In August of 1945, the world changed when the United States detonated the first atomic bombs in Japan. The bombings were the “least abhorrent choice,” according to then-Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson. They ended the war with Japan. But the truth was much more complicated.
In “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World,” Lesley M.M. Blume goes behind the scenes of journalist John Hersey’s reporting on Hiroshima, which was published in 1946 in The New Yorker. “Fallout” is not a rehashing of Hersey’s reporting, but rather a deconstruction of the dynamics among Hersey, his editor William Shawn, and New Yorker founder Harold Ross, that made the article’s publication possible.
In 1946, it was daring for any publication to report on what happened to the victims in Japan. As Hersey and The New Yorker reported, there was a need to cast a light on what was happening on the ground versus what Americans were hearing from the U.S. government spin machine. We often forget that the bombings took the lives of 42,000 Hiroshima residents instantly, and left in its wake a litany of deaths and health effects from the radiation. Hersey’s calculations pushed the number of deaths into the hundreds of thousands.
One story that Blume tracks is that of Hersey, who was a young reporter when he tackled this project. “Fallout” could easily read like a historical thriller, painting the story of Hersey’s work and his reporting from the victims’ point of view.
Just as the bombs had catastrophic consequences and enormous impact, so too did the release of Hersey’s story, which caused its own explosions. Blume digs into what happens when the media – which was a much less powerful institution than it is now – exposed the government’s cover-up. Later, Hersey’s article would be published as a book on what the bombings meant, and it set the tone of the debate on the future of nuclear warfare.
Remember, too, that this discussion was unfolding long before the 24-hour news cycle and social media existed. There was no Facebook or Twitter to highlight Hersey’s conversations in Japan with survivors. In 2020, there would be blogs, and interviews and insight from pundits as well as the voices of those in Japan who survived.
It is also important to see that the article in The New Yorker will forever be a part of the narrative of war and its casualties.
As a history lover, I find that “Fallout” gives powerful insights into the way that a government can weave a story to justify the actions it takes, and also into the fearless reporting about what really happened in Hiroshima. Blume’s tireless reporting gives important context to an understudied slice of U.S. history. Even 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, her work and Hersey’s writing critique how the bombings have been remembered in American and world history. Most important, they question whether anything would ever truly justify another nuclear bombing.