The New Yorker Article Heard Round the World
Revisiting John Hersey's Groundbreaking "Hiroshima"
John Hersey’s article titled simply “Hiroshima,” which comprised the entire feature space in the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker, has been called by many the greatest, or at least the most important, journalistic achievement of the past century. Its life was extended when it was soon published as a best-selling book that remains a classic today.
Correspondent and novelist John Hersey, at the age of 31, had already won a Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano. Several months after the first atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima in August 1945, he had mentioned writing something about it to his New Yorker editor, William Shawn. Hersey, who was born in China to Protestant missionaries and covered the Pacific war for Henry Luce and Time-Life, imagined an article documenting the power of the new bomb and the destruction it caused to one city. Ultimately he decided he would focus on what happened not to buildings but to humans. He just needed to find a form to tell the story.
Shawn was enthusiastic and urged him not to rush since, months after the epochal events, “No one has even touched” the subject. This was, sadly, true. And the first Hollywood drama about the bomb, from MGM, was in the process of being transformed from an urgent warning by atomic scientists to pro-bomb propaganda under pressure from the military and White House.
On the way to the Far East, Hersey had read Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which explored an 18th century disaster in Peru through the eyes of a handful of victims. Hersey sensed this might be the best way to personalize the far more vast and deadly Hiroshima story. Arriving in Hiroshima in May 1946, he interviewed several dozen survivors, before settling on six who told powerful stories but were not exactly representative of the city as a whole: two doctors, one Catholic priest and one Methodist minister, and two working women. (It might also be said that they were not typical because these six had survived.) Their movements in the shattered city occasionally crossed, one of the novelistic requirements the author had set.
Conducting the interviews and research, with a translator at his side, Hersey was “terrified all the time,” he later explained. Hersey had seen the devastation of war many times before, most recently in China and Tokyo, but Hiroshima was different: These ruins had been created by one weapon in one instant, a terrifying notion. If Hersey felt that in the city nine months later, how must the people who were there at the time experienced it? So he set out to struggle to understand.
The following is from Mitchell’s The Beginning of the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
When a new issue of The New Yorker arrived at the very end of August, the cover featured a generic picnic scene, with people sunbathing, hiking, riding horses. The first few pages held the usual ads for nylons and women’s clothing from Lord & Taylor or Bergdorf Goodman. But there was something unique about this issue: there was no “Talk of the Town,” few cartoons, no book reviews. The entire issue was devoted to one feature, 68 pages long (some thirty thousand words), written by war correspondent and novelist John Hersey. His temporary titles for the piece, “Events at Hiroshima” or “Some Experiences at Hiroshima,” had fallen away in favor of the simple and powerful: “Hiroshima.”
In a note to readers, the editors explained that they had taken this extraordinary step based on the conviction that most people still did not recognize the profoundly different power of this weapon—“the almost total obliteration of a city”—and now “might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.” Hersey’s first sentence set the scene like none other to date: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” Clearly he was going to go far beyond, in both style and content, the wrenching first-person report from the Jesuit pastor John Siemes earlier in the year.
When Hersey submitted the article as a four-part series, William Shawn, who edited it, proposed running it in one issue for maximum impact. Mission accomplished. The article caused an immediate sensation. All copies sold out on newsstands. The mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, asked every resident to read it. Newspapers requested reprint rights, which Hersey granted if proceeds went to the Red Cross. Plans were announced for narrating the entire story over the ABC radio network on four consecutive evenings.
Columnists and editors, most of whom had expressed strong support for the use of the bomb, nevertheless praised the article, many calling it the strongest reporting of its time. The New York Times declared that every American “who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational development that can now be accepted as part of civilization . . . ought to read Mr. Hersey.” The editorial reminded readers that the “disasters at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were our handiwork,” and that the crucial argument that the bomb reputedly saved more lives than it took might appear unsound after reading Hersey. On top of that, Hersey chronicled the gruesomely unique way so many perished in death-by-radiation, which caused at least 20 percent of the casualties. Writing to New Yorker editors, the journalist Janet Flanner compared the article to Matthew Brady’s photographs during the Civil War, one of the first “records of how people really looked in war.”
