From Trinity to Trump: The Politics of Nuclear Memory in the 2020 Election

Trinity Test, 16 July 1945 (Left) and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Right). Photo credits: “Trinity Test” by Los Alamos National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 . “Hiroshima – Atomic Bomb Dome.15” by Geoff Whalan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The 75th anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in 2020, while having low-key, in-person gatherings on account of COVID-19, still resonated through a range of electronic and broadcast media, as did the controversies surrounding them, whether historic or current, including reflections on ongoing nuclear policies.[i] Existing academic studies have explored memorialisation and politics around the bombings, but only briefly discussed these in relation to US elections.[ii]

However, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become intertwined with the 2020 US presidential election, mobilised by presidential candidates in arguments over nuclear policies. President Donald Trump has avoided reference to the bombings, but used other WW2 nuclear anniversaries to indicate support for such weapons, embodying his wider approach to nuclear diplomacy (descriptions of which range from negotiating through strength to some variation of a ‘big stick approach’ or ‘Madman Strategy’).[iii] By contrast, Democrat Presidential Candidate Joe Biden used the Hiroshima anniversary to reiterate his desire for less reliance on nuclear weapons and a more multilateral approach to treaties (backed by pressure towards denuclearisation in some cases).

At the same time, while political leaders have only selectively drawn on these historical events, the bombings have increasingly been mobilised in popular and media discourse around the election to become part of a new political language that provides analogies for political failure, including as a measure of COVID deaths in the US.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been part of US election vocabulary in recent years, though usually relegated to the margins. Such usage, however, is instructive as to the opinions of Biden and Trump. In May 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, attending the war memorial and meeting survivors. The then Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, addressing a San Diego campaign rally, made specific reference to Obama’s visit as “pathetic”, adding “that’s fine, just as long as he doesn’t apologize, that’s absolutely fine, who cares”. This campaign trail sentiment echoed the longstanding public view of US Administrations, that the bombings were essential to end WW2 without the high casualties of a land invasion (much challenged by more recent scholarship).[iv] The then Vice President Joe Biden also became involved in an argument related to the bombings, making a statement in August that criticised Trump’s nuclear policy, but was itself viewed as controversial because of its reference to the US preventing postwar Japan from becoming a nuclear power.[v]

In October 2020, it is perhaps surprising to reflect that President Trump, whose Twitter communications have frequently dominated discussion of major nuclear issues from North Korea to Iran, has not, as of 23 October, actually used the word “nuclear” in any tweet since January, and has never used the medium to make comments about Hiroshima or Nagasaki.[vi] The President did invite controversy in a speech in Japan in 2017, when he said (perhaps with unconscious irony), “it was not pleasant” for countries that had underestimated the US military, without referencing the bombings. A remark by Trump in a press conference on 10 August 2020, the day after the anniversary of Nagasaki, further misattributed Spanish Flu in 1917 as ending WW2. Whether consciously or subconsciously, such remarks psychologically airbrushed commemorations of the bombings, while simultaneously inviting more attention in media commentary.

At the same time, however, the Trump Administration sanctioned some 1945 nuclear commemorations in 2020. While given less coverage, an official “Presidential Message” was released online in July 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of ‘Trinity’, the world’s first nuclear weapons test, praising the “ingenuity and innovation” involved. Ironically, the statement highlighted the test’s importance in ending WW2 without mentioning the bombings.[vii]

Against the backdrop of arms control policy debates in 2019 and 2020, including efforts to secure a possible renewal of the New START Treaty with Russia, this marking of Trinity’s legacy and US nuclear testing was part of a wider threat aimed at Russia and China. Both implicitly and explicitly, the wording raised the prospect of renewed live US nuclear weapons testing if no new deal was signed (echoing reports in May and June 2020 that senior US national security officials and the Administration had discussed this). The Presidential Message on Trinity simultaneously called for renewed negotiations, highlighting the US honouring of the moratorium on live nuclear testing, while suggesting that “Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produce nuclear yield, and […] China has done the same”.

However, the Trinity commemoration’s audience was also domestic. The Message was partly a response to Nevada Congressional Representatives, who had, in June, introduced legislation that would ban funding for any future tests; arguments over this continue into the autumn.

Trump’s recognising of Trinity in this way, and implicitly supporting the possibility of live weapons tests, was an embodiment of his approach to nuclear weapons and politics, aiming to keep opponents off-balance through uncertainty. It does not appear that such threats have had much impact (indeed they, and Trump’s withdrawal from other arms control treaties, have been counter-productive for any agreement).[viii]

Joe Biden, by contrast, has engaged more directly with the bombings, but only specifically referenced them in his statement on the 6th August anniversary of Hiroshima. Stating that the bombings “still horrify us”, he emphasised a desire to work towards a nuclear-free world, a sentiment echoed by other political leaders and commentators, both nationally and internationally.[ix]

Biden’s Tweet introducing this statement was very much anchored in the anniversary, though the message itself was mainly focused on arguments over recent US nuclear policies, including renewal of New START. At the same time, Biden also challenged the prospect of “recklessly returning to nuclear testing”. It is less clear if this was a direct critique of the Presidential Message on Trinity, but it did echo language Biden had already used in May 2020 of renewed testing “as reckless as it is dangerous”. In some ways, this choice of message may also have been a conscious reflection by Biden on his aforementioned experience of comments on Japan and nuclear issues in the 2016 Election.

