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How John Hersey’s Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb via BBC

At the end of this month 70 years will have passed since the publication of a magazine story hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written. Headlined simply Hiroshima, the 30,000-word article by John Hersey had a massive impact, revealing the full horror of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation, as Caroline Raphael describes.

I have an original copy of the 31 August 1946 edition of The New Yorker. It has the most innocuous of covers – a delightful playful carefree drawing of summer in a park. On the back cover, the managers of the New York Giants and the New York Yankees encourage you to “Always Buy Chesterfield” cigarettes.

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Seventy years ago no-one talked about stories “going viral”, but the publication of John Hersey’s article Hiroshima in The New Yorker achieved just that. It was talked of, commented on, read and listened to by many millions all over the world as they began to understand what really happened not just to the city but to the people of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and in the following days.

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John Hersey was not the first to report from Hiroshima but the reports and newsreels had been a blizzard of numbers too big to fully comprehend. They had reported on the destruction of the city, the mushroom cloud, the shadows of the dead on the walls and streets but never got close to those who lived through those end-of-days time, as Hersey did.

It was also becoming increasingly clear to some that this new weapon carried on killing long after the “noiseless flash” as bright as the sun, despite intense government and military attempts to cover it up or deny it.

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Hiroshima was the first publication to make the man on the San Francisco trolleybus and the woman on the Clapham omnibus confront the miseries of radiation sickness, to understand that you could survive the bomb and still die from its after effects. John Hersey in his calm unflinching prose reported what those who had survived had witnessed. As the nuclear arms race began, just three months after the testing of further atom bombs at Bikini Atoll, the true power of the new weapons began to be understood.

Such were the reverberations of Hersey’s article, and Albert Einstein’s very public support for it, that Henry Stimson who had been US Secretary for War wrote a magazine article in reply, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb – a defiant justification for the use of the bomb, whatever the consequences.

News of the extraordinary article had been reported in Britain, but it was too long to publish – John Hersey would not allow it to be edited and newsprint was still rationed. So the BBC followed American radio’s lead and about six weeks later it was read out over four consecutive nights on the new Third Programme, despite some concern among senior managers about the emotional impact on listeners.

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