Blogs Robin Lindley How John Hersey Exposed the Human Face of Nuclear War: Lesley Blume on Her New Book "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and The Reporter Who Revealed It to The World"Nov 15, 2020
How John Hersey Exposed the Human Face of Nuclear War: Lesley Blume on Her New Book "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and The Reporter Who Revealed It to The World"
tags: nuclear weapons,Hiroshima,journalism,atomic bomb,World War 2,John Hersey
The atomic bomb embodied the absolute evil of war, transcending lesser distinctions such as Japanese or Allies, attacker or attacked.
Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature (1994)
“Little Boy” was the innocuous code name for the uranium-235 atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, Japan Standard Time. The bomb exploded about 2,000 feet above the ground with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT and incinerated much of the once thriving city.
At detonation and in the ensuing months, Little Boy killed more than 100,000 people, at least 90 percent of whom were civilians. Estimates of the total deaths from the blast range as high as 280,000 people by the end of 1945, but exact figures could never be determined because of the immediate chaos and because so many people were cremated in the firestorm.
Initial news reports on the bomb indicated that it was powerful but similar to a large conventional bomb. The American public read sanitized reports and statistics on the tremendous toll of the bomb. Papers and magazines ran black and white photos of the mushroom cloud, aerial views of the remains of the city, and damaged buildings, and reported figures on dwellings, warehouses, factories, bridges, and other structures that were destroyed.
However, the reports to the American public following the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and then Nagasaki contained little information on how the destructive new devices affected the human beings trapped under the mushroom clouds. Indeed, the US government celebrated the new weapons while suppressing reports on agonizing radiation injuries and poisoning, complicated thermal burns, birth defects, illnesses, and other novel and horrible medical consequences of nuclear war. And, after the war ended, the military closed the atomic cities to reporters.
Legendary reporter John Hersey, already a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a renowned journalist by 1945, set out to learn about the human face of the Hiroshima bombing. His resulting August 1946 article for the New Yorker became a classic of journalism and eventually a book for the ages. By telling the story from the perspective of six survivors—a young mother, a female clerk, a minister, two doctors, and a German priest—Hersey’s report captured readers with a new form of journalism beyond cold facts and statistics to detailed personal accounts of witnesses that vividly conveyed the moments leading to a historic catastrophe and its aftermath.
In her new book Fallout; The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (Simon & Schuster), acclaimed author and journalist Lesley M.M. Blume recounts the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; government efforts to hide the nature of the terrible new weapon; and John Hersey’s journey to reveal the reality of the atomic bomb and how he came to write “Hiroshima,” a report of meticulous journalistic detail as well as an admired work of art that elevated the human voices beyond the soulless statistics and gray wire photos.
Ms. Blume writes vividly as she details this hidden history and demonstrates the value of independent journalism in holding the powerful to account. Her meticulous research included interviews and archival work that revealed new findings on postwar government press relations and on official actions to hide the reality of nuclear war from the public. Her revelations include the never before reported role of Manhattan Project director, General Leslie Groves, in reviewing Hersey’s provocative article.
Ms. Blume is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author, and biographer. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Paris Review, among many other publications. Her last nonfiction book, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, was a New York Times bestseller, and she has written several other nonfiction books and books for children. Ms. Blume has also worked as a newspaper journalist and as a reporter-researcher for ABC News. And she has a lifelong interest in history. She earned a B.A. in history from Williams College and a master's degree in historical studies from Cambridge University as a Herchel Smith scholar. Her graduate thesis concerned the US government and press relations during the 1991 Gulf War.
Ms. Blume generously discussed her interest in history and her new book by telephone from her office in Los Angeles.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on Fallout, your new book on author John Hersey and his classic account of the human face of atomic warfare, “Hiroshima.” Before I get to the book, I noticed that you have an advanced degree in history and that you often write about the past. What is your background in studying and writing about history?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I've always been a history obsessive, since I was a little girl. I read a lot of fiction then but, as I grew up, I gravitated toward nonfiction. I remember one time, when I was around eleven, one of my parents' friends came over and I was curled up in a corner and reading. She asked what I was reading, likely thinking that it was something like Babysitters Club, and I showed her the book cover. It was The Diary of Anne Frank. I've just always gravitated to history, especially World War II.
