John Hersey (1914) was born in China, the son of missionaries and later attended Yale, where he lettered in football and was a member of Skull and Bones. After graduating from Yale he won a Mellon scholarship and studied at Cambridge. Then, he secured a summer job as secretary and driver for Sinclair Lewis, but soon left to work as a war correspondent for Time and Life during WW II. His first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of Italy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1945 and was made into a movie. The following year Hersey began reporting from Japan. On August 31, 1946, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to Hersey’s 31,000-word article on Hiroshima. As part of this unprecedented step, the magazine included no cartoons and no “Talk of the Town” pieces. Hersey, who was just 31, took his form for the piece from Thornton Wilder’s popular novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which Wilder had explored a disaster in Peru through its effects on five victims. Hersey went to Hiroshima eight months after the bombing and interviewed dozens of survivors, focusing his piece on the stories of six of them.
Articles critical of the bomb based on the testimony of witnesses had appeared already in The New Republic and The Saturday Review, but the release of Hersey’s “Hiroshima” became a publishing phenomenon. Newsstands sold out immediately and The New Yorker was deluged with orders for extra copies. Albert Einstein asked for a thousand. Newspapers requested reprint rights. The entire article was read over ABC radio on four consecutive nights, with many affiliates re-broadcasting it. When the article was released as a book, the Book-of-the-Month Club distributed it free to its subscribers. Historians often date the nuclear disarmament movement from Einstein and Bertrand Russell’s 1955 manifesto, but Hersey’s piece helped initiate debate about the morality of nuclear weapons. The New York Times praised the piece for asking if nuclear weapons “can now be accepted as part of civilization” or whether they result in the “death and destruction not merely of people and cities but of the human conscience.” // Ned Stuckey-French