Issue of the Week: War

Hiroshima, By John Hersey, The New Yorker, August 31, 1946


Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, August 6, 1945, the first of the only two nuclear weapons ever used was dropped by the US on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The second was dropped three days later on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

World War Two, which ended in Europe the previous May with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, ended in the Pacific with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.

Fascism was defeated.

The nuclear age began.

For the next nearly 45 years during the Cold War, the world was 24/7 living in the darkest shadow in history of the potential destruction of all life on earth by nuclear weapons exponentially more deadly than the atom bombs used in 1945.

The progress since the end of the Cold War in eliminating 90% of the US and Russian arsenals was positive to be sure, but a false sense of security accompanied this.

Both nations still possessed enough nuclear weapons with enough power to destroy the world, and now are amping up again.

The UK and France still have significant arsenals and China, although far behind the US and Russia, is continually increasing its nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan have large arsenals in a context where they alone could be the match that lights the final fire.

Israel has a significant number of nuclear weapons and could be joined by Iran after the US jettisoned the agreement to keep this from happening, which would either lead to war to stop it, or to other nations in the Middle East acquiring nuclear weapons, which would predictably lead to the fire that ends the world there.

And of course the rogue North Korea, which by itself could light the final match.

Or lit elsewhere as more nations acquire nuclear weapons as the non-proliferation treaty and efforts to limit and end nuclear arsenals fall apart in the recent and ongoing abandonment by the US in the lead, and others, of the international structures put in place at the end of World War Two to prevent war.

The major powers could, as during the Cold War, still end up being the most likely destroyers of earth. And in all cases, in a world now of cyber war and AI, the likelihood of nuclear exchange by accident or design has gone up.

The certainty that it will happen at some point is just that, certain, evidenced by all of human history, as long as such arsenals exist and without global cooperation to eliminate them.

This is the one thing that can kill the planet in an instant.

In an instant.

But it’s barely in consciousness, perhaps the deadliest definition of delusion and denial.

In 1982, a million people were in the streets in New York alone in the biggest demonstration of its kind to that date, with many millions joining around the world, to end the threat of nuclear war.

That same year, Planet Earth Foundation produced the film Target Seattle, Target Earth, on the largest international town hall in history on nuclear war, broadcast on PBS stations around the nation.

Now, 38 years later, the 75th anniversary of the start of the nuclear age will barely be noticed.

To the greatest possible peril of us all.

Seventy-four years ago this month, a year after Hiroshima, what many consider one the greatest pieces of print journalism in the twentieth century was published.

John Hersey’s epic report, Hiroshima, in The New Yorker.

It has been reposted from the archive by The New Yorker, with related articles, for this 75th anniversary.

It follows. It must be read. In its entirety. It is the story of the survivors of the first of the only two nuclear attacks in history, as they experienced it, written by a reporter in-effect under cover in Hiroshima, months after the atom bomb was dropped there. There is nothing else quite like it.

First below, the following as prelude.

Yesterday, on All Things Considered, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly interviewed Lesley Blume about her new book, Fallout, on John Hersey’s landmark reporting on the effects of the atomic bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima.

“Reporter’s Role In Exposing Hiroshima Cover-Up Explored In ‘Fallout'”

August 4, 2020, All Things Considered, NPR

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks with Lesley Blume about her new book, Fallout, which explores how reporter John Hersey uncovered the effects of the atomic bomb after the U.S. dropped it on Hiroshima.


At exactly 15 minutes past 8 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. That rather ordinary sentence is the opening to the extraordinary August 1946 New Yorker article titled “Hiroshima.” It was published a year after the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on that city, a year in which the U.S. government had gone to great lengths to conceal the human devastation caused and to depict the bomb as a conventional, humane weapon.

The writer of the piece, John Hersey, uncovered a very different story reporting on the ground in Japan. Author and journalist Lesley Blume chronicles Hersey’s work and the reaction to it in her new book “Fallout.” She joins me now from Los Angeles.

Lesley Blume, welcome.

LESLEY BLUME: Thank you.

KELLY: Start with who John Hersey was and how he came to be the one to tell this story.

BLUME: Well, John Hersey was a young World War II correspondent who had covered action in different theaters throughout the war for Time magazine. And like many war correspondents then, he was pretty supportive of the U.S. military. And he even wrote an almost overly complimentary wartime bio of General Douglas MacArthur. And that the U.S. military knew him and trusted him would be an important factor in my story and how he eventually got his story about Hiroshima. And I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that how he got in was by being the perfect Trojan horse reporter.

KELLY: The perfect Trojan horse reporter. Well, you’ve hooked us. We’re intrigued.

BLUME: (Laughter).

KELLY: Once he got there, he didn’t report this out as a war correspondent. He focused very much on ordinary people, and he picked six of them. Why did he want to tell the story in that way?

