Hiroshima is nonfiction, portraying the stories of six people who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. These survivors, six people from all walks of life, share their experiences from the moments after the bomb dropped to forty years after that dreadful day.
The first military use of an atomic bomb caused immense human suffering. The United States used its newly developed atomic bomb against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force an end to the lingering war with Japan. This tactic proved as horrifying as it was decisive. In Hiroshima, the bomb killed more than one hundred thousand people immediately and wounded one hundred thousand more. Most of the victims were civilians. Hersey's account describes the graphic results of nuclear warfare and reports the grim ordeal of the survivors.
In addition to its terrifying content, the work cultivates a new journalistic technique. Hersey tells the stories of six survivors in separate, alternating sections, using suspense, characterization, and plot in such a way that the work as a whole feels more like a novel than nonfiction. The events of the narrative are a reconstruction of what Hersey, working as a reporter, discovered through interviews with survivors of the blast.
Hersey originally conceived of Hiroshima as a four-part article for the New Yorker magazine. However, upon reading it, the magazine's editors felt that the material would be best presented in an uninterrupted format. The article "Hiroshima" was published in its entirety in August 31, 1946; it stood alone in the issue, unaccompanied by the other articles and cartoons that usually filled the magazine's pages. Until the publication of "Hiroshima," the New Yorker was better known for light satire and upscale humor than gritty war coverage. The article proved so popular that all newsstand copies of the magazine sold out on the day the issue was released. As journalist Ben Yagoda writes in his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, "when Albert Einstein attempted to buy one thousand copies of the magazine, he was told none were available." The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) transmitted Hersey's story commercial-free on the radio over four consecutive nights, and newspapers reprinted it but only according to Hersey's conditions that it be uncut and that all profits from sales go to the Red Cross. Hiroshima was published in book form to great acclaim shortly after its initial magazine run. As Yagoda notes:
[T]he Book-of-the-Month Club gave a free copy to all of its subscribers because, in the words of its president, We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more importance at this moment to the human race.
Hiroshima was an influential early precursor of literary nonfiction, a type of narrative work that combines literary techniques from both fiction and journalism. Literary nonfiction aims to produce an objective story and offers intimate stories of the subjects without the writer's interpretations or input. Famous later practitioners of literary nonfiction, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, acknowledged the book as an important influence. In her book, The Survival Tales of John Hersey, Nancy L. Huse explains that Hersey defined the "task of 'the novel of contemporary history' as not to illuminate events but to illuminate the human beings caught up in them."
With this goal in mind, Hersey spent time thinking about the best way to organize the work. After reading a novel by famous American author Thornton Wilder, he thought of presenting his narrative through the perspective of several people. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and historian Greg Mitchell explain in their book, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, that once Hersey read Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, "which explored a disaster in Peru through the eyes of a handful of victims," he thought that the same perspective "might be the best way to personalize the 'terribly complicated' Hiroshima story."
Hiroshima illustrates several of the themes that have engaged novelists and journalists writing about war. The most obvious of these is humanity's destructive use of new technology in warfare. Although this idea permeates the work, it is complemented by the even more pervasive theme of survival, because it is the survivor's struggle with the aftermath of the bombing—the damage to bodies, families, psyches, and communities—that most engages the reader.
In 1985, Hersey added a fifth chapter, "The Aftermath," to the original text. In this final chapter, Hersey reports what happened to each of the six survivors in the time since the article's original publication in 1946.
Chapter One: A Noiseless Flash
Chapter One covers a short time period leading up to the bombing and the moment immediately after the event. Hersey begins by noting the exact date and time of the atomic detonation at Hiroshima: August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m.. The bomb killed one hundred thousand people instantly. Among the survivors are six people who happen to be in places that enable them to survive the blast.
The Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor, is standing outside of a home to which he had traveled with a friend, Mr. Matsuo, to deliver a cabinet. He has been worried that Hiroshima is due for an attack by the B-29 bombers that routinely fly overhead. The Japanese call the bombers Mr. B. A violent flash of light surprises the men, and they react immediately. Tanimoto wedges himself between two large rocks in the garden. After the blast has subsided, Tanimoto sees that the entire house has collapsed, though his injuries are minor.
Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, the widow of a tailor, is exasperated at the number of times she has recently had to evacuate her children for false alarms. When the siren wakes her, she wonders whether she should set out again, but the chairman of her neighborhood association advises her to stay. She feeds her children and is watching her neighbor dismantle his house to make room for a fire lane when a white light flashes and the force of the explosion throws her into the next room. She hears the cries of her five-year-old daughter, and even though she is covered in debris she struggles to reach her daughter and her two other children.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii is a wealthy doctor who manages his own private hospital overhanging the river Kyo. The hospital, which doubles as his residence, is almost completely vacant, with just a couple of patients, a small staff, and his niece. Fujii is reading on his porch when the blast, reflected yellow in his newspaper, pushes the building and its inhabitants into the river. He is trapped between two timbers that suspend his head above water, injured but alive.
