Politics and the English Language in Hiroshima and Annapolis: The Obama Doctrine as Revealed in Two Speeches on May 27th, 2016

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
- George Orwell,

On May 27, 2016, US president Barack Obama spoke in Hiroshima and declared, “…today the children of this city will go through their day in peace.” This statement could be taken as a reminder of a precious achievement, but it also implied that in spite of the horror of the attack, it had been necessary. It seems as if the president wanted to remind the world, in a lightly threatening manner, that America brought peace to the conquered. However, this point and others made in the speech were so vague that it could be used as a Rorschach test. It said nothing. It was a canvas onto which listeners could paint whatever impression they wished. If you think it was an apology, or not, and that makes you happy or sad, then good for you.

Barack Obama, George Orwell, Vladimir Putin
Nonetheless, the careful word choices within the speech achieve a certain purpose that is far removed from being the apology that so much of the American public feared the president would make.
It’s worth comparing Barack Obama’s Hiroshima statement with a speech that was made on the same day by his defense secretary, Ashton Carter. Carter spelled out the specifics of the Obama Doctrine much more clearly than his boss did in Hiroshima. In that speech, the world was indeed told we must be grateful for and accepting of the “security” that America provides. You could almost say this is the real “Hiroshima Statement” because it reveals why President Obama has done nothing to move the world toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. Carter’s speech contained plenty of talk about Chinese, Iranian, and Russian “aggression,” the technological superiority of American military technology, the military empire backing up free trade agreements, and the “security” the world receives from America ensuring that the “bad guys” obey international law.
A careful analysis of these two speeches illustrates how they reveal the radical changes that are needed to achieve nuclear disarmament.

President Obama’s Hiroshima Statement

Barack Obama’s preference for abstract nouns, intransitive verbs, and passive voice constructions serves to make this speech not only a non-apology but also a deflection of attention away from the nation and the individuals who attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons.
The speech begins with these words:

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. 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 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. [2]

A brief analysis of just a few parts of this passage reveals much about what is achieved by syntactical choices:

1. “Death fell from the sky.”

Here Barack Obama uses an abstract noun (death) to serve as the subject of an intransitive verb (fall). The word choices and the syntactical choices serve to depersonalize what occurred. An intransitive verb has no direct object, no target for its action. The human agents causing death are left unmentioned. For a quite different effect, one could describe the same event with a sentence that has the more common Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object construction:

S [A US Air Force crew] V [attacked] DO [the civilian population of Hiroshima] IO [with an atomic bomb.]

2. “The world was changed.”

Barack Obama uses the passive voice here, which is another syntactical choice that serves to depersonalize events and remove human agency from them. One could imagine a sentence in active voice, with the same Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object as above:

S [American military and political leaders] V [changed] DO [the world]IO [with their decision to make atomic weapons and use them to attack cities during WWII].

It is worth noting that the active voice SVO word order is the standard default setting of sentences in the English language. Children acquire this simple pattern first, and textbooks for foreign language learners begin with it. When people are speaking in a way that strenuously avoids the default setting, listeners can begin to suspect that the speaker is actively concealing meaning and motive. The politician’s classic admission that “mistakes were made” is a signal of an intention to bury the truth and deflect attention from who was actually responsible for the mistakes.

3. “A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”

Again, Barack Obama depersonalizes the event and removes human agency from it. The agent of destruction, the subject of the verb, was not human. It was a flash of light and a wall of fire. After this, a human agent is mentioned for the first time, but it is not specific individuals or governments. The human beings who bore responsibility for this act are abstracted as now being all of mankind.

The scientists and the generals who made the atomic bombs, as well as the president who authorized their use, knew that the flash of light and wall of fire would demonstrate that America now possessed the means to destroy mankind.

4. “Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?”

Personal pronouns, such as “we” and “us” are usually used to refer to persons previously mentioned or known implicitly in the context of the words spoken. In this speech, the listener is never told who “we” are. Does the first person plural pronoun refer to the people gathered in the park that day? Is Barack Obama speaking for all Americans? He seems to be implying that “we” refers to all of humanity, but he leaves this matter unspecified. This reference to an unspecified “we” is also a common rhetorical device in Christian sermons, so it is interesting to note its use here in another genre—a speech by a head of state. This mixing of genres is a curious thing about political discourse in modern times. The president is a comedian on late-night talk shows or when he addresses the annual White House Correspondents Dinner (cracking jokes at the 2010 event about drone warfare), [3] and he speaks like a preacher in Hiroshima. In Secretary Carter’s speech, discussed below, he talks like a salesman.

Why did I come to this place? That’s a good question.

5. “We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past.” 

