An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70

August 31, 2016 | 17 5 min read


Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to a single article for the first and only time in its history. With no prior announcement or warning, the August 31st, 1946 issue eschewed the magazine’s trademark cartoons and “Talk of the Town” section in favor of something less frivolous: a 30,000-word article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

coverThe article appeared just over a year after the bombing, and became a surprise sensation: the issue sold out almost as soon as it hit the stands, was reprinted as a special edition giveaway for U.S. Book of the Month Club subscribers, and went on to sell more than three million copies in book form.

The piece’s title — Hiroshima — represented the intentions of its author, John Hersey; that it is to say, it suggested an air of neutrality. Hersey’s article was not to be a clear-cut damnation of the bombing quoting facts and figures about casualties and the decimation of infrastructure. Rather it would be a simple declaration of the human aspect, somehow so often ignored in the nuclear debate, deferring judgment to the reader.

In a style that would later be recognised as a highly influential precursor to the New Journalism movement, Hersey’s article combines the narrative conventions of fiction with intensive research, creating a nonfiction account of the aftermath of the bombing following the intertwined stories of six survivors, all of them ordinary civilians.

There is Miss Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk whose leg is broken when the building she is in collapses. She is rescued, but, unable to walk, she is forced to spend three days under a makeshift corrugated iron shack with no food and water. Her companions are “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” None of them speak once for the duration of the three days.

There is also Father Kleinsorge, a German priest who seems to come away from the blast relatively unscathed, but suffers for months afterwards from a terrible undiagnosed sickness and finds the cuts he sustains never seem to heal, continually opening up again. Likewise, Mrs. Nakamura and her children suffer from a lingering illness, with her hair falling out in clumps until she is completely bald. Like so many other survivors she also finds herself destitute — everything she has ever owned is destroyed in the blast.

And yet, Hersey reminds us that these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima” — the survivors — and in doing so, he highlights the absurd nature of this kind of indiscriminate weaponry. He tells us that Dr. Sasaki, one of the six protagonists, “calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.” With this realization, every moment of Dr Sasaki’s life gains a sudden significance, because every small factor — every pause, every moment of chance — becomes an element leading him to the pure luck of his survival. And what did he do to make him any more worthy of living than anyone else?

Hersey suggests all of these themes in a voice of absolute detachment and neutrality. His voice is clearly not aligned to “the Americans,” nor is it to the Japanese. In a way this voice of calm seems almost to emanate from the bomb itself: describing the horrors wrought in a neutral tone that knows nothing can be done to change the reality of what has happened.

Although Hersey’s voice is characterized by its impartiality, it is important to emphasize that part of the popular success of Hiroshima stemmed from its ability to truly put American readers into the perspective of the victims for the very first time. When people speak of the atomic bombings as a justified preventative action, or, indeed, when anyone speaks of nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, it is always from the perspective of the aggressor. Hersey’s narrative put readers on the ground, amid the confusion and the fear and the suffering, reminding us that the 100,000 lives sacrificed to potentially save 1,000,000 others included hospital patients, schoolchildren, doctors, mothers, priests, and all manner of ordinary people.

Hersey showed the readers of The New Yorker that the victims were people just like them, and it was his gifts as a storyteller (just the year before he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) combined with his journalistic skills that gave the piece its resonance and humane power.

Hiroshima ends with the voice of the child — Hersey quotes from a school essay written by one of Mrs. Nakamura’s children. The child recalls the bombing and aftermath with a sense of excitement, and even fondness. Perhaps the child is still too young to understand the full impact of everything he has seen, but by ending with this voice, Hersey suggests a sense of dread for the next generation; a generation normalized to violence and mass destruction.

The structure of Hiroshima reinforces this, with each of the four parts covering a longer period of time: the first narrates the moment of impact, the second the next few hours, the third the next few days, and the final part the following months. This expansion of time moves the reader exponentially further and further from the moment of destruction, highlighting the speed with which a tragedy of this magnitude can become ordinary to us and be forgotten. Indeed, one of the most horrifying things about Hiroshima is the speed with which the survivors, and the city, return to a state of routine and normality.

In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that Hiroshima is as relevant as ever. Drone warfare is now a simple fact of life, and the nuclear threat still very much exists.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was asked whether she would be “prepared to authorize the nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children,” to which she answered, without hesitation or preceding clarification: “Yes.”

Perhaps such a sense of assurance is considered a necessary component of leadership, and perhaps any sign of hesitation would be construed as a weakness and a political shot in the foot. However, if Hersey’s Hiroshima teaches us anything it is that there is no such thing as assurance when it comes to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it suggests that we need leaders who will hesitate; who will consider the woman who puts out her arm for help, only for her skin to slip “off in huge, glove-like pieces.” We need leaders who will stop for a moment to think about the men with empty eye sockets, “the fluid from their melted eyes” pouring down their faces, and remember that the world cannot be so easily divided into “friend” and “enemy.” Hesitation is, in fact, what gives us our humanity, and blind assurance is what robs us of it.

So consider this anniversary an invitation to hesitate. As is only proper, The New Yorker has made an exception to its subscribers-only policy for access to their archives. You can read John Hersey’s timeless article here. You can read it now, and imagine the many lives that might have been.

is a freelance writer and heritage fundraiser, with degrees in English from Durham University (UK) and Northwestern University. He has lived in Saudi Arabia, England, the United States, and Scotland, where he currently works at Abbotsford, the historic home of Sir Walter Scott.