Fallout – The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World by Lesley M.M. Blume 2020

About the Author
Lesley M.M. Blume is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author, and biographer. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Paris Review, among many other publications. Her last nonfiction book, Everybody Behaves Badly, was a New York Times bestseller.

About the Book

New York Times bestselling author Lesley M.M. Blume reveals how one courageous American reporter uncovered one of the deadliest cover-ups of the 20th century—the true effects of the atom bomb—potentially saving millions of lives.

Just days after the United States decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. But even before the surrender, the US government and military had begun a secret propaganda and information suppression campaign to hide the devastating nature of these experimental weapons. The cover-up intensified as Occupation forces closed the atomic cities to Allied reporters, preventing leaks about the horrific long-term effects of radiation which would kill thousands during the months after the blast. For nearly a year the cover-up worked—until New Yorker journalist John Hersey got into Hiroshima and managed to report the truth to the world.

As Hersey and his editors prepared his article for publication, they kept the story secret—even from most of their New Yorker colleagues. When the magazine published “Hiroshima” in August 1946, it became an instant global sensation, and inspired pervasive horror about the hellish new threat that America had unleashed. Since 1945, no nuclear weapons have ever been deployed in war partly because Hersey alerted the world to their true, devastating impact. This knowledge has remained among the greatest deterrents to using them since the end of World War II.

Released on the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Fallout is an engrossing detective story, as well as an important piece of hidden history that shows how one heroic scoop saved—and can still save—the world.

Summary of Introduction
The New Yorker magazine devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” in which he reported to Americans and the world the full, ghastly realities of atomic warfare in that city, featuring testimonies from six of the only humans in history to survive nuclear attack.

None of the bomb’s creators even knew for certain if the then experimental weapon would work: Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon to be used in warfare, and Hiroshima’s citizens were chosen as its unfortunate guinea pigs.

However, until Hersey’s story appeared in the New Yorker, the U.S. government had astonishingly managed to hide the magnitude of what happened in Hiroshima immediately after the bombing, and successfully covered up the bomb’s long-term deadly radiological effects.

U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and occupation officials in Japan suppressed, contained, and spun reports from the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which had been attacked by the United States with the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” on August 9, 1945—until the story all but disappeared from the headlines and the public’s consciousness.

When U.S. president Harry S. Truman announced to the world that an atomic bomb had just been dropped on Hiroshima, he pledged that if the Japanese did not surrender, they could “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Little Boy had packed an explosive payload equivalent to more than 20,000 tons of TNT, the president revealed, and was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.

As the implications of the world’s entrance into the atomic age began to sink in, it became apparent to editors and reporters everywhere that the atomic bomb was not just one of the biggest stories of the war but among the biggest news stories in history.

Even though the New York Times was the only publication that had a reporter accompany the Nagasaki atomic bombing run and had maintained a bureau in Tokyo since the Japanese surrender, Times reporter (and later managing editor) Arthur Gelb stated that “most of us were unaware, at first, of the extent of the devastation caused by the bombs.

The Japanese media was forbidden by occupation authorities to write or air stories about Hiroshima or Nagasaki, lest they “disturb public tranquility.” As foreign reporters began to get into the country, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immediately put off-limits to them.

The few journalists attempting to report on the atomic cities in the weeks immediately following the bombings were threatened with expulsion from Japan, harassed by U.S. officials, and accused of spreading Japanese propaganda, dispensed by a defeated enemy attempting to cultivate international sympathy after years of aggression and their own outsized atrocities.

Hersey himself acknowledged that post-bomb landscape photos could only get a limited emotional response; ruins, he thought, could be “spectacular; but… impersonal, as rubble so often is.” What the American public did not see: photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki hospitals ringed by the corpses of blast survivors who had staggered there seeking medical help and died in agony on the front steps.

The Japanese, of course, didn’t need Hersey to educate them about the effects of Little Boy and Fat Man, but American readers were shocked when they were, at last, properly introduced to the nuclear bombs that had been detonated in their name.

