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.
In 1982, I actually visited that city. I was then an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books. I had grown up in a 1950s world in which schoolchildren "ducked and covered" (diving under our desks) in drills to learn how to protect ourselves -- I know it sounds ridiculous today -- should Russian nuclear weapons hit New York, the city I lived in. Yellow signs indicating air-raid shelters were then commonplace on the streets. In those years, people not in cities were building their own personal fallout shelters, stocked with food, and some even threatened to shoot anyone who tried to join them there as the missiles descended. (A friend of mine remembers just such a threat, delivered by one of his schoolmates about his father's shelter.)
We were, in other words, in a Cold War world that always seemed to be teetering at the edge of the apocalyptic. And yet here was the strange thing: with the obvious exception of Hersey's book, there were still, in those years, remarkably few ways to see under those mushroom clouds that had destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In my youth, I "saw" under that cloud only once -- in scenes in the French film Hiroshima Mon Amour. After the core of the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania partially melted down in 1979, I realized how few Americans knew anything about the effects of radiation sickness or about what had truly happened at Hiroshima and I had an urge to find a book that took you under that grim cloud. I called John Dower, an old friend and historian of World War II and the occupation of Japan, and he recommended a Japanese book called Unforgettable Fire, containing the drawings of Hiroshima survivors. When I finally got a copy in my hands, I was chilled to the bone. I published it in 1981 just as a domestic antinuclear movement was gaining traction and because of that, the book's memorable images would travel the country in slide shows.
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 blase' 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
This Vanishing Moment and Our Vanishing Future
John Hersey, Hiroshima, and the End of World
By Nick Turse
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.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its Doomsday Clock to provide humanity with an expert estimate of just how close all of us are to an apocalyptic "midnight" -- that is, nuclear annihilation. A century ago, there was, of course, no need for such a measure. Back then, the largest explosion ever caused by humans had likely occurred in Halifax, Canada, in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another vessel, in that city's harbor. That tragic blast killed nearly 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 6,000 homeless, but it didn't imperil the planet. The largest explosions after that occurred on July 16, 1945, in a test of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, in New Mexico and then on August 6, 1945, when the United States unleashed such a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Since then, our species has been precariously perched at the edge of auto-extermination.
No one knows precisely how many people were killed by the world's first nuclear attack. Around 70,000, nearly all of them civilians, were vaporized, crushed, burned, or irradiated to death almost immediately. Another 50,000 probably died soon after. As many as 280,000 were dead, many of radiation sickness, by the end of the year. (An atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki, three days later, is thought to have killed as many as 70,000.) In the wake of the first nuclear attack, little was clear. "What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known," the New York Times reported that August 7th and the U.S. government sought to keep it that way, portraying nuclear weapons as nothing more than super-charged conventional munitions, while downplaying the horrifying effects of radiation. Despite the heroic efforts of several reporters just after the blast, it wasn't until a year later that Americans -- and then the rest of the world -- began to truly grasp the effects of such new weaponry and what it would mean for humanity from that moment onward.
We know about what happened at Hiroshima largely thanks to one man, John Hersey. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former correspondent for TIME and LIFE magazines. He had covered World War II in Europe and the Pacific, where he was commended by the secretary of the Navy for helping evacuate wounded American troops on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. And we now know just how Hersey got the story of Hiroshima -- a 30,000-word reportorial masterpiece that appeared in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker magazine, describing the experiences of six survivors of that atomic blast -- thanks to a meticulously researched and elegantly written new book by Lesley Blume, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.
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.
I know Hiroshima well. I've read it cover-to-cover dozens of times. Or sometimes on a plane or a helicopter or a river barge, in a hotel room or sitting by the side of a road, I'll flip it open and take in a random 10 or 20 pages. I always marveled at how skillfully Hersey constructed the narrative with overlapping personal accounts that make the horrific handiwork of that weapon with the power of the gods accessible on a human level; how he explained something new to this world, atomic terror, in terms that readers could immediately grasp; how he translated destruction on a previously unimaginable scale into a cautionary tale as old as the genre itself, but with an urgency that hasn't faded or been matched. I simply never knew how he did it until Lesley Blume pulled back the curtain.
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