'Fallout' Tells The Story Of The Journalist Who Exposed The 'Hiroshima Cover-Up'

Aug 19, 2020
Originally published on August 19, 2020 1:46 pm

When the U.S military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the American government portrayed the weapons as equivalent to large conventional bombs — and dismissed Japanese reports of radiation sickness as propaganda.

Military censors restricted access to Hiroshima, but a young journalist named John Hersey managed to get there and write a devastating account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning he encountered. Author Lesley M.M. Blume tells Hersey's story in her book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World.

She writes that when Hersey, who had covered the war in Europe, arrived in Hiroshima to report on the aftereffects of the bomb a year later, the city was "still just a sort of smoldering wreck."

"Hersey had seen everything from that point, from combat to concentration camps," Blume says. "But he later said that nothing prepared him for what he saw in Hiroshima."

Hersey wrote a 30,000-word essay, telling the story of the bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of six survivors. The article, which was published in its entirety by The New Yorker, was fundamental in challenging the government's narrative of nuclear bombs as conventional weapons.

"It helped create what many experts in the nuclear fields called the 'nuclear taboo,' " Blume says of Hersey's essay. "The world did not know the truth about what nuclear warfare really looks like on the receiving end, or did not really understand the full nature of these then experimental weapons, until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and reported it to the world."


Interview Highlights

Simon & Schuster

On what Americans knew about the nature of nuclear weapons in 1945

Americans didn't know about the bomb — period — until it was detonated over Hiroshima. The Manhattan Project was cloaked in enormous secrecy, even though tens of thousands of people were working on it. ... When President Harry Truman announced that America had detonated the world's first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, he was announcing not only a new weapon, but the fact that we had entered into the Atomic Age, and Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons — namely, that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. It would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that out.

Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons — namely that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. It would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that out. - Lesley M.M. Blume

Everybody who heard the announcement [from Truman] knew that they were dealing with something totally unprecedented, not just in the war, but in the history of human warfare. What was not stated was the fact that this bomb had radiological qualities, [that] blast survivors on the ground would die in an agonizing way for the days and the weeks and months and years that followed.

On how military generals focused on physical devastation when they testified before Congress about the effects of the atomic bomb

In the immediate weeks, very little [was said.] A lot of it was really painted in landscape devastation. Landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were rubble pictures, and also obviously people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions. But in terms of the radiation — even in Truman's announcement of the bomb — he's painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, they know that it's a mega-weapon, but they don't understand the full nature of the weapons, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public, and in the meantime, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out how the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it's affecting human beings, because they're about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan.

On America's PR campaign and cover-up of the radiation aftermath

[The U.S. military] created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. Leslie Groves [who directed the Manhattan Project] and Robert Oppenheimer [who directed the Manhattan Project's laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M.] themselves went to the Trinity site of testing [in New Mexico] and brought a junket of reporters so they could show off the area. And they said that there was no residual radiation whatsoever, and that therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were "Tokyo tales." So right away they went into overdrive to contain that narrative. ...

The American officials were saying, for the most part, these are the defeated Japanese trying to create international sympathy, to create better terms for themselves and the occupation — ignore them.

On how reporters had limited access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their reports were often censored

In the early days of the occupation, there obviously would have been enormous interest in trying to get to Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... but as the occupation really took hold and became increasingly organized, the reports were intercepted. The last one that came out of Nagasaki was intercepted and lost. There was almost no point in trying to get down there because the obstacles that were put up for reporters were so tremendous by the military censors. ... I can't overstate how restricted your movements were as a reporter, as part of the occupation press corps. ... You could not get around, you could not eat. You couldn't do anything without the permission of the Army. ... The control was near total.

On concerning Japanese reports about "Disease X" affecting blast survivors

As news started to filter over from Japanese reports about what it was like on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath, wire reports started picking up really disturbing information about the totality of the decimation and this sinister ... "Disease X" that was ravaging blast survivors. So this news was starting to trickle over early in August of 1945 to Americans.

And so the U.S. realized that not only were they going to have to really try to study very quickly how radioactive the atomic cities might have been, as they were bringing in their own occupation troops. But they [also] realized that they had a potential PR disaster on their hands, because the U.S. had just won this horribly hard-earned military victory, and were on the moral high ground, they felt, in defeating the Axis powers. And they had avenged Pearl Harbor. They had avenged Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific theater in Asia. But then reports that they had decimated a largely civilian population in this excruciating way with an experimental weapon — it was concerning because it might have deprived the U.S. government of [its] moral high ground.

