A few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop (yes, they still exist!) I stumbled on the 1946 first edition of a remarkable book. I’d heard of it, but never read it until now. A small, somewhat battered paperback in the old Penguin livery, with a grey cover, and pages already yellow from the bad paper of wartime shortages.
The author, John Hersey, was a well-known American war correspondent during the Big Two, among other things reporting on the terrible fighting in the Solomon Islands.
After the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945, the U.S. government and its occupation regime in Japan kept a tight lid on information about the new weapon and its actual effects.
In the following May, The New Yorker sent Hersey to Japan to report on what had happened. The editors printed his story, occupying a whole issue of the magazine, just over a year after the bombs exploded. The report created a sensation, was broadcast on radio, serialized in fifty different newspapers across the United States, and turned into a book, called simply Hiroshima. Penguin bought the British rights, and despite the paper rationing, immediately printed a quarter of a million copies. I now have one of them.
|6 August 1945, from the ground|
It’s written in a deliberately flat voice; Hersey rightly judged that what he had to say needed no flourishes of style. He tells the destruction of Hiroshima by weaving together the stories of six people who were in the city the quiet morning when the bomb was dropped. The book narrates what each of them did, hour by hour and day by day, and what they saw, felt, and heard as other people died in the ruins. And what happened to the six as they got sick, in the weeks and months afterwards.
They weren’t a representative group in any sense. This isn’t ethnography, it’s journalism; Hersey wasn’t actually in the city very long. They were six whom he could talk to, who had survived the blast, escaped from the ruins, had radiation sickness, survived that (at least in the short term), come back to the city, and tried to pick up their lives.
I’m not going to reproduce any details. In this time when authoritarian nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise around the world, I’d encourage everyone to read the original. It’s brief, and intensely readable. You will find the New Yorker text here: www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima
There are at least 10 000 nuclear warheads in the world today.