Just one of dozens of brief, riveting episodes in the article: “Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moments of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
Some readers felt this grim account of the first atomic bomb survivors was somewhat diminished by its surroundings—the usual ads for quality booze, Tiffany pins, leg cosmetics, and vacations abroad. A flood of letters to The New Yorker, however, revealed that most readers were terribly moved. A college student wrote, “I had never thought of the people in the bombed cities as individuals.” Many mentioned that they were now ashamed of what America had done. A young scientist, once proud of his work for the Manhattan Project, revealed that he wept as he read the article and was “filled with shame to recall the whoopee spirit” with which he and others had received the news of the bombing, recalling a “champagne dinner” that night. “We didn’t realize” the horror and human effects, he added. “I wonder if we do yet.”
One reader not pleased was Henry Luce, Hersey’s main employer. Time claimed that Hersey “had practically stumbled into” this story and that editor Harold Ross (“a man given to juvenile and profane tantrums”) had only printed the article at that length in one issue because he was notably short of good material. The novelist Thomas Mann had an interesting take himself. He hailed the article but declared it should not be translated for the postwar Germans because it is “their only pleasure to enjoy the mistakes and sins committed anywhere else in the world.”
Would “Hiroshima” provoke a public rethinking of the wisdom of Truman’s decision to use the bomb? To date that debate had centered on what to do with the next bombs, not what had been done with the first ones. Atomic scientists who had never before addressed the divisive Hiroshima decision—the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had just called it “water over the dam”—were now speaking out. Albert Einstein commented that the bomb probably was used primarily to end the Pacific war before Russia got into it.
Not everyone responded positively. “I read Hersey’s report,” one subscriber wrote The New Yorker. “It was marvelous. Now let us drop a handful [of atomic bombs] on Moscow.” General Thomas Farrell, currently being portrayed in the MGM movie, was so angry he asked Bernard Baruch to propose another article to the editors at the magazine— about six POWs mistreated by the Japanese and how they felt about the bomb. (That American POWs died in the Hiroshima attack would remain a secret for decades.)
Others felt Hersey had not gone far enough. The writer himself admitted to publisher Alfred A. Knopf that he had “been at great pains to keep the tone of guilt about using the bomb at a minimum.” The New York Times, in a second “minority opinion” editorial, charged that Hersey had merely “given us a picture of war’s horrors as the world has long known them, rather than a picture of the unprecedented horrors of atomic warfare.” The simple number 100,000— indicating the number killed in one day— conveyed more about the meaning of Hiroshima than any evocative anecdote.
The left-wing critic Dwight Macdonald was more caustic. Macdonald despised the article’s “suave, toned-down, underplayed kind of naturalism,” its “moral deficiency” in vision, its “antiseptic” prose. Naturalism, he suggested, was no longer adequate “either esthetically or morally, to cope with the modern horrors.” The writer Mary McCarthy mocked The New Yorker for declaring a moral “emergency” while surrounding the Hersey article with all those cigarette and perfume ads. While agreeing that the atomic bomb threatened the continuity of life, she unfairly characterized the key survivors in the Hersey article as “busy little Methodists”: “What it did was to minimize the atomic bomb by treating it as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes. . . . The existence of any survivors is an irrelevancy, and the interview with the survivors is an insipid falsification of the truth of atom warfare. To have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead.”
But it was Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins whose reaction would end up having the most impact. He had already argued that the bomb might have been aimed at the Russians as much as the Japanese. Now in an editorial titled “The Literacy of Survival,” he asserted that Americans, despite Hersey’s achievement, still did not fully comprehend what they had done. “Have we as a people,” he asked, “any sense of responsibility for the crime of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Have we attempted to press our leaders for an answer concerning their refusal to heed the pleas of the scientists against the use of the bomb without a demonstration?” He concluded by calling for a national “moratorium” on all normal habits and routine, “in order to acquire a basic literacy” on the moral implications of the atomic bombings and the atomic age. If this accomplished little it would at least “enable the American people to recognize a crisis when they see one and are in one.”
What this editorial, along with the Hersey article, would accomplish more than anything was to inspire pro-bomb authorities, from James Conant to Henry Stimson, to take redemptive action, involving a quite different major article in another leading magazine, to reinforce the Hiroshima narrative they had promoted from the start.
Excerpt from The Beginning or the End by Greg Mitchell. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The New Press.