The following is a review of Lesely M.M. Blume’s new book about John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima”.
By John Loretz
In 1946, John Hersey wrote a magazine article that changed the world. On the 75thanniversary of the events he described so vividly in Hiroshima, (Hersey 1946) 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.
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.
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 judgement, 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.
John Loretz is Senior Consultant to IPPNW and editor of the IPPNW Peace and Health Blog. He was the IPPNW Program Director from 2000 until his retirement in 2017.