Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > Lesley M.M. Blume on Hiroshima and Nuclear War

Jan 22, 2023

Lesley M.M. Blume on Hiroshima and Nuclear War

tags: Hiroshima,Nagasaki,John Hersey,skipped history,fallout,lesley blume,bulletin of the atomic scientists

According to the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group with the gloomiest job on earth, we’re closer to nuclear war than at any point since World War II. Ahead of their planned update to the Doomsday Clock, which currently stands at 100 seconds to midnight, I spoke to Lesley M.M. Blume, an award-winning journalist, historian, and New York Times bestselling author. 

Lesley is the author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World, which documents how American war correspondent John Hersey helped expose the true effects of the nuclear bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here (~1 hour... Lesley and I covered a lot of alarming ground). Skipped History is a reader-supported publication, so consider signing up today!

Ben: Lesley, thank you so much for being here.

LB: Well, thanks for inviting me.

Ben: To begin, let’s discuss Little Boy. What was it, and why is “Little Boy” arguably the worst euphemism ever?

LB: Yeah, Little Boy was not a little boy, but rather the first nuclear weapon ever used in warfare, dropped over Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. We’ll never know the full extent of casualties, but probably 100,000 to 250,000 people died after the US detonated the bomb.

Little Boy was followed by another bomb, three days later—more appropriately called Fat Man—which decimated Nagasaki. A slightly smaller casualty count there, but numbers become academic when you’re in the tens of thousands.

Ben: In Fallout you quote Hiroshima’s governor as saying even today, “You dig two feet and there are bones.” Pretty stunning.

LB: Yeah. Researching in Hiroshima was really disturbing because, as the governor told me, you are literally walking on a graveyard.

Ben: On that ghoulish note, let’s dive into the US attempts to cover up the radioactive fallout of the bomb. What happened after August 6th, 1945?

LB: When looking at the initial coverage of the bombing, it was undoubtedly a huge story. For example, the New York Times ran a huge banner headline, and not long after that, the US released pictures of devastated landscapes in both of the bombed-out cities. 

So, it seemed like the government was divulging information, and that newspapers were fully covering it. But after the bombing, a few especially daring reporters entered the bombed-out cities to see what life was like. It was very clear to them that, actually, something very sinister was happening; that the atomic bombs continued to kill long after detonation. 

They managed to get a few initial reports out of Hiroshima, but the US government and military were very quick to lock down Japan and squelch subsequent accounts. They didn’t want the international community or American citizens to know that radioactive activity was still killing people in really agonizing ways.

Ben: Per your book, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson explained that the US wasn’t eager to “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”

LB: Which makes sense, right? The US had just won an incredibly difficult war against undeniably evil powers. Japanese atrocities were horrific, just like those carried out by Germany and Italy.

So the US had the moral high ground, and the truth of what had just happened to the largely civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would put that position at risk.

Also, the US military was about to station tens of thousands of Allied troops throughout Japan, including in the atomic cities. Some of them, especially in Nagasaki, were quite close to ground zero. And so of course the US government would say, Look, no harm done here, this area is safe for anybody.

So after September 1945, the story went quiet. US occupation authorities wouldn’t even allow mention of Hiroshima in Japanese poetry, let alone press reports about people dying in Hiroshima from horrific hemorrhaging and worse. As reporters moved on, the American public moved on, too.

Ben: Your discussion of the US public's (and the world’s) fatigue with war stories is quite thought-provoking.

LB: Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, the bandwidth for the American public to absorb yet another outside atrocity story in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was pretty minimal. People suffered from what in the book I call “atrocity exhaustion.” When the government released pictures of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what differentiated those ruins from Dresden or Cologne or London after the blitz? So the exhaustion was total, and I'm more empathetic than ever with that exhaustion given all we’ve been through over the last few years with the Trump era, climate change, Ukraine, and more.

Ben: Ditto. And as a New York Knicks fan, I’ve felt a far lesser yet still persistent form of atrocity exhaustion for a long time.

LB: We have Mets and Jets fans in our family, so I hear you.

Ben: How did John Hersey manage to penetrate this exhaustion?

LB: So John Hersey was this young, gorgeous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and war correspondent who'd worked for Time magazine from 1939 to 1944.  He also had a reputation as a hero for evacuating wounded Marines while covering battle in the South Pacific.

A free agent in the fall of 1945, Hersey had lunch with William Sean, the New Yorker’s managing editor. Sean was this strange, elfish, quiet man with shrewd, unerring news instincts They called him the “hunch man” because sometimes he’d just send a correspondent to some part of the globe on a hunch that something was going on, and he was never wrong.

Ben: Little do people know that Quasimoto was actually a very famous journalist during his time, too.

LB: Yes, the New Yorker tried to get him on contract.

Ben: But he was mired in his own drama.

LB: A sad chapter. 

Hersey had a deep background in Asian coverage and grew up in China, so his idea was to go back to Asia, starting in China, and then try to get into Japan and find out what had happened to civilians in the atomic cities.

Ben: He was up against some pretty nasty American instincts toward the Japanese, right? There’s a quote from Hershey where he says, “If our concept of civilization was to mean anything, we had to acknowledge the humanity of even our misled and murderous enemies.”

LB: An extraordinary thing to have written on Hersey's part given how Hollywood, the military, and much of the media recast the Japanese as this kind of bestial subspecies during the war. 

So Hersey arrived in China in early 1946. While on assignment, he got sick, and amid a sort of feverish haze on a military ship, he read a book called The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which detailed the intersecting lives of five Peruvians killed when a suspension bridge broke. Hersey thought that’d be a good approach to telling the story of Hiroshima: pick a handful of everyday citizens and describe their overlapping experiences of the attack. He wanted American readers to put themselves in the shoes of his protagonists.