I studied history at Williams College, like my dad did before me, and my focus there was 20th century history with a concentration on World War II. Then I went to Cambridge University for a graduate degree in historical studies. By then, I had become keenly interested in newsroom history and war reporting, and I did a master's thesis on the American media during the Gulf War in 1991. I looked at how that story had been rolled out to the public, and where that fell in the larger scheme of relations between the US government and the press corps and how that relationship had evolved since World War II. The thesis was about patriotism and war reporting and how patriotism waxes and wanes from conflict to conflict, along with the level of cooperation between the press and the military.
Over the decades, I have had a continued interest in World War II and in war reporting and wartime newsrooms. So, in many ways, Fallout was the culmination of decades of study and interest in war history and reporting.
Robin Lindley: What inspired your deep dive into the story of John Hersey and his book Hiroshima?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I knew I wanted to do a big, historical newsroom narrative, and there was also a personal motivation.
The press has been under unprecedented attack in this country since 2015, and I have been disturbed and quite disgusted by the relentless attacks and the designating of journalists as enemies of the people. It was quite a shock when that vernacular first started to surface in 2015 and really got underway in 2016.
I wanted to write a historical news narrative about America that would show readers the extreme importance of our free press in upholding our democracy and serving the common good. As these attacks have accelerated, not enough people have been defending the press or understanding what would happen to them specifically, not just to the country, but to them individually, if we didn't have a free press.
It’s curious: the Hersey story found me as much as I found it. I was nosing around the European theater of World War II for a newsroom story before I came to this Pacific theater narrative. And, when I found Hersey's story, it seemed the purest example of the life or death importance of good, independent investigative journalism. I couldn't believe that the story, in the way that I ultimately approached it, hadn't been told yet. And, when a historian or journalist finds an untold story like that, you leap on it.
Robin Lindley: The story is very timely and a tribute to the role of the free press in a democratic society. And there are many parallels now to handling of the deadly global COVID-19 pandemic as the administration attacks the press and spreads lies and misinformation about a health threat to all citizens, as tens of thousands die.
Lesley M.M. Blume: The pandemic is a global existential threat, which is exactly what I'm detailing in Fallout. Now, the administration is downplaying and covering up an existential threat just as the government in 1945 kept the American public in the dark about the reality of the bombs that were created in secret and detonated in their name. The parallels are uncanny and disturbing.
Robin Lindley: That’s instructive on the role of the press. How did the book evolve for you? Is it the book now that you initially imagined?
Lesley M.M. Blume: The research surprised me, especially the extent of the coverup, and how concerted it was.
I first approached the story from the point of view of a journalist covering another journalist. I asked how on earth did Hersey cover a nuclear attack zone in 1945? I was interested in how he got into Hiroshima and how he got people to speak with him. And then, when I started to really dig into the story, I realized that other scholars who preceded me had documented the coverup without really celebrating the critical role that Hersey played in revealing it. Nobody else had connected the dots in this way before.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process?
Lesley M.M. Blume: When I began the project, I told my agent and my editor not to expect to hear from me for months because I would be reading. I dug up a ton of reporter memoirs before I started with archival data. It was background, background, background. I read biographies of important figures such as General Douglas MacArthur and Manhattan Project head General Leslie Groves.
I also reached out early to people to interview because, when researching people of Hersey’s era, I had to get to people fast who knew him. There were a few Hersey friends and colleagues who I spoke with a few years ago who are no longer with us. But there’s also a disadvantage in seeing them early, because I wasn’t as steeped in the material and in Hersey’s world yet, I wasn’t approaching them from a position of assured expertise yet.
