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In "Fallout," Lesley Blume Traces Hersey's Road To Hiroshima

"Fallout" book cover
Simon and Schuster

Seventy-five years ago, the United States altered world history by dropping two atomic bombs Japan in the closing days of World War II. The true toll of that decision, and its effect on civilians and their environment, was not known for many months. It took an enterprising journalist and his gutsy editors back in New York to get the story into print despite the threat of censorship and worse. Today, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” remains required reading for students across the globe.

Lesley Blume’s new book about the dropping of the bomb and Hersey’s journalistic coup is called “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It To the World.”

Last time you were on the show, we were talking about your book on Ernest Hemingway and “The Sun Also Rises.” What got you interested in this story, John Hersey and the bomb?

Well, I knew that, I knew I wanted my next nonfiction book to be about historical newsroom. I had personal reasons for wanting to do that. I have been, you know, frankly quite outraged and disgusted by the attacks on our free press over the last four to five years and you know, designation of journalists, as you know, "enemies of the people." And I really wanted to find a historical newsroom narrative that drove home the extreme importance of a free press, of investigative journalism, and you know, really fine reporting when it comes to holding the powerful to account.

I also knew that I really wanted the story to be based in World War Two because I have an affinity for research in that conflict. It did take a while to find specifically the Hersey narrative, because, you know, I tend to be geared more towards, you know, the European Theater of the conflict, I didn't know a lot about the Pacific Theater. My husband, who is also a newsman suggested to me, "Well, why don't we look at the logistics of how Hiroshima and Nagasaki was covered." And when I started researching that, I came across Hersey's narrative and realized that the backstory had not been sufficiently told. But what I also realized was that the resulting reporting that he did, "Hiroshima", which revealed not only the human toll of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the fact that the U.S. government had covered it up, it was the perfect story to tell the story, the kind of story that I wanted to tell. In terms of the crucial-ness of the press as a pillar of democracy.

All right, let's get back to Hersey in a second. I wanted to ask you about that because it's a subtext of book, but you don't make it explicit until the epilogue when you talk about the importance of press freedom and your own background as the daughter of a journalist. What parallels do you see between the story that you cover in this book and what we've gone through in our country over the last few years?

Well, look, I mean, making it an explicit point about the importance of the press, I mean, you know, within the current environment, it was a difficult decision to actually put this in the book. But ultimately, my editor and I decided that it was an important thing to do, to call it out directly. But that said, you know, I feel that readers would have inferred one of the messages of the book anyway, as they're reading it. And that is, you know, the book documents an occupation press, and, you know, the Japanese press as well, who were suppressed under occupation forces and unable to report the true story from the atomic cities.

And here we're looking at a press that was bullied, threatened with revocation of accreditation and really kept under thumb in so many insulting, but deeply effective ways. And the world would not have known right away or, you know, in a timely manner about the true human toll in Hiroshima, if John Hersey hadn't been able to get in and reveal the truth to the world. The Japanese press and Japanese citizens were under a press code for years during the occupation, they weren't allowed to publish any aspect of their own experience as the only human beings on the receiving end of nuclear attack. They couldn't even mention Hiroshima in poetry, much less press reports. And it really did take you know, a foreign reporter to get in and get out, and tell the story. And it even took a year after the bombings to get that true story out.

You cover in the book the way that the press had to operate in Japan, the American and the foreign press. They were supposed to turn in their copy to the censors and it was even difficult to physically access places within the war theater, or, once the war had ended, the former theater. So what was the setup like for foreign reporters and how would you characterize early coverage of the bomb?

Wartime censorship was officially ended in fall 1945. For the most part. But the fact is that U.S. and Japan were still technically considered to be at war. And the occupation press corps that is foreign journalists who came in with, you know, Allied occupation troops, were still, you know, in abasically an embed situation when they were on the ground there. A few of the early journalists who came in with the first waves of occupation troops, they knew that the story of what, what it looked like on the ground and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were going to be huge stories, absolutely hugest of the war. And they did vie to get those cities, three had early success.