On how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen as souvenir sites for American military

Hiroshima was seen as a site of just enormous victory for these guys. And a lot of them would go even to ground zero of the bombings in Hiroshima. ... They saw it as a souvenir site. It's essentially a graveyard. There are still remains that are being dug up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. But many of them kind of pillaged the ruins to grab a souvenir to bring home. It was the ultimate victory souvenir. So whether it's a broken teacup to use as an ashtray or what have you, they went and they took their equivalent of selfies at ground zero. At one point in Nagasaki, Marines cleared a football field-sized amount of space in the ruins and they had what they called the "Atomic Bowl," which was a New Year's Day football game where they had conscripted Japanese women as cheerleaders. It was an astonishing scene in both cities. They were seen as sites of a victory. And most of the "occupationaires" were totally unrepentant about what had gone down there.

On Hersey getting a firsthand account from the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto of what the moment of the bombing was like

Rev. Tanimoto, at the moment of the bombing, was slightly outside of the city. He had been transporting some goods to the outskirts of the city, and he was up on a hill. And so therefore, he had a bird's-eye view of what happened. He fell to the ground when the actual bomb went off. But then when he got up, he saw that the city had been enveloped in flames and black clouds. And ... he saw a procession of survivors starting to straggle out of the city. He was just absolutely horrified by what he had seen and baffled, too, because usually an attack on this level would have been perpetrated by a fleet of bombers. But this was just a single flash.

And the survivors who were making their way out of the city and who would not survive for long, I mean, most of them were naked. Some of them had flesh hanging from their bodies. He saw just unspeakable sights as he ran into the city because he had a wife and an infant daughter. He wanted to find his parishioners. The closer he got towards the detonation, the worse the scene was. The ground was just littered with scalded bodies and people who were trying to drag themselves out of the ruins and wouldn't make it. There were walls of fire that were consuming the areas. The enormous firestorm was starting to consume the city. He, at one point, was picked up by a whirlwind, because winds had been unleashed throughout the city, and ... he was lifted up in a red-hot whirlwind. ... It was just unbelievable that he survived not only the initial blast, but then [headed] into [the] city center and the extreme trauma of having witnessed what he witnessed. It's remarkable that he came out of it alive.

On how Hersey's reporting changed the world's perception of nuclear weapons

[Hersey] himself later said the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory. - Lesley M.M. Blume

The Japanese could not, for years, tell the world what it had been like to be on the receiving end of nuclear warfare, because they were under such dire press restrictions by the occupation forces. And so it took John Hersey's reporting to show the world what the true aftermath and the true experience of nuclear warfare looks like. ... It changed overnight for many people, what was described by one of Hersey's contemporaries as the "Fourth of July feeling" about Hiroshima. There was a lot of dark humor about the bombings in Hiroshima. [The essay] just really imbued the event with a sobriety that really hadn't been there before. And also it just completely deprived the U.S. government of the ability to be able to paint nuclear bombs as conventional weapons. ... [Hersey] himself later said the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first wartime use of a nuclear weapon - the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. While the horrors of the explosion and radiation from the bomb are now widely acknowledged, they were far less known in the months after the attack. American GIs serving in the occupation force in Japan would regularly visit Hiroshima to pick up atomic souvenirs from the rubble to take home.

The scale of the destruction and suffering was eventually told in the book "Hiroshima" by journalist John Hersey, which became an international best-seller. What many don't know is that Hersey's book was originally a lengthy article that took up an entire issue of The New Yorker magazine a year after the bombing. It became one of the most influential pieces of journalism ever written.

Our guest today, writer Lesley Blume, has a new book which tells the story of Hersey's quest to bring the real story of Hiroshima to the American public and the impact it had on the world's understanding of nuclear weapons. Lesley Blume is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author and biographer. She spoke to me from her home office via an Internet connection about her new book "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World."

Well, Lesley Blume, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LESLEY BLUME: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: You know, we've all grown up in a world with nuclear weapons. And we know they were developed during World War II in this top-secret Manhattan Project and then used, of course, in 1945 to end the war with Japan. But in 1945, this was all new. First of all, how much did Americans know about the nature of the weapon that was used in Hiroshima?

BLUME: Well, Americans didn't know about the bomb, period, until it was detonated over Hiroshima. And you know, the Manhattan Project was cloaked in enormous secrecy even though tens of thousands of people were working on it. I mean, many of them didn't even know what the end product of their labor was going to be. President Harry Truman did not know about the bomb. He learned about it only upon the death of his predecessor, you know, in the spring of 1945. That's how under wraps the project was.

