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What to Read Next: The Bomb
Issue #294: "Hiroshima" by John Hersey and "Fallout" by Lesley Blume
Happy Friday, readers!
There’s nothing like a Hollywood blockbuster to bring a book — even an entire subject matter — into our cultural consciousness afresh.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has done that in spades for the subject of nuclear technology and weaponry. In particular, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) — the basis for the movie — has seen sales absolutely skyrocket. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) has similarly gained steam.
Those books focus on the creation of the atomic bomb and not so much on its unconscionable effects. I recently read an all-time classic of journalism about just that: John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I then followed it up by reading the gripping account of how that book came to life.
Let’s take a look at both.
I finished Tom Reiss’s The Black Count yesterday evening. Compared to Robert Caro’s 1,100 pages, its 330 pages felt like a breeze. It’s a great story on its own, but I really appreciated the context it gave me on Alexandre Dumas and the creation of Edmund Dantes, aka the Count of Monte Cristo. I’ll share more on Tuesday.
Hiroshima by John Hersey
“The change was too sudden, from a busy city of 245,000 that morning to a mere pattern of residue in the afternoon.”
Published: 1946 | Pages: 152 | Genre: Non-Fiction (History)
In August 1946, The New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to John Hersey’s ground-breaking account of what happened to the people of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bomb.
That feature was quickly turned into a 150-page book, which was the publishing event of the year all around the world. (More on that below in my review of Fallout.)
Using a narrative technique that he borrowed from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Hersey follows the intersecting lives of six citizens of Hiroshima — who would thereafter be known as hibakusha, or “bomb-affected people.” Most of the reporting takes place in the horrific hours and days after “Little Boy” fell near the city center.
It reminded me of reading about 9/11. On that day, things went from normal to utter terror in an instant. One of the prevailing feelings you get in 9/11 stories is sheer confusion. What just happened? Why did it happen? Will it continue happening?
Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki are so far in the past, anything I’ve read about them has had a decidedly past-tense view. But Hersey’s account felt in the moment. He captured the wild confusion and total unknown. From normal morning routines to death and destruction in a literal flash, the people of Hiroshima could hardly even treat their wounded — all but a handful of the city’s doctors had been killed or too badly injured to be of any help.
It’s a quick read, and although it doesn’t hit with the same power in 2023 as it did in 1946 — thankfully, modern society now knows the hell wrought by those bombs — Hersey’s account will stay with me forever. It’s rarely graphic, but always visceral and deeply affecting. Hiroshima should be required reading for high school and college history classes; Hersey himself notes that it’s only the memory of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has kept the world from nuclear destruction in the 77 years since.
Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World by Lesley M. M. Blume
Published: 2020 | Pages: 288 | Genre: Non-Fiction (History)
We know what atomic apocalypse would look like because John Hersey showed us. Since the release of “Hiroshima,” no leader or party could threaten nuclear action without an absolute knowledge of the horrific results of such an attack.
I’m a sucker for a literary backstory. In Fallout, Blume reveals not only John Hersey’s reporting and writing process, but also the great lengths the U.S. government went to in order to keep the truth about Hiroshima largely under wraps.
Just as the scientists themselves didn’t quite know what was going to happen when they unleashed a nuclear device, the American people had no grasp of what their military had done on August 6, 1945. They knew it was a big bomb, but weren’t really aware of its city-flattening effectiveness nor of the lingering radioactive qualities.
The military wasn’t real keen on letting that truth out into the open. It was the bad guys of WWII — Hitler and the Japanese — who perpetrated atrocities. The Americans were defenders of freedom and would never stoop so low.
Hersey was intent on getting to the real story, though. Given the American occupation of Japan after the country’s surrender in 1945, the military didn’t make it very easy for journalists to get into the country — and all reporting had to be approved.
So how did Hersey get into Hiroshima and write a story that changed how the entire world viewed atomic warfare? That’s for Blume to tell, not me.
She inevitably repeats a lot of what’s found in the original reporting of Hiroshima — but the unique story of how much effort went into the writing, publishing, editing, and marketing of the original New Yorker article is well worth the attention of anyone with an interest in history and/or publishing.
Together, Hiroshima and Fallout make for a great pair of books to further your education on the repercussions of The Bomb.
Thanks so much for reading. I deeply appreciate your time and inbox space.