One was a Japanese-American journalist who had actually been stuck in in Tokyo for the duration of the war, he got into Hiroshima. He was actually looking for his mother who lived there and miraculously he survived. And he gets out a, an initial UP wire report saying, "Look, this city of 300,000 people was devastated by the single weapon there's some kind of affliction that's killing blast survivors. Maybe it's gas given off by the bomb?" He didn't know yet, and so that that wire report went out, but it was weirdly edited when it appeared in major publications in the U.S., such as the New York Times.

The second reporter who gets in is really salty Australian war correspondent called Wilford Burchett and he managed to break away from his press minders and the occupation forces and make his way to Hiroshima, at the end of August, and his, his was probably the most seismic first report that came out. He managed to report through Morse code, back to, to an editor in Tokyo who managed to get his report over to London's Daily Express and break the story that a "sinister disease X" as they called it, was ravaging blast survivors and to confirm the extent of the devastation. Now that was it for the U.S. government, and, and MacArthur's occupation forces, they were not going to have another embarrassment like this. A third reporter in the meantime named George Weller, who is from the Chicago Daily News had gotten into Nagasaki and tried to follow a file similar report but his was duly intercepted and "lost." And after that, you know, the atomic cities were quickly made a restricted topic. MacArthur's occupation forces were extremely efficient in locking down the country and locking down the movements of journalists, you had to apply for permission to, to even you know, travel from Tokyo, any place. And, you know, eight or nine months later, when John Hersey gets into Japan you know, not only do you have to apply for permission to travel but they give you X amount of time on the ground in your destination within Japan.

Now, Hersey, he had a history himself with MacArthur, and, in fact, The New Yorker only got the story because Hersey's relationship with Life had faltered. So how did it wind up that Hersey sought out the true story of what happened at Hiroshima?

Well, you know, the forerunning reporters who we've just been talking about, I mean, these guys were really trying to evade occupation forces in getting the story. And, you know, they were what might be called, you know, unilateral reporters, as opposed to embeds. And you know, a couple of them had already been locking horns with MacArthur's censors for years as they were covering the Pacific Theater. And Hersey, on the other hand, he was what I have described as the 'perfect Trojan horse reporter,' in a way. I mean, Hersey was a seasoned war correspondent, he was a good war correspondent, but he was also quite cooperative, as many war correspondents had been during World War II. He did a lot of flattering military profiles for his publications. He wrote a quite flattering early-mid war biography of General MacArthur and his forces, which Hersey said later that he wished he could take it out of print because it had been too laudatory. But you know, when you're looking at applying for clearance to come into MacArthur's Japan, the fact of that very flattering biography is definitely going to be an asset. So I think that occupation forces, you know, as they're considering his application for clearance into the country see him as being more of a team player, more innocuous than some of his forerunning reporters who had tried to get the story from the atomic cities.

Now let's talk for a minute about the setup at The New Yorker's offices. You describe it as kind of a little bit of an upstart in those days, not known for doing stories like this necessarily. And you had, of course, Ross and Shawn shepherding the magazine. So what was their vision of what Hersey should do on the ground?

Well, you know, The New Yorker had been founded 20 years earlier as a sophisticated humor magazine and Harold Ross, its founder who's quite a character, one of my favorite protagonists in the book, used to panic when it got over a certain circulation. He said, "What are we doing wrong? Too many people are reading this!" So it was quite niche. But both Harold Ross and his deputy editor William Shawn, they were both newsmen also, they both started out in newsroom. They had both done coverage during World War One, and once Pearl Harbor happened, you know, they immediately turned the New Yorker to what they called a war, "war-time footing." Even though it had been a humor magazine, you know, Harold Ross lamented, "Nothing feels funny anymore." So they had dispatched correspondents for very fine reporting around the world. But after the war ended, you know, the big question came, you know, "Do we return to what we were or do we continue more along the vein of what we were doing in the in the war?" You know, the gravitas become quite addictive. That said they were still extremely upstart operation compared to you know, mega news operations like the New York Times, or United Press, or you know, ABC.

And when they figured out that the reporting out of Hiroshima had been suppressed, and that, you know, people around the world knew about the extent of the landscape devastation, but not the human toll, the newsmen in these editors really came out and they knew they had the opportunity to tell, you know, not only an outside atrocity story that might have gone otherwise untold, but also they knew that they had their teeth on what was one of the most incredible scoops in modern history. Because in a sense, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most covered stories of the war, but they were also among the most covered up, there was never a real question that they would not vie to send to send Hersey in and try to get the truth out.

