John Hersey, Hiroshima

Seventy-one years ago, in August 1946, The New Yorker printed in its entirety John Hersey’s report on the effects of the first of only two atomic weapons ever used in wartime. Published by Knopf two months later, Hiroshima became the most widely-read account of the bombing.

Hiroshima has been among the past century’s bestsellers, in print continuously and selling over three million copies. Yet three million is really not so many: just 1% of the current U.S. population. I imagine that few Americans are familiar with the book; fewer still have read it. Yet, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un escalate tensions with threats of mutual annihilation, it is a book worth revisiting.

I last read Hiroshima in college. It was in a small library maintained in a small closet with a beer-stocked mini-fridge in a ratty lounge at the student housing co-op where I lived. I remember reading it, and I remember the cover: a tan background behind a black-and-white photograph of the bomb’s characteristic mushroom cloud.

In the intervening forty years, my memory has layered on every image of Hiroshima and Nagasaki I’ve since encountered. And so, when I found the book again, in a first edition at a library book sale, I anticipated scenes as gruesome as a post-apocalyptic novel, reportage anticipating Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I expected photographs: skin sloughing off in sheets from a back turned toward the camera, a silhouette left on a sidewalk by a man close enough to ground zero to have been vaporized, of bleeding gums and ulcerating sores.

None of that is in Hersey’s book. The macabre descriptions probably date from the anti-nuclear advocacy of the 1980s. The photos, taken by medical personnel in the U.S. military in the weeks and months following the blast, were declassified long after Hersey published his observations, appearing in histories I would have read in graduate school.

In fact, Hiroshima is not at all what I thought I remembered. Hersey does not tell the story of the bomb itself, much less the war. There is nothing here about the Manhattan Project, or of the flight crews under Curtis LeMay’s command. Hersey does not assess the diplomatic failures of the 1930s or the Japanese military miscalculations and blunders of the early 1940s. There’s nothing of the American policies that made the bomb’s development and use seem, to most (but not all) of Truman’s advisors, a logical consequence of wartime decisions. Written in 1946, there is also nothing here of the public debates over the decision to use the bomb, debates that would begin in earnest twenty years later.

Instead, Hiroshima is an account of two women and four men, all of whom survived the atomic attack and told Hersey their stories.

As such, it is a book possessed by the dissonant tone that creeps into the recollections of people who have been overtaken by catastrophe and who recall it with immediacy and horror and then, without warning, with emotional flatness as though the events had occurred in someone else’s life.

Most shocking, perhaps, is the contrast between the routines of the moment before and the shock that begins in the moments after. That is a tone Hersey set from the very beginning:

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. At the same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuye Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand, and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors.

What makes the book memorable and gives it such an emotional punch is its human specificity. One passage particularly struck me:

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up 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 moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.

By focusing on individuals rather than the tens and hundreds of thousands killed that day, Hersey leaves behind the sympathy, disgust and pity which paralyze us politically. Instead he enables us to imagine ourselves in their place: not as either innocents or as perpetrators of the Pacific War, but as human persons caught in the worst possible consequences of human failings.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un share a loathsome inclination to thoughtlessly threaten agony and death to persons who, at the moment, are going about the quotidian business of their private lives. Kim Jong Un, like his father and his grandfather have, of course, no regard whatsoever for human decency and dignity. That is one reason we consider him so utterly loathsome.

The ease and bravado with which Trump makes similar threats against the bodies of North Koreans who are, after all, the victims of Kim’s regime, \ and against the bodies of South Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese who would also die in any actual nuclear “exchange,” reveals again his own loathsomeness.

In screaming “USA! USA!” we forget the way that our tribal enthusiasms can be burned into the flesh of living bodies.

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