Hiroshima: Fallout and cover up

In a world sick with selfies, Hersey’s asceticism still stands out
Seventy-five years ago, on the bright clear morning of August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, immediately killing 70,000 people, and so grievously crushing, burning and irradiating another 50,000 that they too soon died. Even from within the deadliest conflict in history, such devastation from a single, airdropped device raised the stakes of war from conquest into the realm of human annihilation.

Three days after Hiroshima the United States dropped additional evidence on Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. Afterward, as part of a clampdown on information little mention of realities on the ground was allowed by American authorities. And so what? In the United States the hatred for the Japanese far exceeded that of the hatred for the Germans; racism aside, the Japanese had dared to bomb Americans on American territory.

Among those harbouring no love for the enemy was a war reporter named John Hersey, who had described the Japanese as “stunted physically” and as “a swarm of intelligent little animals.” Hersey was over six feet tall, lanky, handsome, a graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale, and a modest, retiring man. When the war ended he was 31, had recently returned from a posting in Moscow and had just won a Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano, a war novel set in Sicily.

But first there was this matter of the atomic bombs. When word of widespread radiation sickness began to circulate in occupied Japan and the first Western press reports slipped by the censors, the accounts were categorically denied.

Surprisingly soon after the bombings, the residual radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki dropped to levels that allowed the cities to begin to recover. But that was only half the radiation story. The other half consisted of tens of thousands of people who had absorbed dangerous doses on the mornings of the bombings and were now sickening and in some cases dying.

Hatred blinds people and makes them stupid. John Hersey was different. He was a New England sophisticate who had attended his exalted schools on scholarships, and now stood as evidence that, if imbued with discipline and a deep education in the humanities, patricians can be moulded as well as bred. He was physically brave. As a war correspondent he had willingly exposed himself to great danger. The Army commended him for having rescued a wounded GI on Guadalcanal.

FALLOUT: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World

Author: Lesley M M Blume

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Price: $27 

Pages: 276

 

After the United States dropped the atomic bombs, Hersey wrote that if civilisation was to mean anything, people had to acknowledge the humanity of their enemies. As the months passed he realised that this was the element still lacking in descriptions of the devastation. With the backing of The New Yorker — specifically of the magazine’s founder and editor, Harold Ross, and his colleague William Shawn — he flew in early 1946 to China, and from there found his way into Japan, where he managed to obtain permission to visit Hiroshima. He was there for two weeks before returning to New York to escape the censors and beginning to write. The result was an austere, 30,000-word reportorial masterpiece that described the experiences of six survivors of the atomic attack. That August, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to it. It made a huge sensation. Knopf then published the story in book form as “Hiroshima.” It was translated into many languages. Millions of copies were sold worldwide.

Today it exists as something of an artefact, a stunning work that nonetheless has lost the power to engage largely because the stories it contains have permeated our consciousness of nuclear war. Few people read the original source anymore. That is unfortunate, but now — 74 years after the book’s publication — help has arrived in the form of Fallout, which unpacks the full story of the making of Hiroshima. The author is Lesley M M Blume, a tireless researcher and beautiful writer, who moves through her narrative with seeming effortlessness — a trick that belies the skill and hard labour required to produce such prose.

Fallout is a book of serious intent. There are knowable reasons for this, including Ms Blume’s flawless paragraphs; her clear narrative structure; her compelling stories, subplots and insights; her descriptions of two great magazine editors establishing the standards of integrity that continue at The New Yorker and other high-end magazines today; and most of all, the attractive qualities of her protagonist, John Hersey. In a world sick with selfies, Hersey’s asceticism still stands out.

Fallout does suffer from two flaws. The first is the claim that the US mounted an important cover-up to hide the realities of radiation sickness. The publisher chose to hype this claim in the subtitle — a mistake — and then, in a letter accompanying the advance proof, described the cover-up as the biggest of the century. It’s obvious to anyone who has been around the US Army that whatever ineffective obfuscation occurred resulted from the same old stuff — authentic ignorance, reflexive secrecy and incompetent military spin.

The book’s second flaw is the claim that Hersey’s work altered the course of history, changed attitudes toward the arms race, and has helped the world avoid nuclear war. This is just silly. What altered the course of history was the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries other than the United States — particularly the Soviet Union in 1948 — and the certainty of retaliation should ever a nuclear weapon be used again. Were it not for that threat it seems likely that the United States would have struck again against other foes — North Korea, Russia, China, North Vietnam, Cuba, somewhere in the Middle East? — despite the suffering described so powerfully in Hersey’s Hiroshima.
©2020 The New York Times News Service


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