In this sentence Barack Obama uses the passive voice (“force [which was] unleashed”) to depersonalize the event, to avoid mentioning who unleashed the “terrible force.” This term “terrible force” is also a vague way to avoid describing what actually occurred.

American forces attacked Hiroshima with a new weapon of mass destruction which struck the civilian population with unprecedented blast forces, the heat of the sun, blinding light, and deadly radiation.

The rest of the speech goes on in the same manner. As a result, the speech was not only the expected avoidance of apology, Barack Obama’s words actually served to exculpate the people who carried out the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The speech shifts responsibility for the attacks onto all of humanity. The perpetrators of the attacks are identified now as “mankind” and “humanity,” and likewise it is mankind and humanity who are supposed to somehow, with no specific initiative by political leaders, find a way to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
This shifting of responsibility begs the question of why President Obama himself could not have taken this moment to announce a specific proposal for new disarmament talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. There is no other place to start in nuclear disarmament except with the two nuclear powers who possess about 93% of the weapons. However, in all the media coverage given to President Obama’s Hiroshima statement evincing wistful hopes for a nuclear-free world, there were few explanations of the stalled progress in negotiations between the two nuclear superpowers.
A general opinion seems to have formed that this lack of progress is due to a vague and lamentable tendency of nations to mistrust one another and cling to the status quo. It’s all just some darned “problem of humanity” floating far above our heads. Gosh, what can be done about this? Somebody must do something.
The public is never told exactly what concessions might be necessary to make Russia and the United States capable of negotiating the reduction of their nuclear arsenals. A fact that is unmentioned by many observers is that Russia’s preconditions for disarmament talks would have little to do with nuclear weapons themselves. The first step would require the United States to radically shrink its global empire and abandon its role as the leader of a unipolar world order. It would also have to undo the damage caused by the eastward expansion of NATO since the collapse of the USSR. That is the starting point for Russia, but the United States government cannot allow such issues to be even contemplated, so the American side blames the lack of progress on Russia’s refusal to accept American dominance, which is not expressed as such but rather, euphemistically, as a need to commit to, in Ashton Carter’s words, “an inclusive, principled future.” [4]
Nuclear disarmament is frozen in its tracks because America is blinded by its inability to understand other world views and to empathize with the concerns of other nations. It cannot contemplate the reality that much of the global population has a negative view of the past century of American hegemony. America looks out on the world and sees only three challenges: (1) terrorists and members of an evil axis of long-term enemies, (2) cooperative allies who must be grateful for the security given to them, and (3) difficult frenemies who are pursuing paths of ultimate “isolation” from the benevolence of the unipolar world order. America cannot acknowledge the perspectives of other nations that would prefer to negotiate an alternative path. In addition, America cannot see the ambivalence and resentment of even its cooperative allies, such as South Korea and Japan. Viewing the world from the other’s perspective would lead to thinking unthinkable thoughts in the halls of power in Washington.
At the time of Barack Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, one could not ignore the backdrop of the American presidential election campaign that was unfolding at the time. The mainstream political establishment of both the Republican and Democratic parties haughtily dismissed Donald Trump as a dangerous narcissist who was utterly unfit to be president. [5] However, a president with a bona fide narcissistic personality disorder is exactly what one should expect to emerge on the American political scene as the offspring of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. “The Donald” is their problem child, the big man-baby that has been gestating in America’s belly over the last century. Just imagine that a nation’s behavior and personality could be viewed as those of an individual. According to the American Psychiatric Association, a narcissistic personality disorder is “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” The Association suggests that this particular disorder is indicated by demonstrating five or more of the following behaviors:

1.     Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2.     Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3.     Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4.     Requires excessive admiration.
5.     Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
6.     Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
7.     Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8.     Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9.     Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes. [6]

One can look back at the American century and see all of these traits in various American exploits around the globe, and in the way American leaders still speak of their role in the world.

