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Hersey Helped Hiroshima Survivors Tell and Preserve Their Stories

Viewpoint by John Loretz

This book review was originally published in IPPNW’s designated journal, Medicine, Conflict and Survival.

Photo Atomic Bomb Dome - Hiroshima. Photograph: Trevor Dobson / Flickr

MALDEN, Massachusetts, USA (IDN) — In 1946, John Hersey wrote a magazine article that changed the world. On the 75th anniversary of the events he described so vividly in Hiroshima, journalist Lesley M. M. Blume has given us Fallout, a timely reminder that Hersey’s courageous and influential reporting is as important today as it was when the facts about nuclear weapons were still shrouded in secrecy. [2021-06-23]

Blume depicts a diligent and resourceful wartime reporter struggling to uncover suppressed facts and disclose essential truths. She takes us into the musty offices of The New Yorker, at the time an upstart humour and society magazine, as Hersey and his editors’ plot to outmanoeuvre the post-war military censors who, under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had closed off media access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to all but the most cooperative journalists.

Through a combination of careful preparation, his reputation for integrity, fortunate timing, and a certain amount of luck, Hersey himself had little trouble getting permission to enter Hiroshima, moved about freely, and was able to leave without interference, unlike colleagues who had their notes and film confiscated. (Hersey, Blume tells us, actually took no notes during his interviews as a means of evading the censors, and did not begin writing until he got home. Remarkably, he retained everything his subjects told him, and quoted them at length, with uncanny accuracy and respect for their stories.) Getting the story past the censors and into print once he had written it was a more daunting challenge, which Blume recounts with enthusiasm.

In an age when our news arrives electronically almost as it happens, it’s charming to learn that every copy of the magazine, comprising solely this one 31,000-word article, sold out on newsstands in a matter of hours and that people descended upon the offices of The New Yorker begging for copies. The article was reprinted in its entirety (a strict requirement in order to obtain the rights) by newspapers and magazines around the world. The Book of the Month Club rushed out an edition that it sent to all of its members for free. Hiroshima was quickly adopted as required reading in high school and college curricula and has consistently been included in lists of the most important non-fiction books of all time. 

Blume gives us enough of Hersey’s biography to understand why he was exactly the right person to write Hiroshima. She makes it clear, however, that the assignment was always more important to him than his celebrity as an author. Unlike many of his peers, Hersey was averse to the spotlight and refused to do interviews or engage in other forms of self-promotion, despite his Pulitzer Prize. He wanted the focus to remain on the story he was telling. He disappears completely within the pages of Hiroshima, allowing the experiences of his subjects to remain front and centre at all times. 

Hersey’s book itself weaves together the stories of six survivors of the US atomic bombing, and what they experienced on the day their city was reduced to ashes. As Blume explains, he intended that readers of Hiroshima would empathize with the six people he chose as his subjects. They had names: Toshiko Sasaki, Masakazu Fujii, Hatsuyo Nakamura, Wilhelm Kleinsorge, Terufumi Sasaki, Kiyoshi Tanimoto. They were ordinary residents of the city, starting a normal day: two doctors, a priest, a pastor, an office worker, a tailor’s widow.

As long as wartime casualties could be packaged as statistics, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki deaths did not stand out as anything unusual. Once the victims had an opportunity to tell their stories, the public perception of the atomic bombings began to shift. Concerns would soon be aired openly that the US itself had committed atrocities on a par with the war crimes for which their adversaries were now being taken to court. Readers of Hiroshima were quick to see themselves as possible victims of a future atomic bombing.

By late 1946, it was common knowledge that this brand new weapon had levelled most buildings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and had immediately killed upwards of 100,000 people. US officials, however, had gone to great lengths to conceal the facts about the medical aftermath, especially the persistence of radiation and its lethality. Hersey’s book brought the truth out into the open for the first time.

(Ironically, while the government intensified its public relations effort to downplay the effects of radiation, the military asked to use Hiroshima as a training resource to prepare combat troops for the conditions they might face in a devastated, contaminated environment.)

When the article was published, political and military leaders in the US, intent upon controlling a painstakingly crafted narrative that the atomic bomb had ended World War II early and had saved millions of American and allied lives, were chagrined that their “miracle weapon” had, almost overnight, become the object of fear and revulsion at home and around the world. What Hersey had done, without casting a single political judgment, was humanize the victims of a weapon with the destructive force not only to obliterate an entire city in a matter of moments but also to continue killing long after the fact because of radiation. 

Blume underscores this last point throughout her book. During the year between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those most enamoured of the new US bomb—President Truman, Manhattan Project leader Gen. Leslie Groves, and Harvard president James Conant among them—were making plans for atomic weapons based on several misguided assumptions. Their erroneous belief that the United States would retain a monopoly on the bomb for a long time (Groves predicted 20 years or more), would be shattered in 1949 when the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test.

The emerging nuclear priesthood fully expected that atomic bombs would be used as a matter of course against US enemies and that the public would come to accept these new weapons as long as the government could control the narrative. Suppressing all references to radiation, and dismissing its effects when that was not possible, was crucial to that objective. (Groves, when pinned down on the subject by a Congressional committee shortly after the bombings said he’d been told by the doctors that radiation was actually “a very pleasant way to die.”) Hiroshima upended those plans.

While majorities in the US would continue to defend the atomic bombings in the belief they had ended a catastrophic war and had saved millions of lives, even greater numbers would become appalled at the prospect that nuclear weapons would ever be used again after reading Hersey’s book.

Hersey believed that if the public understood the true nature of the bomb, its consequences, and its implications, they would recoil from it in horror and demand its elimination. He feared that if the experiences of those who had suffered from the bomb’s abhorrent effects ever faded from memory, the taboo against using nuclear weapons would lose its potency.

Keeping those stories fresh in the minds of people generations removed from the events of 1945 is even more important as the few remaining Hibakusha come to the end of their days. Fallout, which was published during the 75thanniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, is a welcome portrait of the man who made it possible for the survivors to tell and preserve their stories. More than that, it’s a fitting tribute to those Hibakusha who are still with us, and whose stories continue to remind us that humanity has some urgently important unfinished business. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 June 2021]

Photo Atomic Bomb Dome – Hiroshima. Photograph: Trevor Dobson / Flickr

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