After going from China to Tokyo, spoiler alert, Hersey managed to get to Hiroshima.

Ben: Right, that's a dramatic tale in its own right, which you detail compellingly in Fallout. For now, let’s just say it involves surfing a giant sea horse into town.

LB: Yes… anyway, suffice to say, Hersey’s war reputation made him a perfect Trojan horse of sorts to get into the city.

Once there, over the course of a few weeks, he interviewed dozens of survivors who were in various positions vis-a-vis the blast, some of them quite close (it was deeply miraculous that they’d survived). Ultimately he whittled down his list of protagonists to six people: a young Japanese medic, a young female clerk, an older Japanese doctor, a young widowed mother who had three young children, a Protestant minister who also had a young family, and then finally a German priest who’d been living in Hiroshima. All of their stories overlapped in the lead-up to the bombing.

Hersey returned to Tokyo and then to the US to write his story. Titled “Hiroshima,” he began the story at the moment of detonation, describing what each of his subjects was doing. The reader then gets background information on each of the individuals, before Hershey shows what each of those individuals and each of their families went through in the minutes, hours, then days, and weeks after the bomb went off. Interspersed throughout are statistics about casualties and facts about radiation that almost nobody knew. 

For most people then (as now), the story is unputdownable; it’s the most compulsive reading possible. It’s one of the few stories you can access for free on the New Yorker website.

Ben: You cite one of Hersey's contemporaries, a reporter named Lewis Gait, who said, “You swallowed statistics, gasped in awe, and turning away to discuss the price of lamb chops, forgot. But if you read what Mr. Hersey writes, you won't forget.”

LB: Yeah, by eliciting sympathy and empathy, “Hiroshima” penetrated the public consciousness. Millions of people in the US and around the world read it in real time. Over 500 radio stations in America covered it. ABC, BBC, and newspapers and publications around the world syndicated it. When the story came out as a book, it immediately sold out. I can't overstate the global impact of the book and how voraciously it was consumed.

Ben: How did the US government respond to Hersey blowing their coverup?

LB: To put it mildly, the government reacted with displeasure. 

I mean, first, officials tried to ignore the story entirely. When Harry Truman was asked if he’d read “Hiroshima,” he said he’d never even read the New Yorker. 

But when it became clear they couldn’t ignore the story anymore, a handful of war department old boys got together and published a retort article (though they never called it a retort), ostensibly written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson but really written by committee. And the retort basically argued in a very calm and unemotional way that the bomb saved a million lives that would’ve been lost through invasion—not just American lives but Japanese ones, too. The authors argued the US couldn’t in good conscience just sit on the technology when they could’ve ended the war in a faster way.

It’s a very paternalistic, reassuring document that conveniently didn’t mention civilian costs, radiation, the ongoing effects of the bombs, the fact that the US had sent troops into the atomic cities without really knowing if there was residual radiation (luckily, there wasn’t), or the fact that the Japanese had put out peace feelers via the Soviets before the bombs were dropped.

Fascinatingly, the Soviets were also extremely pissed about “Hiroshima.” Their US allies left them out of the decision to use the bomb, and now they were at a huge disadvantage. The US had this mega weapon and overnight became the world’s sole superpower.

The Soviets immediately accelerated their own efforts to create an atomic bomb. In the meantime, they had no interest in their public being panicked by their disadvantage, so the Soviets barely reported on Hersey’s story. And then a Soviet publication sent a correspondent to Nagasaki to write a rebuttal article about how the bombs weren’t that bad after all, and any suggestion otherwise was American propaganda.

So, in effect, both the US and the USSR engaged in their own respective coverups of the true aftermath in Hiroshima. To me, as a researcher, that was pretty bananas.

Ben: As a reader, it was too. And regarding the suppression of memory, you write, “The greatest tragedy of the 21st century may be that we've learned so little from the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.” Could you elaborate on that conclusion?

LB: Sure. So at least in the US, try as it might, the government couldn’t counteract the influence of Hersey’s article. We know what nuclear warfare looks like largely because of John Hersey. His article alone became a pillar of deterrence over the following years because the US government knew it couldn’t use nuclear weapons in other conflicts without generating the kind of outcry that followed the publication of “Hiroshima.”

Still, today, I think the threat of nuclear annihilation is probably sharper and fresher for most people than it has been for years. We’re learning yet again that the world has never been able to figure out how to walk away from the nuclear framework. 

One question that’s of profound importance to me, and which I believe was similarly profound for Hersey, was what are we capable of when we’ve dehumanized another race or country on a big scale? The answers to that question, which the world witnessed during World War II, are fading from memory. We’re seeing a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism right now; ethnic concentration camps in China; and of course war with the unlikely but still possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

So it’s a scary time, riddled with disinformation. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is very clear in its warnings that the nuclear threat is more real now than at any time since World War II.

With that being said, I don't think that most people, especially in America, realize how much agency they have in nuclear matters. Whom we elect to control our nuclear destiny really matters. And at some point, we also have to take on the issue of presidents having sole authority to launch nuclear attacks.

I’d also remind everyone to support their local journalism communities, whom we need to tell the kinds of policy-affecting, eyewitness stories that Hersey was able to bring to the world in 1946.

Ben: An excellent reminder, and a good concluding note. The unsettling content aside, Lesley, this has been a blast.

LB: No pun intended?

Ben: Oh, wow. Not at all. I’m going to stop this interview before I’m tempted to launch more. Thanks again for being here.

LB: My pleasure.

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