After the initial reading and interviews, I had a better idea of what to look for in the archival records.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing your process. I noticed that you also traveled to Hiroshima. That must have been very moving.
Lesley M.M. Blume: It was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, and one of the most disturbing. Hiroshima is now a fully rebuilt city, with around three million inhabitants. It was almost completely destroyed and there is very little left to indicate what it had been like before the bombing.
When I got off the train station and a sign read “Welcome to Hiroshima,” I almost crawled out of my own skin. It’s a vibrant, modern metropolis, yet Hiroshima’s leaders and residents definitely see the city as a witness to nuclear Holocaust. But they also see the city as a Phoenix that has risen from the ashes, and as a monument to human resilience. I respect the latter view, but going to that city was almost a traumatic experience for me. I couldn't eat or sleep almost the entire time that I was there researching—knowing what happened there.
I interviewed the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture and he admitted that they still find human remains every time they dig for a new development there. He said that, if you dig three feet, you hit human bones, so it’s a city that's built on a graveyard. I'll never forget that trip.
Robin Lindley: That had to be haunting. Didn't you also speak with some survivors of the bombing?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I did, including the last surviving central protagonist of Hersey’s book: Koko Tanimoto, the daughter of Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was one of Hersey’s six protagonists. She and her mother also appeared in his article. Koko had been eight months old when the bomb went off; she and her mother were in their family home, not far from the point of detonation, and the house collapsed on them. Somehow, they survived and her mother was able dig them out of the rubble just before a firestorm consumed their neighborhood. It was an absolute miracle that they survived.
Koko was 73 or 74 when I met her. We walked together through central Hiroshima and we went to the monuments there. She showed me where the exact point of detonation had been, which is actually quite an under-visited site. There's only a modest marker there, but it's in front of a low-rise medical building and a 7-11, of all things. I don't know if I would have found it without her.
It was very emotional to walk through the city with Koko. Ironically, she considers America to be almost like a second home at this point. Her father, Reverend Tanimoto, had become an antinuclear advocate over the years, and she did a lot of traveling with him. She's also a peace advocate and has spent a lot of time in the US. For her to have been on the receiving end of nuclear attack at the hands of America, yet still have such generous feelings toward us, was astonishing to me. Fallout is dedicated to her.
Robin Lindley: Your memories of Hiroshima are striking. Did you find any surprises or new government information in your archival research?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I'll try to be concise on this topic, but the short answer is yes. When I was doing my last book on Hemingway, coming across new information was like scratching water from rocks, but there was break after break with this book. The research gods favored this project. I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I'm grateful to them.
My Leslie Groves revelation was huge – at least, to me. That came from a misfiled document in the New York Public Library’s New Yorker archives. I had very slim expectations about finding anything new in that archive because the New Yorker has had several biographical books written about it, and its editors have all had biographies, except for William Shawn.
The very last day I was in that archive, I went through a file that I thought was irrelevant; it contained documents pertaining to stories that the magazine had submitted to the War Department for censorship – but in earlier years of the war. Hersey was reporting on Hiroshima in 1946, but I was curious to see how the magazine had interacted with censorship officials at the War Department, and how cozy the relationship had been. That’s when I found the first document that indicated that Hersey’s article “Hiroshima” had been submitted to not only to the War Department for vetting, but to General Leslie Groves – head of the Manhattan Project - himself. I freaked out right in the middle of the archive. I stared at this document and couldn't believe it. I sent a phone photo of it immediately to one of my research associates and asked, ‘Am I reading this right?’ Yes, I was. I had a call right away with my editor because it changed everything in this book. It changed Hersey’s “Hiroshima” from a subversive piece of independent journalism researched under the nose of Occupation officials to almost a piece of sanctioned access journalism.
And then I found confirming evidence in Leslie Groves’ records – both at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] and in the independent files of Groves biographer Robert Norris, who was helping me -- that this vetting had taken place. That set off a whole new realm of research for me in terms of assessing Groves’ position at that time, why he would have agreed ultimately to release the article, and how the administration and the War Department’s aims had evolved. They had been suppressing information about the bombing since that previous August, but a year later, they were finding new utility for accounts of the nuclear aftermath in Hiroshima. And so that was huge.