BLUME: Well, I mean, the fact of the matter is that the bombing of Hiroshima was widely reported when it happened. And it was reported as a very big end-of-days story. I mean, there were pictures of the mushroom clouds that were released and pictures – the landscape devastation. But there were no pictures that were released or no stories that were released about the human toll that had happened on the ground there. And the government was really going to enormous lengths to cover up the reality of the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were very concerned with, as the former secretary of war put it, not being seen as having outdone Hitler in atrocities.

So Hersey and his editors at The New Yorker magazine became determined to tell the story from the point of view of survivors. You know, these were among the only humans who have ever experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end of nuclear attack. He ultimately picked a widow with young kids, a young female clerk, two medics, a priest and a minister with a young family. And his idea was to create a sense of empathy in his readers with these individuals because, after all, not everybody could understand the physics of how the bombs worked or visualize, you know, an all-out nuclear attack. But anyone could relate to being a mother or a father or colleague or a doctor who was going about their everyday business when catastrophe strikes.

KELLY: I wonder if you would give us a sense – just one telling story of what he did find when he was there, what it was that so shocked American readers who had no idea what was unfolding in Japan.

BLUME: One story that particularly resonated with him is he interviewed a young female clerk who was in her company when the bomb was detonated.

KELLY: This is the clerk I mentioned in the intro.

BLUME: Exactly – one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history. And when the bomb exploded over her factory, bookshelves fell upon her, and she was nearly crushed to death by books. And he thought how ironic it was to have somebody nearly crushed by books within the first moments of the atomic age. And literally, when he was leaving Hiroshima and standing on the surprisingly intact train station platform, he thought that he was going to have to write about that line. And that’s one of the incidents that most resonated with readers.

KELLY: So August 1946, The New Yorker publishes. What was the reaction, both in the United States and around the world, to this story?

BLUME: Well, in Hersey’s own words, the reaction was, quote, “explosive.” I mean, I try not to use that word in my book for obvious reasons, but he did. And the article was simply titled “Hiroshima.” And it comprised nearly the entire contents of the Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker. It sold out immediately. There were even black-market copies of it going for, you know, astronomical sums. It was syndicated in its entirety. And this is a 30,000-word story in newspapers across the country and around the world.

And editors and reporters and readers were enraged. They were horrified by the testimonies in Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” And they also began demanding to know, what else was the U.S. government withholding from the U.S. public? And then when President Truman was asked by a reporter if he had personally read it, he retorted, I never read The New Yorker. It just makes me mad.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLUME: But the fact is that the government had been put very much on the defensive. That said, you know, they didn’t want to look like they were on the defensive, but they were. And they had to scramble to try to reclaim the narrative.

KELLY: John Hersey, as you document, was famously not about garnering publicity. He hid out and didn’t give interviews about this the way you might expect somebody to do now.

BLUME: Yeah, he was a publicist’s nightmare.

KELLY: Right. A publicist’s nightmare – absolutely. Do we know, though, if he felt like the article accomplished what he hoped it would in terms of being a wake-up call to Americans to consider what their government had done in their name?

BLUME: Yeah. He did feel that he had contributed to deterrence. I mean, the fact is that there has not been another nuclear attack, you know, in the vein of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Hersey said that, quote, “What has kept the world safe from the bombs since 1945 has been the memory of what happened at Hiroshima.” And thanks in large part to him and those brave enough to share their stories of survival with him, we know what really happened in Hiroshima and how horrible it was. So in many ways, Hiroshima has become, you know, a pillar of deterrence.

That said, Hersey was very worried by the 1980s when the Cold War was surging again – that as the memory of Hiroshima dimmed, it was beginning to lose its potency as a deterrent. And that’s really to the peril of all. And now, you know, look where we are. We’re, you know, in the most dangerous nuclear landscape ever.

KELLY: What made you want to tell this story now?

BLUME: Well, look. I mean, over the past four years, to be honest, I have been angered and disgusted by the unprecedented journalists-are-the-enemy-of-the-people assault on our free press. These attacks have also felt very personal to me. My father was a journalist. He was Walter Cronkite’s writer and speechwriter. I have spent my professional life in newsrooms working alongside people of enormous integrity who have devoted their lives to the public good.

And I wanted to write a historical story reminding Americans of the profound importance of our press and of investigative journalism and that journalists at their best are working for the common good. And Hersey’s story was the purest, sharpest example of that that I could find. And you know, as you say, although he never sought the spotlight himself, I also hugely admired his deep decency, and I feel like we all need a dose of that in this country right now.

KELLY: And what you’re noting, if I’m hearing you right, is this is a story, of course, about John Hersey. It’s a story about Hiroshima. It’s also a story about the power of journalism and one journalist to change the world.

BLUME: Absolutely.

KELLY: Lesley Blume – she’s the author of “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World.”

Thank you for talking with us.

BLUME: Thank you so much for having me on.


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