This vanishing moment and our vanishing future: John Hersey, Hiroshima, and the end of world
Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its Doomsday Clock to provide humanity with an expert estimate of just how close all of us are to an apocalyptic “midnight” — that is, nuclear annihilation. A century ago, there was, of course, no need for such a measure. Back then, the largest explosion ever caused by humans had likely occurred in Halifax, Canada, in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another vessel, in that city’s harbor. That tragic blast killed nearly 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 6,000 homeless, but it didn’t imperil the planet. The largest explosions after that occurred on July 16, 1945, in a test of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, in New Mexico and then on August 6, 1945, when the United States unleashed such a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Since then, our species has been precariously perched at the edge of auto-extermination.
No one knows precisely how many people were killed by the world’s first nuclear attack. Around 70,000, nearly all of them civilians, were vaporized, crushed, burned, or irradiated to death almost immediately. Another 50,000 probably died soon after. As many as 280,000 were dead, many of radiation sickness, by the end of the year. (An atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki, three days later, is thought to have killed as many as 70,000.) In the wake of the first nuclear attack, little was clear. “What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known,” the New York Times reported that August 7th and the U.S. government sought to keep it that way, portraying nuclear weapons as nothing more than super-charged conventional munitions, while downplaying the horrifying effects of radiation. Despite the heroic efforts of several reporters just after the blast, it wasn’t until a year later that Americans — and then the rest of the world — began to truly grasp the effects of such new weaponry and what it would mean for humanity from that moment onward.
We know about what happened at Hiroshima largely thanks to one man, John Hersey. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former correspondent for TIME and LIFE magazines. He had covered World War II in Europe and the Pacific, where he was commended by the secretary of the Navy for helping evacuate wounded American troops on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. And we now know just how Hersey got the story of Hiroshima — a 30,000-word reportorial masterpiece that appeared in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker magazine, describing the experiences of six survivors of that atomic blast — thanks to a meticulously researched and elegantly written new book by Lesley Blume, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.
Only the essentials
When I pack up my bags for a war zone, I carry what I consider to be the essentials for someone reporting on an armed conflict. A water bottle with a built-in filter. Trauma packs with a blood-clotting agent. A first-aid kit. A multitool. A satellite phone. Sometimes I forgo one or more of these items, but there’s always been a single, solitary staple, a necessity whose appearance has changed over the years, but whose presence in my rucksack has not.
Once, this item was intact, almost pristine. But after the better part of a decade covering conflicts in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, and Burkina Faso, it’s a complete wreck. Still, I carry it. In part, it’s become (and I’m only slightly embarrassed to say it) something of a talisman for me. But mostly, it’s because what’s between the figurative covers of that now-coverless, thoroughly mutilated copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima — the New Yorker article in paperback form — is as terrifyingly brilliant as the day I bought it at the Strand bookstore in New York City for 48 cents.
I know Hiroshima well. I’ve read it cover-to-cover dozens of times. Or sometimes on a plane or a helicopter or a river barge, in a hotel room or sitting by the side of a road, I’ll flip it open and take in a random 10 or 20 pages. I always marveled at how skillfully Hersey constructed the narrative with overlapping personal accounts that make the horrific handiwork of that weapon with the power of the gods accessible on a human level; how he explained something new to this world, atomic terror, in terms that readers could immediately grasp; how he translated destruction on a previously unimaginable scale into a cautionary tale as old as the genre itself, but with an urgency that hasn’t faded or been matched. I simply never knew how he did it until Lesley Blume pulled back the curtain.
Fallout, which was published last month — the 75th anniversary of America’s attack on Hiroshima — offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just how Hersey and William Shawn, then the managing editor of the New Yorker, were able to truly break the story of an attack that had been covered on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers a year earlier and, in the process, produced one of the all-time great pieces of journalism. It’s an important reminder that the biggest stories may be hiding in plain sight; that breaking news coverage is essential but may not convey the full magnitude of an event; and that a writer may be far better served by laying out a detailed, chronological account in spartan prose, even when the story is so horrific it seems to demand a polemic.
Hersey begins Hiroshima in an understated fashion, noting exactly what each of the six survivors he chronicles was doing at the moment their lives changed forever. “Not everyone could comprehend how the atomic bomb worked or visualize an all-out, end-of-days nuclear world war,” Blume observes. “But practically anyone could comprehend a story about a handful of regular people — mothers, fathers, grade school children, doctors, clerks — going about their daily routines when catastrophe struck.”
As she points out, Hersey’s authorial voice is never raised and so the atomic horrors — victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves — speak for themselves. It’s a feat made all the more astonishing when one considers, as Blume reveals, that its author, who had witnessed combat and widespread devastation from conventional bombing during World War II, was so terrified and tormented by what he saw in Hiroshima months after the attack that he feared he would be unable to complete his assignment.