One of the innovations that you write about was Hersey's idea to approach the storytelling a la "The Bridge of San Louis Rey." So how did he go about reporting the story once he was on the ground in Hiroshima? Who did he talk to and how did he get around to meet people?

The problem with a lot of the reporting and the lack of comprehension of the extent of the tragedy surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was that the story had been told from, from a very, you know, God's eye point of view. The mushroom clouds, the magnitude, you know, for Hersey, he wanted to, not only get behind that imagery to, you know, the human vantage point, but he also wanted to humanize the casualty statistics. We will never know how many people died in Hiroshima. But the, the statistics, the estimates go from 100,000- There was one report early on that said could have been 280,000. So he wanted to get in on the ground.

He was going to have to earn the trust of blast survivors, interview them and pick a handful of, of testimonies from regular folks who had been the victims, among the only human victims of nuclear attack in history. Not everybody can comprehend the physics of what makes the atom bomb work. Not everybody can comprehend what, you know, all out nuclear global warfare looks like, but anybody can relate to the story of, you know, a young mother, a young clerk, a young doctor. Somebody's going to, to work, on a bus, or a train. You know, in the morning, when all of the sudden catastrophe strikes, he really wanted his readers to experience the events of August 6, 1945, through the eyes of people like that. And he on the ground, luckily, spoke with several dozen blast survivors, and ultimately, ultimately picked six to tell their stories.

The production of the special issue of the magazine was done basically in secret. And I can identify with the fact that there was also a blown deadline involved there. How did they go about putting this special issue together, which, you know, didn't involve any of the normal cartoons, dispensed with the other features in the magazine and get it to the newsstands?

Well, you can imagine how it would have looked for readers to be reading this horrific story about the truth of nuclear aftermath, you know, and having a run alongside, you know, cartoons. Not, not exactly, you know, a happy mixture, right? But the fact is, is that the editors and Hersey, they, they really did create the issue in, in almost total secrecy. And I liken it in the book to their own version of a journalistic Manhattan Project. Hersey took his, his, his interview notes out of Japan and he wrote the first draft of "Hiroshima" back in New York. And then, he and Harold Ross and William Shawn, his editors at The New Yorker  edited it in great secrecy, locked away in Harold Ross' office, at the, the sort of wonderfully shabby offices of The New Yorker. And they worked on it and worked on it. And, you know, the contributors to the magazine and the other staffers were reportedly kept working on a dummy issue, so they're working on an issue that's not going to run. They're submitting all their copy, they're not getting any, any responses back from their editor. So they know something is up, but they don't know quite what and most of them would have to find out along with the rest of the world, when the August 31, 1946 issue is released. And it's almost exclusively, wholly devoted to Hersey's article.

I was trying to think about what the equivalent in 2020 would be with an article like this. You'd probably see it trending on Twitter when you woke up that morning. And maybe the author would be on half a dozen podcasts before coffee time. What was the impact when that issue hit the newsstands in 1946?

Well, I mean, there's two things on that. I mean, first of all, you know, Hersey was not on a gazillion podcasts or even, he didn't do a single interview at the time. He did not promote, promote his article, 'Hiroshima.' He felt that the work had to speak for, for itself. And, you know, Hersey was quite a celebrity, intellectual celebrity, by the time the story came out. And he was movie star handsome. You know, one of his books had been made into both a movie and a Broadway play. He had been invited to the White House, he was in Winchell's column. I mean, he, he feared that he would be a distraction to the extremely important work, so it kind of fell to Harold Ross and William Shawn to handle all the publicity when Hersey left town.

Hersey, when later described in a rare interview that he did give, he described the reaction to the story as "explosive." Now that's not a word that I ever use in my book for obvious reasons, but you know, it was a huge reaction and international furor, because Hersey had not only really delivered, deeply empathetic, narratively addictive, and graphic account of what it had been like to be on the receiving end of nuclear warfare. But not only that, he had embarrassed to other very important entities. The U.S. government, because it showed, his report, Hersey's report, showed how much had been covered up about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the year since. And also it really embarrassed other members of the press because other people in the press, from much more powerful organizations have had the opportunity to tell the story or try to tell the story and they hadn't taken it. So this was this was, you know, just a blockbuster of a release. It's hard to think of, besides Watergate, maybe Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which had also appeared in The New Yorker. It's hard to think of a report that had a bigger, immediate effect.