John Hersey was born in China on June 17, 1914, to American missionaries and lived there for eleven years. After graduating from Yale University and spending a year at Cambridge University, he worked as a secretary to American writer and Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis before taking a job as a correspondent for Time magazine, covering the war in Asia. After writing two nonfiction books about American soldiers in battle, he wrote his first novel, A Bell for Adano (1944), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
Later that year, while Hersey was on assignment in China, the New Yorker contracted him to write an article on the devastation caused by the recent atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He arrived in Hiroshima in May of 1946, nine months after the bombing, and stayed for three weeks. He interviewed thirty people extensively, many of whom he met through Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, whose story was also featured in the article. In 1946, Hiroshima was published to wide acclaim, first as an article, and later in book form.
Hersey went on to a successful writing career, teaching at Yale University and publishing more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction. He died on March 24, 1993.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a Jesuit priest from Germany, has become ill on a poor diet of war rations. After an air-raid siren sounds, he changes into a military uniform and eats breakfast with the other priests. They are relieved to hear the all-clear signal, and they go to their rooms to relax. Kleinsorge undresses down to his underwear and lies down to read a book. When the bomb explodes, Kleinsorge believes it has fallen directly on the house. He somehow finds himself outside in the vegetable garden, bleeding slightly from small cuts.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, an idealistic young surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital, is carrying a blood specimen to the third-floor lab when a "gigantic photographic flash" of light illuminates the corridor just before the blast virtually destroys the building around him. Many are dead or severely wounded; miraculously, he is the only doctor in the hospital left unhurt.
Miss Toshiko Sasaki, unrelated to Dr. Sasaki, is a twenty-year-old clerk employed in a tin works factory. That morning, she is sitting behind a row of heavy bookcases in her office when the bomb flashes just as she is looking away from the window. The bookcases collapse on her, badly breaking her leg. Hersey notes ironically that "in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books."
Chapter Two: The Fire
Chapter Two covers the other things that happen to these six people on August 6, 1945. Tanimoto is largely unhurt and thus able to assist others in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. He makes his way into the city to search for his wife and child and to help his parishioners. He is shocked by the injuries of the wounded walking out of the city:
Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.
Tanimoto apologizes to the injured for his relative good fortune. He finds his wife, who is safe with his daughter, and then goes to Asano Park, a pre-arranged emergency meeting area where he cares for the wounded. Later, he uses a boat to ferry them across the river and away from the spreading fires that are burning all over the city.
Nakamura is able to rescue her three children and makes her way toward Asano Park on the advice of a neighbor. Before leaving, she stows her sewing machine—her only source of income—in a large tank of water to keep it safe from fire.
Fujii, who is still pinned between wooden beams in the river, fears drowning in the rising tide. He manages to free himself despite an injured shoulder. Many from his clinic are dead, including his niece. He and the others escape the spreading fires by sheltering themselves in the river. He and a colleague speculate about what kind of bomb could have done such damage. Later, he makes his way to his family's house outside town, still perplexed by the immensity of the destruction around him.
Dr. Sasaki is confronted with incredible carnage and is the only source of medical aid for thousands of people. He barely copes with the chaos and must leave many of the less severely injured people untreated so that he can focus on those with life-threatening injuries. He "stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding."
In another part of town, Miss Sasaki lies unconscious under the debris, her leg badly crushed. Some rescuers finally free her, but she cannot move by herself; she is abandoned under a crude shelter with two other badly injured people.
Kleinsorge and the other priests assess the damage and rescue a few people whose houses have collapsed. They try to relocate themselves and the injured Father Schiffer to Fujii's clinic six blocks away, but the fires block their way and they, too, decide to evacuate to Asano Park. One member of their party, Mr. Fukai, refuses to leave; they attempt to forcibly evacuate him, but he escapes into the flames and is lost. Asano Park is dominated by confusion and disarray; a rainstorm follows soon after an American plane flies over Hiroshima, and members of the crowd panic, screaming that the Americans are spraying them with gasoline. Father Kleinsorge sends a theological student to a nearby town to bring back help for Father Schiffer and Father LaSalle. He then accompanies Tanimoto into town to get food, and they return with rice as well as some pumpkins and potatoes that were cooked by the heat from the bomb flash. In all, it is enough to feed one hundred people.
Chapter Three: Details are Being Investigated
Chapter Three covers the week after the bomb dropped: August 6 to August 15, 1945. On the evening of the day the bomb explodes, a Japanese naval vessel travels up and down the rivers of Hiroshima, surveying the damage and assuring the hundreds of wounded lying on the banks near Asano Park that help is coming. The theological student returns with a rescue team for Schiffer and LaSalle. They have come from the Catholic mission in Nagatsuka, a nearby town. Kleinsorge asks them to return for Nakamura and her children. He stays behind rather than undergo the grueling trip. The German priests make it safely to the next town with Schiffer and LaSalle, despite being stopped by a suspicious Japanese soldier who has heard reports of American paratroopers landing.
