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The intrepid journalist who exposed Hiroshima’s horror

After the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, it was another year before first-hand accounts emerged. Journalist John Hersey helped expose the bomb’s lasting damage, which the U.S. government tried to downplay. In a new book, “Fallout,” which coincides with the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, author Lesley Blume examines Hersey’s critical work. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yesterday marked 75 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. The attack shocked the world, but it would be another year before Americans would get firsthand accounts from people who lived through it, thanks to trailblazing reporting by "New Yorker" writer John Hersey.

    Author Lesley Blume has a new book about Hersey and how his reporting exposed the bomb's lasting damage, which the U.S. government tried initially to downplay.

    And she spoke with Jeffrey Brown as part of our continuing coverage of this solemn anniversary.

    This is also part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    August 6, 1945, the future of warfare and humanity itself would change, when the U.S. detonated a single atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan.

    But while everyone saw the mushroom cloud, it would be a year before the world fully understood what had happened on the ground that day, a story told in the pages of "The New Yorker" magazine by journalist John Hersey.

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    We know what the aftermath of nuclear warfare looks like because John Hersey showed us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In her new book, "Fallout," author Lesley Blume explores how Hersey came to write a profoundly influential work. She calls it one of the most important works of journalism ever created that has shaped generations since.

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    Even if people, his eventual readers, could not understand the physics that went into the nuclear bomb, they could certainly relate to the stories of six regular people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The bomb in Hiroshima, followed days later by one destroying Nagasaki, led to Japan's surrender and ecstatic celebrations of a hard-earned American victory.

    The U.S. government justified use of these experimental weapons as necessary to end the war, but, Blume writes, covered up the bombs' horrifying impact on humans, including the after-effects of radiation.

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    On the one hand, they wanted to showcase the might of their weapon, because they now had a weapon that nobody else did. But, on the other hand, they didn't want to reveal the true devastation of the bomb, and also reveal the fact that it was a weapon that went on killing long after detonation in a really gruesome way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hersey was just 31, but already a veteran war correspondent.

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    He had seen the worst of human nature. And he felt that, at the end of what remains the deadliest conflict in human history, the only way that human civilization had a chance of surviving is if we began to see the humanity in each other again.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He was also a writer. His 1944 novel, "A Bell for Adano," won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

    Working with legendary "New Yorker" editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, Hersey proposed a novelistic approach, tell the intersecting stories of six individuals who'd crossed paths that day.

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    A lot of the reporting that had been done on the major devastation caused by the bombs, it was rendered in a very eye-of-God kind of way. This is the end of days, and you were just seeing massive, roiling mushroom clouds.

    And so what Hersey decided to do was to dial it back from sort of a point-of-view-of-God narrative to the point of view of six regular folks on the ground.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The subjects included two doctors, two clergy, a widow caring for three children, and a young clerk.

    The humanizing style is there from the famous first line: "At exactly 15 minutes past 8:00 in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Ms. 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."

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    And instead of being incinerated on the spot, she was almost crushed by falling bookshelves and was covered in books. And when Hersey met her and heard her story, he found himself thinking that it was incredibly ironic that this life was nearly taken by books in the first moments of the atomic age.

    And even when he was still in Hiroshima, he knew that he was going to write about that in his own article.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That article would take up the entire issue of "The New Yorker" on August 31, 1946, and would itself become a bombshell, capturing headlines around the world. In book form, it has sold more than three million copies to date.

    There is much more to the tale Blume tells, including the surprising role of General Leslie Groves, one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, who tried to suppress information about the bomb, but then saw benefits to Hersey's reporting.

    And years later, a bizarre appearance by one of Hersey's subjects, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, on an episode of "This Is Your Life."

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    They trotted out not only people from his life, but they even trotted out one of the bombers from the Enola Gay, who had bombed Hiroshima, and forced a meeting between the two, the two gentlemen. And it's some pretty skin-crawling stuff, for sure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    John Hersey donated part of the proceeds from his work to the American Red Cross. He didn't return to Japan for 40 years, wrote many more books, and died in 1993.

    It's been argued that that article and then the book afterwards played an important role in the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since.

    Do you believe that?

  • Lesley M.M. Blume:

    Well, John Hersey definitely believed that.

    I know a lot of people don't realize how perilous the nuclear landscape is right now. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has its famous doomsday clock, has now set it closer to midnight, i.e., nuclear apocalypse, than it has ever been since its advent in the late 1940s.

    One of the things that John Hersey was especially worried about by the time the Cold War accelerated again in the 1980s was that the memory of Hiroshima was fading. And if you didn't have the memory as a deterrent anymore, was it going to be as potent a deterrent? And I think that remains a really crucial question today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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