Fallout is the backstory of how John Hersey got the full story about atomic aftermath when no other journalist could, and how “Hiroshima” became—and remains—one of the most important works of journalism ever created.

Over the past seven decades, Hersey’s “Hiroshima” has not, of course, prevented dangerous nuclear arms races; nor have its revelations solved the problems of the atomic age, just as the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting did not solve the problem of government corruption.

But as the document of record—read over the years by millions around the world—graphically showing what nuclear warfare truly looks like, and what atomic bombs do to humans, “Hiroshima” has played a major role in preventing nuclear war since the end of World War II.

While the initial lack of comprehension in the United States over Hiroshima’s fate was largely due to the government’s active suppression of information from the ground there, it did not help that much of the population was suffering from atrocity exhaustion by the end of the war.

In “Hiroshima,” Hersey informed his readers that 100,000 had died thus far in that atomic city as the result of the bombing.

As one of Hersey’s journalist contemporaries, Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune, put it, “When headlines say a hundred thousand people are killed, whether in battle, by earthquake, flood, or atom bomb, the human mind refuses to react to mathematics.” In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Americans were given varying estimates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki casualties—all of them grotesquely high, especially when one remembered that a single bomb was responsible for all of that death—but to no avail.

In his speech announcing the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman had spoken for many Americans when he stated that, with the atomic attack, the Japanese “have been repaid many fold” for their own attack on Pearl Harbor four years earlier.

One poll conducted in mid-August revealed that 85 percent of those surveyed endorsed the bombs’ use, and in a different poll around that time 23 percent of those surveyed regretted that the United States didn’t get a chance to use “many more of the bombs before Japan had a chance to surrender.” Hersey had seen firsthand in Asia and the Pacific evidence of Japanese barbarity and tenacity in battle.

The U.S. government’s attempt to suppress information about Hiroshima had been almost ridiculous, Hersey felt; equally absurd was the government’s bid to retain its initial nuclear monopoly.

Yet, before he had personally gotten into Japan—ten months after the bombings—the American media had already essentially given up on trying to break the story of Hiroshima in a significant way, essentially giving Hersey an unlikely monopoly on the story.

Yet, as time went on, many of Hersey’s reporter colleagues had started to lose interest in reporting on Hiroshima’s fate anyway; it started to seem like yesterday’s news, and they directed their attention to other stories.

Hersey took note, and when the New Yorker released “Hiroshima,” the story not only had the feel of an exposé, but it appeared to be the scoop of the century.

When Hersey’s story came out, the media reaction was frenzied: “Hiroshima” made front-page news around the world and was covered on more than five hundred radio stations in the United States alone—even though Hersey’s feat revealed that every other press outlet had actually missed the huge story that they had seemed to cover so diligently.

While Hersey’s article had indeed embarrassed the United States, some government figures realized that it wasn’t entirely a bad thing that “Hiroshima” had showcased, to great effect, the devastating power of the United States’ new weapon—a most unwelcome reminder to America’s rivals, who were still years away from developing their own nuclear weapons.

In retrospect, the “Hiroshima” story reveals much about the U.S. government’s internal conflict over how much to showcase about the atomic bomb and how much to hide about it at all costs.

Yet “Hiroshima” is dated in only one respect: the story’s hell-wreaking main character, Little Boy, was already considered primitive by the time Hersey wrote his 1946 story just months after the bomb’s detonation.

The United States had already begun developing the hydrogen bomb, which would prove many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

(The most powerful nuclear device—called the Tsar Bomba, detonated by the Soviets in 1961—was reportedly 1,570 times more powerful than the yield of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and ten times more powerful than all of the conventional weapons exploded during World War II.)

To make matters even worse, the sort of virulent nationalism and racism that helped set the stage for World War II—and which Hersey had worked so hard to break down with “Hiroshima”—is flaring up around the world.

In 1946, Hersey wrote that his protagonists did not yet understand why they had survived the Hiroshima bombing while tens of thousands of others around them had perished.

Part of the reason, Hersey felt, was to warn future generations about the cruel impact of a bomb that continues to kill long after it is detonated, and to help ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.

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