A Magazine Story Opened Eyes to Hiroshima’s Horror. White House Allies Plotted to Shut Them Again.Roundup
tags: nuclear weapons, Hiroshima, censorship, Harry Truman, atomic bomb
Greg Mitchell has written a dozen books. His latest, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was published earlier this month by The New Press.
As the world this summer marks the 75th anniversary of the US attack on two Japanese cities with a revolutionary new weapon, our opinions about those world-changing events are still being shaped by two magazine articles published a little more than a year later. One is considered a classic, read widely today mostly in book form. The other, a deliberate response published just five months later, is barely remembered at all. Yet of the two, the latter likely has had greater lasting influence on the views and official nuclear policies of Americans ever since. How that story came to be is part of the larger story of why the public, the media, and military and government leaders still support the world’s only use of the terror weapon against cities.
John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which filled the entire feature space of the August 31, 1946, issue of the New Yorker, has been called by many one of the most important and influential journalistic achievements of the past century. Indeed, it was greeted upon publication with overwhelming praise from readers and media commentators alike, was narrated in its entirety over national radio, and soon published as a book destined to be a bestseller.
From this one might assume—and most have—that the article forever changed the views of many Americans, including top officials and editorialists, coming as it did just over a year after President Harry Truman ordered atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing upwards of 250,000 people, about 90 percent of them civilians. It certainly did have an immediate effect on public opinion. The story, in gripping fashion, simply followed the aftermath of the horrific bombing as experienced by six Japanese survivors, their paths at times crossing novelistically. But its most important legacy might have been the response it inspired among people whose opinions were resolutely unchanged.
To thwart any potential shift in public sentiment against the attack, several officials who played key roles in building or using the bomb, including former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Truman himself, plotted to take combative action to install their version of history. This would lead to a very different story in another leading magazine, Harper’s, to reinforce the Hiroshima narrative these men had promoted from the start—and which still holds sway now, more or less.