The reporter who revealed the truth about Hiroshima

Should you happen to find yourself living in disquieting times, times that have left you in a state of high anxiety, wondering if the world is on the brink of something still more calamitous, then Lesley MM Blume’s Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, might not be the book for you.

Then again, Blume’s meticulously researched tale of the lengths to which a government will go to keep the truth from reaching its citizens might be exactly what everyone should be reading at this deeply worrisome juncture.

Fallout is the story behind John Hersey’s famous article about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, which led to an abrupt end to the Second World War. Hersey was the first journalist to produce an on-the-scene account of the bomb’s aftermath. When the New Yorker published the 31,000-word story on 31 August 1946, it devoted an entire issue to it.

The US publication of Fallout coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing this past week. The book is timely on its own, however, as the idea that a democracy’s highest officials might use verbal sleights of hand to distract citizens from a crisis has been cropping up of late.

A quick Hiroshima-Nagasaki primer: the 10,000-pound uranium bomb exploded above Hiroshima at 8.15 am on 6 August 1945. It obliterated the city and killed roughly 280,000 Japanese civilians. People and objects caught directly under the blast were instantly incinerated. Three days after the first bombing, the United States dropped a second, even more powerful bomb on Nagasaki, about 250 miles away. Soon thereafter came Japan’s unconditional surrender. Many of the initial survivors suffered from radiation poisoning and died agonising deaths in the months that followed the bombings.

Hersey’s article, published a year later, detailed the lives of six Hiroshima survivors. He described minute by excruciating minute what happened to these six people before and after the bomb struck. “My hope was that the reader would be able to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain,” he said later. He told their stories against a nightmarish miasma of seared corpses, infernal winds and desperate attempts to help the wounded. Of one, the Rev Tanimoto, Hersey wrote that he “took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces”.

Hersey’s article has been called the most important journalistic work of the 20th century, as his account of the unspeakable devastation from the atomic bomb gave us the wisdom to resist deploying one again – at least so far.

Yet, as Blume reports, the US government was less than keen on letting the public learn of the scale and horror of human loss at the hands of its military. One general went so far as to tell a Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy that doctors had assured him that radiation poisoning was “a very pleasant way to die”. Americans were urged to look ahead rather than reflect on the war.

In the course of suppressing information about the true nature of the carnage, US officials took reporters on tightly orchestrated press junkets, ensuring that the journalists would depict residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as having resumed near-normal lives. The goal, in other words, was to make Hiroshima and Nagasaki yesterday’s news.

But William Shawn, then the managing editor of the New Yorker, believed that the story of the bomb’s victims remained untold. He commissioned the 31-year-old Hersey to write it. By all appearances, Hersey was a reliably patriotic journalist. He had already distinguished himself at the New Yorker with a profile of a young naval lieutenant named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who while in the South Pacific during the war had rescued the crew of his PT boat, which had been cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.

To gain access to Hiroshima, Hersey and Shawn decided on a Trojan horse strategy. Sneaking into Hiroshima was out of the question, as all reporters entering the city, even months later, did so under the close scrutiny of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, or SCAP. So Hersey made a formal request of Gen Douglas MacArthur’s SCAP offices to enter Japan and access Hiroshima. Hersey had written glowingly of military leaders, including a portrait of MacArthur that Hersey later called “too adulatory”. His request to report from the ground was granted, and by late May 1946, he was on a train from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

The New Yorker had been planning to run the story as a three-part series. But Shawn pushed Harold Ross, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, to print Hersey’s story and nothing else in one issue. “Shawn wants to wake people up,” Ross wrote to longtime New Yorker writer and editor E B White. As Blume tells it, Ross tortured himself over the decision. In the 1925 founding issue, Ross told readers that the magazine would be “gay, humorous, and satirical”. But he had also started the publication with “a declaration of serious purpose”, printing stories that went “behind the scenes”.

Once he made the decision to devote the entire magazine to the story, Ross told Rebecca West, another New Yorker writer, “I don’t know what people will think, but a lot of readers are going to be startled.”

In early August, the New Yorker submitted the article for review to Lt Gen Leslie Groves, who had overseen the Manhattan Project. Incredibly enough, Groves called Shawn to say he was greenlighting the story but wanted a few changes, and dispatched one of his public relations officers to the New Yorker offices the next day. Groves himself approved the final version of the story. The details of the meeting at the New Yorker are unknown. But while certain contentious parts in the first draft had disappeared by the time the article went to press, those omissions didn’t detract from the story’s powerful effect.

Fallout is at its most gripping when Blume describes the article’s immediate, dramatic impact on a public that had been kept in the dark about the human devastation in Hiroshima. Newsstands quickly sold out. Excerpts ran in newspapers around the world. (Hersey allowed the serialisation on the condition that in lieu of payment to him, the newspapers make contributions to the American Red Cross.) The article was read on the radio, in its entirety, over four consecutive nights. Albert Einstein ordered 1,000 copies for distribution. Alfred A Knopf later published it as a book.

The Truman administration scrambled to spin the impact of the article. The president and his former secretary of war, Henry L Stimson, redoubled their efforts to claim that the bombs had shortened the war; that lives on both sides had been saved because otherwise Japan would have carried on a protracted, bloody fight to the last man.Editors and columnists across the country were quick to denounce the silence and secrecy that had shrouded the aftermath of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an angry editorial, the Monterey Peninsula Herald in Northern California wrote that the efforts of the US government to conceal the full story made Americans look like “amoral fools”.

It’s clear that Blume poured herself into this project. For a sense of the sheer amount of work that went into it, just read her acknowledgements. Where most authors’ acknowledgements are heartfelt but brief, Blume’s run seven pages. Her endnotes take up a whopping 64 pages.

So compelling is Blume’s story-of-a-story that as soon as I finished reading Fallout, I went back to the original New Yorker article, which I last read a couple of decades go. Reading Hersey’s account now – as well as Hiroshima: The Aftermath, a follow-up Hersey wrote for the magazine in 1985 – through the lens of Blume’s backstory, I appreciated still more what it took to bring the story of Hiroshima to light.

Hersey died in 1993, and how he would react to this microscopic examination of his seminal work can’t be known. He shunned the spotlight as assiduously as his contemporaries sought it. He didn’t have a literary agent and rarely gave interviews.

But here’s a hint that Hersey might have approved of Blume’s book. Among the dozens of people Blume thanks in her acknowledgements is one Koko Tanimoto Kondo. Kondo is the daughter of the above-mentioned Rev Tanimoto. Kondo was an infant in her mother’s arms when the bomb hit. Both were buried under heavy wood and rubble. Her mother managed to scratch out a hole in the debris big enough to push the baby through. When Blume travelled to Hiroshima for research, Kondo was her guide through the city. It seems fitting that Blume dedicated her book to Kondo, a gesture to the shining light of humanity that infused Hersey’s original article. It’s a gesture Hersey is likely to have appreciated.

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