I was also able to call up, through Freedom of Information Act, documents from the War Department, CIA, and FBI, which detailed how they tracked Hersey when he was in Japan and their attitude toward Hersey after the reporting came out. I was quite curious to see especially the CIA records and FBI records because I wanted to know if there had been any move to try to discredit Hersey after “Hiroshima” came out, because the reporting had embarrassed the government.
While it transpired that the FBI did investigate and question Hersey a few years later, in the McCarthy era, it doesn't appear from what was released to me that there were any immediate efforts to discredit him, or his sources in Japan. The government took a different approach: downplaying. They mostly ignored the story to a certain extent, and then, when it was clear that the furor caused by “Hiroshima” wasn’t going to calm down, government officials put out their own counterpoint narrative, in an article in Harper’s Magazine, asserting that the bombs had been necessary and trying to dismiss Hersey’s revelations as sentimentality.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your extensive research. I didn't realize that you found that new material on Groves’ review of the Hersey article. That was a coup. Congratulations.
Lesley M.M. Blume: That was me. I will not tell you what I yelled in the middle of that silent archive, but it's a miracle that they didn't kick me out.
Robin Lindley: What an incredible find. You write extensively about Hersey’s background. Could you say a few things about John Hersey for readers who may not know his work?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes, absolutely. He's an interesting and unique protagonist for sure. Hersey in 1945 was 31 years old, movie star handsome, and already a celebrated writer. He had been covering the war since 1939 for Time, Inc. Henry Luce, the head of Time, Inc., had been grooming him to take over managing editorship of Time Inc., but they parted ways because Hersey couldn't abide Luce's chauvinistic, hyperpatriotic views. Hersey was also a recognized war hero for helping to evacuate wounded Marines while he was covering battles between the Japanese and the Americans in the Solomon Islands. And he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1944 novel A Bell for Adano.
Hersey was incredibly well known by the end of the war, and living what seems like a glamorous life. There were invites to the White House and he was mentioned in gossip columns. But he was not entirely comfortable being a public figure. He was the son of missionaries. He grew up in China. He was always a kind of outsider when the family moved back to the United States, even though he had a very celebrated life. He'd gone to Hotchkiss and Yale, where he was in the exclusive Skull and Bones society, but still, even when he was accepted among ultimate insiders, he always felt like an outsider.
Robin Lindley: And you write about Hersey’s view of the Japanese during the war.
Lesley M.M. Blume: He had covered the Japanese during the war and, like most Americans, he had been outraged by Pearl Harbor and by the stories of Japanese atrocities in China and Manila, and he was appalled by the battles in the Pacific theater. He said later that he had personally witnessed tenacity of Japanese troops; that’s a word that comes up again and again when American military veterans and journalists of that period described the Japanese, whom they expected to fight down to the last man in the Pacific theater and in Japan, if it were invaded.
Robin Lindley: How did Hersey react to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then the second atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki three days later?
Lesley M.M. Blume: He was really quite appalled by the Nagasaki bombing. He was chagrined by Hiroshima, but he felt that it would speed the end of the war. But he thought that the atomic bomb used after Hiroshima was a war crime – a “totally criminal action,” is how he put it later. He realized before most people the implications of humanity having violently entered into the atomic age. He said to his editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn, that if humans could not see the humanity in each other – and continued to dehumanize one another as they had during the Second World War -- that civilization had no chance of surviving an atomic age now.
Again, Hersey had covered everything from combat to concentration camps during the war. He had personally seen how the Japanese had dehumanized the Americans and the Chinese, among others, and how the Germans had dehumanized practically everybody. And when he saw Nagasaki bombed, he saw an active American dehumanization toward the largely civilian population in Japan.