So when President Harry Truman announced that America had detonated the world's first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, he was announcing not only a new weapon but the fact that we had entered into the Atomic Age. And Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons, namely that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. And it would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that up.

DAVIES: So a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. And after years of war, Americans were, of course, deliriously happy that it was over. What did they know about the destruction and death that the weapon had visited on Hiroshima?

BLUME: Well, I mean, at first, it appeared that the U.S. government was being almost ecstatically forthright about the new weapon. And when, you know, President Truman announces the bombing, he says, look; this is the biggest bomb that's ever been used in the history of warfare. And the Japanese should surrender or they can expect a reign of fire and ruin from the sky unlike, you know, anybody's ever seen before. We've unleashed the power of the sun. I mean, it was almost biblical language. So they knew - everybody who heard the announcement knew that they were dealing with something totally unprecedented, not just in the war but in the history of human warfare.

What was not stated was, you know, the fact that this bomb had radiological qualities and that even blast survivors on the ground would be - you know, would die in an agonizing way for the days and the weeks and the months and years that followed.

DAVIES: Right. And so in the weeks and months that followed, what was being said about radiation and its effects? I mean, American generals had testified before Congress on this. How did the characterize the risk?

BLUME: Well, very - yeah. In the immediate weeks, you know, very little - I mean, a lot of it was really painted in, you know, landscape devastation. You know, photographs - landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing, you know, the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I mean, they were rubble pictures. And also, you know, obviously, people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions and - but in terms of the radiation, you know, even in the announcement - Truman's announcement of the bomb, he's painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says, you know, these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, you know, they don't understand - they know that it's a mega weapon. But they don't understand the full nature of the weapons yet. You know, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public.

And in the meantime, you know, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out, you know, how the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it's affecting human beings - because they're about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan. So they - you know, they're sending their own recon missions in late August of 1945 onto the ground to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to see if they can, in good conscience, clear the atomic cities for occupation. And they do declare, you know, privately amongst themselves that the radiation has dwindled to nothing. Because of the height at which the bomb had been detonated, they said that much of it had been reabsorbed back into the atmosphere.

But they would also, you know, start to study the blast survivors who had taken in radiation to their bodies, you know, when the blast went off and look at how it affected them. The fact is that the people who created the bombs didn't have a full understanding of what the bombs were going to wreak on landscape and humans and were going to be studying that for years while they were on the ground occupying Japan.

DAVIES: You mentioned Lieutenant General Leslie Groves. I think he was actually involved in the Manhattan Project, right?

BLUME: Rather involved, yes - the spearheader of said project. He was charged with building the bomb for wartime use and managed to do it in three years, which is quite miraculous. And in his mind - I mean, Leslie Groves never had any moral qualms whatsoever about how - you know, the decimation or, you know, the radiation agonies afterwards. He had been told to get this bomb ready for wartime use, and he did that. And you know, that was, in his eyes, a huge triumph.

DAVIES: Right. And he was - I think he was the one who said that you could live there forever - of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - right? - no problem.

BLUME: Yeah. So - well, you know, again, as news started to filter over from Japanese reports about what it was like on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath, you know, the wire reports started picking up, you know, really disturbing information about, you know, the totality of the decimation and, you know, this sinister what they called, you know, disease X that was ravaging blast survivors.

This was starting - you know, so this news was starting to trickle over early in August of 1945 to Americans, and so the U.S. realized that not only were they going to have to really try to study very quickly, you know, how radioactive the atomic cities might have been, you know, as they were bringing in their own occupation troops. But they realized that they had a potential PR disaster on their hands, you know, because the U.S. had just won this horribly hard-earned military victory and were on the moral high ground, they felt, in defeating the Axis powers. And you know, they had avenged Pearl Harbor. They had avenged Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific theater in Asia. But then, you know, reports that they had decimated, you know, a largely civilian population in this excruciating way with an experimental weapon, you know, it was concerning because it may deprive the U.S. - it might have deprived the U.S. government of their moral high ground.

DAVIES: You know, there were reports from Japan about the level of destruction and also about lasting effects from radiation poisoning. How did U.S. - the U.S. military respond to these reports?

