Dr Gwyn McClelland’s review of Lesley Blume’s Fallout describes how the US government sought to cover up the horrific effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Blume tells us the story of journalist John Hersey’s scoop in the New Yorker in August 1946, which signalled the beginning of a propaganda contest about the morality of the bombings that continues today.
By Gwyn McClelland
It was 31 August, 1946. Distributed to news agencies throughout the largest city in America was a 15 cent magazine with an innocuous cover-picture of summer leisure activities, including dancing, swimming, walking and horse riding, taking place in a park. Replicating somehow the innocuity of activities in Hiroshima up until 8:15am on 6 August 1945, the calming picture precluded any readers’ anticipation of just what lay within its sheets. Inside the New Yorker magazine was the story of six of those who suffered the first atomic bombing of a city in history.
Until this story was published, the US media, and, in fact, much of the populace of the United States, swallowed a governmental line on the atomic bombings. The US officials kept details scarce, minimized their count of casualties, denied a detrimental radioactive aftermath, and allowed images of the urban devastation to be published, but without any photographs of the human victims. The editors of the influential New York Times (NYT) devoted considerable space to the official historian of the Manhattan Project, ‘Atomic Bill’ Laurence, who tended to describe the bomb in abstract terms.
Laurence wrote, for example, about one of the post-war Bikini atoll tests’ mushroom clouds as ‘a continent made “when the earth was young”; which mutated into “a giant tree, a tree with many branches bearing many invisible fruits- alpha particles, beta rays, neutrons – fruits deadly to man, invisible to the eye, the fruits of the tree of knowledge, which man must eat at his peril.”’ (58) Laurence denied outright that radiation sickness continued to kill people and was in the employ of the War Department as well as the NYT. The use of the atomic bomb during the war was highly legitimised in the mind of the public as a nuclear future dawned, and as a Communist threat was increasingly perceived in both Asia and Eastern Europe.
Lesley Blume’s Fallout tells the story of how it was that the first efforts—in the afore-mentioned article published in the New Yorker in August 1946— were made to bring the experiences of the human sufferers of these two atomic bombings to the American public. In the process, the American bombings were forever problematised. Authored by John Hersey, the article, simply named Hiroshima, aimed to challenge the accepted abstract narrative of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Demonstrating an immediate impact of Hersey’s revelations, the New York Times editorial of the following day read as follows:
‘The disasters at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were our handiwork. They were defended then, and are defended now, by the argument that they saved more lives than they took – more lives of Japanese as well as more lives of Americans. The argument may be sound or it may be unsound… One may think it unsound when he reads Mr. Hersey… History is history. It cannot be undone. [But] the future is still ours to help make.’ (130)
Journalist Blume relates sympathetically the story of how Hersey’s article ‘scooped the world’, as New Yorker editor Harold Ross described it. Hersey would change the overwhelming narrative on the US army’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing raids in August 1945. It is fitting that Blume has written this documentary book, given her modern-day career imitating Hersey’s. A journalist and New York Times bestselling author, she reported on the 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fascinated by how Hersey was pursued by both the New York Times and Henry Luce’s Time/Life magazines, Blume’s is a journalistic history, relating how Hersey eventually turned to the New Yorker to write this long-form article, destined to become one of the most-read texts of all time.
Hersey was the first, Blume writes, to depict the Japanese victims as ordinary human beings (127). For more than a year following the bombings, the US government had controlled and bent the narrative around these events, emphasising the enormity of the bombs, the military targets, their significance to the Japanese surrender; and avoiding discussion at all costs of the innocent people who were caught up in the middle. Hersey himself grew up as a missionary child in China, became an international correspondent for Time magazine during the war, and won a Pulitzer Prize with his 1944 novel, A Bell for Adano. Earlier in 1946, he was in Shanghai and Manchuria, sending home stories to the New Yorker about the aftermath of Japanese invasion (54). Arriving in Japan, he managed to travel to Hiroshima, where he observed the ruins, but for Hersey, the story was in the listening. With his journalistic experience, he was most interested in interviews because they provided an eyewitness view. His chosen speakers were skewed towards those who could speak English, although he also relied on interpretation to gain the full story. A German-Catholic priest, a Protestant Minister, two doctors and two women provided the narration – their torrid experiences determined how the Hiroshima story of untold suffering was first explained to the world.
The final chapter of Blume’s book summarises the media tumult and public rumblings in the aftermath of the publishing of Hiroshima, the article which became a book. The US government suddenly had a genocidal superpower, post-Hiroshima ‘image problem’ (148). Blume describes in detail how Henry L. Stimson, former US secretary of war was coaxed back from retirement by Harry Truman to write a detailed defence of the action of dropping the atomic bombs, albeit backed up by an ‘old-boy War Department network’. In his article, which was published by 1947 in Harper’s Magazine (151), he argued that the very size of the bomb essentially composed shock-value for the Imperial Japanese Army, and was absolutely required to force surrender. Although it significantly changed sentiment about the atomic bombings, Hiroshima was even co-opted by the Army to assist in understanding likely impacts, in the growing fear that the United States might itself be attacked by nuclear weapons.
Fast forward to today, and the world is preparing for a new era in the nuclear age. From January 2021, after the ratification by 50 nations of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, these weapons will become for the first time illegal by international law. Two days after the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, a Nuclear Ban treaty, known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), will be adopted by the United Nations. In its preamble, this treaty notes the extreme suffering of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, first pointed to by John Hersey, as a guiding motivation for the ban on all such weapons.
Those who suffered the bombs did not forget, and in the decades since, memories have continually been revealed, as countless survivor tales, protests, oral histories and scientific studies have followed Hersey’s, showing yet more clearly the hideous human, environmental and radioactive impacts of the atomic bombings of both cities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In subsequent decades, a myriad of nuclear tests have continued to expose the vulnerable in multiple sites around the world to new damages. But Blume’s Fallout takes us back to the journalistic tale of the original scoop in the New Yorker. She demonstrates how Hersey’s narrative began to reveal cracks in the armour of the US Department of War’s legitimation of the bombs, these atomic weapons J. Robert Oppenheimer aptly called: ‘Death – destroyer of worlds’.
Review of Lesley Blume, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, Scribe, $35, 288 pp.