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Hiroshima in Context
am 1. März 2000
Hiroshima was published in 1946 - a year after the bomb was dropped - in New Yorker magazine. Uniquely in its history, the magazine devoted its entire issue to Hersey's 30,000 word essay. Only later was it turned into a book; the final chapter on the subsequent lives of the six subjects wasn't written until 1985.
Hersey set out to put a human face on the consquences of the atomic bomb. All earlier news accounts, articles and stories had been focused on the statistics, the science, and the effort that led to the nuclear weapon. Understood in that context, understanding what Hersey was trying to do and say, the book is even more remarkable.
It is not a novel; a novel is a work of fiction. It is an essay, a work of reportage. This story is true. The book is all the more remarkable because Hersey was born and raised in China, the son of missionaries, and had no reason to be sympathetic to or about the Japanese. A war correspondent for Time, he earned a commendation from the U.S. Army at Guadacanal. He cannot fairly be accused of anything but supreme objectivity. By telling the true stories of six survivors in an absolutely straightforward way, without judging the decision to use the bomb, he put an intensely human face on the consequences.
He was criticized at the time and is criticized today for taking the events that day out of context. The bomb is supposed to have saved a million American casualties (a highly suspect figure today). It was supposed to have shortened the war by a year or more. Those critics are themselves missing the true context. At the time, the historical events leading to Truman's decision were well known (although recast in February 1947 by Stinson). Hersey's goal was to make the story real in a new way. Those facts are well and good, Hersey is saying, but there were bad consequences as well. In the process, he created a remarkable book.
I was glad to see New York University recently named Hersey's Hiroshima as the best single work of reporting in the 20th century. As events unfold in the escalating nuclear arms race on the Indian subcontinent, everyone needs to understand the human consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. By helping keep Hersey's work before us, perhaps we can avoid another Hiroshima or Nagasaki.