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Reporter's Role In Exposing Hiroshima Cover-Up Explored In 'Fallout'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At exactly 15 minutes past 8 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. That rather ordinary sentence is the opening to the extraordinary August 1946 New Yorker article titled "Hiroshima." It was published a year after the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on that city, a year in which the U.S. government had gone to great lengths to conceal the human devastation caused and to depict the bomb as a conventional, humane weapon.

The writer of the piece, John Hersey, uncovered a very different story reporting on the ground in Japan. Author and journalist Lesley Blume chronicles Hersey's work and the reaction to it in her new book "Fallout." She joins me now from Los Angeles.

Lesley Blume, welcome.

LESLEY BLUME: Thank you.

KELLY: Start with who John Hersey was and how he came to be the one to tell this story.

BLUME: Well, John Hersey was a young World War II correspondent who had covered action in different theaters throughout the war for Time magazine. And like many war correspondents then, he was pretty supportive of the U.S. military. And he even wrote an almost overly complimentary wartime bio of General Douglas MacArthur. And that the U.S. military knew him and trusted him would be an important factor in my story and how he eventually got his story about Hiroshima. And I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that how he got in was by being the perfect Trojan horse reporter.

KELLY: The perfect Trojan horse reporter. Well, you've hooked us. We're intrigued.

BLUME: (Laughter).

KELLY: Once he got there, he didn't report this out as a war correspondent. He focused very much on ordinary people, and he picked six of them. Why did he want to tell the story in that way?

BLUME: Well, I mean, the fact of the matter is that the bombing of Hiroshima was widely reported when it happened. And it was reported as a very big end-of-days story. I mean, there were pictures of the mushroom clouds that were released and pictures - the landscape devastation. But there were no pictures that were released or no stories that were released about the human toll that had happened on the ground there. And the government was really going to enormous lengths to cover up the reality of the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were very concerned with, as the former secretary of war put it, not being seen as having outdone Hitler in atrocities.

So Hersey and his editors at The New Yorker magazine became determined to tell the story from the point of view of survivors. You know, these were among the only humans who have ever experienced what it's like to be on the receiving end of nuclear attack. He ultimately picked a widow with young kids, a young female clerk, two medics, a priest and a minister with a young family. And his idea was to create a sense of empathy in his readers with these individuals because, after all, not everybody could understand the physics of how the bombs worked or visualize, you know, an all-out nuclear attack. But anyone could relate to being a mother or a father or colleague or a doctor who was going about their everyday business when catastrophe strikes.

KELLY: I wonder if you would give us a sense - just one telling story of what he did find when he was there, what it was that so shocked American readers who had no idea what was unfolding in Japan.

BLUME: One story that particularly resonated with him is he interviewed a young female clerk who was in her company when the bomb was detonated.

KELLY: This is the clerk I mentioned in the intro.

BLUME: Exactly - one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history. And when the bomb exploded over her factory, bookshelves fell upon her, and she was nearly crushed to death by books. And he thought how ironic it was to have somebody nearly crushed by books within the first moments of the atomic age. And literally, when he was leaving Hiroshima and standing on the surprisingly intact train station platform, he thought that he was going to have to write about that line. And that's one of the incidents that most resonated with readers.

KELLY: So August 1946, The New Yorker publishes. What was the reaction, both in the United States and around the world, to this story?

BLUME: Well, in Hersey's own words, the reaction was, quote, "explosive." I mean, I try not to use that word in my book for obvious reasons, but he did. And the article was simply titled "Hiroshima." And it comprised nearly the entire contents of the Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker. It sold out immediately. There were even black-market copies of it going for, you know, astronomical sums. It was syndicated in its entirety. And this is a 30,000-word story in newspapers across the country and around the world.

And editors and reporters and readers were enraged. They were horrified by the testimonies in Hersey's "Hiroshima." And they also began demanding to know, what else was the U.S. government withholding from the U.S. public? And then when President Truman was asked by a reporter if he had personally read it, he retorted, I never read The New Yorker. It just makes me mad.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BLUME: But the fact is that the government had been put very much on the defensive. That said, you know, they didn't want to look like they were on the defensive, but they were. And they had to scramble to try to reclaim the narrative.

KELLY: John Hersey, as you document, was famously not about garnering publicity. He hid out and didn't give interviews about this the way you might expect somebody to do now.

BLUME: Yeah, he was a publicist's nightmare.

KELLY: Right. A publicist's nightmare - absolutely. Do we know, though, if he felt like the article accomplished what he hoped it would in terms of being a wake-up call to Americans to consider what their government had done in their name?

BLUME: Yeah. He did feel that he had contributed to deterrence. I mean, the fact is that there has not been another nuclear attack, you know, in the vein of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Hersey said that, quote, "What has kept the world safe from the bombs since 1945 has been the memory of what happened at Hiroshima." And thanks in large part to him and those brave enough to share their stories of survival with him, we know what really happened in Hiroshima and how horrible it was. So in many ways, Hiroshima has become, you know, a pillar of deterrence.

That said, Hersey was very worried by the 1980s when the Cold War was surging again - that as the memory of Hiroshima dimmed, it was beginning to lose its potency as a deterrent. And that's really to the peril of all. And now, you know, look where we are. We're, you know, in the most dangerous nuclear landscape ever.

KELLY: What made you want to tell this story now?

BLUME: Well, look. I mean, over the past four years, to be honest, I have been angered and disgusted by the unprecedented journalists-are-the-enemy-of-the-people assault on our free press. These attacks have also felt very personal to me. My father was a journalist. He was Walter Cronkite's writer and speechwriter. I have spent my professional life in newsrooms working alongside people of enormous integrity who have devoted their lives to the public good.

And I wanted to write a historical story reminding Americans of the profound importance of our press and of investigative journalism and that journalists at their best are working for the common good. And Hersey's story was the purest, sharpest example of that that I could find. And you know, as you say, although he never sought the spotlight himself, I also hugely admired his deep decency, and I feel like we all need a dose of that in this country right now.

KELLY: And what you're noting, if I'm hearing you right, is this is a story, of course, about John Hersey. It's a story about Hiroshima. It's also a story about the power of journalism and one journalist to change the world.

BLUME: Absolutely.

KELLY: Lesley Blume - she's the author of "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World."

Thank you for talking with us.

BLUME: Thank you so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR'S "ALONE IN KYOTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.