BLUME: Well, they went on a PR - they created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that, you know, the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. And, you know, they dispatched - Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer themselves went to the Trinity Site of testing to - and brought a junket of reporters so they could, you know, show off the area. And they said, you know, that there was no residual radiation whatsoever and that therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were, quote, "Tokyo tales." So right away, they went into overdrive to contain that narrative.

DAVIES: So I understand. You're saying they took them to a site in the United States where a weapon had been tested and showed them that there was no residual radiation.

BLUME: Yes, they did. They went to the Trinity Site, which is in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb had been tested - successfully tested on July 16 of 1945. And meanwhile, you know, this junket of, you know, two dozen reporters gets there. And around the detonation site, you know, the sand in the desert has been turned to green glass because of the impact of the bomb. And they're all wearing booties, you know, to cover their shoes from possible radiological particles. But, you know, Leslie Groves is there to give a junket saying that, you know, hey, everything's OK here, and, you know, you could live here forever. You could live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki forever, too. There's nothing to see here, folks.

DAVIES: So the U.S. military was saying these reports of terrible suffering and lingering radiation effects were Japanese propaganda. This also happened in the context of, you know, the moral judgments that people might make about such a weapon. And the military was putting it in the context of the way the war had begun and the way the Japanese had behaved. How did all that set the context for the American response?

BLUME: Look; Americans were still enraged by Pearl Harbor, and they, you know, had had a horrific time fighting in the Pacific theater. And, you know, casualties were enormous. You know, Japanese tenacity in battles was unlike anything Americans had encountered before. You know, Americans were horrified by Japanese atrocities in China and throughout Asia, and the feeling of righteousness, of righteous rage and vengeance in dropping the bombs, was near total. And, you know, Harry Truman himself articulated that in his speech. When he announced the bombing, he said the Japanese have now been repaid manyfold.

And just, you know, one quick stat really illustrates the mindset of the Americans towards the bombings at that time. In August of 1945, a poll was taken, and nearly a quarter of the Americans surveyed said that they wished that they could have dropped many more atomic bombs on Japan before the country had surrendered. So that's a pretty strong indication of how high the support was.

DAVIES: There were clearly reporters in the Pacific theater who wanted to get the story about the effects of atomic weapons, and there was some reporting. On the whole, did it capture and convey what was happening to the American people?

BLUME: Yeah. I mean, many of the reporters who were coming in with the occupied forces, for them, getting in on the ground to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a huge scoop. And a few of them did make it in there, and a few of them were able to get out really alarming initial reports that were, you know, heavy on facts about devastation and the fact that there was some kind of a terrible affliction still killing off blast survivors but light on details because nobody knew what on earth, you know, was in reality happening in the aftermath of the bombings. However, they didn't - you know, these reports, some of them appeared only in truncated form in American press. And after they came out, General MacArthur's occupation forces were able to quickly organize to suppress additional such reporting.

DAVIES: Right. So people - so reporters couldn't get in, and meanwhile, you had the American government saying, you know, you're hearing a lot of Japanese propaganda that you should be skeptical of.

BLUME: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the American officials were saying for the most part, you know, this is just - you know, these are - the defeated Japanese is trying to create international sympathy, to create better terms for themselves in the occupation. Ignore them.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me just reintroduce you. We're speaking with Lesley Blume. Her new book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World." We'll talk some more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and author Lesley Blume. Her new book is about journalist John Hersey, who, in 1946, wrote the first detailed account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning in Hiroshima, which U.S. military censors had largely hidden after the bombing there. Her book is called "Fallout."

So there was a lot that people didn't know about what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it was John Hersey that ultimately kind of changed that. Tell us a bit about him. Who was John Hersey? Where was he in his career?

BLUME: So John Hersey was - he was young, but he was already, you know, incredibly celebrated. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for a wartime novel called "A Bell For Adano." He had been a war correspondent since 1939 for Time Inc. He at one point had been groomed to be Henry Luce's managing editor and heir apparent to Time Inc., which he neglected to take Mr. Luce up on his offer. He was also a commended war hero, and he had been in an embed covering a battle between the Japanese and the Americans in the Solomon Islands and had helped evacuate a wounded marine, for which he received his commendation. He was an extremely well-known and well-regarded war correspondent in August of 1945 when the bombs went off.

DAVIES: Right. So he leaves Time Magazine. He ends up at The New Yorker. What kind of magazine was The New Yorker in 1945?

BLUME: Well, The New Yorker, it was - you know, one of the great ironies of my book and of this story is that The New Yorker would be the one to break this story. The New Yorker had been founded in the 1920s as an intentionally niche, sophisticated humor magazine about urban life. And, you know, its co-founder, Harold Ross, used to freak out if the circulation got to be over 300,000. He would say, you know, something must be wrong.