As the tide rises, Tanimoto frantically moves the wounded away from the banks and the rising tide. Their gruesome burn injuries horrify him, and he must remind himself, "These are human beings." When he attempts to move a woman by grabbing her hands, "her skin slip[s] off in huge, glovelike pieces." The next morning he sees that he has not moved the people far enough away from the rising water, and they have all drowned.
During the first night after the bombing, Miss Sasaki remains in the makeshift shelter, completely incapacitated by her injuries. It is two days after the bombing before her friends, searching for her dead body, find her alive. She learns that her parents and baby brother have almost certainly died.
Fujii, who has made it to his family's roofless, windowless house, has fractured bones and multiple cuts and bruises on his body. A few days later, Father Cieslik from Kleinsorge's mission visits him. He is in better spirits, offering the priest cigarettes and whiskey as they discuss rumors about the type of weapon that ignited their city.
Dr. Sasaki has been treating hundreds of the thousands of injured who have overrun the Red Cross Hospital, the only one left standing in Hiroshima. After nineteen hours straight of wound dressing, he is so exhausted that he hides from the patients to get a few minutes of sleep. He works three days before returning home to his mother. Doctors elsewhere in the city are equally burdened.
When help fails to arrive at Asano Park, Tanimoto travels to an army medical aid station and is frustrated to learn that the doctors there cannot leave their station to assist those dying elsewhere.
Miss Sasaki is finally admitted to a hospital. The doctor says her case is not serious enough to keep her, but her high temperature convinces him to let her stay.
Father Kleinsorge travels to get water for the wounded and encounters a number of badly burned people, including a group of soldiers who must have been looking upward when the bomb exploded, as "their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks."
Over the course of the week, Japanese radio announcers make a number of broadcasts. At first, they report the possibility that Americans have used a new type of bomb, adding that the "details are being investigated." On August 9, Americans drop a second bomb, on Nagasaki, but it is not reported until days later. Finally, on August 15, Emperor Hirohito, the ruler of the Japanese Empire, makes an unprecedented broadcast to announce the surrender of Japan.
Chapter Four: Panic Grass and Feverfew
Chapter Four covers the year following the bomb, the period from August 18, 1945, to August 6, 1946. Several of the subjects are suffering from intermittent bouts of radiation sickness. On his way into the city, Kleinsorge begins to feel unusually fatigued, and later, after he cannot make it through Mass, he finds that his minor wounds are not healing. Nakamura mysteriously loses all of her hair, and Tanimoto becomes feverish. Conditions fluctuate at local hospitals, due to overcrowding and staff shortages. Miss Sasaki is transferred several times to other facilities until she ends up at the Red Cross hospital under the care of Dr. Sasaki, who notes in his records the peculiar spot hemorrhages, or petechiae, that she and other patients are developing. Miss Sasaki notices that plant life is flourishing in the streets of Hiroshima. Hersey states, "The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them." Fujii is living at his friend Mr. Okuma's house when heavy rains resulting from a typhoon further devastate Hiroshima, washing away many structures that had barely survived the atomic blast, including Okuma's house.
While Japanese scientists are studying the blast area to discover more about the bomb, Japanese doctors remain baffled by the wild fluctuations in the bomb victims' blood-cell counts. Doctors send Kleinsorge to Tokyo for medical observation. There he is interviewed by both Japanese and American physicians, as well as by reporters (including Hersey himself, though this fact is not mentioned in the text). Fujii is able to slowly rebuild his medical practice, but Miss Sasaki continues to suffer physically and emotionally. Her leg is infected and deformed, and her fiancé does not visit her. Japanese physicists taking measurements in Hiroshima and Nagasaki determine that a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and a more powerful plutonium bomb on Nagasaki.
Kleinsorge comforts Miss Sasaki and Nakamura. Dr. Sasaki is pleased with Miss Sasaki's progress, which he attributes in part to Kleinsorge's visits. Miss Sasaki begins to emerge from her depression and even considers converting to Catholicism.
Nakamura is able to gather enough money to rent a small shack, but it is hard to survive. She retrieves her rusted and useless sewing machine from the well where she had hidden it after the bomb, and gets it repaired. She is able to take in small sewing projects to support herself and her family.
Tanimoto and Kleinsorge become friends, though Tanimoto is envious that Kleinsorge can use funds from the Catholic Church to rebuild the Jesuit mission. Tanimoto does not have access to such funds. Hersey quotes a letter from Tanimoto explaining that Japanese national pride, loyalty to the emperor, and Buddhist resignation have enabled many to survive their terrible ordeals. Nakamura and Fujii both feel that the bombing was inevitable and express their sentiment in phrases translated roughly as "It can't be helped." Many in Hiroshima, however, are very bitter. Kleinsorge and the other priests discuss the ethics of using the bomb and realize that it is a difficult issue to settle.
Chapter Five: The Aftermath
Chapter Five was added in 1985; it was not part of the original article or book. It covers the forty years following the attack. In this section, Hersey periodically interrupts the narrative to report on the proliferation of nuclear testing in various countries, including the United States, Russia, Britain, and India.
