John Hersey (1914-1993)

John Hersey, the son of American Prostestant missionaries, was born in Tianjin, China, in 1914. He grew up in both China and the United States and graduated from Yale in 1936. One of Hersey's first jobs was working as a secretary and driver for prominent author Sinclair Lewis, before becoming a writer for Time magazine and being posted by Time in China. From 1939 to 1945, he served as a war correspondent for Time; during that time he wrote two popular books about American troops in Asia, Men on Bataan and Into the Valley. Hersey’s third book, A Bell for Adano (1944), a novel about the U.S. army in Italy, won the Pulitzer Prize. After the enormous success of Hiroshima, published in 1946, Hersey continued to write both nonfiction and fiction, although none of his later writings was able to attain the tremendous success of his best-known work, Hiroshima.

Hersey taught at Yale, MIT, and the American Academy in Rome, and became actively involved in politics. He was a vocal opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1985 Hersey released a new edition of Hiroshima with a lengthy postscript detailing the lives of its six major figures in the forty years since the bomb. Hersey died at his winter home in Key West, Florida, in 1993 and was buried near his home in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Background on Hiroshima

From 1945 to 1946, Hersey visited Japan on a trip sponsored by Life magazine and The New Yorker, to write about the people of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. The editors of The New Yorker originally planned to include his account in serial form over a number of issues. After they read the entire manuscript, they decided at the last minute—too late to change the peaceful scene already placed on the cover—to devote an unprecedented entire issue to Hersey’s story.

The issue’s publication on August 31, 1946, caused a near frenzy of activity. It sold out in just a few hours, and The New Yorker was overwhelmed with requests for reprints. The magazine, which normally sold for fifteen cents, was scalped for fifteen to twenty dollars. Other ways of reproducing the text quickly sprang up—the Book-of-the-Month Club distributed free copies, and the text was read in its entirety on national radio. Albert Einstein ordered 1,000 copies of the magazine, but his order could not be filled. The book was quickly translated into many different languages and distributed around the world, though not in Japan, because of American censorship.

Most reviewers hailed Hiroshima as an instant classic, praising Hersey’s calm narrative and vivid characterizations. Some people worried that the book would make Americans too sympathetic to the Japanese, but many—even those who were staunch supporters of the bomb—agreed that Hersey helped to penetrate the cloud of complacency that had developed in America regarding use of the atomic bomb. Before the book, anti-Japanese feeling was still rampant, and stereotypes of the Japanese as fanatical or sadistic people were very much a part of the American psyche.

The American public was ignorant in many ways about just how destructive the bomb was; photographs from Hiroshima focused on property damage, and statistics about the loss of life hardly told the entire story. Many prominent military leaders had attributed the heavy loss of life in Hiroshima to faulty construction of homes or ruptured gas mains. Hiroshima put a human face on the numbers and showed Americans why the atomic bomb was so devastating. Furthermore, because Hiroshima detailed the lives of six characters in depth, it showed Americans that ordinary Japanese citizens were not really different from them.

In the years since its publication, Hiroshima has remained an extremely important work. Recently, New York University’s School of Journalism ranked it the number one work of journalism of the 20th century. The book has its critics, however. There was a vocal minority who accused Hersey of an irresponsibility, because he did not express enough moral outrage about the bomb along with the horrific images he relates—nor did he suggest that the bomb was unnecessary for ending the war. For his part, Hersey said that he had felt both despair and relief when he heard that the bomb had been dropped, but it must also be kept in mind that Hersey was writing as a journalist when he wrote the book. Critics felt that Hersey’s journalistic impartiality left him no room for moral judgments and that the book did not inspire any kind of real outrage about America’s use of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, there is little indication that the book inspired much protest or criticism of Truman and the American government at the time. However, even most readers who believed that the bomb had to be controlled did not dispute its effectiveness in ending the war with Japan. This was at a time when few Americans questioned President Truman's decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima—as it was widely understood that Japan was otherwise unlikely to surrender unless the United States and its allies launched a full-scale invasion of Japan, which likely would have resulted in enormous lossses of life among the Americans troops and their allies as well as among Japanese armed forces and civilians. (Truman's decision to drop a second atomic bomb on August 9, 1945 on the Japanese city of Nagasaki —just three days after the drop on Hiroshima and before, some felt, the stunned and disorganized Japanese government had enough time to react to the first bombing and surrender—did provoke more criticism of Truman, however.)