“We’re in a storytelling crisis”: Advice for writing on nuclear issues, from the author of “Fallout” via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Sara Z. Kutchesfahani | December 16, 2020


How can nuclear policy experts become better storytellers? I thought Lesley M. M. Blume would have some prescient advice. Her new book powerfully shows how one courageous American reporter unraveled one of the deadliest cover-ups of the 20th century—the true effects of the atomic bomb—potentially saving millions of lives. Fallout tells the incredible story of how New Yorker journalist John Hersey of Hiroshima fame was able to go to the Japanese city in the aftermath of the bombing and interview six survivors.


Sara Kutchesfahani: What drew you to tell the story behind Hersey’s Hiroshima? Was it the subject of nuclear weapons?

Lesley M. M. Blume: […]

I was enraged and disgusted by the designation of journalists as enemies of the people by our current [US] president, and how much of a degrading effect that was having on our press’s ability to fulfil its duties as the fourth estate. So, I really came to the Hersey story hoping that it would make the strongest case possible for the importance of our independent press, and for the importance of investigative journalism, and drive that home for readers.

However, the topical matter of what Hersey had been covering in his story, Hiroshima, completely drew me into the nuclear world and created an urgency for me as a journalist and a citizen about nuclear issues that I would not have had otherwise. […]

Lesley M. M. Blume: There was the “before” Hersey’s Hiroshima, and then there was the “after” Hersey’s Hiroshima. Before Hersey’s book came out, the atomic bomb had been largely painted by the US government and military essentially as a conventional mega weapon. It was quickly becoming an accepted part of our conventional arsenal, even a tenable cost-saving weapon—it costs a lot less money to lob a nuke at somebody than it does to move troops into an area to wage combat—and, as such, there was a widespread acceptance of and enthusiasm about the weapon between August 1945 and August 1946. The bomb was normalized, in the public’s estimation, with surprising rapidity. [US President] Harry Truman himself referred to the bomb as just a “bigger piece of artillery.” After Hersey’s Hiroshima comes out, readers—and not just American readers, but readers around the world—are seeing what these then-experimental weapons indeed do to human beings, not just at the moment of detonation, but in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years to come. This is because Hersey was able to document the first part of the long tail of nuclear weapons, namely that they are the weapon that continues to kill indefinitely after detonation.


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