Nakamura has trouble with the recurring illnesses that plague so many hibakusha ("explosionaffected persons"). Because she is unable to work steady hours, she must take odd jobs to support herself and her children. The Japanese government is slow to assist victims of the atomic bombs, but eventually, a law is passed that ensures her free medical care, and later, it is amended to provide a monthly allowance. Nakamura finds an employer who is willing to hire her. She works at a mothball plant for thirteen years, endearing herself to the other employees, who refer to her as Auntie. All of her children marry, and she is able to enjoy her retirement, joining a folk-dance association and even participating in a celebration in Hiroshima forty years after the attack.
Dr. Sasaki lives in Mukaihara and commutes to Hiroshima, where he is completing his doctorate and still working at the Red Cross Hospital. As a surgeon, he removes many keloid scars—thick, raised tissue that forms over burns and cuts—from victims of the atomic blast. He is fortunate: he comes from a wealthy family and has married well. He opens his own clinic in Mukaihara and is soon seeing over one hundred patients per day. Though he has escaped many of the illnesses that most hibakusha endure, a medical examination reveals that he has lung cancer. He has surgery to treat it and almost dies from complications. He decides to change his attitude and takes to heart the Japanese saying "medicine is the art of compassion." His wife dies of breast cancer in 1972, and he refocuses himself on work to overcome his loneliness. His clinic grows, and he becomes an extremely successful entrepreneur.
Like many other hibakusha, Kleinsorge suffers from many ailments that seem to be indirectly related to his radiation exposure. He is selfless in his devotion to his parishioners and friends, and he is pleased to become a Japanese citizen, adopting the new name Makoto Takakura. His health continues to deteriorate, and he is hospitalized for a year. He is transferred to a parish in Mukaihara, where Dr. Sasaki practices. In 1966, he employs a cook, Satsue Yoshiki, who becomes his caregiver and nurses him through many painful illnesses over the years until his death in 1973.
Miss Sasaki is depressed after the war. Her fiancé and his family seem to have reservations about the engagement, and he stops coming to see her. Kleinsorge is a comfort to her and is instrumental in her conversion to Catholicism. She works at the orphanage that houses her younger brother and sister; this allows her to be close to her siblings and provides a useful channel for her compassion. A series of successful operations reconstruct her deformed leg and improve her ability to walk. She becomes a nun and is soon in charge of a home for the elderly, in which she discovers her gift for comforting the dying. After her retirement, she spends time as the Mother Superior of the convent in which she first trained.
Fujii rebuilds his clinic and his practice, and takes comfort in his family and his many hobbies. He travels to the United States, accompanying young burn victims, known as the Hiroshima Maidens, while they undergo plastic surgery for their scars. Though he seems happy, in 1963 he is taken to the hospital after an accident that may actually have been a suicide attempt and he later falls into a coma. He never recovers and dies in 1973. An autopsy reveals that he had liver cancer.
After the war, Tanimoto travels to the United States to raise funds for the creation of the World Peace Center in Hiroshima. He meets the famous American author Pearl Buck, and she introduces him to an editor, Norman Cousins, who embraces Tanimoto's idea and associates it with his own project to create a united world government. Tanimoto and Cousins work on behalf of the Hiroshima Maidens, creating an organization that Tanimoto calls the Society of Keloid Girls. On a speaking tour of the United States, Tanimoto gives the opening prayer in the Senate and calls America the "greatest civilization in human history." He appears as a guest on a television program during which he is unexpectedly confronted with the copilot of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Tanimoto begins to feel that Cousins has taken advantage of him, and that he is underappreciated in Hiroshima. He distances himself from the Japanese peace movements, finding them too political, and focuses instead on arranging for disadvantaged Japanese babies to be adopted by Americans.
Technology and Destruction
Advances in science and technology lead to an increased capacity for highly destructive warfare. In the case of the bombing of Hiroshima, unprecedented technology led to unprecedented devastation and destruction.
In Hiroshima, Hersey graphically describes the injuries of the six survivors, as well as those of the many wounded and dying individuals these survivors encounter. Further, he documents the health of these survivors over time, emphasizing the persistence of the bomb's harmful effects. In Chapter Four, doctors examine Father Kleinsorge, and Hersey presents the blood counts and later describes the stages and symptoms of radiation sickness. Throughout the book, he periodically refers to the discoveries Japanese scientists and doctors make concerning the destructive effects of the bomb. Physicists taking measures of the hypocenter—the surface directly beneath the center of a nuclear explosion—find that the intense flash of heat "scaled off the surface of granite" and also "left prints of the shadows that had been cast by its light." In Chapter One, when Hersey reports what the characters are doing at the moment of the bomb's detonation, he is careful to establish their precise distances from the explosion's hypocenter so readers can estimate the magnitude of the explosion. The image of Miss Sasaki buried beneath bookshelves evokes the fragility of life particularly effectively; it also suggests the awful irony of a person being destroyed by knowledge.
