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A First By A Sitting U.S. President: Obama Goes to Hiroshima


President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park this morning in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1945, the United States dropped a bomb on that city, destroying it in the world's first atomic bomb attack. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the city that was bombed by the United States in 1945.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Seventy-one years ago, on a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky, and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.


That was President Obama speaking at the Peace Memorial in the middle of Hiroshima City. We have several people in our studio to talk about the president's visit this morning, but let's go first to NPR's Elise Hu. She is our correspondent based in Asia, and right now she is in Hiroshima. She was on the lawn watching the president speak alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Good morning.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And that moment - describe it to us.

HU: Incredibly emotional moment for everybody who was on the lawn. Journalists - there are hundreds of international press here, obviously. And I've never seen or heard journalists so quiet before, in fact. There was just silence in the 20, 30 minutes awaiting the president's arrival. It's now been about three hours since the appearance, and on the lawn where the president spoke, a line has formed of hundreds of Japanese who have brought their kids, who have brought their dogs. They are lining up waiting to see the wreaths laid by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe earlier today. The wait, I'm told, is now stretching into 90 minutes, but the folks I spoke to said they wanted to be here on this historic day. They also wanted to emphasize to their kids the message of peace.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's hear another clip of President Obama speaking in Hiroshima this morning.


OBAMA: The world was forever changed here. But today, the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting and then extending to every child. That is the future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.

GREENE: That's President Obama speaking earlier in Hiroshima. As we just heard from our colleague, Elise Hu, a very somber and dramatic moment in that city. Now, earlier this morning, right after the president spoke, we spoke to Democratic Congressman Mark Takano from California. I want to play some of what he said because that line really stood out to him, the president saying not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.

MARK TAKANO: It articulated something that I've been trying to come to grips with the past few days, that a way to contextualize what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as something forward looking, as something - some positive thing to take out of what happened. And I think if the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Hibakusha, who are passing - the folks that are passing on, that as they pass away, if they can go to their graves knowing that some moral good came out of this, that the suffering somehow produced a greater sense of world peace or that the world is going to be better equipped to deal with peace and security issues, that the nuclear weapon will never be used again because of how what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has focused attention. This idea of a moral awakening, I think, is very powerful.

GREENE: Congressman Mark Takano from the state of California. Let's bring in a few other guests here this morning. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is in the studio, as is Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome to you both.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.

GREENE: Sheila, a term there the congressman was using - and I'm going to let you pronounce it better than me - when he said Hibakusha. This is survivors of this attack. Many of these survivors want the United States to apologize, which President Obama, as - in my reading of the speech, did not do.

SMITH: That's true. Hibakusha is the word used to designate the atomic bomb survivors - very specific. And they have many groups and they have many desires for closure. And some of them want some kind of a formal apology. The ones that were at the ceremony today were those that did not demand an apology. But like our veterans community, there's a lot of voices of different opinions about what should happen and what should and shouldn't be part of this day.

MONTAGNE: And Scott, let me bring you into this because there has been some (unintelligible) criticism about the president's visit from both the right and the left. What about that?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House is always wary of partisan criticism, and this is a president who's been accused in the past by Republicans of conducting apology tours. I think, David, you're right. There was certainly no national apology in the president's remarks today. I guess you could say there was a sort of more general apology for the imperfection of mankind and our tendency towards war. But the White House took pains to meet with veterans groups in advance of this trip both to explain the president's purpose, also...

MONTAGNE: American veterans groups.

HORSLEY: American - groups of World War II veterans and their families. Those were the audience that they were most concerned about perhaps rubbing the wrong way here. There's also been some criticism on the left that, you know, this is a president whose anti-nuclear efforts have been mashed with a big investment in updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and they might have wanted to hear more about what the president would want to do in that front.

GREENE: OK. Much more to talk about this morning. We've been speaking here in the studio with NPR's senior White House correspondent Scott Horsley, and Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you both for coming in. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.