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Haunted by Hiroshima

Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park on Monday was an overdue acknowledgment of the devastating effects of the atomic bomb blast that killed 140,000 people more than 70 years ago. Mr. Kerry is the highest ranking diplomat from the U.S. to ever visit the memorial, a sign of respect that the Japanese people deserved to witness before today.

Whatever one may think of the U.S. decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki a few days later — whether it spared lives that might have been lost in an invasion of Japan or cost civilization dearly — the inferno unleashed was unprecedented and continues to be felt today. Mr. Kerry called his visit "gut-wrenching" and for good reason.

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Too often, U.S. politicians talk about nuclear weapons as a child might a board game, parsing strategies and "delivery" systems and payloads. That Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for president, seemed perfectly comfortable in suggesting two weeks ago that he was "not sure it would be a bad thing" if South Korea and Japan had nuclear weapons is a sign that more Americans need to visit Hiroshima.

Could it be that in the 21st century an American president opposed to nuclear proliferation is no longer a given? A month ago, that was unthinkable. Today, it's a real possibility. Mr. Trump has since walked back his remarks to a degree (in part, to quell the anxieties he raised in East Asia over the possibility of a new nuclear arms race) but a line was clearly crossed.

The Doomsday Clock, the metaphorical measure of catastrophic threat to civilization maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, is currently set at three minutes before midnight, the closest it's been since the end of the Cold War. The Iran nuclear accords were judged to be too small a "bright spot" to offset lingering problems, particularly involving Russia, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. That insufficient progress has been made to address climate change is also part of that calculation.

These days, Americans tend to give thought to nuclear weapons mostly in the context of terrorism and the possibility of an attack on U.S. soil by a weapon smuggled into the country. North Korea's claim to have recently tested an engine that might power an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the mainland United States might be sheer posturing, but the existence of a nuclear program in the hands of such unstable leadership can't be easily dismissed.

Yet for Mr. Kerry, President Barack Obama and anyone else who assumes the mantle of leadership, there should be one overriding goal when it comes to nuclear weapons — to work toward a world free of them entirely. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should never been unleashed again — nor should its victims be forgotten.

We recognize, of course, that the U.S. can't unilaterally disarm and that the geopolitical reality is that some level of a nuclear stockpile is still needed today as a deterrent. But that doesn't mean the world should be satisfied with the status quo. More needs to be done to deter proliferation, nuclear testing and the production of fissile material for weapons. Greater transparency and security measures are needed so that nuclear assets can be better tracked and their whereabouts monitored.

Mr. Kerry's visit to Hiroshima was part of a G-7 meeting aimed at a number of security issues including terrorism, international refugees as well as nuclear disarmament and maritime security. Such talks are crucial for finding solutions that don't necessarily rely on military intervention, a lesson too often lost on certain presidential candidates.

President Obama would be wise to find an opportunity during his last year in office to visit the Hiroshima memorial as well. His Republicans critics would likely attack such a move as an "apology tour" and raise the ghosts of U.S. World War II casualties to once again portray the president and his party as soft on foreign policy. But the nation can ill afford to continue to ignore the terrible price paid by the use of the atomic bomb. Turning our back to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not make us stronger, it only raises doubts among our allies and others about how seriously we take disarmament.

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