As Disaster Looms at Fukushima, Revisiting 'Hiroshima'

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The 1946 article-turned-book described in excruciating detail how the atomic bomb affected the Japanese. How its legacy plays out today.

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Reuters/Ho New


In the days following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as disaster looms at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the legacy of Hiroshima has been impossible to ignore. "In a way the most severe crisis in the past sixty-five years since World War II" is how Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan described his country's predicament. The novelist Kenzaburo Oe, in this week's New Yorker, points directly to Hiroshima in admonishing his countrymen's desire to harness nuclear power. Hiroshima is the original and still the deadliest nuclear catastrophe, and for the Japanese has special meaning. Yet it was an American, the journalist John Hersey, who reported the human toll at the dawn of the atomic age. His 1946 article "Hiroshima" bears revisiting in light of Fukushima because it describes in detail what we fear to this day about nuclear catastrophe.

"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 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." So begins "Hiroshima," an account of the bombing as it was experienced by six individuals—Sasaki, two doctors, a tailor's widow, a German priest, and a Methodist reverend. Hersey recreated in deadpan prose every detail—actions, emotions, even dreams—of his subjects' ordeal. He told the story through their eyes and avoided injecting his own authorial voice. "Hiroshima" became a cultural event when it appeared as the only piece in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. The issue promptly sold out, excerpts were reprinted in newspapers across the country, and "Hiroshima" was read in its solemn, thirty-one thousand-word entirety on national radio stations. It was published in book form later in 1946, and has been in print and on high school reading lists ever since.

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New Yorker

What gives "Hiroshima" its power, then and now? By the time it appeared, Americans were inundated with a year's worth of information and commentary on the bomb. Despite this, they had little or no knowledge of what had occurred, as we would say today, "on the ground." Hiroshima meant the mushroom cloud, a statistic—more than 100,000 killed—and victory over Japan. It also heralded the future, but not yet the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. To many the bomb more optimistically represented "the bright promise of atomic energy," as the historian Paul Boyer has written.

"Hiroshima" was a moment of dissent. The bomb's victims, after all, did not witness a mushroom cloud. Rather, as Hersey put it, they experienced "a noiseless flash." In rendering Japanese as individuals, not as a faceless, nameless enemy, he gave Americans a striking counterpoint to their thankfulness for the bomb.

Much of the initial and enduring power of "Hiroshima" can be found in Hersey's attention to the aftereffects of radiation exposure. More than half a century later, these passages retain the ability to shock. Radiation disease, the survivors of the blast realize, had

three stages. The first stage had been all over before the doctors even knew they were dealing with a new sickness; it was the direct reaction to the bombardment of the body, at the moment when the bomb went off, by neutrons, beta particles, and gamma rays. The apparently uninjured people who had died so mysteriously in the first few hours or days had succumbed in this first stage. It killed ninety-five percent of the people within a half mile of the center, and many thousands who were farther away. The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns or blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them....The second stage set in ten or fifteen days after the bombing. Its first symptom was falling hair. Diarrhea and fever, which in some cases when as high as 106, came next. Twenty-five to thirty days after the explosion, blood disorders appeared....The third stage was the reaction that came when the body struggled to compensate for its ills--when, for instance, the white count not only returned to normal but increased to much higher than normal levels. In this stage, many patients died of complications, such as infections in the chest cavity. Most burns healed with deep layers of pink, rubbery scar tissue, known as keloid tumors.

Note the tone of discovery. The bomb had unleashed on the Japanese an unnatural force few if any understood at the time. America had dropped the bomb not knowing what exactly would happen. Hersey's documenting of the experimental nature of the bomb is one legacy of "Hiroshima."

Another legacy is revealed by a criticism of "Hiroshima" from the New York intellectual and congenital contrarian Mary McCarthy. Shortly after "Hiroshima" appeared, she decried Hersey for absolving America of culpability in writing about the bomb "as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes—fires, flood, earthquakes." She thought he should have taken a moral stand against the bomb's use. But McCarthy's criticism was off-base. "Hiroshima" addressed America's role—"no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, its willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed" the bomb, Hersey wrote. The issue of culpability he left to the Japanese: "'I see,' Dr. Sasaki once said, "that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all.'"

No reader, despite McCarthy's claims, can mistake the events Hersey described for any others, natural or otherwise. "Hiroshima" described a new kind of man-made catastrophe, one that promised horrific disease or death for even its survivors. Unsurprisingly, the coverage of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan shrank to the background once a nuclear disaster became a possibility. Our fear of radiation trumps all others, and this fear largely has its origin, whether we know it or not, in Hersey's "Hiroshima."

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Dan Gerstle is a master's student in American Studies at Yale University.

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