When the U.S military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the American government portrayed the weapons as equivalent to large conventional bombs — and dismissed Japanese reports of radiation sickness as propaganda.
Military censors restricted access to Hiroshima, but a young journalist named John Hersey managed to get there and write a devastating account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning he encountered. Author Lesley M.M. Blume tells Hersey’s story in her book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World.
She writes that when Hersey, who had covered the war in Europe, arrived in Hiroshima to report on the aftereffects of the bomb a year later, the city was “still just a sort of smoldering wreck.”
“Hersey had seen everything from that point, from combat to concentration camps,” Blume says. “But he later said that nothing prepared him for what he saw in Hiroshima.”
Hersey wrote a 30,000-word essay, telling the story of the bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of six survivors. The article, which was published in its entirety by The New Yorker, was fundamental in challenging the government’s narrative of nuclear bombs as conventional weapons.
“It helped create what many experts in the nuclear fields called the ‘nuclear taboo,’ ” Blume says of Hersey’s essay. “The world did not know the truth about what nuclear warfare really looks like on the receiving end, or did not really understand the full nature of these then experimental weapons, until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and reported it to the world.”
On what Americans knew about the nature of nuclear weapons in 1945
Americans didn’t know about the bomb — period — until it was detonated over Hiroshima. The Manhattan Project was cloaked in enormous secrecy, even though tens of thousands of people were working on it. … When President Harry Truman announced that America had detonated the world’s first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, he was announcing not only a new weapon, but the fact that we had entered into the Atomic Age, and Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons — namely, that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. It would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that out.
Everybody who heard the announcement [from Truman] knew that they were dealing with something totally unprecedented, not just in the war, but in the history of human warfare. What was not stated was the fact that this bomb had radiological qualities, [that] blast survivors on the ground would die in an agonizing way for the days and the weeks and months and years that followed.
On how military generals focused on physical devastation when they testified before Congress about the effects of the atomic bomb
In the immediate weeks, very little [was said.] A lot of it was really painted in landscape devastation. Landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were rubble pictures, and also obviously people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions. But in terms of the radiation — even in Truman’s announcement of the bomb — he’s painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, they know that it’s a mega-weapon, but they don’t understand the full nature of the weapons, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public, and in the meantime, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out how the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it’s affecting human beings, because they’re about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan.
On America’s PR campaign and cover-up of the radiation aftermath
[The U.S. military] created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. Leslie Groves [who directed the Manhattan Project] and Robert Oppenheimer [who directed the Manhattan Project’s laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M.] themselves went to the Trinity site of testing [in New Mexico] and brought a junket of reporters so they could show off the area. And they said that there was no residual radiation whatsoever, and that therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were “Tokyo tales.” So right away they went into overdrive to contain that narrative. …
The American officials were saying, for the most part, these are the defeated Japanese trying to create international sympathy, to create better terms for themselves and the occupation — ignore them.
On how reporters had limited access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their reports were often censored
In the early days of the occupation, there obviously would have been enormous interest in trying to get to Hiroshima and Nagasaki … but as the occupation really took hold and became increasingly organized, the reports were intercepted. The last one that came out of Nagasaki was intercepted and lost. There was almost no point in trying to get down there because the obstacles that were put up for reporters were so tremendous by the military censors. … I can’t overstate how restricted your movements were as a reporter, as part of the occupation press corps. … You could not get around, you could not eat. You couldn’t do anything without the permission of the Army. … The control was near total.
On concerning Japanese reports about “Disease X” affecting blast survivors
As news started to filter over from Japanese reports about what it was like on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath, wire reports started picking up really disturbing information about the totality of the decimation and this sinister … “Disease X” that was ravaging blast survivors. So this news was starting to trickle over early in August of 1945 to Americans.
And so the U.S. realized that not only were they going to have to really try to study very quickly how radioactive the atomic cities might have been, as they were bringing in their own occupation troops. But they [also] realized that they had a potential PR disaster on their hands, because the U.S. had just won this horribly hard-earned military victory, and were on the moral high ground, they felt, in defeating the Axis powers. And they had avenged Pearl Harbor. They had avenged Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific theater in Asia. But then reports that they had decimated a largely civilian population in this excruciating way with an experimental weapon — it was concerning because it might have deprived the U.S. government of [its] moral high ground.
On how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen as souvenir sites for American military
Hiroshima was seen as a site of just enormous victory for these guys. And a lot of them would go even to ground zero of the bombings in Hiroshima. … They saw it as a souvenir site. It’s essentially a graveyard. There are still remains that are being dug up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. But many of them kind of pillaged the ruins to grab a souvenir to bring home. It was the ultimate victory souvenir. So whether it’s a broken teacup to use as an ashtray or what have you, they went and they took their equivalent of selfies at ground zero. At one point in Nagasaki, Marines cleared a football field-sized amount of space in the ruins and they had what they called the “Atomic Bowl,” which was a New Year’s Day football game where they had conscripted Japanese women as cheerleaders. It was an astonishing scene in both cities. They were seen as sites of a victory. And most of the “occupationaires” were totally unrepentant about what had gone down there.
On Hersey getting a firsthand account from the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto of what the moment of the bombing was like
Rev. Tanimoto, at the moment of the bombing, was slightly outside of the city. He had been transporting some goods to the outskirts of the city, and he was up on a hill. And so therefore, he had a bird’s-eye view of what happened. He fell to the ground when the actual bomb went off. But then when he got up, he saw that the city had been enveloped in flames and black clouds. And … he saw a procession of survivors starting to straggle out of the city. He was just absolutely horrified by what he had seen and baffled, too, because usually an attack on this level would have been perpetrated by a fleet of bombers. But this was just a single flash.
And the survivors who were making their way out of the city and who would not survive for long, I mean, most of them were naked. Some of them had flesh hanging from their bodies. He saw just unspeakable sights as he ran into the city because he had a wife and an infant daughter. He wanted to find his parishioners. The closer he got towards the detonation, the worse the scene was. The ground was just littered with scalded bodies and people who were trying to drag themselves out of the ruins and wouldn’t make it. There were walls of fire that were consuming the areas. The enormous firestorm was starting to consume the city. He, at one point, was picked up by a whirlwind, because winds had been unleashed throughout the city, and … he was lifted up in a red-hot whirlwind. … It was just unbelievable that he survived not only the initial blast, but then [headed] into [the] city center and the extreme trauma of having witnessed what he witnessed. It’s remarkable that he came out of it alive.
On how Hersey’s reporting changed the world’s perception of nuclear weapons
The Japanese could not, for years, tell the world what it had been like to be on the receiving end of nuclear warfare, because they were under such dire press restrictions by the occupation forces. And so it took John Hersey’s reporting to show the world what the true aftermath and the true experience of nuclear warfare looks like. … It changed overnight for many people, what was described by one of Hersey’s contemporaries as the “Fourth of July feeling” about Hiroshima. There was a lot of dark humor about the bombings in Hiroshima. [The essay] just really imbued the event with a sobriety that really hadn’t been there before. And also it just completely deprived the U.S. government of the ability to be able to paint nuclear bombs as conventional weapons. … [Hersey] himself later said the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.