And so, he was able somehow to overcome his rage at the Japanese military to document what had happened to the civilian population who were the first humans in history on the receiving end of nuclear warfare. That was not a popular mindset, to go into Japan and say, I'm going to humanize this population for Americans – but Hersey was extraordinary in his perspective.
Robin Lindley: Was it Hersey’s idea or Shawn’s to cover what actually happened on the ground at Hiroshima?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Hersey and his editor, William Shawn at the New Yorker, met for lunch at the end of 1945, when Hersey was about to do a big reporting trip to Asia. He was going to China, but from there, he planned to try to get into Japan.
When he and Shawn were discussing Japan, they talked about the fact that the public had been shown in the press images and descriptions of the landscape destruction in Hiroshima, and pictures of the mushroom clouds. But Americans had been seeing such rubble pictures of devastated cities around the globe for years, and the Hiroshima landscape photos didn’t seem that differentiated. And we can't forget that, when Truman first announced that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, he immediately cast it in conventional terms saying that the bomb was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.
There was very little mention or reporting on what had happened to the human beings under those mushroom clouds, and how these experimental bombs were unique, and this really disturbed Hersey and Shawn. For them, there was a suspicious and disturbing lack of reporting on the human consequences the bombs -- even though major American news operations had bureaus in Tokyo since the earliest days of the occupation, or, at the very least, correspondents stationed in Japan.
Robin Lindley: What did Hersey sense that the government was hiding from the American people?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Hersey and Shawn knew something was going on about how the bombs affected humans. How could you have such a huge press presence, but have the hugest story of the war being under told or covered up? They decided that if places like the New York Times and the Associated Press and other big players either wouldn't or couldn't get that story, Hersey would try to get into occupied Japan and go to Hiroshima to investigate the story.
Robin Lindley: Right after the bombing, General Groves said that the bomb was “a pleasant way to die.” That left the impression that tens of thousands of people died in a flash and they were merely statistics. But the atomic bomb continued to kill long after detonation.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yeah, that's exactly right. At first the administration and the occupying forces were reinforcing the narrative that the bomb was a conventional military weapon. A bigger piece of artillery, is how Truman would long characterize it. The U.S. government initially said that accusations of radiation sickness or radiation poisoning killing survivors were “Tokyo tales”—Japanese propaganda to create sympathy among the international community.
Initially, there were a few original press accounts by Allied journalists who’d managed to get into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during the earliest, chaotic days of the occupation. A couple came out of Hiroshima that indicated that a sinister new “disease X” was ravaging blast survivors there. One account ran in the UP and the other in London’s Daily Express. After that, another journalist tried to file a report to the Chicago Daily News from Nagasaki, confirming that a horrific affliction was killing off survivors there too. That report was intercepted by the Occupation censors under General MacArthur and supposedly “lost.” The occupation forces clamped down on the foreign and Japanese press alike after that – and quickly. Those kinds of reports stopped coming out of Hiroshima – until Hersey got in.
In the meantime, General Groves had personally spearheaded a PR campaign downplaying and denying radiation poisoning, and portraying the bombs as humane. Meanwhile, he and his team were privately scrambling to study the aftermath and aftereffects of the bombs, but publicly said that this aftermath was not so bad.
General Groves also commented, privately, during this time, that perhaps there was something about the composition of Japanese blood that was making them react especially badly to radiation absorbed into their bodies at the time of the bombing. That was an astonishing mindset.
Robin Lindley: That’s incredible. Hersey was cleared to go into Hiroshima for two weeks in 1946 and he collected information from survivors on the human consequences of the bomb and how the damage to humans was much different than caused by a conventional bomb. And he chose to tell the story mainly through six survivors of the atomic bombing.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes. By the time he left Japan, he also had radiation studies that had been undertaken by the Japanese, and Japanese studies on the damage to the city. He had initial casualty counts, and an initial study on how the bombs might have affected the earth and botanical landscape in the atomic cities. He even had the hospital blood charts of one of his protagonists.