One thing I learned from your book was that it took quite a while for copies to get into Japan itself, especially Hiroshima.

Oh, yeah. I mean, the six protagonists, who Hersey profiled, some of them didn't even know that the article existed. They didn't know that, that Hersey had indeed been able to write it. And when The New Yorker team is trying to get copies over to them, they end up having to send them through, to a church with copies earmarked for, you know, the foreign nationals who are at the church, because Japanese nationals wouldn't have been able to read this under the press code. Any kind of reading material that violated what the press code called, you know, the "public tranquility", was not allowed. The copies that were sent to Hersey's protagonists were sort of contraband, you know, but they did eventually get, get their copies. And I was curious to see how the protagonists felt about Hersey's depiction of their experiences. And you know, later on a few of them were able to give interviews, and the ones who were interviewed said that Hersey had remembered and depicted their experiences with remarkable accuracy. So they were for the most part, very, very proud to have been involved or been featured in that particular reporting. And, you know, albeit a little bit inconvenienced, because later on, because they were so famous after that. You know, while the occupation was still underway, you couldn't interview them, but after the occupation was over every year on the anniversary of the bombings, reporters around the world would seek out you know, these six protagonists and some of them were advocates, in later years, but some of them were just really living very humble private lives. And, you know, being a part of Hershey's "Hiroshima" really did change their lives forever.

One of them is still living today, and you dedicate the book to her. Tell us about her life in the years since the book and how that has impacted her life over these 75 years.

One of Hersey's primary protagonists is Reverend Kiyoshi, Kiyoshi Tanimoto. And he was not only one of the featured six protagonists, but he also was a huge help to Hersey on the ground, he made introductions for Hersey among other blast survivors. And he had also studied religion at Emory University, so he spoke English and wrote very good English also too, which was a big break for Hersey, to have these, this kind of translation help. It wasn't his only translation help, but it was important. Reverend Tanimoto and his wife and his then, infant daughter, Koko Tanimoto, who was an eight month old, on August 6, 1945, are all in the book. And Koko is the person who we're talking about now, to whom my book is dedicated.

She was a source for me on the story, obviously deeply versed in her family's experience on August 6. She had been in her mother's arms in the family's house, not very far from the, from the hypocenter of the detonation of 'Little Boy', the bomb. Um, the house had collapsed on top of them, they were absolutely buried in debris, but it had survived. The mother managed to scratch a hole out through the debris, push Koko out, and then they both managed to escape the ruin, as a wall of fire was consuming their neighborhood. It was a miraculous- Um, completely miraculous escape. Koko in the years since, like her father has been, you know, a lifelong peace advocate. If you look her up, you know, if you do a Google search on her, you'll see she's done countless appearances around the world. She's, you know, beautifully spoken, composed, just a really lovely and very convincing woman. But she's also 75, or 76 years old, right now. She was an infant when the bomb happened, and she really is among, you know, the last of the bomb survivors and their voices are dying out. And so it felt more important than ever, on the 75th anniversary, when attention is being focused on, on the events of August 6 and August 9, 1946, to really heed her story and the story of her family once again.

How's her health? So many of the people who were featured in John Hersey's book and also in yours faced numerous challenges throughout their lives due to that radiation exposure.

You know, I have to say, Koko seems fine. And when I visited with her in Hiroshima, and we retraced her steps, we visited a lot of monuments together. I had a hard time keeping up with her. She was she was actually quite, quite energetic. And, you know, she was she was quite funny, she has quite gallows humor- And her mother also lived to a pretty advanced age, I think died not too long ago, and Koko told me that they used to grimly joke that the radiation it actually had the perverse effect of preserving them. But she, she seems mercifully, she seems fine. And, again, it's just extremely devoted to getting her message out about the extreme peril that nuclear weapons pose to, to human civilization.

So just a couple more things. You mentioned earlier that Hersey had some ambivalence about the story and the fame and attention that it drew. He did go back several decades later to do some follow up reporting on the story. What effect did he think that the book and the original article had on the world, if any?