Although Biden has not made references to his August statement or the atomic bombings when further critiquing nuclear policies, it is clear that sentiments expressed in the statement continue to reflect his thoughts on nuclear weapons, including the view by commentators that he is moving towards a “no first use” policy, while trying to secure weapons reductions through multilateral agreements.

Paradoxically, as candidates have sought to avoid or restrict their direct references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of these events as concepts has become more widespread in 2020 election coverage, primarily as analogies.[x] Commentator Jerry Falwell Jr. was heavily criticised for a December 2019 Twitter post suggesting Democrat losses in 2020 would be the equivalent of “Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. While initially isolated, such uses of the analogy have multiplied thereafter, including a Twitter post in August by The Washington Free Beacon, labelling a speech by Obama as “equivalent of a culture war Hiroshima blast”. The bombings have also appeared in televised election news media, such as after the first presidential debate when Stephen Colbert on The Late Show used Hiroshima as an analogy to critique arguments by Trump about political successes.

Hiroshima’s usage as analogy is not limited to politicians. Advanced search queries on Twitter between August and October 2020 show a much larger number of posts by different users discussing the bombings in relation to the US election.[xi] One recurring trend in posts includes comparing atomic casualty figures to US COVID-19 deaths.[xii] Rhetorical use of the bombings in this way is also not an exclusively American phenomenon, as evident in remarks by former President Lula of Brazil about his country.

The shadow of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looms large, both globally and in the US. While the commemorations rearticulated long-standing moral and political controversies, the selective reference to or omission of these events in the US Election has been more complex. These have underpinned diplomatic manoeuvres with China and Russia, along with arguments over domestic and foreign policy. However, perhaps of greater import may be the increased public usage of the atomic bombings as analogies by a US public struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, while also still seeking to reinterpret the dislocation of ‘normal’ politics over the past four years.

[i] Historical controversies range from such questions as whether the bombings were necessary to the initial suppression of information about their destructiveness. This latter point is further discussed in an online radio interview on 6 August 2020 with Lesley Blume, discussing his book Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter who Revealed it to the World (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

[ii] See, for example, Martin J. Sherwin, ‘Hiroshima as Politics and History’, The Journal of American History, 82:3 (Dec., 1995), p. 1089. Even when the bombings are juxtaposed with the 2020 Election, academic and news articles have primarily used the events as context or historical exemplars, not examining their connection to the Election itself. See, for example, Ray Perkins, ‘My Turn: Hiroshima, nukes and the 2020 election’, Concord Monitor (5 August 2020).

[iii] Variations in this strategy are especially evident in discussions over short and long-term consequences, including US negotiations with North Korea.

[iv] Albert I. Berger, Life and times of the atomic bomb: nuclear weapons and the transformation of warfare (London: Routledge, 2016), Ch. 5; Beatrice Heuser, The bomb: nuclear weapons in their historical, strategic and ethical context (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 7-34. There have been alternate perspectives raised about the debates behind the bombings, including, for example, of civilian leaders as favouring the Bomb more than the military. See Phillips Payson O’Brien, ‘The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the atom bomb, the American Military Mind and the end of the Second World War’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), pp. 1-21.

[v] Praising US-Japanese cooperation and regretting the wider WW2 suffering, while keeping to the traditional justification for the bombings, appears to have been an unwritten convention for US Presidential Candidates. For more information on the domestic and international controversies surrounding Obama’s visit, see Leif-Eric Easley, ‘Obama’s Nuclear Legacy: Reconciliation and Nonproliferation in Asia after Hiroshima’, Asian Institute for Policy Studies (5 October 2016). For a brief history of the US policy relating to non-apology for the atomic bombings, see Olivia Tasevski, ‘‘Hey, Let’s Forget That’: No US Apology for the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, The Diplomat (25 August 2020).

[vi] Accurate as of 23 October 2020.

[vii] The coverage itself shows both current local concerns in Nevada over the resumption of live tests, and ongoing debates over compensation for those exposed to fallout during previous nuclear tests.

[viii] At the time of writing in October 2020, a US-Russia deal on the Treaty is regarded by some commentators as being close, though it is unclear when this may be resolved, if it will be more than a temporary extension of 1 year, and if it would, at this stage, have any significant impact on the Election.

[ix] For reaction to Biden’s message and accompanying coverage, see, for example, article on 7 August 2020 from Kyodo News.

[x] This has not prevented other WW2 analogies being used by US politicians when discussing nuclear weapons, such as Biden’s analogy, in the 22 October 2020 Presidential Debate, of the US relationship with “Hitler” in the 1930s and Trump’s relationship with North Korea over its nuclear programme.

[xi] While the use of social media to discuss Hiroshima is prominent in the context of the Election, there is a more substantive and complex history of ways the bombings have been memorialised in the US. See, for example, Masaya Nemoto, ‘Remaking Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Local Commemorations of Atomic Bombings in the United States’, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 2:1 (2019), pp. 34-50.

[xii] The query shown is just one example. The use of “Hiroshima” in combination with other 2020 Election-related search terms has also yielded results. In October, analogies to Hiroshima in social media posts were, in addition, related to political arguments over liquified natural gas being transported by rail in the US (referred to by critics as ‘bomb-trains’).

About Timothy Peacock

Dr Timothy Peacock FRHistS is a Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow, and a Visiting Fellow in the British Library Eccles Centre, working on subjects including Spaceflight, Nuclear, Gaming, and Politics.
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