The people featured in Hiroshima survive the atomic bombing by chance. Japan has air-raid sirens, fire lanes, neighborhood associations, and emergency procedures, but when the bomb detonates, these people survive only because of good fortune: there is a barrier between them and the center of the massive explosion. In Chapter One, Hersey states that each survivor "counts many chance events—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that led to survival." If Dr. Sasaki had not been standing just beyond an open window, he would have surely died, or at least been more severely injured; only six doctors at his hospital "were able to function" after the blast. Fujii, too, is alive by accident. He finds himself thrown into the river but held above the water "like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks."
After surviving the initial event, people's priorities must change to ensure their continued survival. In Chapter Three, Tanimoto tries in vain to bring medical help to Asano Park, where many injured people are dying. He is frustrated with an army doctor who must follow what seem like callous rules in treating the injured. The doctor explains the procedure to Tanimoto:
In an emergency like this," he said, as if he were reciting from a manual, "the first task is to help as many as possible—to save as many lives as possible. There is no hope for the heavily wounded. They will die. We can't bother with them.
In Chapter Two, Father Kleinsorge must stop helping a woman look for her buried husband so that he can ensure his own survival and that of the members of his mission. When Miss Sasaki is eventually found, she is unable to move on her own, so she is left to fend for herself. It is only after the immediate crisis has passed that her friends are able to move her to a temporary shelter. Hersey uses these examples to underscore survival priorities during wartime, which can force people to abandon others to save themselves or those to whom they are close.
Once the initial crisis has passed, many of those who are not severely injured act selflessly to allow others to survive. Tanimoto transports people across the river to escape the fires approaching Asano Park. This was not easy for him; "[h]e had to keep consciously repeating to himself, 'These are human beings.'" Tanimoto draws his strength from several sources. He is a Methodist pastor, as well as the chairman of his local neighborhood association; both of these positions that oblige him to care for the members of his community. His Christian beliefs sustain him, too, and though he mainly assists others in physical, practical ways, he also provides spiritual comfort to a man on the verge of death. Hersey's depiction of Tanimoto's strength may be contrasted with a scene in Chapter Two in which a doctor named Kanda is unable to help at Asano Park because he is too shocked by seeing his wife and daughter dead.
Resignation and Endurance
Hersey shows that war can leave a person feeling resigned to the indifference of fate. The people in Hiroshima must endure many hardships in the aftermath of the bombing. Beset with ailments that will persist for the remainder of their lives, they cannot hope for complete healing and must learn to cope in whatever ways they can.
Nakamura, a struggling widow with a debilitating condition, has little hope that she will regain control of her fate. Hersey explains that she, like many Japanese in Hiroshima, has become resigned to the events that have changed her life, and she remains passive in dealing with her continuing difficulties. Rather than ask for help, she accepts the burden of ensuring her own survival. Her attitude can, in part, be attributed to Japanese cultural attitudes. In Chapter Five, Hersey explains that "she lived in a culture long colored by the Buddhist belief that resignation might lead to clear vision." She is given to saying, "Shikata ga-nai," which Hersey translates as "It can't be helped." He notes that similar phrases exist in other languages, and Fujii repeats the same sentiment to Kleinsorge in German. However, in Chapter Four, Nakamura makes a comment about the atom bomb that is perhaps more representative of her own particular resignation as a hibakusha: "It was war and we had to expect it." This attitude is also revealed in her long-standing practice of simply coping with her symptoms rather than seeking medical attention. She continues this behavior out of habit, even after the Japanese government begins providing free medical care to victims of the bombing. By describing her constant financial worries and exhausting illnesses, Hersey makes it easy to understand Nakamura's passivity.
The Atomic Age
Hiroshima is an important document because it chronicles an unprecedented moment in history. A military force had never used an atomic weapon, which gets its energy from nuclear reactions (fission and/or fusion). Secret atomic research facilities had been operating since 1942, under President Roosevelt, to develop the world's first atomic weapon. This undertaking, code-named the "Manhattan Project," resulted in three atomic bombs, one of which was successfully tested in the American desert in July 1945.
Hiroshima provides an engaging narrative of personal struggle and survival, but it also describes the dreadful effects of atomic weapons. By documenting the human costs of what Hersey mockingly calls "the first great experiment in the use of atomic power," his book enters the debate over the use of the bomb. Pacifists enlist the book as a primary source document on the horrors of war, especially atomic war. It is particularly effective as a written record—even more so than the black-and-white photographs that were trickling out of Japan—of flattened landscapes and charred bodies. As Michael Yavenditti states in "John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of Hiroshima":
The numerous post-bombing photographs and newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made them look like any other war devastated city. Americans could comprehend that one bomb had caused the damage, but the media did not fully demonstrate that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were qualitatively different from other kinds of wartime catastrophes.
Readers of Hiroshima could identify and sympathize with the characters in Hersey's account and could not turn away from the moral gravity that attached itself to the question of the bomb's use. The book was important in the United States and in in Japan itself. In Japan, as John Dower points out in "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II," scarcely any documents relating to Hiroshima or Nagasaki were available to the public until 1949, due to American restrictions on documents chronicling the bomb's effects. A Japanese translation of Hiroshima appeared in 1949.
