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'Fallout': He reported the truth about Hiroshima

World War II, after the explosion of the

World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. Credit: Universal Images Group / Getty

FALLOUT: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World by Lesley M.M. Blume (SImon & Schuster, 276 pp., $27)

Lesley M.M. Blume's "Fallout," which coincides with this month's 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hirshima, Japan, is the story behind John Hersey's famous article about the historic event which led to an abrupt end to World War II. Hersey was the first journalist to produce an on-the-scene account of the bomb's aftermath. When The New Yorker published the 31,000-word story on Aug. 31, 1946, it devoted an entire issue to it.

The 10,000-pound uranium bomb obliterated the city and killed roughly 280,000 Japanese civilians. Hersey's article, published a year later, detailed the lives of six Hiroshima survivors. He described minute by excruciating minute what happened to these six people before and after the bomb struck. It's regarded as the most important journalistic work of the 20th century.

Yet, as Blume reports, the U.S. government was less than keen on letting the public learn of the scale and horror of human loss at the hands of its military. One general went so far as to tell a Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy that doctors had assured him that radiation poisoning was "a very pleasant way to die." Americans were urged to look ahead rather than reflect on the war.

But William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, believed that the story of the bomb's victims remained untold. He commissioned the 31-year-old Hersey to write it. To gain access to Hiroshima, Hersey made a formal request to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's offices. Hersey had written glowingly of military leaders, including a portrait of MacArthur that Hersey later called "too adulatory." His request to report from the ground was granted, and by late May 1946, he was on a train from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

In early August, The New Yorker submitted the article for review to Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, who had overseen the Manhattan Project. Incredibly enough, Groves called Shawn to say he was greenlighting the story but wanted a few changes, and dispatched one of his public relations officers to The New Yorker offices the next day. Groves himself approved the final version of the story.

"Fallout" is at its most gripping when Blume describes the article's immediate, dramatic impact on a public that had been kept in the dark about the human devastation in Hiroshima. Newsstands quickly sold out. Excerpts ran in newspapers around the world. The article was read on the radio, in its entirety, over four consecutive nights. Albert Einstein ordered 1,000 copies for distribution. Alfred A. Knopf later published it as a book.

The Truman administration scrambled to spin the impact of the article. The president and his former secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, redoubled their efforts to claim that the bombs had shortened the war; that lives on both sides had been saved because otherwise Japan would have carried on a protracted, bloody fight to the last man.It's clear that Blume poured herself into this project. For a sense of the sheer amount of work that went into it, just read her acknowledgments. Where most authors' acknowledgments are heartfelt but brief, Blume's run seven pages. Her endnotes take up a whopping 64 pages.

Hersey died in 1993, and how he would react to this microscopic examination of his seminal work can't be known. He shunned the spotlight as assiduously as his contemporaries sought it. He didn't have a literary agent and rarely gave interviews.

But here's a hint that Hersey might have approved of Blume's book. Among the dozens of people Blume thanks in her acknowledgments is one Koko Tanimoto Kondo. Kondo is the daughter of Rev. Tanimoto. Kondo was an infant in her mother's arms when the bomb hit. Both were buried under heavy wood and rubble. Her mother managed to scratch out a hole in the debris big enough to push the baby through. When Blume traveled to Hiroshima for research, Kondo was her guide through the city. It seems fitting that Blume dedicated her book to Kondo, a gesture to the shining light of humanity that infused Hersey's original article. It's a gesture Hersey is likely to have appreciated.

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