How John Hersey’s Hiroshima Revealed the Horror of the Bomb — BBC Magazine
Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted all of its editorial pages to just one story: the 30,000-word report, Hiroshima, by John Hersey. As the BBC magazine reports, it was a story that went viral before the Internet was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.
Hersey was a novelist (A Bell for Adano) and a decorated war correspondent. He could have reported on the factual details of the A-bomb that demolished Hiroshima, but instead he decided to report on the people caught up in the awful conflagration. That decision made his lengthy report both powerful and illuminating in a way that a straight nuts-and-bolts narrative could have never achieved.
On the voyage out he fell ill and was given a copy of Thornton Wilders’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Inspired by Wilder’s narrative of the five people who crossed the bridge as it collapsed he decided he would write about people not buildings. And it was that simple decision that marks Hiroshima out from other pieces of the time. Once in Hiroshima he found survivors of the bomb whose stories he would tell, starting from the minutes before the bomb was dropped. Many years later he told of the horror he felt, how he could only stay a few weeks.
Hersey took these accounts back to New York. Had he filed from Japan the chances of them ever being published would have been remote - previous attempts to get graphic photographs or film or reports out of the country had been halted by the US Occupying Forces. The material had been censored or locked away - sometimes it simply disappeared.
Writing a year after the bomb dropped, Hersey found six survivors and told their stories of the bombing and the aftermath.
So only a year after the end of the war these six close-ups on five Japanese men and women and one Westerner, each of whom “saw more death than he ever thought he would see” were unexpected and shattering. Readers who sent letters to The New Yorker, almost all in admiration for the work, wrote of their shame and horror that ordinary people, just like them - secretaries and mothers, doctors and priests - had endured such terror.
John Hersey was not the first to report from Hiroshima but the reports and newsreels had been a blizzard of numbers too big to fully comprehend. They had reported on the destruction of the city, the mushroom cloud, the shadows of the dead on the walls and streets but never got close to those who lived through those end-of-days time, as Hersey did.
The first run of that edition of The New Yorker was quickly sold out. Albert Einstein, who wanted 1,000 copies to share with his colleagues, had to settle for facsimiles. The report was read aloud on national radio in the USA and Britain, to allow as many people as possible to know about it.
I read it while I was in high school in the 1970s, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis and before the rapprochement with Mainland China. We were still technically at odds with the Soviet Union, though, so nuclear war was still on our minds.
It should be required reading for anyone considering political office, especially anyone who might have access to the launch codes. Especially Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, who act as if dropping a nuclear bomb is a surgical strike on enemy combatants, and mass annihilation of thousands of innocent people.