The End of World War II
Hersey wrote Hiroshima at a time when American elation over the end of World War II and persistent anti-Japanese bias were still prevalent in American culture. The close of the war in August 1945 came as an overwhelming relief to Americans. The war in Europe had ended several months earlier, and even though the war in the Pacific was progressing favorably for the Allied forces, the Japanese continued to offer fierce resistance. American forces suffered a large number of casualties. In the spring of 1945, for example, there were more than seventy thousand American casualties in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa alone.
The development of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, was shrouded in such secrecy that Vice President Truman was officially briefed on its details only after he became president after Roosevelt's death. Four months after he assumed office, Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb to force Japanese surrender; the bombing would allow America to avoid an invasion of mainland Japan, an operation already scheduled for the fall of that year and predicted to incur thousands of American casualties. On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress aircraft Enola Gay dropped a uranium-based atomic bomb (called "Little Boy") on Hiroshima, killing one hundred thousand people immediately and another one hundred thousand in the postwar aftermath. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, another B-29, Bock's Car, dropped a plutonium-based bomb (called "Fat Man") on Nagasaki, killing another seventy-five thousand people. That same day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and Japan announced its surrender less than a week later.
Anti-Japanese Sentiment in America
The fact that the United States had used an atomic weapon to end the fighting in the Pacific troubles contemporary Americans more than it did those evaluating the bombing immediately after the war. At that time, anti-Japanese sentiment was still strong. Historian Paul Boyer, in his book By the Bomb's Early Light, reports that a poll taken in August 1945 found that 85 percent of Americans approved of the decision to use the bomb. Journalists reporting in pro-war magazines such as Time and Life had been declaiming the cruelty of the Japanese throughout the war. Though many accounts objectively documented Japanese atrocities during the war, others betrayed a racist bias against all Asians, not just the Japanese.
Hersey had worked as a correspondent during the war, and his early work for both Time and Life magazines rarely stands out from the typical pro-war accounts encouraged by Henry Luce, the powerful publisher of those magazines. In The Survival Tales of John Hersey, Nancy L. Huse remarks on Hersey's early career: "his wartime reports conformed of necessity to the style and attitude of the Luce syndicate which controlled them." However, Yavenditti notes ways in which his early writing distinguished iteself: "Hersey's wartime articles and books did not betray the irrational, racist, anti-Japanese feelings that characterized the writing of some American reporters."
By the war's end, Hersey had begun to enrich his work with the realistic, complicated accounts of human travail. His first novel, A Bell for Adano (1944), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, indicating that critics recognized that he was a skilled narrative writer as well as an insightful wartime reporter. In addition, his new status as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer gave his work an added visibility that helped promote Hiroshima when it was released. Moreover, Hiroshima itself ultimately elicited much American sympathy for the Japanese victims of World War II and contributed to changing the American public's image of the Japanese from enemy to friend.
Hiroshima received great and immediate critical acclaim. Early reviews of the work praised its importance as a testimony against the use of the bomb. In "It Was War, and We Had to Expect It," Charles Poore, writing in the New York Times, states, "Hiroshima seems destined to become about the most widely read article and book of our generation." Famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict writes in "The Past and the Future," that readers of the book would come to understand "that all other issues in the world today pale beside the necessity of outlawing war among the nations." A reviewer for the New Republic, Bruce Bliven, calls it "one of the great classics of the war."
Nevertheless, not all reviews were positive. Noted author Mary McCarthy, quoted by Boyer in By the Bomb's Early Light, calls Hiroshima "an insipid falsification of the truth of atomic warfare," and adds, "To have done the bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead" (quoted in Boyer).
Later praise for the book focused on Hersey's skill in combining journalism with fictional techniques. He uses a spare, objective style to present six survivors, telling a factual story that engages readers as a novel would. However, he restricts the kinds of fictional liberties he takes and limits his own input. Hiroshima is a work of journalism, but it reads like a novel.
Although its objective style makes it agreeable even to readers who approve of the the bombing, many critics believe that Hiroshima has a definite anti-war message. Huse argues, "To enlist sympathy and ultimately to evoke astonishment leading to outrage is the aim of the work, not to create a historical record or an imaginative art form." After the work was published, Luce, Hersey's ultra-patriotic employer at Time and Life magazines, was outraged. Dan Jones, in the "John Hersey" entry of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explains that Luce's reaction appeared to stem from the fact that Hersey did not publish the account in Time or Life, but that in reality, "Luce was actually far more disturbed by what he perceived to be the book's pacifist message."
Admirers of Hiroshima were perhaps surprised that it did not immediately inspire more anti-nuclear protest. Another important book that first appeared, like Hiroshima, as an essay in the New Yorker was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which inspired the environmental movement in the sixties. Hiroshima did not have that kind of impact. Boyer believes that the impact of Hiroshima was closer to that of another famous American account of war, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Boyer writes about the following similarities between the two books:
Stephen Crane's novel was praised for its realism, its freedom from cant, and its delineation of the experiences and feelings of individuals overwhelmed by death and destruction. But … like Hiroshima, it induces an almost elegiac mood. The reader is not stirred to action, but left with the feeling that he has gained a deeper understanding of war's human meaning, and through understanding, emotional release.