But, you know, Pearl Harbor really changed everything for The New Yorker. I mean, he - both Harold Ross, the founder, and his deputy editor, William Shawn, they'd been newsmen. And that - you know, the newsman blood surged back right away. There was - in their eyes, there was no option other than to take the magazine onto a wartime footing. You know, even though it'd been a humor magazine, you know, up to that point, Harold Ross said to, you know, one of his colleagues, nothing feels funny anymore. And they, too, began to dispatch war correspondents around the world. So they were the little guys in the field of media publications. But they could pack a powerful punch.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. You write that in the months following, you know, the end of the war that there was an American occupation force. And there were lots of American reporters in Tokyo, and yet relatively little interest in trying to get to Hiroshima to see what had happened. Why?

BLUME: Well, I think it was a combination of factors. I mean, first of all, in the early days of the occupation, there obviously would have been enormous interest in trying to get to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, again, if you were successful. But, you know, as the occupation really took hold and became increasingly organized, these - the reports were intercepted. You know, the last one that came out of Nagasaki was intercepted and lost. I mean, there was almost no point in trying to get down there because the obstacles that were put up for reporters were so tremendous. I mean, occupation...

DAVIES: By military censors, you mean. Yeah.

BLUME: By military censors and by General MacArthur's - what they called the PRO - the press relations office. I mean, I can't overstate how restricted your movements were as a reporter as part of the occupation press corps. You know, there was a joke that went around, you know, that the occupation forces, they told you how much gasoline you could use. They told you how much, you know, food you could eat and how many cigarettes you could smoke, namely because they were the dispensers of all those things, you know?

So you could not get around. You could not eat. You couldn't do anything without the permission of the army. They had - the control was near total. By the time Hersey would attempt to get in, you know, months later, you would have to apply for clearance to come into the country. You had to apply for clearance to travel anyplace in the country. You were given X amount of time on the ground, you know, wherever you went. And you were closely monitored. I mean, even the FBI was keeping tabs on who was coming and going from Japan within the press corps.

DAVIES: You know, and I find it fascinating you write that while journalists didn't have access to wherever they wanted to go, like Hiroshima, there were plenty of visitors among American GIs. You referred to them as occupationaires, meaning what? What were they doing?

BLUME: Yeah. That was an extraordinary term that I came across. And it's how occupation officials and soldiers referred to themselves. And, you know, look; at one point, tens of thousands of troops were in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki as occupation troops. Most of them had been withdrawn by the time Hersey is on the ground, you know, months later. But, you know, again, Hiroshima was seen as a sight of just enormous victory for these guys. And a lot of them would go even to ground zero of the bombings in Hiroshima. And, you know, as you mentioned earlier, they saw it as a souvenir site. I mean, so the - it's essentially a graveyard. I mean, there are still remains that are being dug up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today.

But, you know, many of them kind of pillaged the ruins to grab a souvenir to bring home. I mean, it was the ultimate victory souvenir. So whether it's a broken teacup to use as an ashtray or what have you, you know, they went. And they took, you know, their equivalent of selfies at ground zero. At one point in Nagasaki, Marines cleared, you know, a football-field-size amount of space in the ruins. And they had what they called the Atomic Bowl, which was a New Year's Day football game, where they had conscripted Japanese women as cheerleaders. I mean, it was an astonishing scene in both cities. But, again, they were seen as sights of victory. And most of the occupationaires were totally unrepentant about what had gone down there.

DAVIES: Do we know if any GIs got any radiation poisoning from their souvenirs?

BLUME: Unclear. I mean, a lot - there is a movement of former occupationaire GIs who call themselves the atomic vets who believe that they received high radiation doses from their occupation periods during their time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. Lesley Blume's new book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World." She'll be back to talk more about John Hersey and the story of Hiroshima after we take a break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH, ALAN PIERSON AND LONDON SINFONIETTA'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: SLOW")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guest is Lesley Blume, whose new book tells the story of journalist John Hersey's reporting, which revealed the scale of destruction and suffering visited on the people of Hiroshima, Japan, by the atomic bomb dropped on the city 75 years ago. Blume's book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World."

So John Hersey manages to get to Hiroshima. And he, of course, had covered the war in Europe and had seen horrific damage from Allied bombing of German cities. What did Hiroshima look like then, and how did it compare to Hersey's expectations?

