Literary Documentation of the Cold War in John Hersey’s Hiroshima Assignment

Literary Documentation of the Cold War in John Hersey’s Hiroshima Assignment Words: 1604

Taking account of both the extraordinary event chronicled and the very interesting role the author chooses to play as narrator of this story, I have chosen to use John Hersey’s Hiroshima as my primary example of documentation in the Cold War era. Hersey chose to take personal stories as his subject matter, using a very balanced but essentially human narration. As the definitive account of the horrors suffered by victims of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima maintains its journalistic essence throughout, despite dealing with a highly politicised and emotive subject.

The only sense you have of John Hersey as anything more than a scribe are the occasional glimpses provided by his vocabulary and a slight variance in tone, just short of what you might expect from a completely objective standpoint. Hersey’s narration is also important in the context of 1946 (the year of its publication), and on this basis the fifth and final chapter, written and added in 1985, must also be seen in its specific lateral context.

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As Hiroshima is based on interviews with actual survivors of the atom bomb attack, and was originally published as an article, it should viewed as a journalistic exercise rather than as a ‘book’ as such. However, the process of translation and editing allows Hersey some leeway to report the story in as vivid a way as possible, perhaps more so than originally told to him. He describes in gruesome detail some of the horrible images, e. g. “the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks” (p. 51).

This graphic style of narrative is used for good reason by Hersey, whose mission was to provide human faces to the atrocity,as he had to work hard replacing the overwhelming anonymity of statistics and numbers that most outside of the target cities had associated with the attack. In contrast to earlier reports and stories, which were mostly concerned with the dramatic scale of destruction and historic nature of the event, the documentation that Hersey sought to provide was to bring home to Americans the myriad ways in which the awful human cost could be calculated.

One of the largest obstacles in the way was the wartime propaganda that sought to portray the Japanese as barbaric and somehow less human than Americans or Europeans. That one hundred thousand Japanese died at Hiroshima (many of them women, children and the elderly) did not weigh heavily on the minds of most Americans, and Hersey obviously sought to to provide them (or at least the demographic that fills the readership of the New Yorker) with people that they could possibly relate to.

Two doctors, two Christian priests, a clerk and a war widow were chosen. How he deals with each of these people is very interesting. Helsey presents the characters with what would be seen as admirable and relatable traits by an American Cold War audience. Of Mr Tanimoto, the methodist priest, we are told he “studied theology at Emory College… spoke excellent English… dressed in American clothes” (p. 4) and also that he has been accused of being an American spy.

All of this paints him as someone who has embraced the Western lifestyle and the average American reader can relate to. This method of describing the inherent humanity of the victims is the single most important component of the article, and is played against a backdrop of inhuman suffering and often what seems like indifference. To again use Mr Tanimoto as an example, he recounts to Helsey that all he was able to do to help those trapped in wreckage in the path of the firestorm created by the bomb was to pray “God help them and take them out of the fire. ” (p. 30).

Unusually for the time, this native Japanese comes across as more concerned for the victims of the bomb than the German Catholic priests, who at one point insist that Tanimoto continue a boat journey with the priests rather than stop to pick up stranded survivors, knowing that for Tanimoto it will be a choice between an arduous journey back or leaving them there to die (p. 44). Helsey is telling the stories as corroborated by the survivors and so eschews judgement of their actions. With Helsey not pulling the punches on the behalf of the reader, it is a morally fraught piece of work.

By encouraging the reader to pass judgment, Helsey forces him or her to evaluate the situation from a human perspective. With the situation calling for exceptionally lurid details, it is impossible not to become drawn in to the story as one so rarely is except by the most powerful and well written of journalistic articles. It is my theory that Hiroshima was written in that way at least in part by the strange circumstances of 1946. With the war only just ended, the Soviet Union was fast turning from a wartime ally to a major ideological and military rival.

Although the United States was the only country with the capacity to create an atomic weapon, it was the widespread belief (and the truth) that the Soviet Union was not far away from the production of a usable atomic device. There were many prominent military and political leaders who thought they should use the existing Allied presence in Europe and their atomic superiority to defeat the Communist Soviet Union. Already known to many simply as ‘the Reds’ the dehumanisation of the Russians had started.

Some attacked Hersey for writing the story as it could potentially undermine support for an attack on the Russians. This was especially important because the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to some degree a showcase of American might and a warning from President Truman to the Russians. Chapter Five, added to the new edition in 1985 and titled Aftermath, is a much more direct reflection on the impact of nuclear weapons on Hersey’s subjects. The tone is much more bitter and more obviously anti-atomic.

It is interspersed with milestones in the development of mass destructive weapons by nations around the world and Hersey tends to look at the survivors in a more critical way than in the earlier chapters. However, he does attempt to keep up his journalistic distance, and presents his opinion as demi-factual, especially in the case of Mr Tanimoto, who is implied to be both a concerned hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) and a self interested and ambitious man. This is shown through the choice of supporting materials Hersey employs, including State Department memo’s that emphasise his “desire to enhance his own prestige and importance” (p. 47). The irony that the most ‘American’ (and least badly hurt) of the six survivors chronicled seems the hardest to deal with is not lost on Hersey or the reader, and he even appears on ‘This is Your Life’. He is singled out for criticism because of his embrace of the ambitious ‘self made’ capitalism touted by the United States while the others were more demure in their handling of their status as victims, typified by the tailor’s widow Mrs Nakamura, who was destitute and forced to work demeaning jobs as a result of her injuries. However, her philosophy was one of “shikata ga-nai” (p. 3) or ‘it can’t be helped’. Her stoicism is implicitly seen as more acceptable and proper in the victims of the attack. Paradoxically, in Hersey’s documentation of the survivors tales, the lack of fuss created by Mrs Nakamura and the others makes the atomic bombing all the more poignant, and implicitly denounces as self-seeking those who seek to use their status as hibakusha to highlight various issues including world peace and non-proliferation. They are described as often those who are less badly hurt, but interested in the limelight (p. 7). This final chapter was written in 1985, at a time when atomic weapons were in the hands of a myriad of states, and the standoff between the NATO countries and the USSR was overshadowed by the knowledge of mutually assured destruction. To be sure, the Cold War was in its waning years, but the threat of nuclear obliteration was still as potent as ever. In writing this final chapter, one feels that Hersey is trying to express some frustration that the lessons of Hiroshima and of his account of it have not been heeded.

By reading this story critically, one can surmise that although the power of Hersey’s work is undeniable, looking at nuclear war from a human perspective is simply not how the politicians and top military officials viewed the issue. The attempt to change the public outlook on atomic warfare may be a noble mission, but with the perception of the Soviet Union as a terminal threat, the vast majority of Americans could, after the Soviets achieved relative parity with the United States in its weapons programs, see the article as instead a bleak reminder of what life could be like for Americans in the aftermath of a Soviet attack.

Thus, the intended context and the possible interpretations make the framing of this particular incident so difficult as to mean different conclusions can be reached from the same story. This is partly a consequence of its journalistic style. If facts are presented bare, then opinion can be applied to them, without the assent of the author. It is this which is the primary reason that the documentation of any specific event so difficult and open to manipulation, by the author, reader or critic, as people will tend to draw different lessons from accounts like these. Bibliography

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