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John Hersey Uncovers the Horror

March 2023
5min read

NOTE: This is the introduction to Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (Simon & Schuster, 2020) There have been no discussions with the author or publisher about using it.

John Hersey later claimed that he had not intended to write an exposé. Yet, in the summer of 1946, he revealed one of the deadliest and most consequential government cover-ups of modern times. The New Yorker magazine devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” in which he reported to Americans and the world the full, ghastly realities of atomic warfare in that city, featuring testimonies from six of the only humans in history to survive nuclear attack.

The U.S. government had dropped a nearly 10,000-pound uranium bomb — which had been dubbed “Little Boy” and scribbled with profane messages to the Japanese emperor on Hiroshima a year earlier, at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. None of the bomb’s creators even knew for certain if the then experimental weapon would work: Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon to be used in warfare, and Hiroshima’s citizens were chosen as its unfortunate guinea pigs. When Little Boy exploded above the city, tens of thousands of people were burned to death, crushed or buried alive by collapsing buildings, or bludgeoned by flying debris. Those directly under the bomb’s hypocenter were incinerated, instantaneously erased from existence. Many blast survivors — supposedly the lucky ones — suffered from agonizing radiation poisoning and died by the hundreds in the months that followed.

The city of Hiroshima initially estimated that more than 42,000 civilians had died from the bombing. Within a year, that estimate would rise to 100,000. It has since been calculated that as many as 280,000 people may have died by the end of 1945 from effects of the bomb, although the exact number will never be known. In the decades since, human remains have been regularly uncovered in the city’s ground, and are still uncovered today. “You dig two feet and there are bones,” says Hiroshima Prefecture governor Hidehiko Yuzaki. “We’re living on that. Not only near the epicenter of the blast, but across the city.”

It was a massacre of biblical proportions. Even today — seventy-five years after the bombing — the name Hiroshima conjures up images of fiery nuclear holocaust and sends chills down spines around the world.

However, until Hersey’s story appeared in the New Yorker, the U.S. government had astonishingly managed to hide the magnitude of what happened in Hiroshima immediately after the bombing, and successfully covered up the bomb’s long-term deadly radiological effects. U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and occupation officials in Japan suppressed, contained, and spun reports from the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — which had been attacked by the United States with the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” on August 9, 1945 — until the story all but disappeared from the headlines and the public’s consciousness.

At first, the government appeared to be forthright about its new weapon. When U.S. president Harry S. Truman announced to the world that an atomic bomb had just been dropped on Hiroshima, he pledged that if the Japanese did not surrender, they could “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Little Boy had packed an explosive payload equivalent to more than 20,000 tons of TNT, the president revealed, and was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare. Reporters and editors given text of this presidential announcement in advance received the news with disbelief. Young Walter Cronkite — then a United Press war reporter based in Europe — upon receiving a bulletin from Paris about the bomb, thought that “clearly... those French operators [had] made a mistake,” he recalled later. “So I changed the figure to 20 tons.” Soon, as updates to the story came in, “my mistake became abundantly clear.”

Also, it seemed at first that the press was adequately reporting on the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the implications of the world’s entrance into the atomic age began to sink in, it became apparent to editors and reporters everywhere that the atomic bomb was not just one of the biggest stories of the war but among the biggest news stories in history. After millennia of contriving increasingly horrible and efficient killing machines, humans had finally invented the means with which to extinguish their entire civilization. Humankind was “stealing God’s stuff,” as E. B. White wrote in the New Yorker.
Yet it would take many months —and the bravery of one young American reporter and his editors —before the world learned what had actually transpired beneath those roiling mush-room clouds. “What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known,” reported the New York Times on August 7, 1945. “An impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke masked the target area from reconnaissance planes.” 

In many respects, the impenetrable cloud didn’t truly lift until Hersey got into Hiroshima in May 1946 and, weeks later, managed to publish an account of his findings there. Even though the New York Times was the only publication that had a reporter ac-company the Nagasaki atomic bombing run and had maintained a bureau in Tokyo since the Japanese surrender, Times reporter (and later managing editor) Arthur Gelb stated that “most of us were unaware, at first, of the extent of the devastation caused by the bombs. John Hersey’s excruciatingly detailed account... finally brought home to Americans the magnitude of the event.”

Media coverage of the bombings had been initially widespread and intensive, but details of the aftermath were actually scarce from the beginning, thanks to U.S. government and military efforts to control information about their handiwork in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States—which had just won a painfully earned moral and military victory over the Axis powers—was not eager to “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities,” as the country’s secretary of war put it. Right away, officials in Washington, D.C., and newly arrived occupation forces in Japan went into overdrive to contain the story of the human cost of their new weapon. 

The Japanese media was forbidden by occupation authorities to write or air stories about Hiroshima or Nagasaki, lest they “disturb public tranquility.” As foreign reporters began to get into the country, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immediately put off-limits to them. The few journalists attempting to report on the atomic cities in the weeks immediately following the bombings were threatened with expulsion from Japan, harassed by U.S. officials, and accused of spreading Japanese propaganda, dispensed by a defeated enemy attempting to cultivate international sympathy after years of aggression and their own outsized atrocities.

On the home front, U.S. government officials corralled the population into thinking of the atom bomb as a conventional superbomb, painting it in terms of TNT and denying its radioactive aftermath. “It was just the same as getting a bigger gun than the other fellow had to win a war and that’s what it was used for,” said President Truman. “Nothing else but an artillery weapon.” 

When it was eventually conceded that bomb-induced radiation poisoning was real, its horrors were downplayed. (It could even be a “very pleasant way to die,” stated Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, which had created the bombs in just three years.)

The American public was allowed to see images of the mushroom clouds and hear triumphant eyewitness descriptions from the American bombers themselves, but reports containing testimonies from below the clouds were virtually nonexistent. Images of Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s devastated landscapes were also released to newspapers and magazines by U.S. forces. However, while sobering, the post-atomic landscape photographs failed to register deeply enough with readers who had been inundated with images of decimated cities — London, Warsaw, Manila, Dresden, Chungking, among scores of others— on a daily basis for more than half a decade. 

Hersey himself acknowledged that post-bomb landscape photos could only get a limited emotional response; ruins, he thought, could be “spectacular; but... impersonal, as rubble so often is.” What the American public did not see: photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki hospitals ringed by the corpses of blast survivors who had staggered there seeking medical help and died in agony on the front steps. (Most of the doctors and nurses had been killed or wounded anyway.) Nor did they see images of the crematoriums burning the remains of thousands of anonymous victims, or pictures of scorched women and children, their hair falling out in fistfuls.

The published images of Hiroshima’s demolished landscape gravely undersold the reality of atomic aftermath. Usually a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case it would take Hersey’s 30,000 words to reveal and drive home the truth about America’s new mega-weapon. The Japanese, of course, didn’t need Hersey to educate them about the effects of Little Boy and Fat Man, but American readers were shocked when they were, at last, properly introduced to the nuclear bombs that had been detonated in their name.

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