Stop for a moment and recall a few top-of-mind facts about the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, seventy-one years ago this Saturday: the mushroom cloud, the heavy number of casualties, the appalling suffering of those who survived, the bomb’s influence in forcing the Japanese to surrender.
You might be surprised by how many common understandings about Hiroshima were hidden from the public for months, even years. To give just one example, the unofficial names of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki – “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” respectively – are well known today but were kept secret until 1960.
It’s important to remember the context of the first news reports about the bombing. August 1945 was near the end of the sixth year of the second world war. The Manhattan Project, whose scientists had raced to develop an atomic weapon before the Germans, was cloaked in secrecy. The dropping of the bomb by the Enola Gay, high above Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August, was carried out in secret.
Even the scientists responsible for its development were not initially aware that the bomb had been dropped, according to Ray Monk’s 2012 biography of Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project. The news came sixteen hours later, in a lengthy press release issued in the name of the president, Harry Truman, which read in part:
Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam,” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.
With no other information at hand – the Pentagon didn’t release any photographs – newspapers and radio stations had to rely almost totally on that press release. From the outset, the US government was able to create what Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell, authors ofHiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, term an “official narrative” built on a half-truth.
Hiroshima did contain an important military base – up to 40,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed there at the time – but the bomb was aimed at the centre of a city of 350,000 people. Civilian casualties were inevitable, and mention of a military base was undoubtedly designed to obscure that fact.
Indeed, the number of civilians killed, injured or affected by radiation sickness was continually downplayed or contested by the government, in particular by the director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves. It was Groves who had inserted the reference to “an important Japanese army base” in the press release at the last minute.
Only in the third paragraph of his statement did Truman reveal that an atomic bomb had been dropped, and no mention was made of the possible effects of radiation. Nor was anything said about what would later become a central plank in the government’s justification for dropping the first nuclear weapon – that its use would save many American lives by avoiding the need to invade Japan to end the war.
The following day, the government issued a further fourteen press releases outlining the background to the Manhattan Project, including the testing of a bomb a month earlier in New Mexico, all of which heralded “the birth of a new age – the age of Atomic Energy.”
The only photograph released showed General Groves studying a wall map of Japan. Again, with little else to go on, newspapers and radio stations ran the government-supplied material, most of which had been prepared well in advance, primarily by William Laurence, a science journalist seconded to the Manhattan Project from the country’s most respected newspaper, the New York Times.
Those press releases were simply gobbled, uncredited, by journalists. Laurence found this discomfiting but he also detected an almost religious significance in the dawning of the atomic age, according to Lifton and Mitchell, and had few qualms about its Japanese victims.
Within days of the second bomb being dropped, the Japanese had surrendered. Potential public disquiet about the devastating impact of the two bombs was outweighed by overwhelming relief that the war was over. The first reports from Tokyo radio about “bloated and scorched” civilians were downplayed by the president in an address to the nation and derided as Japanese propaganda in the press, especially the newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst.
That pattern of reporting looked set to continue after General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Japan in late August and immediately ordered Hiroshima and Nagasaki off limits. He invited journalists to report on the signing of surrender papers by the Japanese on board the USS Missouri on 2 September. Of the hundreds of journalists in Japan, all but two did what MacArthur told them.
One was George Weller of the Chicago Daily News, who visited a kamikaze base near Nagasaki, where he shook off an army escort and saw for himself the damage wreaked by the second bomb. He sent his lengthy dispatch to MacArthur’s headquarters for clearance and that was the last he saw of it. It was not published until four years after his death in 2002, in a book entitled First into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, edited by his son, Anthony Weller.
The other was an Australian named Wilfred Burchett, who was working for London’s Daily Express. Burchett showed great independence, resourcefulness and courage in making the trip alone from Yokosuka to Hiroshima. He had good fortune, too; a Daily Express colleague in Japan, Henry Keys, also wanted to go to Hiroshima. They flipped a coin; Keys lost.
Burchett’s reputation was later tarnished by allegations that during the Korean war (1950–53) he sided against the allied forces and even interrogated Australian prisoners of war. But that controversy does not tarnish his achievement at Hiroshima. He has recounted in several publications how he became the first Western journalist to visit Hiroshima after the bomb; my account draws primarily on the last of his several volumes of autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, which was published posthumously, and his 1983 book Shadows of Hiroshima.
