LESLEY BLUME Fallout: The Hiroshima cover-up and the reporter who revealed it to the world. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
Lesley Blume recounts how world learned the human cost of the Hiroshima bombing, to the dismay of the US government.
On 31 August 1946, the New Yorker magazine devoted its entire issue to a 30,000-word essay by John Hersey entitled ‘Hiroshima’. It told the story of what happened on 6 August 1945 when an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima from the perspective of six survivors. The chapter in which Lesley Blume paraphrases Hersey’s account of their respective experiences makes for harrowing reading.
Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ has become a seminal work. The article was subsequently published as a book that has been translated into numerous languages – including braille – and has never been out of print. It has sold over three million copies.
The significance of ‘Hiroshima’ is that it provided the first account of what happens to people when an atom bomb is dropped. Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American government and General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, sought to keep journalists away from both bomb sites and to minimise the impact of atom bombs, especially on the health of the civilian population. Reports of radiation sickness, which people were dying from many months after the bombing, were downplayed; or, if acknowledged, were explained away with reassuring observations such as that of Lieutenant General Leslie Groves as a ‘very pleasant way to die’. (Groves was in charge of the Manhattan Project that created the atom bombs.)
Three journalists managed to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki fairly quickly after the dropping of the bombs. They were United Press correspondent Leslie Nakashima, whose report that Hiroshima was a wasteland appeared in the New York Times; the Australian Wilfred Burchett (a subsequent bête noir of Australian and Western governments for his reporting on the Korean and Vietnam wars) in his ‘Atomic Plague’, which appeared in the UK Daily Express; and the Chicago Daily News correspondent George Weller, whose report was ‘lost’ when he sent it from Japan. General MacArthur declared atomic bomb sites off limits for journalists and banned Japanese newspapers from reporting on the impact of the bombing.
John Hersey was a war correspondent who had already published a number of books on the war and been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Following meetings with Harold Ross, founder and editor of the New Yorker, it was agreed that Hersey should travel to Japan, visit Hiroshima and report ‘on how the atomic bomb had affected its human victims’. Lesley Blume says:
Fallout is the backstory of how John Hersey got the full story about atomic aftermath when no other journalist could, and how ‘Hiroshima’ became – and remains – one of the most important works of journalism ever created.
On his way to Japan Hersey read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), which examines the lives of five people in Peru who were killed when a rope suspension bridge broke over a canyon. Blume writes: ‘Wilder’s account tracked the lead-up to the accident and how these protagonists all found their way to that tragic moment.’ Hersey decided to employ the same approach in ‘Hiroshima’.
He arrived in Japan in late May 1946. He sought permission from the military to visit Hiroshima, which was granted two days later. The authorities were more relaxed about the media making such visits than they had been in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Blume indicates that the press had moved on to other issues such as a war crimes tribunal and the early days of the Cold War, and Hersey’s track record as a war correspondent who had written about successful American campaigns, including those of General MacArthur, cast him in a ‘good’ or non-threatening light.
Hersey interviewed between 25 and 50 survivors. He decided to focus on six survivors, all of whom knew or had interacted with each other on that fateful day in August 1945. They were German priest Wilhelm Kleinsorge (who helped Hersey with translation when interviewing non-English speaking Japanese); Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto; Dr Terfumi Sasaki; Dr Masakazu Fujii; the widow (and mother of three young children) Hatsuyo Nakamura; and Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk. Hersey took notes of his interviews and wrote up the article on his return to America.
Blume examines Hersey’s approach and how he interwove the experiences of his six protagonists with information obtained from other interviewees and broader contextual material, including reports compiled by Japanese scientists and doctors. She goes into the extensive editing process the piece underwent with Harold Ross and deputy editor William Shawn (the three sequestered themselves in a New Yorker office and didn’t tell colleagues what they were doing); and how the New Yorker successfully navigated the censorship contained in the Atomic Energy Act (1946). She also provides information on the broader press and literary response to ‘Hiroshima’ and how it fundamentally changed public perceptions across the globe about the use of nuclear weapons. Blume also examines the shocked and embarrassed response of the American government and its subsequent production of a report that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives by forcing a recalcitrant Japan to surrender.
Hersey said of his protagonists, ‘They still wondered why they lived when so many died.’ Since that day and in those that followed, each had seen ‘more death than he thought he would ever see’. Blume adds:
Through their eyes, Hersey also made Americans see more death than they ever thought they would see – and a new, uniquely awful version of death at that. As people read ‘Hiroshima’, they visualized New York or Detroit or Seattle in Hiroshima’s stead, and imagined their own families and friends enduring the same hell on earth.
Despite what he observed and reported as a war correspondent, Hersey never lost his sense of humanity. Well aware of Japanese atrocities during the war and earlier in China, he said, ‘If our concept of … civilization was to mean anything … we ha[ve] to acknowledge the humanity of even our misled and murderous enemies.’
Blume points out that Hersey was humble and unassuming. He did not seek the limelight and was not a self-promoter; he believed his writing spoke for itself. Following the publication of ‘Hiroshima’ he basically gave up work as a reporter and turned to fiction writing from the comfort of homelife. He published 25 books of fiction and non-fiction. In the 1980s he claimed that ‘Hiroshima’ helped prevent another nuclear war because of its depiction of the human devastation wrought by such a weapon.
The publication of Fallout was designed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Blume has conducted extensive research and worked her way through archives in Japanese, German and Russian (she has a brief section on how the Soviets denounced Hersey as an American spy because ‘Hiroshima’ demonstrated America’s military superiority). She thanks persons who acted as translators in her acknowledgments, along with a cast in the hundreds. The book contains photos of the major figures, and 65 pages of notes and sources. This is a clearly written, insightful and absorbing account of John Hersey, an unassuming journalist who worked out how to describe the overarching destruction and horror of nuclear war. We are all in his debt.
Lesley Blume Fallout: The Hiroshima cover-up and the reporter who revealed it to the world Scribe 2020 PB 288pp $35.00.
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. He recently completed a history of the Rugby League Players’ Association and a review article on the Supreme Court of the United States.
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