JOHN HERSEY, THE MAN WHO PEERED INTO A LIVING HELL

“The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?”

––John Hersey, Hiroshima

*       *       *

It was a time of frenzy. It was a time of hysteria. It was a juncture after which whether destruction and death would continue. It was a true testament to heroism. World War II, an intercontinental battle between absolute justice and evil, ended days after “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima, Imperial Japan. Few people in the U.S. knew how atomic bombs worked; the majority of them only had a vague concept of what they meant. It was John Hersey – a journalist who had immersed himself in the post-cataclysmic wasteland that is Hiroshima – who encapsulated the horror of this deadly weapon for his American audience.

Hersey was born on June 17, 1914, in Tianjin, China. His father was a secretary for the local Young Men’s Christian Association and his mother was a missionary. The family returned to the U.S. when Hersey was ten. He would later graduate from Yale University in 1936 and would serve as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines from 1937 to 1946, during which time he covered battles in Europe and Asia. In May 1946, Hersey visited Hiroshima for The New Yorker magazine.

Correspondents who had gone to Hiroshima before Hersey produced articles describing the desolation caused by the atomic blast, but none of them illustrated what the bomb was really capable of. Homer Bigart of The New York Herald Tribune wrote in 1945:

But across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.

Bigart’s language was pithy and powerful; his description was accurate and vivid – nothing we haven’t seen in other war correspondents’ articles capturing the cruelty of weapons of mass destruction. However, as to a bomb that evaporated an entire city within a matter of seconds with its radiation killing more people afterwards, an article which mimicked the style of a report on the Battle of Berlin was woefully inadequate.

Then there is Hersey’s legacy, Hiroshima:

Their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel.) Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot.

His writing style was unorthodox indeed; one could argue it more resembles a fiction than a news story. Hersey constructed his article around the experiences of six people who had survived the atomic blast. Switching from one character to another, he had made Hiroshima almost a parallel-edited movie – where multiple stories interlaced, and it had been considered a precursor to the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Hersey once said that in journalism, the readers are constantly aware of the writer and his/her attempt to explain, but he would want them to be directly confronted by the characters, so the event could unfold itself as they read.

Hersey was inspired by the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, in which five people died when a bridge collapsed. The idea of six different people whose paths converged at the moment of disaster was formed, and he set out to find the people whose experiences would complete his story. Hersey had talked to some fifty people before he narrowed them down to the final six; a story of such significance must not be compromised by cursory decisions.

Then the three weeks of research and interviews began. His 30,000-word piece consisted of a surgeon, a pastor, a widow, a doctor, a clerk and a German Jesuit. Through their eyes, Hersey learned things that were never exposed in any previous news reports, and it was the catastrophic result of the atomic bomb that led him to question the justification of its use. People died horrible deaths, and they would keeping dying from the radiation – many survived the initial blast only to live on borrowed time. Hersey had to give the survivors a voice because no one would be able to accurately present a world of sheer misery; no one would be capable of conceptualizing “A Noiseless Flash,” the detonation, that ensued by utter decimation.

“My father had a very strong moral compass,” Baird Hersey, one of John Hersey’s sons, said in an interview with Russell Shorto. “Even though he wasn’t a religious person – he eventually reacted against being raised in that world –he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and a humility, and that colored his approach to Hiroshima.”

Immediately after the explosion, the U.S. government exercised stringent censorship on information about the casualties. Before Hersey, many attempts to file detailed information on the explosion out of Japan had been halted by the U.S. Occupying Forces, so he took his accounts back to New York himself.

After Harold Ross, the editor at The New Yorker, read Hersey’s work, he decided to devote an entire issue to the story. Never before had a magazine dispensed with the rest of its scheduled content for a single story and it has never happened again (as of September, 2016).

“What I admire is he has thrown himself into the midst of the world, engaging with the big issues of his day and trying, as a writer, to be compassionate and humane to make people think about all these things.” Eric Schlosser, the author of The Illusion of Safety, said in an interview with Penguin Books UK. “Those are the writers I tend to admire the most – the ones who put themselves out there and assume personal risk in order to tell the world what is happening.”

The report on Hiroshima was not just another story for Hersey; he has formed a bond with the survivors and he never forgot them. On the 40th anniversary of the bomb in 1985, Hersey went back to Japan to revisit his survivors and wrote The Aftermath – the last chapter that would be added to Hiroshima, the story of the deeper repercussions of the bomb in the following 40 years.

Hersey’s Hiroshima has left an indelible mark on its audience; his narrative has shed light upon nuclear weapons and their inevitable destruction – innocent civilians would always bear the brunt. We cannot fathom the calamity of nuclear warfare, but with Hiroshima, we can try to begin. As Hersey once said, “Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.”

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