“Don’t go to Hiroshima,” a representative of the Japanese news agency, Domei, advised Burchett. “Everyone is dying there.” Unlike those who had worked on the Manhattan Project, he had little idea of the dangers of radiation fallout. He engaged in an elaborate ruse to slip away from the other journalists before spending twenty-one hours getting to Hiroshima.
He travelled by train, with much of the trip spent in the dark as the train swept through long tunnels. At each stop, Burchett needed to ask the name of the station. He did not speak the local language and he dared not mention the name Hiroshima as he was sure it would inflame the Japanese soldiers who were crammed into a carriage alongside him.
The situation was tense; the Japanese had surrendered but the treaty was only now being signed on board the Missouri. When Burchett arrived in Hiroshima, he was thrown in jail overnight by two local policemen despite protesting that he was a journalist. In the morning, he showed them his letter of introduction to the local Domei representative, which improved his standing in their eyes.
Having strapped on a pistol lent to him by a colleague, Burchett then simply walked out of captivity. Nobody stopped him. He began walking around the city and was appalled at the level of destruction.
He headed for the city’s police headquarters, where the Domei representative told him the police wanted to kill him. Astonishingly, it was a member of the Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police, who saved Burchett’s life, accepting his pleas to be allowed to show people around the world what the bomb had done to the city and its citizens.
Burchett went to one of the local hospitals, 1.3 kilometres from the epicentre of the blast, and was sickened by the sight of men, women and children dying from what the doctors told him was radiation sickness. He went outside and, sitting among the ruins, wrote his report on his battered Baby Hermes typewriter. Critically, the local Domei representative tapped the dispatch out in morse code and transmitted it to Tokyo, as arranged with Henry Keys.
By now, Tokyo had also been declared off limits by MacArthur, so Keys would have had to get past the American military police to get into Tokyo by train. Instead, he sent another local Domei representative in to pick up Burchett’s copy, which finally arrived late on the evening of 3 September.
For reasons that are unclear, only the first 200 words of a 3000-word dispatch had come through. For Keys, though, it was sufficient eyewitness confirmation of the effects of the bomb. He supplemented Burchett’s material with his own, but an American censor wanted to stop the story being transmitted.
The war was over, Keys insisted, and censorship should therefore have ended. While the censor went off to refer the matter to a higher authority, Keys stood over the telex operator and ensured that the story was sent to London under Burchett’s byline. On arriving back in Yokohama, Burchett was distraught to learn of the missing copy, and in his published accounts he has restored the full text. But part of his motivation for republishing the full report was no doubt the controversy that surrounded his role in North Korea, and later.
The lead paragraph of Burchett’s worldwide exclusive report, which was published on the front page of the Daily Express on 5 September, is as follows:
In Hiroshima, thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured in the cataclysm – from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague.
The story was picked up around the world, aided by the Daily Express’s decision to make it available free to anyone who wanted it. The American military angrily denied the story. At a press conference held in Tokyo on 7 September, senior US officials, including the deputy head of the Manhattan Project, Brigadier-General Thomas Farrell, denied the story and accused Burchett of falling victim to Japanese propaganda.
Burchett asked how the brigadier-general explained the fact that fish were still dying when they entered a stream running through the city’s centre.
“Obviously they were killed by the blast or overheated water.”
“Still there a month later?”
“It’s a tidal river, so they could be washed back and forth.”
“But I was taken to a spot in the city outskirts and watched live fish turning on their stomachs upwards as they entered a certain patch of the river. After that they were dead within seconds.”
At this point, the press conference was ended.
Burchett scooped his colleagues by getting to Hiroshima first, no doubt, but as John Pilger writes in Ben Kiernan’s Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World 1939–1983, “In comprehending and identifying an ‘atomic plague,’ he had rumbledthe experimental nature of this first use of a nuclear weapon against people.” At Burchett’s funeral, the eulogy was delivered by American journalist T.D. Allman, who commented: “It was a considerable ordeal to reach Hiroshima but it was an infinitely greater accomplishment, back then, to understand the importance of Hiroshima.”