Right after the success of his story in 1946, you know, Harold Ross, did you know ask if Hersey would be willing to go back and do a reprise story. And, you know, the answer was a hard no. You know, and it took Hersey 40 years to go back. And he did eventually go back for The New Yorker to report on, you know, four decades later what had happened to his six protagonists. And what happened, what had happened to, to Japan and to Hiroshima. And he wrote, at one point, that what had kept the world safe since Hiroshima, from nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, from another such nuclear attack taking place, "was the memory of what happened at Hiroshima."

And obviously, he played an enormous role in bringing to the world, you know, our version, you know, our collective memory of Hiroshima and what happened there. You know, so in that sense, you know, he was, he was proud of the role that he had played in, in creating what he saw and what other people many people have seen, as a deterrent to nuclear warfare, just because we now know what nuclear warfare really looks like, thanks to him- Well partly thanks to him. He was worried by the 1980s, by the time and by the time he, you know, went back in to do his second round of reporting there, that the memory even then was starting to grow thin about what it really looks like to, you know, again, be on the receiving end of a nuclear attack. And if the memory of Hiroshima fades, does it lose its potency as a deterrent? Well, of course, that's a real danger. And, you know, there are studies now that show that as the memory continues to grow thinner, that there is an increased public tolerance for the idea of pre-emptive attack, even largely civilian populations of enemy states. So I don't think Hersey was being unreasonable in his worries about the loss of potency of that memory, as a deterrent.

So I want to end on this point. We're accustomed to hearing today when an unflattering piece of journalism comes out that it's fake news, or coming from a position of bias. You cover what the Truman administration did in response to Hershey's article, which was to effectively commission and plant a counter-narrative in a different magazine. Do you see any connections between that approach and what we've seen from this White House in terms of unflattering stories?

We all look at history through the context of our present, right? And so when I first started researching the story, I assumed, "Look, there had to be a discrediting effort, you know, because if that story came out today, we would have, you know, President Trump coming out saying 'Fake news, this guy's been,' you know, you know, 'A loser from the beginning,' you know, I mean, 'His total,' you know, 'liberal bias.'" Which is, you know, probably polite term for how he would put it. And so, I had assumed that there would have been some kind of discrediting campaign against Hersey, and maybe even his protagonists, I called up CIA records, I called up FBI records. And you know, it was, there really wasn't um, an attempt to undercut him directly. In fact, they took a kind of the U.S. government or, and, and former leaders who had been involved in the Manhattan Project. They took them more, like a weirdly elegant approach to try to discredit the report or at least counter the report, and regain the narrative, or regain their footing with the narrative. And that's what they did, indeed, as you say, I put out a counterpoint article in Harper's Magazine and they chose Henry Stimson, who was the former Secretary of War as the, as the alleged author- Although it was written by many hands. One a biographer called it 'the old boy', the War Department network, had, had everybody had a hand in it. Simpson had been a savvy choice to, to be the figurehead author on the article because he was supposed to have what was described once as an 'almost painful integrity.' 

But the ostensible purpose of the article was like a clinical statement of "Why we dropped the bomb," and they were really just trying to shift the narrative away from the human toll that had been levied by these, then experimental weapons, by bombs that continued to kill long after, you know, they were detonated, to sort of a clinical discussion of "The bomb actually saved lives". "It was humanitarian because it saved American lives, it saved Japanese lives. It cut the, you know, it cuts the wartime down considerably, it sped up the surrender." It never made any mention of the word radiation. It, in it Simpson basically said: "Look, you know, yeah, people die, but the face of war is death." You know, so there was, it was a, it was a shrug in that respect. And also it didn't ever address the fact that the U.S. government had indeed, covered up this information about you know, the radiological effects of their weapons. Again, the populations that were largely composed of civilians. And even though it did assuage some American consciences, in terms of, "Well, OK, you know, actually yes, it was horrible, but we didn't need to use the bomb." It never did erase. It never could erase the image that was now associated with nuclear warfare. That was in part, and you know, at that time predominantly created by Hersey's reporting on the ground.

The name of the book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World". We've been speaking with Lesley Blume. It's been a pleasure to have you on for all this time. And thanks for the book; I think it's interesting reading at our moment as well.

Thank you so much for having me.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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