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Moral Ambiguity, Moral Courage and Democratic Politics



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Barack Obama became the first United States president to visit Hiroshima, Japan during a state visit to that nation in late May. In doing so, he had somehow to address the reality that America attacked that city, and Nagasaki as well, in August 1945 with atomic bombs in a successful bid to end World War II. In his remarks at the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, the President noted that the toll of that fateful day in that city was beyond horrific, and he highlighted the fact that the devastation had shown human beings could now eliminate their species from the earth. He also argued that acknowledgement of that reality should now undergird all political action:

A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself. Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?  We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not so distant past.  We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 in Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Koreans; a dozen Americans held prisoner.  Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.[1]

Before he left for Japan, the President’s critics argued vigorously about whether he would apologize for the U.S. action and, certain that he would do so, many criticized him for his alleged foreign policy “weakness.” However, Obama did not ask Japan’s forgiveness for America’s choice to employ nuclear weapons, nor did he declare United States’ moral rectitude in its decision to employ that terrible armament. He instead focused on the strong alliance that had developed between Japan and the United States since Hiroshima and the two nations’ shared responsibility to help realize a world at peace and without arms of mass destruction. He also reminded those present of the origins and character of the terrible conflict that preceded President Harry Truman’s decision to employ atomic weapons:

The World War that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art.  Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet, 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. In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die—men, women, children no different than us, shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.[2]

In short, the President acknowledged the profound moral ambiguity represented by the destruction of Hiroshima. That first use of the atomic bomb now symbolizes the fact that one horror ended another human catastrophe of unprecedented scale and cruelty. While the President did not belabor the point, all present knew that the leaders of America’s and Japan’s armed forces had predicted that an assault to occupy the home islands would likely have cost the Allies and Japanese millions of additional casualties. Likewise, Truman was well aware that the conflict’s toll might rise meteorically with an invasion of Japan as he contemplated unleashing nuclear weapons. In every sense then, Hiroshima is a symbol of moral ambiguity. One cannot gainsay the terror unleashed there in the guise of the atomic attack, or the greed and ugly nationalism and racism that occasioned the horrific cost of the conflict that led to Hiroshima in the first instance.

Nor did President Obama seek to do so. He instead emphasized both the human propensity to rationalize evil in the name of power and to war with one another, and the imperative that Hiroshima and other World War II sites of death now signify for humankind to surmount those base instincts:

On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold; compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal.  Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.[3]

And, as importantly, Obama said the following about human possibility to overcome its inclination to become violently drunk with intellectual or emotional fantasies of superiority or with fears of others, real or imagined:

And perhaps above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race. For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story—one that describes a common humanity; one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.[4]

I highlight this recent important speech by the President precisely to point up his willingness to acknowledge moral ambiguity, and to underscore his moral courage and imagination in doing so. He refused at Hiroshima to provide shibboleths that would pretend that events there could readily be justified or understood in a simple and simplistic dichotomous way. Instead, he reminded his audience of just how difficult democratic political choice-making can be, and in lieu of calling for ready answers that do not exist, he asked all instead to accept the complexities of the human condition that Hiroshima and the bombing that forever shaped that city’s course represent. Just as importantly, he reminded his listeners that they must have hope that men and women are capable of designing institutions that can grapple peaceably with humankind’s capacity to design weapons and to rationalize hatred, lust for power and conflict.

The intellectual and moral humility of the President’s speech strikes me as an accurate reading of the reality represented by Hiroshima, and a useful reminder of how warring peoples came to that fateful pass in the first instance. Obama’s remarks can be read as a clarion call to Americans to confront reality in all of its difficulty, paradox and messiness, rather than to adopt simplifying ideologies or the fantasy claims of demagogues. Indeed, the nation’s citizens would do well to reflect on the President’s insights as presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump continues daily to seek new ways to heighten voters’ fears and to rationalize the demonization of specific groups, whether women, Latinos, Muslims, former prisoners of war or journalists.

Hiroshima constitutes a powerful symbol of the fact that bigotry, hatred, nationalism and jingoism yielded a war of unparalleled scale and horror that ended only with similarly brutal acts. One hopes our nation’s citizens can learn from Hiroshima’s lessons and resist the siren call of crude answers to complex issues, and can likewise demonstrate the moral mettle to say no to a demagogue’s contention that scapegoating and grotesque narcissism can address the hard work of maintaining freedom and peace in a complicated world. Americans must show that they are sufficiently mature and possess adequate moral courage to reject Trump’s persistent pandering to their worst instincts.

The coming national election is shaping up as a test of whether a democratic people can accept the moral ambiguities and challenges that attend the human condition and together continue to search for ways to tackle them, or will instead surrender their birth right and fall into conflict among themselves while empowering an anti-democratic leader in that process. My hope is that the polity will pay close attention to the quiet resolution that Obama personified at Hiroshima and follow his example as they look ahead collectively to attend to the challenges necessary to maintain freedom in a hope-filled and determined way. But only time will tell whether this will be so.

Note to readers: Max Stephenson is taking a break. Soundings will return on July 18, 2016.


[1] Obama, Barack, 2016. “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan at Hiroshima Peace Memorial,” The White House Briefing Room, Speeches and Remarks, website. May 27, 2016. Available at: Accessed June 5, 2016

[2] Obama, 2016, “Remarks at Hiroshima Peace Memorial.”

[3] Obama, 2016, “Remarks at Hiroshima Peace Memorial.”

[4] Obama, 2016, “Remarks at Hiroshima Peace Memorial.”

Publication Date

June 19, 2016