John Hersey Reading Hiroshima is available on audiocassette from American Audio Prose Library, 1988. This is an abridged version read by the author.
The unabridged audio version of Hiroshima is available on audiocassette from Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 1995. It is narrated by Edward Asner.
The documentary, Peter Jennings Reporting: Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped, was produced for television in 1995. Presented by the late Peter Jennings, a news anchor for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the documentary attributes writing credits to John Hersey, for use of Hiroshima. The television program won a Peabody Award in 1995. It is available in VHS and DVD formats.
Today, Hiroshima is an established classic of war writing. In "Journalism's Greatest Hits," New York Times writer Felicity Barringer reports that the faculty of New York University's journalism department, along with guest judges from the media, ranked Hiroshima first in a list of the hundred most important works of American journalism in the twentieth century.
Barringer, Felicity, "Journalism's Greatest Hits," in the New York Times, March 1, 1999, section C, p. 1.
Benedict, Ruth, "The Past and the Future," in the Nation, Vol. 163, No. 23, December 7, 1946, pp. 656, 658.
Bliven, Bruce, Review of Hiroshima, in the New Republic, Vol. 115, No. 10, September 9, 1946, pp. 300-01.
Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Pantheon Books, 1985, pp. 183, 210, 206.
Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, Norton/The New Press, 1999, p. 414.
Hersey, John, Hiroshima, Vintage, 1989.
Huse, Nancy L., The Survival Tales of John Hersey, Whitston Publishing, 1983, pp. 14, 42.
Jones, Dan R., "John Hersey," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945–1995, First Series, edited by Arthur J. Kaul, Gale Research, 1997, pp. 115-26.
Lifton, Robert J., and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Grosset/Putnam, 1995, p. 87.
Poore, Charles, "It Was War, and We Had to Expect It," in Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature, edited by Charles McGrath, Times Books, 1998, pp. 154-55, originally published in New York Times, November 10, 1946.
Sanders, David, John Hersey Revisited, Twayne, 1990, p. 4.
Yagoda, Ben, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Scribner, 2000, pp. 192-93.
Yavenditti, Michael J., "John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of Hiroshima," in Pacific Historical Review," Vol. 43, No. 1, February 1974, pp. 24-49.
On August 6, 1945, a U.S. bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, a second atomic bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki. Estimates of the number killed in both cities range as high as 210,000. Thousands more later succumbed to radiation disease. These two acts, authorized by President Harry S. Truman, raised profound ethical and legal issues.
The possibility of an atomic bomb had been revealed by Albert Einstein in a 1939 communication to President Franklin Roosevelt. Under the code name Manhattan Project, three bombs were built, and a test bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico on June 16, 1945. Some Manhattan Project scientists urged a demonstration of the new weapon before its military use, but President Truman, advised by a high-level committee, ordered its use against Japan as soon as possible.
Truman's decision came at the end of a war of escalating brutality. The Japanese occupation of Nanking, China, in 1937, had been marked by extreme cruelty. Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; the wanton killing of U.S. prisoners by Japanese soldiers in the notorious 1942 "Bataan Death March"; and the ferocious Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were all part of the context of the president's action. So, too, was the racist wartime propaganda, purveyed in editorials, songs, movies, and political cartoons, that had portrayed all Japanese as apes, vermin, and rats—subhuman creatures to whom the usual standards of ethical behavior did not apply.
Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century, new technologies—tanks, poison gas, aerial bombing, and rockets—had vastly increased war's destructive potential, including the mass killing of civilians. In World War II, German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on English cities had taken a heavy civilian toll. As the war became increasingly ferocious in 1944 and 1945, British and U.S. bombing raids on major German cities created firestorms that killed hundreds of thousands from blast, fire, and asphyxiation. The devastating February 1945 attack on the beautiful city of Dresden—a city of little military significance—epitomized the massive death and destruction caused by these raids. These were attacks deliberately calculated to produce indiscriminate devastation, to "break the morale" of the target population. In Japan, sixty-four cities endured massive air raids prior to Hiroshima, with casualties estimated at 300,000 killed and some 340,000 severely injured. A March 1945 raid on Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000. The deliberate targeting of civilians, and even the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands in a single raid, in short, antedated the atomic bomb. The only thing new about the events of August 6–9, 1945 was the technology employed.
As Americans assessed the moral implications of the mass killing of civilians in World War II, culminating at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the so-called "Just War" doctrine offered some benchmarks. From St. Augustine onward, theologians and ethicists had sought to place moral limits on war. The "Just War" doctrine holds, for example, that the means employed in war must not produce greater evil than the evil one seeks to eliminate. This doctrine also insisted that noncombatants, as well as wounded soldiers and prisoners, must be treated humanely. Pope John Paul II declared in 1995: "[T]he direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." By definition, this precludes deliberate attacks on civilian populations. As the Roman Catholic catechism sums up the doctrine: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities . . . is a crime against God and man." Other religious and ethical traditions express similar principles, declaring that even for a nation waging a legitimate war, the moral law remains in force. Having justice on one's side does not mean that victory by any means possible is ethically defensible.
