By Nick Turse
It was the end of the world, but if you didn’t live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, you didn’t know it. Not in 1945 anyway. One man, John Hersey, brought that reality to Americans in an unforgettable fashion in a classic 1946 report in the New Yorker magazine on what happened under that first wartime mushroom cloud. When I read it in book form as a young man — and I did so for a personal reason — it stunned me. Hersey was the master of my college at Yale when I was an undergraduate and he was remarkably kind to me. That report of his from Hiroshima would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Then its Japanese editor invited me to visit his country, ostensibly to meet other publishers there. Born near Nagasaki, however, it turned out he simply couldn’t believe an American editor had been willing to publish that book of his and had a deep desire to take me to Hiroshima. I was impressed by the bustle of Tokyo and the beauty of Kyoto, but Hiroshima? To be polite, I agreed to go, but I felt blasé about it. After all, I had already published the book. I knew what had happened. By then, Hiroshima was, of course, a thriving city, but he took me to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Even with its caramelized child’s lunch box and other artifacts, it could catch but the slightest edge of that nightmare experience. Still, emotionally it blew me away. Despite Hersey, despite Unforgettable Fire, despite Hiroshima Mon Amour, I realized that I had grasped next to nothing about the true nature of atomic warfare. When I returned to the U.S., though I couldn’t stop talking about Japan, I found that I could hardly say a word about Hiroshima. What being unable to truly duck and cover meant had overwhelmed me.
So, as the world enters yet another (hypersonic) nuclear arms race and the Trump administration tears up Cold War nuclear pacts, I understand just why TomDispatch managing editor Nick Turse reacted so strongly (as I did when I read it this summer) to a powerful, new book on John Hersey’s Hiroshima experience, Lesley Blume’s Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World. He and I have both been living with Hersey’s Hiroshima report for a lifetime in a world that somehow refuses to grasp, even on an increasingly apocalyptic planet, what nuclear war truly means.
-Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.
Only the Essentials
When I pack up my bags for a war zone, I carry what I consider to be the essentials for someone reporting on an armed conflict. A water bottle with a built-in filter. Trauma packs with a blood-clotting agent. A first-aid kit. A multitool. A satellite phone. Sometimes I forgo one or more of these items, but there’s always been a single, solitary staple, a necessity whose appearance has changed over the years, but whose presence in my rucksack has not.
Once, this item was intact, almost pristine. But after the better part of a decade covering conflicts in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, and Burkina Faso, it’s a complete wreck. Still, I carry it. In part, it’s become (and I’m only slightly embarrassed to say it) something of a talisman for me. But mostly, it’s because what’s between the figurative covers of that now-coverless, thoroughly mutilated copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima — the New Yorker article in paperback form — is as terrifyingly brilliant as the day I bought it at the Strand bookstore in New York City for 48 cents.
The tale of how John Hersey got his story is a great triumph of Lesley Blume’s Fallout, but what came after may be an even more compelling facet of the book. Hersey gave the United States an image problem — and far worse. “The transition from global savior to genocidal superpower was an unwelcome reversal,” she observes. Worse yet for the U.S. government, the article left many Americans reevaluating their country and themselves. It’s beyond rare for a journalist to prompt true soul-searching or provide a moral mirror for a nation. In an interview in his later years, Hersey, who generally avoided publicity, suggested that the testimony of survivors of the atomic blasts — like those he spotlighted — had helped to prevent nuclear war.
“We know what an atomic apocalypse would look like because John Hersey showed us,” writes Blume. Unfortunately, while there have been many noteworthy, powerful works on climate change, we’re still waiting for the one that packs the punch of “Hiroshima.” And so, humanity awaits that once-in-a-century article, as nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber-based disinformation keep us just 100 clicks short of doomsday.
Hersey provided a template. Blume has lifted the veil on how he did it. Now someone needs to step up and write the world-changing piece of reportage that will shock our consciences and provide a little more breathing room between this vanishing moment and our ever-looming midnight.