President Obama’s Moral Revolution and Its Dying Vanguard

On May 27, President Obama became the first US president to visit Hiroshima since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on that city on August 6, 1945. The visit was the culmination of a long process of reconciliation between the United States and Japan since the end of World War II when Japan changed from wartime enemy to valuable ally almost overnight. In his speech delivered before the bombing’s survivors and their relatives, President Obama called for a “moral revolution” in the face of increased technological capacities to kill large numbers of people. “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” he warned (full text of the speech can be found here).

President Obama’s speech echoed the concern about technological change outpacing human moral capacity that many American journalists and academics felt in Hiroshima’s immediate aftermath. Journalist John Hersey, sent to interview bombing survivors for The New Yorker, told stories of dread, shock, and suffering. Lieutenant Daniel McGovern captured videos of the bomb’s impact showing bombed out buildings and the bleached skulls of the blast’s victims. Upon hearing about the bombing painter Pablo Picasso is supposed to have remarked, “the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima,” linking the beauty of scientific discovery to the devastation of instantaneous mass murder.

Nothing captured concerns about the ethics of using an atomic bomb better than Alexander Leighton’s 1949 book Human Relations in a Changing World, however. Before arriving in Hiroshima in December 1945 to map the bomb’s psychological effects on Japanese civilians for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Leighton had spearheaded research on the morale of Japanese-Americans interned at the Colorado River War Relocation Center at Poston, Arizona. The aim of his research at Poston was to assess how the Japanese community responded to the stress of relocation and internment. Leighton hoped that an administration informed by social scientific knowledge – group psychology in particular – would be more efficient and humane. While Leighton did not oppose internment, he advocated administrative reform in the camps emphasizing cooperation between administration and internees on issues ranging from public health to community leadership with the hope of combating the dehumanization of internees. When he left in 1943 to take job with the Office of War Information, Leighton was confident that social science had ameliorated conditions in the camps by improving relations between camp administrators and internees.

Leighton’s attitudes between his work at Poston and his trip to Hiroshima differed markedly, showcasing a lost confidence in the ability of administrative reform to keep pace with the technology of dehumanization and killing. Whereas the poor conditions at Poston – sweltering heat, unsanitary and overcrowded facilities, and popular distrust of administrators – could be overcome by administrative reforms and improved communication, at Hiroshima there was little left to reform. Describing his first impression upon arriving at Hiroshima, Leighton invoked a “city dump with its smells of wet ashes, mold and things rotting, but one that runs from your feet out almost to the limits of vision.” The 4.4 square miles of downtown Hiroshima were completely destroyed. Leighton found a people shattered by the experience of vaporized lives and lost loved ones. An elderly schoolteacher told Leighton the bomb had transformed Hiroshima from “Paradise to Hades” in an instant. What haunted Leighton most was a feeling that Hiroshima was only the beginning. “This is a preview of things to come where I live,” he wrote, “These thousands dead will not be strangers. They will include friends, brother, sister, father, mother, wife and children. Some will die instantly and some will survive awhile to realize their slow death and to beckon for help where there will be no one to answer.”

Leighton came to believe Hiroshima was made possible by the outpacing of moral or civilizational progress by technological development. He hoped that social scientific advances would make using weapons of mass destruction obsolete by easing international tensions. Work in the fields of sociology and anthropology had important roles to play as well, highlighting commonalities unifying the human species. Furthermore, the very place of the social sciences in tying the impersonal work of the hard sciences to the moral world of human beings was significant. Leighton believed social scientific interventions into the natural sciences were necessary for moral guidance. “Moral values when pertinent dominate scientific values at three contiguous points: the selection of the problem to be investigated, the limits of the human and other materials that may be used, and the determination of what shall be done with the results.” Social scientists with their specialty in human values and experience would prevent scientists from privileging scientific theories and results over ethical concerns.

Leighton made numerous recommendations for how to disseminate social scientific knowledge ranging from expanded university fellowships to public education initiatives. Explaining the values and experiences unifying humanity was, for Leighton and others who experienced Hiroshima’s aftermath, an obligation shared across American society from policymakers in Washington to families in small towns.

Leighton’s suggestions make uneasy reading with the continued national defunding of the social sciences during the Obama administration. The Obama administration has vocally supported the STEM fields, but have elicited a lukewarm (at best) response to promoting the social sciences and humanities. In April 2015 the Republican-led House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology proposed a 45% reduction in federal funding for the social sciences (a useful summary can be found here). This while increasing the overall budget for the National Science Foundation, “adding more than one hundred million dollars each to the offices for biology, computing, engineering, math, and physical sciences.” National cuts reflect declining university enrollments in the social sciences. The University of Washington, for example, reported declining enrollments

Alexander H. Leighton in Poston, AZ during World War II.
Alexander H. Leighton in Poston, AZ during World War II.
in the social sciences ranging from four to forty-five percent depending on the department and responded by cutting twenty-five teaching assistant positions. The 2015 panic over national cuts confirmed fears that waning American economic competitiveness made separating the “useful” natural sciences from the superfluous social sciences a priority for policymakers and universities alike.

President Obama’s visit comes at a crucial moment as America’s East Asian allies are challenged in the South and East China Seas by an expansionist China. His speech was both a reaffirmation of his commitment to Japan as a US ally and a warning to China about the dangers of expansionism. The President’s speech also underlined the perils of dehumanizing language for American audiences. Donald Trump has risen to the Republican Presidential nomination on hateful rhetoric meant to demonize racial, gender, and cultural “others” as inferior and dangerous.

The moral revolution Obama sees as the anecdote to aggressive expansionism abroad and xenophobic nationalism at home begins by reaffirming the human obligations of global citizenship. Yet, it is difficult to imagine constructing a civically responsible American populous while systematically defunding its social scientific and humanistic vanguard. Moral revolutions are not spontaneous. They begin with an understanding of current ethical problems facing humankind and the context of how we are all facing those problems together as part of a single global community. The social sciences and humanities have an important role to play in demystifying other cultures and educating Americans how to become contributing global citizens.

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