Well before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these principles had been swept aside as the concept of "total war" had become the Allies' guiding principle. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the magnitude and the instantaneous nature of the destruction, raised the question of ethical legitimacy in the starkest possible way. The "Just War" doctrine also holds, for example, that every possible means of a nonviolent resolution must be exhausted before the resort to war. By extension, this means that once a war is underway, each new step in the escalation of violence should be undertaken only after all possibility of ending the conflict has been explored. Much of the debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki has focused on precisely this point: Did the American government exhaust all possible means for ending the war before destroying these two cities and snuffing out tens of thousands of human lives?
Many historians have concluded that the answer is no. Japan was a defeated nation in August 1945, its war-making capacity shattered. The Japanese government was divided, with influential figures seeking an exit from a hopeless war. The Japanese government had asked the Soviet Union to act as an intermediary in the surrender negotiations—a fact known to Washington since U.S. cryptologists had broken the Japanese diplomatic code. Many Japanese saw the survival of the Emperor as a key issue—a point the Americans conceded after the war, despite their demand for unconditional surrender. Further, the invasion of Japan, should the war have continued, was not scheduled until November 1, 1945—three months in the future.
Confronting these facts, many have questioned the morality of dropping two atomic bombs before all possibility of ending the war by negotiation had been explored. Of course, no one knows for certain that Japan's surrender could have been achieved through negotiations. The point is that this option was never tried. The fact that Japan surrendered five days after the Nagasaki bombing, often cited by defenders of Truman's action, is irrelevant to the question of whether the war could have been ended by other means. From an ethical perspective, this is the crucial issue.
Truman always insisted that his sole consideration in ordering the use of the atomic bomb was to save American lives, but other factors may have been in play. At the February 1945 Yalta conference, and again at the Potsdam conference in June, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had promised to enter the Pacific War within three months of Germany's surrender. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and Moscow declared war on Japan on August 8. Some evidence suggests that Truman's decision was influenced by his desire to force Japan's surrender before Russia became a significant factor in the outcome. These speculations have a bearing on how one assesses the ethics of the Hiroshima bombing. The Nagasaki bombing raises further questions: Once Hiroshima had been destroyed, did the United States wait a sufficient time for the Japanese government to assimilate this terrible new reality before destroying a second city?
All these questions have shaped the discourse over how the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be viewed. Was it a legitimate act of war, or does it fall into the category of a crime against humanity? This debate arose in the earliest moments of the Atomic Age. President Truman, predictably, insisted that the bomb was justified, since it prevented the U.S. casualties that an invasion of Japan would have entailed. Many Americans, then and since, have agreed. But the alternative view has also found its supporters. Immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, for example, the future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, then an official of the Federal Council of Churches, telegraphed Truman urging him, on moral grounds, not to drop a second atomic bomb. In The Challenge of Peace (1983), the American Roman Catholic bishops, addressing the larger ethical issues posed by the nuclear arms race, came close to condemning the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as morally indefensible. In 1995 and again in 2003, proposals by the Smithsonian Institution to display the Enola Gay triggered further discussion of this question, which continues to trouble the nation's conscience, raising ethical issues of the gravest sort.
SEE ALSO Japan; Memoirs of Survivors; Memorials and Monuments; Memory; Nuclear Weapons; Photography of Victims; United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity; Weapons of Mass Destruction
Alperovitz, Gar (1996). The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. New York: Vintage.
Boyer, Paul (1985). By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon Books; second ed. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Boyer, Paul (1996). "Exotic Resonances: Hiroshima in American Memory." In Hiroshima in History and Memory, ed. Michael J. Hogan. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dower, John W. (1987). War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1983). The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.
Ramsey, Paul (1961). War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted? Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Smith, Alice Kimball (1971). A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945–1947. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Tucker, Robert W. (1960). The Just War: A Study in Contemporary American Doctrine. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Walzer, Michael (1992). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books.
Paul S. Boyer
Hiroshima ★★★ 1995 (PG)
Haunting depiction rereates the circumstances surrounding the dropping of the first atomic bomb in 1945. Juxtaposes scenes between the U.S., Japan, and their leaders—President Truman (Welsh) and Emperor Hirohito (Umewaka)—with the development of the Manhattan Project, the bombing itself, and its consequences. Filmed primarily in B&W, with newsreel and contemporary witness interviews in color; Japanese sequences are subtitled in English. Filmed on location in Montreal and Tokyo. 180m/C VHS, DVD . JP CA Kenneth Welsh, Naohiko Umewaka, Wesley Addy, Richard Masur, Hisashi Igawa, Ken Jenkins, Jeffrey DeMunn, Leon Pownall, Saul Rubinek, Timothy West, Koji Takahashi, Kazuo Kato; D: Roger Spottiswoode, Koreyoshi Kurahara; W: John Hopkins, Toshiro Ishido; C: Pierre Mignot, Shohei Ando. CABLE