BLUME: I mean, Hersey had seen everything from that point, from combat to concentration camps. But he - and let's not forget he came in through Tokyo, which had been decimated. But he later said that nothing prepared him for what he saw in Hiroshima. I mean, the devastation was just so total. And even though he and, you know, people around the world had seen devastated cities for years at that point, the thing that terrified him the most was that this had been done by one single 10,000-pound primitive bomb. One weapon had created all of this destruction and misery. And, you know, even though it was nearly a year later, I mean, it was still just a sort of smoldering wreck. You know, many people had returned to Hiroshima to try to start rebuilding their lives on the ruins, but, I mean, that really amounted to living in these rusted shanties on top of, again, what is essentially a graveyard.

DAVIES: Right. Now, he had to find people who had experienced the explosion, survived it and were willing to talk about it. And he didn't have a lot of time. How did he do it?

BLUME: Well, he was lucky. He - but he was also strategic. He had read an article before he got in about some German priests who had been in Hiroshima and survived and had given a survival testimony to - that had run in Time Magazine. And so he knew that they had returned to Hiroshima. So he sought them out, and fortunately, a couple of them spoke English. And Hersey won over their trust. They gave him their testimonies about what it had been like for them on August 6, 1945. And then not only did they agree to be his translator because they spoke Japanese - Hersey did not - they also began to make introductions for him within the blast survivor community.

DAVIES: Right. So he ends up focusing the story on six people who survived the blast. Two were clergymen - one Catholic, one Methodist - two were physicians - both of those were men - and then two women - one was a widow who had three children and was at home cooking rice when the explosion happened, and then a 20-year-old woman who was at work at her job as a clerk in a tin works.

I thought maybe you could tell us about Reverend Tanimoto, who was a - I guess he was a Methodist clergyman who was in the area at the time. And I'll just give a little warning to listeners that we're going to be dealing here with some accounts that are obviously - may be very upsetting about what happened in Hiroshima. So if you don't want to hear that, you might turn away for a couple of minutes. So tell us a little bit about what Reverend Tanimoto experienced.

BLUME: Reverend Tanimoto at the moment of the bombing was slightly outside of the city. He had been transporting some goods to the outskirts of the city, and he was up on a hill. And so therefore, he had a bird's-eye view of what happened. He fell to the ground when the actual bomb went off. But then when he got up, he saw that the city had just been enveloped in flames and black clouds.

And slowly, he would see - he saw a procession of survivors starting to straggle out of the city. He was just absolutely horrified by what he had seen and baffled, too, because, you know, usually an attack on this level would have been perpetrated by, you know, a fleet of bombers. But this was just a single flash. And the survivors who were making their way out of the city and who would not survive for long, I mean, most of them were naked. Some of them had flesh hanging from their bodies. I mean, he saw just unspeakable sights.

As he ran into the city because he had a wife and an infant daughter he wanted to find and his parishioners, the closer he got towards the detonation, the worse the scene was. I mean, the ground was just littered with scalded bodies and people who were trying to drag themselves out of the ruins and wouldn't make it. You know, there were walls of fire that were consuming the area. An enormous firestorm was starting to consume the city. He just, at one point, was picked up by a whirlwind because winds had been unleashed throughout the city, these tornadic whirlwinds. And he was lifted up in a red-hot whirlwind and then dropped from a height of about eight feet.

I mean, it was just unbelievable that he survived not only the initial blast but then heading into city center. And, you know, the extreme trauma of having witnessed what he witnessed, it's remarkable that he came out of it alive.

DAVIES: Right. And he mentioned grabbing some cushions and dousing them with water to try and get through the flames and find his family. He did find his wife and daughter, right?

BLUME: Now, again, another near miracle. Somehow - you know, his wife and child had been in their house which collapsed on them upon detonation. They'd somehow been managed - they somehow managed to escape. And as Reverend Tanimoto is, you know, tearing hysterically through the city center looking for survivors, he runs into his wife, who's in a bloodstained dress and just making her way out of the neighborhood with their baby in her arms trying to find any respite. But it's unclear to any of them where there's going to be any kind of place to escape from the flames.

Eventually, the family does make its way to a park on the outskirts of the city. And the park was, you know, at one time, you know, this manicured, beautiful topiary garden. And it becomes a scene from hell as survivors make their way into it. And the ground is just - frankly, it's just slick with corpses. And that's where they are able to seek refuge.