Incredibly, Hersey got the story of Hiroshima with official sanction, reporting under the scrutiny of the office of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the American occupation of defeated Japan. His prior reportage on the U.S. military, including a book focused on MacArthur that he later called “too adulatory,” helped secure his access. More amazing still, the New Yorker — fearing possible repercussions under the recently passed Atomic Energy Act — submitted a final draft of the article for review to Lieutenant General Lesley Groves, who had overseen the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, served as its chief booster, and went so far as to claim that radiation poisoning “is a very pleasant way to die.”
Whatever concessions the New Yorker may have made to him have been lost in the sands of time, but Groves did sign off on the article, overlooking, as Blume notes, “Hersey’s most unsettling revelations: the fact that the United States had unleashed destruction and suffering upon a largely civilian population on a scale unprecedented in human history and then tried to cover up the human cost of its new weapon.”
The impact on the U.S. government would be swift. The article was a sensation and immediately lauded as the best reporting to come out of World War II. It quickly became one of the most reprinted news pieces of all time and led to widespread reappraisals by newspapers and readers alike of just what America had done to Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also managed to shine a remarkably bright light on the perils of nuclear weapons, writ large. “Hersey’s story,” as Blume astutely notes, “was the first truly effective, internationally heeded warning about the existential threat that nuclear arms posed to civilization.”
Wanted: A Hersey for our time
It’s been 74 years since Hiroshima hit the newsstands. A Cold War and nuclear arms race followed as those weapons spread across the planet. And this January, as a devastating pandemic was beginning to follow suit, all of us found ourselves just 100 seconds away from total annihilation due to the plethora of nuclear weapons on this earth, failures of U.S.-Russian cooperation on arms control and disarmament, the Trump administration’s trashing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and America’s efforts to develop and deploy yet more advanced nukes, as well as two other factors that have sped up that apocalyptic Doomsday Clock: climate change and cyber-based disinformation.
The latter, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is corrupting our “information ecosphere,” undermining democracy as well as trust among nations, and so creating hair-trigger conditions in international relations. The former is transforming the planet’s actual ecosystem and placing humanity in another kind of ultimate peril. “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder,” former California Governor Jerry Brown, the executive chair of the Bulletin, said earlier this year. “Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”
Over the last three-plus years, however, President Donald Trump has seemingly threatened at least three nations with nuclear annihilation, including a U.S. ally. In addition to menacing North Korea with the possibility of unleashing “fire and fury” and his talk of ushering in “the end” of Iran, he even claimed to have “plans” to exterminate most of the population of Afghanistan. The “method of war” he suggested employing could kill an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians. John Hersey, who died in 1993 at the age of 78, wouldn’t have had a moment’s doubt about what he meant.
Trump’s nuclear threats may never come to fruition, but his administration, while putting significant effort into deep-sixing nuclear pacts, has also more than done its part to accelerate climate change, thinning rules designed to keep the planet as habitable as possible for humans. A recent New York Times analysis, for example, tallied almost 70 environmental rules and regulations — governing planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane emissions, clean air, water, and toxic chemicals — that have been rescinded, reversed, or revoked, with more than 30 additional rollbacks still in progress.
President Trump has not, however, been a total outlier when it comes to promoting environmental degradation. American presidents have been presiding over the destruction of the natural environment since the founding of the republic. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act, for instance, transformed countless American lives, providing free land for the masses. But it also transferred 270 million acres of wilderness, or 10% of the United States, into private hands for “improvements.”
More recently, Ronald Reagan launched attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency through deregulation and budget cuts, while George W. Bush’s administration worked to undermine science-based policies, specifically through the denial of anthropogenic climate change. The difference, of course, was that Lincoln couldn’t have conceptualized the effects of global warming (even if the first study of the “greenhouse effect” was published during his lifetime), whereas the science was already clear enough in the Reagan and Bush years, and brutally self-apparent in the age of Trump, as each of them pursued policies that would push us precious seconds closer to Armageddon.
The tale of how John Hersey got his story is a great triumph of Lesley Blume’s Fallout, but what came after may be an even more compelling facet of the book. Hersey gave the United States an image problem — and far worse. “The transition from global savior to genocidal superpower was an unwelcome reversal,” she observes. Worse yet for the U.S. government, the article left many Americans reevaluating their country and themselves. It’s beyond rare for a journalist to prompt true soul-searching or provide a moral mirror for a nation. In an interview in his later years, Hersey, who generally avoided publicity, suggested that the testimony of survivors of the atomic blasts — like those he spotlighted — had helped to prevent nuclear war.
“We know what an atomic apocalypse would look like because John Hersey showed us,” writes Blume. Unfortunately, while there have been many noteworthy, powerful works on climate change, we’re still waiting for the one that packs the punch of “Hiroshima.” And so, humanity awaits that once-in-a-century article, as nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber-based disinformation keep us just 100 clicks short of doomsday.
Hersey provided a template. Blume has lifted the veil on how he did it. Now someone needs to step up and write the world-changing piece of reportage that will shock our consciences and provide a little more breathing room between this vanishing moment and our ever-looming midnight.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.