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The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World

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.

Our conversation below with Lesley M.M. Blume.

A Conversation with Lesley M.M. Blume

History in Five: What turned you on to the story of John Hersey and convinced you that it was a story that needed to be told?


Lesley M.M. Blume: I knew that my next book was going to be about a historical newsroom and feat of reporting.  For years, I've been outraged by the grotesque "enemies of the people" assault on our free press, led by our current president.  I wanted to find a narrative that would help remind Americans how crucial independent journalism is, and how deadly and widespread the consequences would be without it.  


Hersey's Hiroshima is itself an incredibly well-known work, and is widely considered the most influential piece of investigative magazine journalism ever written.  But no one had ever attempted to tell the story of how Hersey got that story.  I've always approached the narrative as one journalist covering another.  I knew that the logistics had to have been daunting: how did one report from the site of a nuclear catastrophe, when so little was known about the bomb's radioactive qualities?  And how would he have accessed Hiroshima - and even gotten into Japan in the first place - when the U.S. government had suppressed reporting on that city and Nagasaki?  After General MacArthur's forces took over, the Japanese weren't even allowed to mention Hiroshima in poetry, much less press reports - and the foreign reporters who came in to cover the occupation were equally suppressed.  Did Hersey work alone; did he use translators? How did he find his protagonists?  Did the U.S. government - greatly embarrassed by his story - attempt to discredit him?  These were among the questions I wanted to explore.  Fallout tells the story of how Hersey was able to get the story that no one else could.


Hin5: Hersey was a dogged reporter and investigator, and Fallout itself is a feat of reportage. How did you get into detective mode to stitch together the story? Did you borrow any of Hersey’s tactics?


LMMB: Once I was greenlighted to write Fallout, the material was so fascinating that I was easily galvanized.  But it was also a herculean effort, because I was going to have to conduct research in Japanese, Russian, and German as well as English.  So, I had to scout translators and co-researchers to help me with those aspects of the story, and my team and I ended up conducting research for Fallout on three continents.   I also had a translator help me while I was on the ground in Japan - and had a lot of help from a member of the team of John Roos, former, U.S. ambassador to Japan, who made many inroads for me in Hiroshima and Tokyo.  But a lot of material for Fallout came from U.S-based archives, and to be blunt, I was just in animal-research mode for more than two years. I really haven't slept since 2016. 


In terms of borrowing from Hersey: I did retrace his steps in Hiroshima, with the help of one of his last-surviving central protagonists, Koko Tanimoto Kondo.  Although when he was there in 1946, the city was still a post-bomb wasteland, and today it's a thriving city with around 3 million inhabitants.  What I learned from him, journalistically: to keep the narrative intimate, and to keep the narrating voice quiet.  I've always adhered to the methods of reported biography - in which you let your protagonists tell the story in their own words, and restrain your own judgement.  Hersey knew when he was writing "Hiroshima" that the article would have far greater impact if told impassively.  I tried to emulate that approach - that is, until I get to the last part of my epilogue.


Hin5: What character trait(s) led Hersey to act, investigate, and report with such conviction? How would you describe the moral compass of him and his editors, knowing what they were up against?


LMMB: I would say that Hersey and his New Yorker editors - especially William Shawn - were humanists, first and foremost. It was extremely important to them to investigate and tell the story of what the bomb had done to human beings - not just the story of the vast landscape devastation.  The mendacity of the U.S. government also enraged Hersey, who was disgusted by its attempt to cover up the truth about their then-experimental weapons, which continued to kill long after detonation.  


Another crucial motivation for the New Yorker team: pure journalistic drive.  New Yorker editor Harold Ross was greatly concerned that many of the war's atrocity stories would end up going untold unless he and his team got around to telling them.  Ross was also encouraged, in an amusingly competitive way, at how easy it could be to score massive journalistic stories that were hiding in plain sight.  "How easy it is to scoop the world," he told one of his other journalists.  I think at times he and Hersey and Shawn couldn't believe that the Hiroshima story really was theirs alone.  They jealously protected it until it went to press - but no other reporter or news outlet had come close to the revelations that Hersey reported in Hiroshima.


Of course, the great irony was that the New Yorker ended up breaking the biggest story in modern history.  It was, after all, founded as a sophisticated humor magazine, and was considered too inessential during the war to merit a higher paper quota.  And every powerhouse news operation had had a presence in Tokyo for nearly a year by the time Hersey got into Japan to report his story.  Hersey and his team really did "scoop the world."


Hin5: How did Hersey’s reporting change the mood and outlook of VJ Day? Do you think his expose informed future policy and wartime strategies?


LMMB: I think that it drove home the human cost of the victory; before the story came out, there was a total fourth-of-July celebratory feeling associated with V-J Day and even the Hiroshima bombing itself.  Even if some of Hersey's readers still felt that the Japanese had been "repaid many fold," as President Truman had put it, they still likely experienced deep anxiety about their own security, and what nuclear weapons portended for the future of human civilization.  Hersey made Americans put themselves into the shoes of the Hiroshima residents who had been on the receiving end of nuclear attack, and forever after, thanks to his reporting, we have been likely to imagine ourselves and our families and cities and towns in Hiroshima's stead when we read his story.  "Hiroshima" immediately imbued V-J Day with sobriety - and the story has served as a pillar of deterrence in the decades since.  As Hersey stated, "What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has been the memory of what happened at Hiroshima."  He was also greatly concerned with what would happen when that public memory of Hiroshima fades.


Hin5: Are there modern corollaries you see between Hersey’s era and the modern media age?


LMMB: The foreign press corps I document in Fallout was under assault by a government that had a great stake in corralling, bullying, and silencing it.  Sound familiar?  But in the months before Hersey got into Japan, some members of the occupation press corp were also complicit in facilitating the government's cover up, in part because they couldn't surmount the obstacles the government had put in their way when it came to reporting on Hiroshima - but also because the press corps was obsessed with getting the next scoop.  As time lapsed, Hiroshima started to feel like an old story to some of them, and many journalists on the ground never attempted to properly investigate it.  Hersey's in-depth on-the-ground reporting showed up a lot of other reporters and news organizations - and remains a hugely important example of how deeply consequential that type of reporting can be.


I've thought a lot about how Hersey's reporting would be regarded if it were released into today's media landscape.  It's disturbing to imagine that many might conveniently dismiss it as "fake news."  In 1946, when Hiroshima was released, some people accused Hersey of being overly sympathetic to the Japanese ("Now write up the massacre of Nanking," wrote one reader), but it appears that few Americans - if any - dismissed his findings as "fake" or tried to discredit him.  Most saw his reporting as supporting the common good. (The Russians, on the other hand, were quick to try to debunk Hersey's findings and brand him an American propagandist - and worse.)


I've heard the postwar media landscape described as being quaint compared to today's, but it wasn't.  It was still a 24-hour news cycle; major cities had a dozen newspapers apiece; the wire services were in full effect; radio was 24-7.  It was incredibly intense and cacophonous then too.  Not to mention that a significant percentage of the press corps had just spent the past half-decade covering the deadliest global conflict in human history.  The industry was tough as hell.  And the most admirable reporters, Hersey among them, saw their free press as essential to the survival of democracy - a form of government which had just narrowly escaped extinction.  Today our democracy is similarly imperiled, for different reasons.  It is my hope that Fallout will help galvanize Americans to support their news outlets with ferocity - because we are sunk without them.