DAVIES: Did many of the people that he spoke to seem to be suffering from radiation poisoning?

BLUME: Yes. And he was able to, including - Reverend Tanimoto had been very sick with what, you know, he called in his own diary, you know, the atom disease. You know, they still really didn't understand - they understood at that point, you know, what had happened is that they had, you know, taken into their bodies an enormous amount of radiation during the blast. But there was still no way to treat them. Japanese doctors were completely at a loss. I mean, sometimes they would give them, you know, vitamin injections, and it would have terrible, terrible effects.

Father Kleinsorge, who was the German priest who had been Hersey's main entree to the blast survivor community, also had been horrifically ill. The young widow who Hersey also profiled, Mrs. Nakamura, you know, she and her children were all, you know, wracked with radiation poisoning and had been throwing up since the early hours of escaping.

So one of the things that Hersey did in detailing, you know, really in excruciating detail, the after effects of having received these astronomical amounts of radiation was he was showing the world that these were not conventional weapons and they were not, as General Leslie Groves had told Congress earlier - a few months earlier - that they were not - they did not give blast survivors, quote, "a very pleasant way to die," end quote.

DAVIES: The general actually said that to Congress - that dying of radiation poisoning is a very pleasant way to die?

BLUME: Yes.

DAVIES: I know that John Hersey went back decades later to revisit, and a lot of these people were still alive. Had they suffered from medical effects most of their lives from the radiation?

BLUME: In varying degrees, yes. Father Kleinsorge, the German priest, seems to have been most decimated. He was in and out of hospitals for, you know, his entire life. And, you know, by the time he died, you know, his doctors just said that he had been, quote, "a living corpse" for years.

Koko Tanimoto, who had been, you know, an infant at the time of the bombing, you know, had - on the other hand, had kind of a gallows humor about the effects of the bomb on her and her mother. They both lived into long age. Koko said that she, you know, had been rendered incapable of having children because of the radiation.

But, you know, Koko Tanimoto was actually studied at length by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which was, you know, an American commission that came in to look at the Japanese guinea pigs to see how radiation affected their bodies in the long terms. And, you know, so she was an examination subject for years, something that she felt enormous humiliation about.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Lesley Blume's new book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist and author Lesley Blume. Her new book is about journalist John Hersey, who in 1946 wrote the first detailed account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning in Hiroshima, which U.S. military censors had largely hidden after the bombing there in 1945. Her book is called "Fallout."

So Hersey and his editors at The New Yorker knew they had some very compelling material. And they had to make some decisions, right? Does this all run once? Does it - do they do a series of articles? Do they include photos or other visuals? What's the approach in the writing? What'd they decide?

BLUME: Well, you know, initially, it was going to run in a four-part series called Reporter At Large, which was, you know, something that The New Yorker, you know, did regularly. And then when Hersey's editor, William Shawn, is reading through Hersey's initial report - and by the way, Hersey came home and wrote, you know, a 30 - an over-30,000-word story, which is enormously long for a magazine story. And so, you know, it was written that long because - with the expectation that it would be broken up over a few weeks, right?

But his editor reads it and he says it's just too powerful and it will lose traction. We have to run this all in one issue. And what's more, he says - and he presented this to his boss, Harold Ross, you know, the editor of The New Yorker. He said, what's more, nothing else can run in this issue. It has to be entirely devoted to this story, which was, you know, what one person told me - you know, called an unprecedented editorial splurge.

And the material was already going to be wildly controversial, but for them to present it in this way was hanging a lantern on what they were up to in a way that was just astonishing at the time.

DAVIES: You know, you note that there was some pushback. I mean, the military objected. President Truman didn't like it. And they - the opponents drafted former Secretary of War Henry Stimson to write a long piece about this, which appeared in Harper's Magazine. Did it dispute any of Hersey's reporting?

BLUME: It didn't mention Hersey's reporting by - at all. I mean, it did - but what was clear is that, you know, the U.S. military and the U.S. government had been put on the defensive. They didn't like being put on the defensive, and they needed to reassert the narrative right away.

And so even though Hersey never in his article brought up, you know, should we or shouldn't we, his story was not about the decision - explicitly about the decisions to drop the bomb, that, you know, all of a sudden, whether we should have dropped it or not was - had been called into question, you know, across the country and around the world. And the government is scrambling to state - you know, to reclaim the narrative, which is, we had to drop the bombs; it saved both American and Japanese lives.

