John Hersey and Hiroshima

John Hersey and Hiroshima

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant in March 2011 gave rise to very different sentiments in this country than it did in Japan. Whereas our press, seeking cultural and historical reference points, invoked Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Godzilla, the Japanese responded to the trio of disasters—earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima—with gestures to two moments, two acts of war, two cities vaporized: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who would be forced to resign amid intense questioning of his indecisive response to the disasters, was quoted as saying that his nation’s predicament was “in a way the most severe crisis in the past sixty-five years since World War II.” Writing in the New Yorker, novelist Kenzaburo Oe admonished his countrymen for their desire to harness nuclear energy by calling on them to remember their first experience of it at Hiroshima.

For the Japanese, Hiroshima and Nagasaki still loom in the imagination. But just as Japan is now rethinking its relationship to nuclear energy by looking to its past, Fukushima should have prodded us to retrospection. If the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “crises,” they were, after all, man-made crises. Yet we persist in imagining the atomic bombings as the natural culmination of the exigencies of war. They are inscribed in our memory as inevitable, depersonalized events; they do not have a human, or a moral, cast.

One way we can connect to the current Japanese mindset regarding nuclear energy and to our role in it is to reconsider one of the original and seminal documents of the nuclear age: John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which was selected by a New York University panel in 1999 as the best piece of journalism of the twentieth century, ahead of such notable works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate revelations, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

In the spring of 1946, Hersey, who started at Time and made his name at Life, traveled to Hiroshima on assignment for the self-consciously sophisticated and liberal-minded New Yorker to interview survivors, in the end choosing six to write about: a clerk, two doctors, a Methodist pastor educated in America, a tailor’s widow, and a missionary German priest. Back in New York, he fashioned a detailed account of the bombing and its aftermath through their eyes. He borrowed the prismatic narrative structure of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, cutting at climactic moments from one character to another, as if he were editing a movie. The result is a report that speaks for a city, and even a nation, and that retains its immediacy to this day.

For maximum effect, the editors of the New Yorker published the 31,000 words of “Hiroshima” as the entirety of their A...