Hiroshima: Lest We Forget

John Hersey’s famous work, Hiroshima, was the first news story ever to describe the consequences of atomic weapons from the point of view of those on the ground, of those who took the hit. Everything published immediately about the destruction of Hiroshima, between August 1945 and September 1946, had been from the military’s point of view. In fact, after the bombing, U.S. Army General Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, dismissed accounts of the horror the bomb inflicted as “propaganda.” He further is quoted by Patrick B. Sharp as stating that “according to doctors, (radiation sickness) is a very pleasant way to die.”[1]

Hiroshima. Digital ID: 1111872. New York Public Library

Hiroshima, 1946
JACKET DESIGN BY Warren Chappell
The New York Public Library Digital Gallery

I believe it is important to reconsider Hersey’s work, especially with the constant discussions on the use of weapons of mass destruction in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and because the text, based on my own sampling of students over the last twelve years, is no longer standard fare in American high schools. It is also important because the national psyche, as it was during the Great Depression, is again distracted by an economic “downturn” that consumes the country as it did before World War II when we failed to focus on the transformation of Germany and Italy into totalitarian states.

Hersey never said that death from nuclear attack was good or bad, but he did write graphically of the death and/or fatal injuries sustained by some 148,000 people, some immediately, some over time, from the blast, from burns, and from longer-term radiation-related diseases. It’s been sixty-four years since his 31,347-word account of six survivors he interviewed was published, taking up an entire issue of the The New Yorker. (The cover of the magazine that week depicted people frolicking in a park. The issue was sixty-eight pages, contained only advertisements, the Going On calendar, and Hersey’s story.) Unlike today, Hersey’s name did not appear at the top of the piece, but on the last page, after the final paragraph. The issue immediately sold out and copies were resold for as much as $20 each. The article was selected by the Department of Journalism, New York University, as the most influential nonfiction work, in English, published in the twentieth century. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was listed second. In fact, Mitchell Stephens, who was acting chair of the department at the time of the selection of Hiroshima as “number one” said: “‘Hiroshima’ can be said to be the founding document of the anti-nuclear movement.”

Hersey’s Hiroshima is an example of what I term narrative rhetoric, or persuasion packed in a story format. His article had to first engender sympathy for Japanese survivors of the bomb, which in 1946 were still considered America’s bitter enemies, then second, to depict the horrors of nuclear warfare. He had to accomplish his first goal or the American reader of his day would have said, So what, they got what they deserved. If and only if he was able to get his readers to set aside their hatred could he hope they would ponder whether nuclear war was war beyond all reason.

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  1. Sharp, Patrick B. “From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s Hiroshima,” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 4, (Winter 2000).

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