And, you know, that's the article - the sort of retort article is - it takes a sort of a page out of the Hersey book of reporting, where it appears to be just sort of a nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am-type article. But again, it doesn't ever affect - it doesn't ever address radiation in the article, and it doesn't address the fact that so much had been covered up from the American public over the last 18 months.

DAVIES: You know, he went back nearly 40 years later for a follow-up to visit some of the people that he had talked to after the Hiroshima bombing. And they'd all had interesting lives. One of them, Reverend Tanimoto, had become something of an activist. He'd gone around giving speeches and interviews and lectures. One of the most bizarre stories in this book is in 1951, he ends up in Los Angeles for what he thinks will be an interview on NBC TV - a standard interview. Tell us what happens.

BLUME: Yeah. Reverend Tanimoto turns up at the station, and it turns out he's not doing a news interview. He has been booked unwittingly on an episode of "This Is Your Life." And...

DAVIES: Now, people aren't going to remember this. You'll have to explain what this show is (laughter).

BLUME: Well, so it's a show, you know, in the 1950s where, you know, you sit down and the producers trot out, you know, people from - well, first, they're trotting out people who have been important to you throughout your life. And so, you know, the person - each person, as they're introduced, they stand behind a little curtain and they say, I was, you know, with you when you were 3 years old and you scraped your knee, or whatever.

And so in this case, they were bringing out people from Reverend Tanimoto's life, including one of the bombers from the Enola Gay. And so you know, poor Reverend Tanimoto. He's sitting there on this set and, you know, trying to maintain his composure. And it's a very - you know, the set is just full of bells and whistles. You know, they have the sound of, you know, the bomb whirring. They have the sound of the talk - the clock ticking. I mean, it's just this highly produced, dramatic production.

And, you know, this poor reverend is just sitting there just totally bewildered but trying so hard to stay composed. And the moment where they bring out the bomber to shake hands, I mean, it's just - you can't even imagine what's going - you know, going through that - Tanimoto's mind. And Hersey would report on this later on. And he said that the bomber appeared to be crying to many millions of viewers who were watching this. But in reality, Hersey reported, it turned out that he had been out bar hopping beforehand.

DAVIES: Is it too much to say that John Hersey's reporting here change the world's perception of nuclear weapons?

BLUME: I certainly don't think so. And he didn't think so either. And he was a extremely modest person when it came to, you know, evaluating his place in the world. Look; the Japanese could not, for years, tell the world what it had been like to be on the receiving end of nuclear warfare because they were under, you know, such dire press restrictions by the occupation forces. And so it took John Hersey's reporting to show the world what the true aftermath and the true experience of nuclear warfare looks like. The Japanese would not be able to tell - you know, speak in their own words until, you know, the occupation was over in the early 1950s.

It changed overnight for many people what was described as one of - by one of Hersey's contemporaries as the, quote, "Fourth of July feeling" about Hiroshima. I mean, there was a lot of dark humor about, you know, the bombings and Hiroshima. I mean, it just really imbued the event with a sobriety that it really hadn't been there before. Hersey's reporting played an enormous role in creating that visceral feeling around the use of nuclear weapons. And he, himself, later said, you know, the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory.

DAVIES: You know, at the end of the book, you share some thoughts about why this story is important, this kind of journalism. Why?

BLUME: The project, for me, came from current events even though it's a historical narrative. And, you know, I'm a second-generation newsperson. I'm married to a newsperson. My father worked for Walter Cronkite. And, you know, the attacks from the highest levels of our government, you know, especially from our president, on our free press and journalists, inciting journalists as enemies of the people, has felt very personal to me. And I wanted to find a historical narrative that really drove home how deadly important a free press is not only as a cornerstone of democracy, but in protecting the common good. And John Hersey's story was the sharpest and most poignant example that I could find of that.

DAVIES: You know, it's a case where, you know, the government had a certain narrative about what happened to Hiroshima that they wanted to kind of impose. And it would have worked. Reporters were distracted by other things. But here's one case where somebody persisted, got in, found the story and had a vehicle for communicating it to people. And it just made an enormous difference, didn't it?

BLUME: And saved, potentially, millions of lives. I mean, the world did not know the truth about what nuclear warfare really looks like on the receiving end, or did not really understand the full nature of these then experimental weapons until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and reported it to the world.

DAVIES: Well, Lesley Blume, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BLUME: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

DAVIES: Lesley Blume's new book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Black Bottom Saints," Alice Randall's new novel about a once thriving African American neighborhood in Detroit. This is FRESH AIR.

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