“Fallout,” Lesley M.M. Blume’s non-fiction description of John Hersey and his essay, “Hiroshima,” is an all-too-vivid and, I’m quite sure, all-too-accurate account of how “Hiroshima” was created; of the dangers Hersey courageously faced because he dared to write and then publish the essay; of the roadblocks Hersey and his editors and publisher encountered because of the semi-forbidden subject matter; and, above all, of the horrors generated by war in general and the use of the first atomic bomb in particular.
The title of Blume’s work, “Fallout,” is itself a word of several relevant meanings: the fallout following the explosion over Hiroshima refers, in part, to the radioactive poisoning suffered by much of the city’s population and the resulting additions — deliberately hidden — to the original death-count caused by the bomb. The first estimate was 42,000. The count that was available to Hersey was 100,000. The count most often estimated today is about 280,000. Two hundred eighty-thousand dead innocent civilians. The entire U.S. government and military establishments, Truman to MacArthur to the government PR squads, perpetrated an expansive and complex cover-up in order to hide the horrors of Hiroshima. They implied that the Hiroshima event was “just” a big, impressive bomb invention that forced the Japanese to surrender and, in the process, demonstrated that America was inarguably the most powerful country in the world.
Blume concisely re-tells the stories of the six survivors whom Hersey chose to exemplify the actual devastation of the bomb and the effects of its aftermath. Hersey realized that numbers like 42,000 do not even begin to tell the story. The war-weary public was numb to the effects of numbers on their psyches. He also realized that in some cases a picture is not worth a thousand words. A mysterious mushroom cloud communicates nothing about the terror of a nuclear attack.
But, he knew, a detailed description of eyes hanging from their sockets; skin, like ill-fitting gloves, peeling off hands; and bodies and bones of loved ones forming ugly blackened masses lying all over the ground would affect readers in ways that death numbers and pictures of the bomb could never accomplish. And his words did work effectively to make the public aware of the very real and potentially very personal effects of the attack — personal because Hersey brought the sheer horror of the bomb directly to the minds, hearts, and homes of the American people. He accomplished his stated purpose: to warn every person that each of us is a victim; that the world would now be a boiling cauldron of nuclear power and waste; and that what happened to those six people might well happen to us if we don’t stop the spread of the madness of nuclear armaments. The world was now in a new and different kind of ever-present mortal danger, every single day a threat to our very existence.
Blume’s work, like Hersey’s, is a testament to the power of fine journalism. She brilliantly recreates Hersey’s fragile position as the ultimate whistleblower, as well as his earth-shaking reporting. After “Hiroshima,” he was loved and appreciated by thousands of people. But he was also despised by hundreds of the world’s powerful figures and by many Americans who refused to see their nation in a new and unflattering light. He had divulged difficult truths. He had destroyed the cover-up. He had dented the glorious reputation of post-war America. He had exposed his country’s callous disregard for the lives of civilians — guinea pigs — human beings just like us.
And, ironically, he had become the enemy of both Cold War foes. Many American officials despised him and his essay because he had damaged our post-war image as the “good guys.” He had made the Japanese people the victims and had turned the spotlight away from the unforgivable tortures inflicted on American military men by the Japanese “animals.” He had given the Soviet Union even greater incentive to catch up in the nuclear arms race. And on the other side, the Soviet power structure felt that he had intended to make the USSR look comparatively weak in the eyes of the world; that he was simply a disgustingly effective purveyor of American propaganda; and that he was proclaiming, in effect, “Russia, here’s what we will do to you if you dare to challenge us.”
Finally, Blume makes a brief but powerful plea at the end of her book. She urges us all to demonstrate once and for all that we have learned the lessons of Hiroshima and “Hiroshima,” to heed the uncomfortable truths of journalistic truth-tellers, to accept and act on the reality that the world since Hiroshima is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, and to understand that the time for ending the madness is now. Time is short.
Review by Jack Kramer. First published on Bookreporter.com.