About a decade ago, I happened to be sitting at the table with a Navy veteran of World War II when the conversation turned to Japan. He was a retired physician, the father of a friend of mine, and if I remember correctly we were discussing an upcoming trip to Japan by someone in his family.
He had never been to Japan, he said, but if the U.S. hadn't dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have. His Navy unit was among those poised to invade the Japanese mainland, a battle anticipated to be an epic bloodbath. He likely would have been killed, he added matter-of-factly, after which a somber pause settled over the table.
No one from his family took up the topic, and it wasn't my place to do so. But I think of him every time the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up, as it has with news that President Obama will visit Hiroshima when he is in Japan later this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.
The White House has made it clear that Obama won't apologize for the use of nuclear weapons, the only time they have been used in warfare, nor have the Japanese asked him to. No apology, in my view, is necessary.
What IS necessary, and too often neglected, is to focus on the fearsome power of these weapons and how essential it is to the future of all nations, peoples and the earth itself that they never be used again. Obama's pilgrimage to Hiroshima is a perfect opportunity, and I applaud him for taking it.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice struck the right note when interviewed recently by refusing to air her own view, much less the president's, on whether using atomic weapons to end the war with Japan was justified. That is a question for the ages, and while some will doubtless try to embroil Obama in it, no good can come of that - especially during this election season.
When my own father was alive, he and I often engaged in heated discussions about the relative morality of nuclear vs. conventional weapons. He served with the Army's Medical Service Corps in Europe during World War II, where he saw massive destruction by conventional weapons. Death was just as horrible, he said, either way. Maybe so, I would fire back - but what if you lived?
I've long wrestled with this issue, and it horrifies me to conclude that Truman's decision to authorize using nuclear weapons was necessary to save American lives. Equally horrifying is the likelihood that if the world hadn't seen what those weapons did in Japan they would have been used somewhere else.
And yet, as the memory of Hiroshima recedes, loose talk about nuclear weapons and nuclear war seems to be on the rise.
Earlier this month, Russian officials said a NATO-backed anti-ballistic missile defense shield in Europe heightens the risk of nuclear war. Prior to that, Donald Trump "suggested" (all his proclamations, we now know, are "just suggestions") that Japan and other nations join the nuclear club. Trump also "suggested" leaving nuclear weapons on the table as a negotiating tool.
As part of the "duck and cover" generation, I grew up half expecting a nuclear war. Today I half expect that terrorists will get hold of nuclear weapons. But it's been decades since I seriously feared the kind of all-out nuclear war depicted in television's "The Day After" and the movie "Testament," both from1983.
A reminder is in order, and I'm confident that Obama will use his Hiroshima pilgrimage for that purpose. His determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, despite cynical opposition from political rivals here and abroad, proved his commitment to saving us from a nuclear catastrophe.
The media has a duty to cover Obama's visit to Hiroshima through the lens of survival, not politics. Surely this would also be the perfect time to highlight or - better yet - re-broadcast "Testament" and "The Day After."