bombing.

Still, for Biden, the trip will inevitably carry heavy symbolism. "You have a sitting U.S. president, a man with control over the world's most powerful nuclear arsenal, going to the place where nuclear weapons were first used. That has impact," Wolfsthal said.

That's especially true at a moment when nuclear tension is higher than at any point since the end of the Cold War. "It's hard to find a nuclear issue in the world today that's heading in a positive direction, or where U.S. security is being improved," Wolfsthal said.

North Korea is testing missiles and threatening South Korea to that point that Biden recently had to re-emphasize the United States' commitment to protect South Korea with nuclear weapons, and warn that "a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies or partners is unacceptable, and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action."

China is increasing its nuclear arsenal. Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons.

And above all, there's Russia.

In this handout photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Oct. 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills.
Handout / AP
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AP
In this handout photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Oct. 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills.

Putin has ramped up his nuclear bluster

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia's relationship with the United States has deteriorated, calling into question whether the last remaining major nuclear arms control treaty — New START — will be allowed to expire in early 2026.

And towering over all these other threats, there's the fact that President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Biden has repeatedly responded, warning Putin of the serious consequences.

The continued nuclear bluster has shocked nuclear experts. "Even in the coldest days of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviets always ... continued to carry on a very substantive dialogue on nonproliferation issues," said Susan Burk.

Burk worked on nuclear issues at the State Department for decades, rising to the rank of ambassador during the Obama administration. Currently, she's on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

She's been particularly alarmed at how many times Putin has pointed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to note the fact it was the United States that first used nuclear weapons against another nation.

"The fact that it was done once doesn't mean that it would be OK for someone to do it again," she said.

It's unclear how much Biden will talk about nuclear policy on this trip

Burk has signed onto a letter urging Biden to take advantage of his visit to the site of the first nuclear attack, and deliver a major speech on nuclear threats.

Regardless of where and when it happens, Wolfsthal argued Biden does need to lay out a clear policy — and soon — on how to de-escalate all the growing nuclear threats the world is facing.

"What is the policy that is going to tie these different pieces together? On China, on Russia, on North Korea, on Iran? On our own nuclear arsenal? And how are we going to try to turn the tide, which I think most objective people would recognize has been very negative," Wolfsthal said.

A National Security Council spokesperson downplayed the likelihood of a major nuclear speech on this trip, saying Biden plans to "pay his respects to the innocent who lost their lives" and will "reaffirm the U.S.'s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation," but noting that the broader G-7 agenda is the focus.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.