The Secretary of Defense Articulates the Obama Doctrine

On the same day that the president gave his speech in Hiroshima, his secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, was delivering a commencement speech to the graduating officers at the Annapolis Naval Academy. Barack Obama doesn’t like to explicitly describe the doctrine of his administration. He gave the fuzzy, aspirational speech in Hiroshima while he let Ashton Carter spell out what his doctrine is really all about. Considering the coincidental timing of the two speeches, both of them should be displayed side by side in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for future generations to ponder.
Carter’s speech was soaked in examples of the above-described narcissism. He tells the graduating class, “… the United States remains the security partner of choice in the Asia-Pacific and around the world,” for a growing circle of allies and “partners.” Yes, he said “security partner of choice,” as if he were a marketing man selling weapons down at the mall to nations shopping for “all their security needs.” He says this shortly after he has told the graduating officers that almost the entire Asian continent is not buying the goods, as many nations on the continent (Russia, Iran, North Korea and China) are behaving “aggressively” and bringing a historic change that the new officers will have to “manage.” [7]
Shortly after the speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to Carter’s speech, saying his remarks “laid bare the stereotypical US thinking and US hegemony,” and that “China has no interest in any form of Cold War, nor are we interested in playing a role in a Hollywood movie written and directed by certain US military officials. However, China has no fear of and will counter any actions that threaten and undermine China’s sovereignty and security.” [8]
Throughout Carter’s speech, one can note the terminology that seems borrowed from a stockholders’ meeting, but then this speech actually is part of a sales campaign for the military industry. Journalist Patrick L. Smith observes that Carter was previously the Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics—in other words, in charge of procurement—and he asks, “How wrong is it to give someone previously assigned to shopping among the defense contractors the power to set policy?” He adds:

Conflict of interest is woven into everything Ash Carter does. In this respect, his appointment as Secretary of Defense suggests something very disturbing about the true locus of power among those now setting foreign policy in Washington… He is versed in method, not purpose. Nobody with even a slight grasp of China and Asian history—or history in general—could possibly stand on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a locally conflicted region [Southeast China coastal region] and say the things Carter did last month. He evinces no sense of his own recklessness. [9]

Later in the speech, Carter puts a soothing gloss on all that America has done over the last century. While President Obama landed in Japan just in time to face the rage of Okinawans dealing with another murder by an American soldier, Carter told the soldiers, “… you’re respectful of other people, and they—militaries and citizens of countries around the world with whom we partner and fight—appreciate how you conduct yourselves. They’ve learned that you’re there not to intimidate, coerce, or exclude, but instead that you inspire, cooperate, and include.”
All of this was uttered in total obliviousness to the fact that billions of people throughout the world would be appalled by these words. They have a very different view of American interventions, and of how much America respects international law seeks win-win solutions. No matter how many wonderful, well-intentioned people there are in the US military, their presence in foreign lands will always be problematic.
Carter was also oblivious to the problem created by America’s superior military capabilities, which no other nation can approach. He boasted of this disparity, unaware, it seems, that it fills other nations with dread and forces them to pursue nuclear deterrents and asymmetric strategies. The imbalance actually makes the world less secure.
Carter’s speech required no evidence and allowed no counter-arguments. It was less abstract than the president’s speech, but he didn’t have to worry about the sensitivities of the place where he was speaking. His speech was meant to indoctrinate an unquestioning class of military graduates, to send them out into the world, obediently following orders. The historian and West Point graduate, Andrew Bacevich, spoke of this indoctrination process in a recent interview:

From my upbringing, and I think notably from attendance at the Military Academy [West Point], I was shaped by some powerful forces to accept a very particular worldview. I’ve come to believe that the Military Academy doesn’t educate. It socializes. It forms people. And maybe it should. Because it exists to prepare people to be servants of the state, as military officers.

So I came out of there and spent most of my time in the Army, and it took me a long time to recognize the extent to which I’d been socialized, and to come to appreciate that there were alternative perspectives. It really took getting out of the Army and distancing myself from an institution that had been my life. I needed that distance to begin to think critically about a wide variety of matters: America’s role in the world, America’s sense of itself, the record of U.S. involvement in parts of the world, particularly in the period that I, myself, had existed in during the late Cold War and then into the post-Cold War period…

I’m appalled by my naïveté, my inability to ask some pretty obvious questions that should have been obvious at the time, my willingness to sort of go along. But again, we don’t want military officers to think that they are policymakers. We want military officers to be loyal servants of the state, and that’s what I was for a period of time. [10]