In his subsequent article, Hersey wrote in excruciating detail, not just about the minutes, hours, and couple of days after August 6, 1945, but also the eight or nine months after by the time he entered Hiroshima. He wrote about how the atomic bomb kept on killing well after detonation. Several of his protagonists whom he profiled were critically ill and suffered from extreme hair loss, relentless fevers, total enervation, vomiting, and were in and out of hospitals. Hersey was so detailed in recounting their experiences that there would be no denying, after his report came out, the true medical effects of atomic bombs. Never again could atomic bombs be billed either as a pleasant way to die or as conventional megaweapons.
This was a turning point, not just in America but around the world, and a wakeup call about the reality of nuclear warfare and what these bombs do to human beings.
Robin Lindley: As you revealed for the first time, General Groves reviewed and surprisingly approved Hersey’s heart-wrenching account with only a few minor changes. Why did Groves approve publication of the story?
Lesley M.M. Blume: That was an astonishing revelation. By the time Hersey got into Japan in May, 1946, and wrote his story that summer, General Groves was already anticipating a time when America would no longer have the nuclear monopoly and would need to prepare for a possible nuclear attack on our own population. Both he and General MacArthur were anticipating this future landscape, and saw studying Hiroshima’s fate as a way to create an infrastructure here to prepare ourselves for nuclear attack. For example, they saw how Hiroshima suffered because all the hospitals were concentrated in the city center. Therefore, the U.S. should take care to spread its city hospitals out, so they couldn’t all be taken out in one bombing. Hiroshima suddenly had enormous utility in terms of trying to figure out how to medically treat future survivors of nuclear attack. I came to realize that the U.S. military’s and the government’s policies and uses for the information that Hiroshima had evolved significantly since the early days of ham-fisted cover up and suppression about information about the bombings’ aftermath.
But what really blew my mind was coming across the evidence that Hersey’s “Hiroshima” article had been submitted to Groves for pre-publication approval and vetting, and was approved. I was just trying to understand the mentality.
A year after the bombing, the official approach to the narrative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was becoming more nuanced. There were two developing considerations. First, we had to show the Soviets what we had. We still had a nuclear monopoly and wanted to keep them in their place. The more they saw us as a threat, the better. The Russians saw Hersey’s report as propaganda and hated him and “Hiroshima” duly.
Second – and again -- General Groves and others in the US government and military were anticipating a moment when we didn’t have the nuclear monopoly anymore. And so, if Americans were reading “Hiroshima” and they were seeing, New York or Detroit or San Francisco or Toledo, Ohio, in the place of Hiroshima, they might have thought, ‘We need to ban nuclear weapons.’ Which was the reaction that Hersey hoped for.
Or, they might thing that that we needed to build and maintain a superior arsenal, because someday the Soviets would get the bomb too, and likely others. And this was the thinking that helped set off the arms race. Leslie Groves, at that point in 1946, was already arguing that it was imperative for the US to maintain its nuclear advantage. He may have read Hersey's article in the most cynical way possible: as an unlikely way of drumming up public support for the continued development of a superior nuclear arsenal.
Robin Lindley: And Americans and people around the world were reading the Hersey article in the August 31, 1946 New Yorker, with its graphic descriptions of the ghastly medical and other human consequences of an atomic bomb attack. How do you see the reception and the influence of Hersey’s report?
Lesley M.M. Blume: It wasn't a foregone conclusion that it was going to be well received because, when you think about the American attitude toward the Japanese then, most Americans hated the Japanese. They remembered Pearl Harbor and Nanking and Manila and the Pacific theater. They were bloody memories.
When the article came out, Hersey left town. Maybe he feared for his life because humanizing Japanese victims – who had died in a hugely popular military victory - for an American audience was a dicey proposition, to say the least.
