In September 1945, young John Hersey was sent to the Far East on assignment for the New Yorker and Life magazines. He had already published three books, Men on Bataan, Into the Valley, and A Bell for Adano, with the latter bringing him the Pulitzer Prize earlier in May. His original intention was to write a piece about Hiroshima based on what he could see in the ruins of the city and what he could hear about the bombing from its survivors. In Tokyo, Hersey met Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, the German priest of his book. Hersey soon added five more survivors to the book by interviewing people Kleinsorge directed him to as well as by screening many other Japanese survivors. Hersey wrote the story and brought it back to William Shawn, the general manager of the New Yorker, in August 1946.
What happened next was amazing. The magazine determined that Hiroshima would be run in serialized form, spread into three parts. But as the top brass looked at the story, they began to conceive another plan. Mr. Shawn and the founder and editor, Harold Ross, decided to run the entire story in their August 31 issue. This had not been done before; it would certainly be new territory for the readers of the New Yorker. Hersey spent ten days rewriting the story to fit the magazine's format, and then it hit the newsstands with everyone waiting to see the reaction.
What would the reading public think, especially the loyal readers of the New Yorker?
The reaction was unexpected and astonishing. Newsstands could not keep copies of the New Yorker on their shelves. Newspapers from Rhode Island to London asked for the serial rights to print the story. Albert Einstein ordered 1,000 copies. The Book-of-the-Month Club sent out free copies. The ABC broadcasting system read it aloud on hundreds of its stations. While some reviews were critical of the writing style, others praised the slim volume for its ability to take an event that most people had simply read about in the newspapers and put it into the context of individual lives. The human mind had trouble imagining statistics such as the hundreds of thousands of people who were immediately killed by the atomic bomb, but it could understand the effect of the event on the lives of the survivors in John Hersey's writing.
Hersey came by his topics and form through many years as a reporter. By the age of 31, he already had thousands of miles logged in as a writer from all the years spent covering the Far East and the war itself. He was used to reporting facts and sending back dispatches to periodicals in the United States. When he wrote A Bell for Adano the year before, he shaped it as a fictional story but loosely based the characters on people he really knew. There was no question of its fictional nature; even the bell of the title was a figment of Hersey's imagination. But Hiroshima was different. In Hiroshima, Hersey displayed his amazing talents as a listener. After hours and days and weeks of listening, he assembled a multitude of hand-written notes from his subjects. As they told him their stories from their own point of view, Hersey faithfully recorded their perceptions, just as a good journalist would do. He also thought about how he understood the facts of those days in August 1945, through the feelings and viewpoints of those he interviewed.
Hersey quietly contributed to their narrations by deciding which facts to use and the order in which to assemble them. He wanted to go beyond the facts as the survivors saw them and get to deeper truths about that day. To their narratives, he would add information about the governments and their dictums, the scientific explanations of what had happened, and some of the medical repercussions (as far as they could be determined). His own voice was absent or understated considerably — he let the stories of the survivors do the talking. To assemble the stories in the best possible dramatic sequence, he had to consider each story's effect on the reader carefully.
What is left out of the book is equally informative. Nowhere does Hersey state specifically what he thought of that day or its aftermath. Nowhere does he discuss nuclear disarmament. (Although he does mention escalating landmarks in the arms race.) Nowhere will the reader find Hersey's stated reactions to the narratives of the survivors, other than an occasional ironic comment. Nowhere does he question or agree with the decision to drop the bomb. Instead, he allows readers to draw their own conclusions from the facts as he perceives them through his understanding of the stories of "the lucky ones."
In examining Hersey's life and career, the reader can clearly see that his writing over 50 years spanned the gamut of social issues, including education, individual rights, censorship, racism, the Holocaust, and the restlessness and polarized factions of the 1960s. Throughout his career, he felt a responsibility to speak out both in the world of the journalist and in the world of the private citizen. In effect, Hiroshima is the best of both worlds: the factual, journalistic style of the gifted reporter and the responsibility of the citizen to break the silence.
Most importantly, long after John Hersey's death, generations of readers who were never there in 1945 are able to understand the effect of the first atomic bomb on the people who survived its detonation. The human mind cannot fathom the split-second deaths of 100,000 people, but it can understand the enormity of the event by witnessing the lives of six people who survived it. In the fictional A Bell for Adano, Hersey used an ordinary man of Italian heritage for the hero of his story. Major Victor Joppolo is a man of the people who tries to teach democracy to the villagers he is serving; the reader's sympathy is with him. Throughout many of Hersey's books, he championed the ordinary person, whether a fighting soldier or a young American engineer in China. What better person than someone with whom the reader can identify to explain the enormity of an event as devastating as the deployment of the first atomic bomb?
John Hersey's journalism, his understated viewpoint, and his deep concern for speaking out responsibly all come together in Hiroshima. The world responded and continues to respond to his ability to state simply and clearly the stories of six ordinary people who became extraordinary on a day they never could have envisioned in their lives' plans. Hiroshima is eloquent and timeless — it speaks with conviction and evokes the compassion and understanding of all ages and races.