Reading “Hiroshima”: Inferno lingers in our days.

Book cover Hiroshima

The following note appeared in the NEW YORKER of 31 August, 1946, as an introduction to John Hersey’s article “Hiroshima”.

The NEW YORKER this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implication of its use.


John Hersey’s reputation precedes him. Born in China in 1914 to missionary parents, attended Yale College and later became a fellow at Cambridge, he inherited the privilege of high education and broad culture. His two masterpieces, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel “A Bell for Adano”, and “Hiroshima” – the article laying the foundation for New Journalism, eternally rank him among the finest American writers. Both works concern with World War II.

John Hersey covered the Second World War in Europe for the TIME (1937 – 1944), following the Allies’ soldiers who were liberating Italy. After the War ended, he wrote for the New Yorker, and once again was sent to an equally brutal battleground: post-nuclear-bomb Hiroshima. In May 1946, he was among the first western journalists to investigate the city of Hiroshima after the American nuclear bombing on August 6, 1945.

The author interviewed many witnesses and survivors, focusing mainly on six people: a German priest and five Japanese citizens (a Red-cross doctor, a private doctor, a female clerk, a Protestant pastor, and a tailor’s widow.) The six people were doing their daily rituals when a noiseless blinding flash in the sky wiped out their families, their peaceful neighborhood.

Each of these witnesses, with his or her geographical surroundings and distance from the ground zero, is described in details, from action to mental state. Surprisingly, everybody was calm on that morning. There had been warnings that Hiroshima, an important seaport and industrial powerhouse, would come next in the American bombing list, and that it would receive a “special treatment” from the Americans. The city had preparations such as trenches, shelters, and public radio speakers; however, the alerts repeated daily just reacting to American weather jets.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, knocking out the city dwellers among them six witnesses. The survivors didn’t remember what exactly happened next, except that they were thrown far hundreds of yards, crushed by the collapsed buildings, or cut by the sharp debris. Chapter 2 (The Fire) dedicated to describing how the people of Hiroshima struggled for life in ceaseless hell fire, their insufferable pains and torment as the walking zombies crowding the streets, the riversides, the hospitals. Some descriptions are striking:

“The asphalt of the streets was still so soft and hot from the fires that walking was uncomfortable”, “In the garden, on the way to the shelter, he noticed a pumpkin roasted on the vine. He and Father Cieslik tasted it and it was good. They were surprised at their hunger, and they are quite a bit. They got out several bags of rice and gathered up several other cooked pumpkins and dug up some potatoes that were nicely baked under the ground, and started back.” “When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”

The next two chapters concentrate on the health consequences caused by extreme nuclear exposure, accompanied by speculations, investigations, and statistics coming from the scientists. Japanese scientists stated that the denotation released a 6000-Celsius-degree heat and nuclear residue that only a 50-inch concrete shelter could save a human being from harm. Elsewhere in the city, some people caught a radio wave broadcasting the American president’s announcement: “That bomb had more power than twenty thousand tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British Grand Slam, which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.”

With only 30,000 words, a calm voice, and matter-of-fact descriptions, John Hersey reported the wrestling survival of the six witnesses hours and days after the disaster, the city in a literal inferno, and the responses of the Japanese government.

The second nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) forced the Japanese to surrender the Allies without condition, on August 15, 1945, officially ending the war on the Pacific front. For the first time, the Emperor “broadcasted his own voice through radio directly to us, common people of Japan.”

[…] Many civilians, all of them were in bandage, some being helped by shoulder of their daughters, some sustaining their injured feet by sticks, they listened to the broadcast and when they came to realize the fact that it was the Emperor, they cried with full tears in their eyes. […] When they came to know the war was ended – that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor’s commandment in calm spirit, making wholehearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world – and Japan started her new way.”

Then go on beautiful passages about the Japanese character that I think can only be felt by reading the text on one’s own.

When the world was still astonished and baffled at this tremendous event, Hersey’s article helped clear the mist surrounding the bomb’s destructive power and Hiroshima’s suffering. Together with the American lukewarm response to the Holocaust, Hiroshima added a new question without a satisfying answer: Was the decision to drop the bomb justifiable and necessary.

Under the journalist’s perspective, impartial and respectful, the author presented the religious, political, and military views of the people involved in this unprecedented issue. Nonetheless, the readers can feel the author’s deep sympathy towards the suffering of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima was published in its entirety in the NEW YORKER on August 31, 1946. Quickly many major magazines and broadcast television firms in America and around the world purchased the copyright. The New York University’s Department of Journalism ranked it #1 on Top 100 works of American journalism. Up to this day, the article has not lost its intensity and relevance, and remains a landmark of adapting fiction story-telling to journalistic reportage.

As a young Vietnamese reader, I feel an immense respect for the Japanese people who against all odds recovered their country to this day. But I couldn’t help thinking about the American war in Vietnam (called the Vietnam war by Americans). How might history have changed if the Americans used atomic bombs in the Vietnam battlefield? Hiroshima was just the opening of an atomic age. In 1961, the Soviet Union successfully experimented the nuclear bomb Tsar Bomba, which was 3,800 as destructive as the first atomic bomb. Is the world safer now? The common answer to that question is, “The world has never been the same ever since Hiroshima.”

John Hersey’s entire article on the NEW YORKER is Here.


One thought on “Reading “Hiroshima”: Inferno lingers in our days.

  1. lauren

    It was a horror…the American government was sick of the war and wanted to end it as soon as possible…both sides did horrible despicable acts against human beings…after 6 years I am wondering how it would have ended without it


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