As it turned out, the impact of the article was instantaneous and global. People everywhere stopped to read this 30,000-word story – and even if they hadn’t read it, they knew about it and were talking about it. A survey of the article’s readers later revealed that the vast majority of those surveyed said that “Hiroshima” was not just fine reporting, but that it served the greater common good by revealing the truth about what had happened in Hiroshima and the truth about nuclear weapons. And, even if people weren't feeling sympathetic towards the Japanese victims, they were definitely seeing the perilous reality of the world that they now lived, the atomic age. It was an enormously effective wake up call.
The article was syndicated in its entirety in publications across the country and around the world. And it was covered on the least 500 radio stations in America. It was read over four consecutive nights in its entirety on ABC, and later, on the BBC. Within a year, the article was translated into practically every language around the world from Spanish to Hebrew to Bengali. It was even in braille. You can hardly imagine an article today getting this much attention or having this much of an impact.
Robin Lindley: I remember reading Hiroshima in book form decades ago, when I was in high school. I still recall the graphic depictions of the dead and the injured, the pain and suffering. The article must have had an especially strong effect on people who read it for the first time and didn’t know of the human toll of the atom bomb.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes. And it was extraordinary that Hersey was able to get people to read it when there was little incentive to do so, because, again, it humanized the Japanese. And while there may have been morbid curiosity about what it was like under the mushroom cloud but, at the same time, it was hugely disturbing material. The fact that Hersey was able to get people to stop and to bring the country almost to a halt for a few days after the article came out was just an enormous and astonishing accomplishment.
One of the things that made the story unputdownable was Hersey’s writing: he made it read like a novel, complete with cliffhangers in between each of the testimonies of the six protagonists. It draws you in; you’re totally engrossed. “Hiroshima” basically became mandatory reading for the reading public across the country and around the world.
Robin Lindley: And wasn’t Hersey’s innovative approach to the article perhaps a precursor of the New Journalism by telling the story of this historical atrocity through the eyes of several witnesses, rather than writing a straight journalistic account?
Lesley M.M. Blume: The style and approach of “Hiroshima” was literally inspired, in part, by another, earlier novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey [by Thornton Wilder], which Hersey had read while he was sick in China before going to Japan. At that point, Hersey knew generally that he wanted to tell the story of the bombings from individual vantage points, but he borrowed an idea from Wilder’s novel, which detailed the lives of a handful of people at the moment of shared disaster.
In Bridge, those individuals all died on a bridge when it broke; in Hersey’s story, it would be a handful of people – everyday people – whose lives intersected in real life, and who all experienced and survived the Hiroshima bombing together. Each of Hersey’s protagonists are documented as they are going about morning routines on August 6, 1945, when the flash comes and their city and lives are destroyed. It differed widely from any other journalistic accounts that followed in the days after the bombing, which again, largely cited clinical casualty statistics and described landscape devastation. But those accounts and that approach to the story of Hiroshima hadn’t really penetrated the global consciousness, and just didn't hit on a visceral level the way Hersey’s account did.
In terms of “Hiroshima” being a forerunner to the immersive approach taken by “New Journalists” – well, it’s sometimes cited as such, but Hersey really disliked the approach of people like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and other later journalists who made themselves the center of their stories. Hersey thought it was an awful and dangerous journalistic trend. And if you look at “Hiroshima,” you’ll see that Hersey totally absented himself from that reporting: no opinions, no rage; the voice of the story is very nothing-but-the-facts, and intentionally so.
Plus, Hersey did not personally promote “Hiroshima” and had a lifelong aversion to self-promotion. He felt that his work should speak for itself. He never put himself on center stage. Although he did leave a lot of documentation behind for historians like me to tell his story much later.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate those comments on Hersey’s approach to writing. Your book also demonstrates that you have a gift for storytelling and lively writing as well as research. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Well, thank you for the compliment. First of all, I have to say that I have a vicious editor who kept me on the straight and narrow, or the book probably would have been twice as long as it is.
On specific influences, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, I've been greatly influenced by both of the men who I've documented in my two main nonfiction books, Hemingway and Hersey. Both stripped down their writing to what was essential to the story. Hemingway’s tip-of -the-iceberg storytelling approach is still so damned relevant, so important. Hemingway is more stylized, but Hersey’s approach was honed with the New Yorker editors to a dispassionate recounting of fact. That has also been hugely instructive.
