On August 6, 2020, the world commemorated the dropping of a “10,000 pound uranium bomb” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The weapon referred to as the atomic bomb unleashed the nuclear age and brought about the threat to human civilization. According to journalist John Hersey the use of the bomb has kept the world safe from its use again because of the memories of the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima.
At the outset, the American government was open about the use of the weapon as President Harry Truman stated it was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare. As time went on Washington began to clamp down on information circulating as to the effects of the bomb on the city’s landscape and its people. Between 100-280,000 people may have died by the end of 1945, but the actual figure and its effects on future generations will never be known. The government tried to convince its people that the atomic bomb was a conventional superbomb and ignored its radioactive aftermath. The US military limited journalist access to the area to control its message, but reporter John Hersey was able to make his way to the site leading to his 30,000 word essay printed in the New Yorker magazine which ultimately became a book that millions of people have read since its publication in 1946. The story of how Hersey gained access to Hiroshima and the impact of his writing is the back story of Lesley M.M. Blume’s provocative new book, FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD.
If the reader wonders why there was so little outrage over the use of the bomb one must keep in mind the need for revenge because of Pearl Harbor. In addition, a war that produced the Holocaust, the Japanese rape of China, the eastern front, all contributed to the carnage on such an unprecedented scale that the public began to suffer from what Blume terms “atrocity exhaustion.” According to Blume, Hersey’s goal was to drive home the gruesome reality of what occurred in Hiroshima and “create a work that would help restore a shared sense of humanity,” a difficult task considering the demonization and hatred that existed among the combatants and the societies that supported them. The fallout from Hersey’s article was an embarrassment for the US government, but once the cover-up was blown, the reality of nuclear war would now be permanent.
Blume’s work is an important contribution to the literature that exists on the dropping of the bomb. Hersey’s view of the bomb changed after the second one was dropped on Nagasaki. The first he could rationalize, not the second which he saw as barbaric. Almost immediately the US government began to limit information and journalistic access as reporters were forced into what Wilfred Burchett of the Daily Express described as a “press ghetto.”
Blume focuses a great deal on the role of the New Yorker magazine under the stewardship of its founder and editor, Harold Ross and the magazine’s deputy editor William Shawn and how they supported Hersey’s desire to go to Hiroshima and report on the human element of the bombing’s aftermath. Providing important biographical information of each, Blume does an excellent job recounting their motivations, skill set, and ultimate triumph in eluding military censorship to bring the story to the public.
Blume’s research is impeccable as she quotes General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, particularly his commentary that dying from radiation poisoning was not a bad way to die. Comparing Hersey and Groves’ views is a useful tool that Blume employs throughout the book. Hersey’s approach to his reporting is based on a book by Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY which detailed the lives of five people killed in Peru when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon broke. After reading the book, Hersey admired how Wilder tracked the lead-up to the accident and how these people were led to that tragic moment. Hersey’s research focused on how to connect with actual human faces; those belonging to a struggling widow and her three children, a young clerk, two doctors, a priest, and a pastor. Hersey was lucky enough to establish relationships with Father Superior Hugo Lassalle, Father Wilhelm Kleinnsorge, and Reverend Kiyoshi Taminto upon his arrival in Hiroshima who introduced him to the 25-50 survivors he interviewed during his two weeks in the city.
Blume delves into the psychological component of the survivors in detail as they were confronted with the “atomic disease” that the bomb unleashed. Hersey employed Japanese studies in addition to his own research as he avoided MacArthur’s attempts at repressing information. An excellent source to consult on this aspect of the tragedy is Robert Jay Lifton’s classic, DEATH IN LIFE:SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA which describes Lifton’s work in Japan after the bombing.
The narrative brings the reader inside the New Yorker editorial room as Shawn and Ross edited the article and developed a strategy as to how it should be released. Blume’s portrayal of Henry Luce of Time is priceless as the owner of the magazine could not tolerate Hersey, who at one time was his prodigal son and the New Yorker’s success.
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)
Perhaps one of her best chapters, entitled “Aftermath” is eye opening as it portrays the military’s reaction to publication in the August 31, 1946 edition of the New Yorker and the lengths they went to counter act its influence as its cover-up was now in the open. Former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson penned a rebuttal, and President Truman went out of his way to justify the weapon’s use as the United States now had a “Hiroshima” image problem. The US went from a global savior to a genocidal superpower in the eyes of many. Despite the government’s counter arguments, Hersey had connected atomic war with actual human faces. Once the magazine was released it sold out worldwide as did the book that was also published, fostering forever doubt as to whether the bomb should have been dropped.
Blume’s narrative is presented with an even prose that allows the reader to digest Hersey’s daring efforts and ultimate success in producing one of the most important books of the 20th century. It is a story that has remained in the background for decades, and to Blume’s credit it has now been brought to the public’s attention. FALLOUT provides powerful insights into the length’s governments will go to create a story that covers up real events and the means employed by a reporter to unearth the truth.