When the U.S military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the American government portrayed the weapons as equivalent to large conventional bombs — and dismissed Japanese reports of radiation sickness as propaganda.
Military censors restricted access to Hiroshima, but a young journalist named John Hersey managed to get there and write a devastating account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning he encountered. Author Lesley M.M. Blume tells Hersey’s story in her book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World.
Hersey wrote a 30,000-word essay, telling the story of the bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of six survivors. The article, which was published in its entirety by The New Yorker,was fundamental in challenging the government’s narrative of nuclear bombs as conventional weapons.
“It helped create what many experts in the nuclear fields called the ‘nuclear taboo,’ ” Blume says of Hersey’s essay. “The world did not know the truth about what nuclear warfare really looks like on the receiving end, or did not really understand the full nature of these then experimental weapons, until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and reported it to the world.”
On how military generals focused on physical devastation when they testified before Congress about the effects of the atomic bomb
In the immediate weeks, very little [was said.] A lot of it was really painted in landscape devastation. Landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were rubble pictures, and also obviously people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions.
But in terms of the radiation — even in Truman’s announcement of the bomb — he’s painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, they know that it’s a mega-weapon, but they don’t understand the full nature of the weapons, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public, and in the meantime, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out how the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it’s affecting human beings, because they’re about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan.
On America’s PR campaign and cover-up of the radiation aftermath
[The U.S. military] created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. Leslie Groves [who directed the Manhattan Project] and Robert Oppenheimer [who directed the Manhattan Project’s laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M.] themselves went to the Trinity site of testing [in New Mexico] and brought a junket of reporters so they could show off the area. And they said that there was no residual radiation whatsoever, and that therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were “Tokyo tales.” So right away they went into overdrive to contain that narrative. …
The American officials were saying, for the most part, these are the defeated Japanese trying to create international sympathy, to create better terms for themselves and the occupation — ignore them.
Hiroshima was seen as a site of just enormous victory for these guys. And a lot of them would go even to ground zero of the bombings in Hiroshima. … They saw it as a souvenir site. It’s essentially a graveyard. There are still remains that are being dug up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. But many of them kind of pillaged the ruins to grab a souvenir to bring home. It was the ultimate victory souvenir. So whether it’s a broken teacup to use as an ashtray or what have you, they went and they took their equivalent of selfies at ground zero. At one point in Nagasaki, Marines cleared a football field-sized amount of space in the ruins and they had what they called the “Atomic Bowl,” which was a New Year’s Day football game where they had conscripted Japanese women as cheerleaders. It was an astonishing scene in both cities. They were seen as sites of a victory. And most of the “occupationaires” were totally unrepentant about what had gone down there.