Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its Doomsday Clock to provide humanity with an expert estimate of just how close all of us are to an apocalyptic “midnight” -- that is, nuclear annihilation. A century ago, there was, of course, no need for such a measure. Back then, the largest explosion ever caused by humans had likely occurred in Halifax, Canada, in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another vessel, in that city’s harbor. That tragic blast killed nearly 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 6,000 homeless, but it didn’t imperil the planet. The largest explosions after that occurred on July 16, 1945, in a test of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, in New Mexico and then on August 6, 1945, when the United States unleashed such a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Since then, our species has been precariously perched at the edge of auto-extermination.
No one knows precisely how many people were killed by the world’s first nuclear attack. Around 70,000, nearly all of them civilians, were vaporized, crushed, burned, or irradiated to death almost immediately. Another 50,000 probably died soon after. As many as 280,000 were dead, many of radiation sickness, by the end of the year. (An atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki, three days later, is thought to have killed as many as 70,000.) In the wake of the first nuclear attack, little was clear. “What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known,” the New York Times reported that August 7th and the U.S. government sought to keep it that way, portraying nuclear weapons as nothing more than super-charged conventional munitions, while downplaying the horrifying effects of radiation. Despite the heroic efforts of several reporters just after the blast, it wasn’t until a year later that Americans -- and then the rest of the world -- began to truly grasp the effects of such new weaponry and what it would mean for humanity from that moment onward.
We know about what happened at Hiroshima largely thanks to one man, John Hersey. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former correspondent for TIME and LIFE magazines. He had covered World War II in Europe and the Pacific, where he was commended by the secretary of the Navy for helping evacuate wounded American troops on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. And we now know just how Hersey got the story of Hiroshima -- a 30,000-word reportorial masterpiece that appeared in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker magazine, describing the experiences of six survivors of that atomic blast -- thanks to a meticulously researched and elegantly written new book by Lesley Blume, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.
Fallout, which was published last month -- the 75th anniversary of America’s attack on Hiroshima -- offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just how Hersey and William Shawn, then the managing editor of the New Yorker, were able to truly break the story of an attack that had been covered on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers a year earlier and, in the process, produced one of the all-time great pieces of journalism. It’s an important reminder that the biggest stories may be hiding in plain sight; that breaking news coverage is essential but may not convey the full magnitude of an event; and that a writer may be far better served by laying out a detailed, chronological account in spartan prose, even when the story is so horrific it seems to demand a polemic.