Many people who specialize in nuclear disarmament have failed to address the fact that the American Empire is the elephant in the room that is impeding all progress. Nuclear disarmament begins on the path from Washington to Moscow, and nothing is going to happen until the disparity in conventional military and economic power is addressed to Moscow’s satisfaction. America has done numerous things to erode the trust of Russia, and it will take a lot of work to win it back. First there was America’s triumphalist attitude about having won the Cold War, followed by the economic shock doctrine imposed in the 1990s, along with the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders. Finally, America orchestrated a pro-Western coup in Ukraine, slapped economic sanctions on Russia (breaking WTO agreements that Russia had signed onto), then it demonized Russia for its predictable reaction.
Mikhail Gorbachev, a critic of many aspects of Putin’s leadership, has left his strongest criticisms for the way American foreign policy has betrayed the promises of Reagan-Gorbachev summits that ended the Cold War. He declared in 2016, “All of the attempts to resolve the numerous conflicts of the previous two decades militarily have solved no real problems, and only led to the erosion of international law and the glorification of force.” [11]
Around the same time, Germany has downgraded Russia from “partner” to “security challenge” because Moscow was alleged to have used hybrid instruments to blur the boundaries between war and peace and undermine other states, and is influencing global public opinion through traditional outlets and social media (as if no other government ever attempted to manipulate the mass media). [12] I declare here that some of the sources cited herein may be those media outlets that displease Germany, but again, this is an example of a Western government’s blindness to its own actions. The problem for the West seems to be not that Russia engages in public relations, but that it has been successful in presenting the world with a convincing alternative view of what lies behind the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as other global tensions.
This horribly degraded relationship between the USA and Russia must force nuclear disarmament activists to broaden their scope of concerns. One can say that nuclear weapons are stupid, useless, wasteful, too dangerous to possess, too dangerous to ever use, and so on, but we have to ask what happens when they’re gone. In the absence of nuclear deterrence, only America would be secure with its overwhelming advantage in conventional military capacity. In a new period of insecurity, the nuclear arms race would immediately be replaced with a conventional arms race and probably much bolder adventurism on the part of America.
The problem remains essentially what it was in 1955, when Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein wrote in their famous manifesto, “Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.” A footnote called for this to be a “concomitant balanced reduction of all armaments.” The manifesto seemed to assume that nuclear weapons were here to stay and would inevitably be used in war, so the more urgent issue was for nations to accept “distasteful limitations of national sovereignty” and “find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.” [13] They wrote the manifesto to launch the Pugwash Conference, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 in recognition of its mission to “diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” [14]
Thus one could conclude that nuclear disarmament groups, usually focused on a single issue, are themselves part of the problem they wish to eliminate. They need to expand their goals, and rename and rebrand themselves. They need to engage with geopolitics, economics, ideology, peace studies, history, international law, and environmental justice; in short, every global problem needs to be addressed on the way to nuclear disarmament. I have the impression that Henry Kissinger, a supporter of the Global Zero campaign, wouldn’t agree that radical solutions challenging American supremacy are necessary, but the example of his being a nuclear disarmament activist makes my point. [15] It seems logical to get rid of the most terrifying weapons first, but it may be wiser to start by working on radical reform of international relations and to start questioning our basic assumptions about how and by whom the world should be ruled.


[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” first published in the journal Horizon (volume 13, issue 76, pages 252-265) and since widely reproduced.

[2] The full text of President Obama’s speech appeared on page A8 of the May 28, 2016 edition of the New York Times, headlined, “The Memory of the Morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Must Never Fade.” The online version of the article, at nytimes.com, is dated May 27, 2016, and headlined, “Text of President Obama’s Speech in Hiroshima, Japan.” 

[3] Max Fisher, “Obama Finds Predator Drones Hilarious,” the Atlantic Wire (online supplement of the Atlantic magazine, now known as the Wire), May 5, 2010.

[4] Ashton Carter, “Full transcript: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Naval Academy commencement address,” Capital Gazette, May 27, 2016.

[5] Richard North Patterson, “Too Sick To Lead: The Lethal Personality Disorder Of Donald Trump,” Huffington Post, June 3, 2016.

[6] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) (Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013).

[7] Ashton Carter, Capital Gazette.

[8] “‘Stuck in Cold War’: Beijing says won’t play role in Hollywood-style movie directed by US military,” Russia Today, May 30, 2016.

[9] Patrick L. Smith, “The Defense Department is ruining America: Big budgets, militarization and the real story behind our Asia pivot,” Salon, May 29, 2016.

[10] Patrick L. Smith, “‘This will stop only when the American people get fed up’: American exceptionalism, the New York Times, and our foreign policy after Barack Obama,” Salon, May 22, 2016.

[11] “Gorbachev warns world of ‘cult of force,’ says all recent conflicts could have had peaceful solution,” Russia Today, June 3, 2016.  

[12] “From partner to rival: Germany to designate Russia ‘a security challenge’ – report,” Russia Today, June 5, 2016.

[13] The Russell Einstein Manifesto, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, July 9, 1955. The same notion about the necessary surrender of sovereignty appeared four years earlier in the science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in the words of the alien visitor Klaatu.

[14] “Oslo Award of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, December 10, 1995.

[15] “Realist ‘Four Horsemen’ Challenge Obama, Other ‘Global Zero’ Advocates to Abandon US Denuclearization,” Center for Security Policy, April 1, 2013. The authors of this press release agree with the point I make about the elder statesmen supporting Global Zero, but draw different conclusions. They perceive that nuclear arsenal reductions would threaten the American global security regime that provides American security and a nuclear umbrella to allies, so they argue against a “naïve” nuclear reduction plan, whether it involves unilateral or negotiated reductions.

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