In terms of other major journalistic accounts that I've read that absolutely floored me, there was David Remnick’s incredible account of the Bolshoi ballet when it was about to unravel. He reported on his protagonists just in their own words, but the characters were so outlandish and insane, and the cross-weaving of the hallowed Bolshoi history and the modern-day antics were unbelievable. It was written in a masterly way. Something that all of these writers have in common is telling a big story through individual characters.
Robin Lindley: It’s also obvious that, like Hersey, you care about the human story behind statistics and other facts when you're writing or researching a story.
Lesley M.M. Blume: It's all-important, and I've always known it, but this project has really brought that home: it always comes back to the human story. I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about how Hersey’s approach gives journalists today a tool for telling the story of other catastrophes, including the story of the pandemic. We’re now over 200,000 deaths in this country -- more than three times the number of the Americans who died in Vietnam – and over a million global deaths. How do you deal with these statistics, how do you fathom the toll and the tragedy behind the numbers? It's relentlessly important to bring it down to the human lives behind this unfolding tragedy – or any mass casualty situation.
For example, my favorite Hemingway book isn’t The Sun Also Rises, which I documented in my earlier book, but rather For Whom the Bell Tolls, which documented the horror of a war that presaged World War II. In it, he depicted the interactions among individual people in a small town as that war unfolded, and the cruelties they inflicted on each other. If you can bring a story down to a handful of people who are experiencing a globe- or country-rocking event, then there’s a better chance your readers will comprehend the enormity of the event. Ironically, the more granular and human-focused the account, the greater the comprehension.
Robin Lindley: That’s powerful advice for all writers. I appreciated also your quote toward the end of the book where you said “Nuclear conflict may mean the end of life on this planet. Mass dehumanization can lead to genocide. The death of an independent press can lead to tyranny and render a population helpless to protect itself against a government that disdains law and conscience.” That was powerful and heartfelt. We’re at a time when our free press is under threat when the administration is actually hiding information. Where do you find hope now?
Lesley M.M. Blume: In Dr. Anthony Fauci. As long as we can hear from him, we will get guidance on how to get through this time, and we'll have a sense of where we really stand.
To be honest, this is a bleak moment. I have enormous trepidation in the lead-up to the election. Every day there's evidence that our society’s battle over information is basically the battle of our times. This battle will determine how things shake out for human civilization and the democratic experiment, not just for this country, but for all of the world.
I try to remember that our ancestors stared down and overcame enormous existential threats, and I look to the World War II period not for hope, but for strength. Can you imagine being in London during the blitz, or being in that country just after Dunkirk, and having to find the strength to carry on? There were such dark moments during that conflict yet there was an end.
Today, as then, we do not have the luxury of being exhausted or being demoralized. You just have to see what is right and relentlessly pursue that and try to find the energy to do that.
I’m trying to find pleasure in everyday things also. I have a young daughter who is smart and strong and hilarious. Being a parent is extremely motivating to keep fighting because, if you bring a human into this world, you damn well better try your best to be the best version of yourself, and help make the world as just as possible.
I’m also reading a lot of “Talk of the Town.” And I'm doing an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon, which has been fun and stylish. Quarantine stress briefly led me to consume a daily gin and tonic, but I’ve weaned off them because they’re too fattening. I'd like to maintain some semblance of a jawline.
It’s discouraging that right now we go to bed each night and we don't know what is going to unfold the next day. But we have to remember that we're not the only humans who have felt that way, and we just have to fight because there's no other choice. Exhaustion and surrender are not options.
Robin Lindley: Thanks Ms. Blume for those words of encouragement and inspiration. Readers are sure to appreciate your thoughts and all the careful work you've done on this story. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss your work and congratulations on your groundbreaking new book Fallout on the intrepid John Hersey and his classic account of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Re-Markings, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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