"Fallout" | Reviewed by William Winkler
In August 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This attack, coupled with another atomic detonation over Nagasaki three days later, brought the Japanese to surrender, ending World War II in the Pacific.
One year later “The New Yorker” presented a 30,000-word piece by journalist and novelist John Hersey simply titled “Hiroshima.” The article, veiled in secrecy until the day before its publication, described not only the physical destruction of the city, but the devastating effect on its citizens, told in the stories of six survivors. Hersey gained access to the city and those he interviewed by slipping under the radar of the heavy-handed censorship and journalistic restrictions imposed by general Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. forces occupying Japan.
In “Fallout” journalist Lesley M.M. Blume details Hersey’s successful attempt to skirt the constraints of the U.S. military. She also tells of the U.S. government’s attempts to minimize the suffering caused by its use of nuclear weapons. The loss of Japanese life, the government stated, paled in comparison to the loss of millions of Japanese and American lives if the planned invasion of mainland Japan had taken place. A military spokesman went so far as to tell the public “radiation sickness is a fairly pleasant way to die.”
By the time Hersey entered Hiroshima in May 1946, the American public had largely come to believe that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been a humane use of new technology to bring the war to a rapid conclusion. A compliant American press, combined with a tightly controlled release of information by the military and the Truman administration, had pushed the news from Japan onto the back pages of the newspapers, if any news appeared at all.
The publication of “Hiroshima” changed all that. Within days excerpts of the story had appeared in newspapers worldwide, and the entire text was being printed in some. The article was published in book form two months later, becoming an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print since.
Blume describes how the publication of “Hiroshima” changed public opinion of the technology used in production of the first atomic weapons. The horrific stories of the six survivors and their experiences in the days and weeks stood in stark contrast to the official depiction of the attack. Many historians feel that these descriptions have served as a deterrent to the use of nuclear weaponry.
In her closing observations Blume expresses concern about the current worldwide suppression of journalism similar to that described in “Hiroshima.” She fears such control may be the harbinger of a new wave of dehumanization brought about by the growth of authoritarian governments and the potential for similar human devastation in the future.
It is useful, but not necessary, to read Hersey’s book before reading “Fallout.” Blume provides an adequate synopsis of Hersey’s story. “Fallout” is a potent reminder of the realities of nuclear war. But it is an even more potent reminder of the consequences of repression of a free press.