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Sunday Read: John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” – An Essay so Powerful Albert Einstein Ordered 1000 Copies

HiroshimaOne of the most extraordinary works of journalism ever published, John Hersey’s essay “Hiroshima”, which took up almost the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, was republished this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bomb, which fell on on August 6, 1945.

The essay was so powerful that on its release the magazine quickly sold out on newsstands, and copies were scalped for 15 to 20 dollars – a mark-up from the original cover price of 15 cents. Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1 000 copies to spread the word about Hiroshima.

“Hiroshima” is ultimately a description of what life was like for those who survived the nuclear attack. It traces the experiences of six people who were living in the city at the time of the blast: A personnel clerk, Miss Toshiko Sasaki; a physician, Dr Masakazu Fujii; a tailor’s widow with three small children, Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura; a German missionary priest, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge; a young surgeon, Dr Terufumi Sasaki; and a Methodist pastor, the Reverend Mr Kiyoshi Tanimoto.

The article follows their story from when they woke up in the morning, to the moment of the blast – at 8:15 AM – and continues through the next few days, before revisiting the group several months later.

In 1999, “Hiroshima” was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by the New York University’s journalism department, but as Harvard Professor Everett Mendelsohn points out, the direct effect of the essay on the American public is difficult to gauge: “No mass movement formed as a result of the article, no laws were passed, and reaction to the piece probably didn’t have any specific impact on US military strategy or foreign policy. But certainly the vivid depictions in the book must have been a strong contributor to a pervasive sense of dread (and guilt) about nuclear weaponry felt by many Americans ever since August 1945.”

He continues:

Of course, superb and imaginative reporting doesn’t necessarily result in concrete action and social change. Sometimes it leads to awareness and contemplation only. Certainly the millions of people who have read “Hiroshima” during the last five decades have found a chilling and unforgettable description of life after nuclear annihilation. It is hard to believe that these readers ever felt the same way again about the possible use of nuclear weapons, and in some respect their understanding of the reality of nuclear war must have continued to have at least some impact on their social and political activities.

Read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto got up at five o’clock that morning. He was alone in the parsonage, because for some time his wife had been commuting with their year-old baby to spend nights with a friend in Ushida, a suburb to the north. Of all the important cities of Japan, only two, Kyoto and Hiroshima, had not been visited in strength by B-san, or Mr. B, as the Japanese, with a mixture of respect and unhappy familiarity, called the B-29; and Mr. Tanimoto, like all his neighbors and friends, was almost sick with anxiety. He had heard uncomfortably detailed accounts of mass raids on Kure, Iwakuni, Tokuyama, and other nearby towns; he was sure Hiroshima’s turn would come soon. He had slept badly the night before, because there had been several air-raid warnings. Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendez-vous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Super-fortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.

Mr. Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh, and cry. He wears his black hair parted in the middle and rather long; the prominence of the frontal bones just above his eyebrows and the smallness of his mustache, mouth, and chin give him a strange, old-young look, boyish and yet wise, weak and yet fiery. He moves nervously and fast, but with a restraint which suggests that he is a cautious, thoughtful man. He showed, indeed, just those qualities in the uneasy days before the bomb fell. Besides having his wife spend the nights in Ushida, Mr. Tanimoto had been carrying all the portable things from his church, in the close-packed residential district called Nagaragawa, to a house that belonged to a rayon manufacturer in Koi, two miles from the center of town. The rayon man, a Mr. Matsui, had opened his then unoccupied estate to a large number of his friends and acquaintances, so that they might evacuate whatever they wished to a safe distance from the probable target area. Mr. Tanimoto had had no difficulty in moving chairs, hymnals, Bibles, altar gear, and church records by pushcart himself, but the organ console and an upright piano required some aid. A friend of his named Matsuo had, the day before, helped him get the piano out to Koi; in return, he had promised this day to assist Mr. Matsuo in hauling out a daughter’s belongings. That is why he had risen so early.

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