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The Enduring Effects of John Hersey's Hiroshima

Longtime Connecticut resident John Hersey shook up the world with his publication of a book in 1946 that chronicled the effects of a nuclear explosion in Hiroshima.

By Philip R. Devlin

Last week's column noted the 70th anniversary this month of JFK's famous incident aboard PT 109. This week's column takes a look at the writing of longtime Connecticut resident John Hersey, whose novel Of Men and War was inspired by Kennedy's heroic actions involving PT 109.

Hersey wrote Of Men and War just prior to writing his most famous work, Hiroshima. Hiroshima, judged to be the most important work of journalism during the 20th century, tells the story of six people who survived the nuclear explosion there 68 years ago this month. The book's impact has been profound. His style of reporting on the incident adopted many of the techniques of fiction writing and led to a form of reporting called "New Journalism."

Hiroshima chronicles the experiences of two doctors, a German Jesuit priest, a minister, a young factory worker, and a widowed seamstress. First published on August 31, 1946, the book initially appeared in the New Yorker magazine, practically filling the issue from cover to cover — something the magazine had never done before or since.

The book was an instant success and was regarded as so important that it was read continuously on the radio; furthermore, the Book Of The Month Club sent a free copy of the book to all its members. The unique circumstances of its publication and distribution suggest the importance of Hersey's work.

The dire consequences of a nuclear explosion are dramatized well in Hersey's book. One consequence was to raise the ethical issue of the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died from either the immediate or long term consequences of the blast. Those near ground zero of Little Boy's detonation were vaporized; many others died from the effects of burns and falling debris. The lingering, long term suffering of radiation poisoning, however, proved to be a constant reminder to the world of the horrible consequences of a nuclear blast. All of these effects get dramatized through Hersey's characters, as the following passage from the book clearly shows:

He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatsoever.

One consequence of the book was to motivate many people throughout the world to organize peace movements against war in general and nuclear war explosions in particular. Numerous websites and shrines in both Japanese cities affected by nuclear explosions are constant reminders of the horrible consequences of nuclear war. John Hersey, Hotchkiss School graduate, Yale alumnus and longtime teacher there, proved to be a major catalyst in provoking ethical discussions about the use of nuclear weapons — whether he intended to or not — by publishing the most important piece of journalism of the 20th century.

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