One of the reasons the US government delayed announcing the dropping of the bomb for sixteen hours was to confirm that it had succeeded in meeting its aims. As Lifton and Mitchell write, “Until that moment no one knew for certain that the weapon would work.” Those working on the Manhattan Project were well aware of the possibility of radiation fallout from the bomb, but the government had already censored a newspaper article that reported radioactivity from testing in July.
William Laurence’s press releases made no mention of that fallout. When he returned to the New York Times and wrote a series of articles about the wonders of the atomic age, he downplayed early reports of radiation sickness at Hiroshima. His articles nonetheless helped him win a Pulitzer prize for reporting in 1946.
Within days of the disastrous press conference following Burchett’s article, President Truman sent a confidential request to American newspaper editors and broadcasters requesting them, for reasons of the “highest national security,” not to publish information about atomic bombs without first consulting the War Department. Press coverage virtually ceased for several months.
Then, on 31 August 1946, just over a year after the dropping of the bomb, the New Yorker put aside all its regular features – the droll cartoons, the arch Talk of the Town pieces – to devote an entire issue to a single piece of reportage. Entitled simply “Hiroshima,” the 31,000-word article was the first to report in any sustained way what it had been like to be in the city on the day the bomb was dropped.
“Hiroshima” questioned the official estimate of 78,500 killed by the bomb and put it at more than 100,000. It refuted the claim that poor construction caused most of the destruction at Hiroshima and cited new information estimating that radiation sickness was responsible for about one in five of the fatalities.
Valuable though it undoubtedly was to bring this information to public attention, this is not primarily why the article is remembered today. What gave the article its reputation, as much as anything, was the way it was written.
Earlier in 1946, Time had published a first-hand account written by a German priest in Hiroshima, John A. Siemes, that made some, but not much, impact. The New Yorker’s article had a massive and immediate impact. After quickly selling out at newsstands, the entire article was read out in a special advertising-free broadcast by ABC television over four consecutive evenings. Albert Einstein ordered a thousand copies of the magazine to distribute. By November, “Hiroshima”was available as a Penguin book, which became a bestseller and remains in print.
Were Americans now ready, a year after the war, to contemplate their former enemy’s suffering? Or did “Hiroshima” make them do it? Most likely it was a combination of the two.
The author, a war correspondent and novelist named John Hersey, visited Hiroshima in May 1946 and interviewed between thirty and forty survivors, before selecting six whose stories he told in sequential narration. He had initially conceived of an article documenting the bomb’s power and its destructiveness, but had decided he wanted to “write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings.”
The choice meant that questions about whether the bombing was vital for ending the war, for instance, would not be considered. The writer Mary McCarthy criticised Hersey for his focus on the effects, but with the support of the New Yorker editor Harold Ross, he believed it was important to convey the events of the day the bomb fell as far as possible through the perspective of the survivors.
It would have been entirely understandable if Hersey had felt overwhelmed by the accounts of the hibakusha (literally, explosion-affected persons). Hersey had felt “a kind of horror” throughout his three weeks in Hiroshima, but this prompted him to reflect: if that was what he experienced eight months afterwards, how must those in the city on 6 August 1945 have felt?
Instead of expressing directly how he felt, though, Hersey channelled his energy into enabling the reader, as far as possible, to empathise with the bomb survivors’ experiences. As literary critic Dan Jones writes, the bomb attack demanded Hersey “provide forms for understanding what has been called history’s least imaginable event.”
You might think that Hersey’s approach is a classic example of essayist Percy Lubbock’s “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling, but that only partly explains what Hersey did. If the dropping of the atomic bomb was “history’s least imaginable event,” and if the official narrative had reduced it to more readily imaginable matters – it was a very powerful bomb rather than a qualitatively different kind of bomb; it was necessary to end the war; the Japanese were the enemy – then how does a writer persuade readers to even begin imagining?
“I had never thought of the people in the bombed cities as individuals,” one reader, a university student, wrote to the New Yorker. If that sounds an odd thing to say, it underscores how we can cauterise our imaginations when we’re faced with events of this kind, and highlights the chasm we need to cross to empathise with the victims.
Hersey’s rare achievement was to do that for millions of people then and since. On the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, his account is well worth rereading. •