Vincent Intondi is a Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute, which organizes annual delegations to Hiroshima. He also is author of the very important book from Stanford University Press, African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement.
His research reveals the deep, decades-long opposition by African American leaders against the development and final use of the U.S. bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the first targets were people of color. It's no accident that Barack Obama was studying ways to end the threat and writing articles for his campus newspaper on this subject while he studied at Columbia University. Now as the first African-American President faces bitter, racist, and hysterical opposition to his planned visit to the Hiroshima shrine and peace park from those Americans who think he will offer an apology to the Japanese. An apology of any kind would be politically awkward to say the least, and is opposed by the Japanese government itself. But the simple presence of Obama in Hiroshima will reverberate around the world as a silent vigil. I urge you to read Vincent Intondi's moving statement below. - Tom Hayden
My first trip to Hiroshima was in 2005 as a graduate student with American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute (NSI). Up to that point, most of my career as an activist and academic focused on issues dealing with race and civil rights. However, the experience I had in Japan left me fundamentally changed.
Every year, thousands of Japanese citizens gather at the Motoyasu River on the night of August 6-the anniversary of the atomic bombing. People remember those who lost their lives by making paper floating lanterns and putting them in the water. That night, with a few of my new Japanese friends (American University partners with Ritsumeikan University), I put our lantern into the water. I still remember what I wrote on our lantern: “I will dedicate my life to making sure this never happens again.” As it floated away, I began to look around and think that 60 years ago everyone here was dead. I thought of all the human suffering that had taken place. All of my anger, guilt, and sorrow boiled over as tears rolled down my face. At that moment, Koko Tanimoto Kondo, a hibakusha with whom I had grown close, immediately came over to console me.
When I returned to the U.S., I knew I had to find a way to combine my two passions: eliminating racism and nuclear weapons. What followed was a ten year project resulting in my book, African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement. Since its release, I have been on a national book tour and am routinely asked about what I would say to President Obama if I ever met him. My response until now has always been the same: “Visit Hiroshima.”
In 2009, I was named Director of Research for AU’s Nuclear Studies Institute and I annually take students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most memorable year was the summer following Obama’s Prague speech. It seemed everywhere I went, Japanese citizens praised Obama. Indeed, Hiroshima’s former mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, started the “Obamajority” campaign. Japanese citizens gave me stacks of letters thanking Obama for what he had done and asking him to visit Hiroshima.
Since then, I have published articles, delivered speeches; spearheaded petition drives, and even wrote a personal letter to the President asking him to visit. I of course, will never know if any of this had any impact on Obama’s decision. I would like to think that collectively, along with the thousands of citizens around the world, including the hibakusha, had some influence on what is about to be a truly historic event.
Now that Obama has officially announced his trip, the usual chorus of criticism has emerged. On the Right are those who continue to call him weak and an apologist. This of course is not new. When Obama sent Ambassador John Roos to the peace ceremony in 2009, Gene Tibbets, the late son of Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets, described the decision as an “unsaid apology.” There will always be those who refuse to admit that visiting Hiroshima and honoring U.S. troops who fought valiantly in the war are not mutually exclusive. On the other side is the “Obama never does enough” segment of the Left. As a result, everyone has now become an expert on what Obama should or should not say, and has an opinion on whether or not he should apologize.
Once Obama announced his visit, I received a phone call from the one person who actually deserves to have an opinion on this issue. Koko said, “Obama does not need to apologize. Just having him in Hiroshima standing near the cenotaph, is enough. I don’t want an apology. I want disarmament.” She explained that she never thought this day would come and Obama’s visit means more to her than anyone could imagine.
My fear, however, is that those interested in nuclear disarmament will make the same mistake they made when Obama took office. Many progressives believed they had won and the fight was over. This mistake proved costly when the healthcare battle ensued. It is crucial that Obama’s trip to Hiroshima not be viewed as the end of his presidency. It must be viewed as a call to disarm.
That said, students and activists routinely ask me what they can do in the fight for nuclear disarmament. My answer is “everyone has gifts. What you do with them is your gift back. I cannot play a musical instrument to save my life. Nor can I draw a stick figure. I have my voice and ability to write.” To that end, as an educator, it is my job to make sure that students know the accurate history of the atomic bombing in that it was militarily unnecessary and morally reprehensible.
As activists, we need to return to the strategy that brought together over 1 million people in the streets of New York in the 1980s. We need to once again connect the nuclear issue with race and capitalism. How can we discuss broken down infrastructure in Baltimore and St. Louis or a lack of jobs and poor education without mentioning the U.S. spending $1 trillion on nuclear weapons? We must learn from other successful movements like climate change and bring in diverse voices. I have attempted to do just that by shedding light on those like Bayard Rustin, Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry and Ron Dellums in the fight for nuclear disarmament.
So let Obama’s trip be the moment when citizens around the country rise up to end the madness that is nuclear weapons. I know that when the day comes and I am watching President Obama walk around the Peace Park, I will think of what Koko said to me in the same spot eleven years ago: “It is on you now to reach people one at a time. Make sure they know our story, what happened, the horrors of nuclear weapons, and do everything you can to carry on our message of Never Again.”