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Critical Review by John Toland
SOURCE: "Beyond the Brink of Destruction," in The New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1985, pp. 3, 24.
In the following review, Toland examines a 1985 edition of Hiroshima that contains a new postscript detailing the post-World War II lives of the six survivors.
When John Hersey's account of six survivors of Hiroshima appeared in the Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker it caused a sensation. For the first time the entire editorial space was devoted to a single article. The magazine was overwhelmed by requests for reprints. Albert Einstein asked for 1,000 copies. Newspapers throughout the country clamored for the rights, which were granted provided all profits went to the Red Cross. The book, a few months later, was acclaimed as a modern classic. (It has recently been reprinted in paperback by Bantam Books.) The Book-of-the-Month Club sent out free copies to hundreds of thousands of its subscribers.
All this acclaim appeared when most Americans regarded the Japanese as brutes, brainwashed by their leaders who were as evil as the Nazis. We had treated our own Japanese-Americans as enemy aliens, applauding President Franklin Roosevelt for incarcerating them in "relocation camps." Liberals, progressives and Communists joined in praise of this action. The American Civil Liberties Union supported the imprisonment and the Supreme Court upheld its legality.
Spurred by propaganda, almost all of us were swept up in the passions of war and fear of the Yellow Peril; and so there were few protests when Gen. Curtis LeMay began scattering firebombs on the tinderbox buildings of Japan. In one night an estimated 120,000 men, women and children were incinerated in Tokyo. Time described the fire-bombings as "a dream come true," which proved that "properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves." The fire-bombings continued, wiping out city after city and consigning to terrible death more hundreds of thousands of civilians. And then on Aug. 6, 1945, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Seconds later some 100,000 human beings were dead and an equal number were dying of burns, injuries and a new terrifying disease—radiation poisoning.
There was jubilation throughout the Western world. We were all convinced that "the Japs" deserved what they got because of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and such atrocities as the Bataan Death March of American prisoners of war in the Philippines. With the surrender of Japan nine days after the first bomb fell, we lost our fear of the Japanese. Now the task was to rehabilitate the Japanese in our own image and punish their leaders. We promptly executed Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, who conquered the Philippines, and Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the last commander of the Philippines, and launched the War Crimes Trial in Tokyo to deal with Gen. Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Premier, and other leading criminals. It was against this background that John Hersey's Hiroshima appeared. Riveted by the ghastly details, those of us who had hated the Japanese for almost five years finally realized that Mr. Hersey's six protagonists were fellow human beings.
The years have not dimmed the luster or import of what Mr. Hersey wrote 40 years ago. In the Knopf edition, the reprint of the original is now followed by a lengthy postscript, a report on the aftermath of his six survivors. Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor's widow, struggled to keep herself and her children alive, though she was weak and destitute. She sewed, cleaned neighbors' houses, did laundry and washed dishes. But for every three days of work she had to take two days' rest. Finally, she fell seriously ill and was unable to work. Her fate was quite common among the hibakusha (explosion-affected persons). There was little help from the Government, and when she recovered it was impossible to get a good job. "Non-hibakusha employers developed a prejudice against the survivors as word got around that they were prone to all sorts of ailments, and that even those, like Nakamurasan, who were not cruelly maimed and had not developed any serious overt symptoms were unreliable workers, since most of them seemed to suffer, as she did, from the mysterious but real malaise that came to be known as one kind of lasting A-bomb sickness: a nagging weakness and weariness, dizziness now and then, digestive troubles, all aggravated by a feeling of oppression, a sense of doom, for it was said that unspeakable diseases might at any time plant nasty flowers in the bodies of their victims, and even in those of their descendants."
Because the "Japanese government did not want to find itself saddled with anything like moral responsibility for heinous acts of the victorious United States," the hibakusha "lived in an economic limbo." It was not until 1957 that Japanese political parties at last took up the cause of providing adequate medical care for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, in 1975, Mrs. Nakamura began to receive a health-maintenance allowance of $42 a month. With this and her war widow's pension of $65 she considered herself a lucky woman.
Equally devastating were the effects of Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit. Suffering from fever, diarrhea and utter exhaustion, his was a classic case history of "Abomb sickness." But he bore this life of misery "with the most extraordinarily selfless spirit," continuing the self-abnegating pastoral life. In 1961, his energy flagged, and he developed liver dysfunction, high blood pressure, back and chest pains. On his hospital chart in 1976 was written "a living corpse." He died the next year.
Pain and hardship also dogged Toshiko Sasaki, a young clerk whose left leg was so badly broken—it hung askew below the knee—that she first thought it had been cut off. Her fiancé could not bring himself to marry her and the only person who gave her real help was Father Kleinsorge who walked miles to see her. Inspired by him, she taught herself to hobble without crutches. She became an attendant in a Catholic orphanage, endured three painful operations and at last could walk almost normally. Father Kleinsorge encouraged her to become a nun, and she became director of a home for 70 old people. At a dinner celebrating her 25th anniversary as a nun, she said, "It is as if I had been given a spare life when I survived the A-bomb. But I prefer not to look back. I shall keep moving forward."
The two doctors who survived suffered no apparent effects of radiation overdose, but the autopsy of Dr. Masakazu Fujii 29 years later revealed that his "brain had atrophied, his large intestine had become enlarged, and there was a cancer the size of a Ping-Pong ball in his liver."
The sixth survivor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Protestant minister, had no church, no money. In 1948 he went to the United States to raise money to rebuild his badly damaged church. On the sea voyage he vowed he would spend his life working for peace. He envisaged a center for the collective memory of hibakusha in Hiroshima, and toured America with a set speech—"The Faith That Grew Out of the Ashes."
He met Pearl Buck who introduced him to Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review. Mr. Cousins read a memorandum Mr. Tanimoto had written sketching his idea for a peace center in Hiroshima and offered to print it in his magazine. When Mr. Tanimoto returned home after collecting $10,000 for his church, he asked the mayor of Hiroshima and the prefectural governor to support his peace center. They refused. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the occupying forces, had prohibited any publicity on the consequences of the atom bombings.
In 1950 Mr. Cousins invited Mr. Tanimoto to return to the United States to raise money for the peace center. He visited 201 cities and gave the opening prayer for an afternoon session of the Senate. Back home, he became involved in a campaign to help keloid girls (who had excessive amounts of scar tissue), which resulted, with the help of Mr. Cousins, in the transport of the 25 Hiroshima Maidens to New York for plastic surgery. Mr. Tanimoto was hustled back to California to start another fund-raising tour, starting with an appearance on the television show "This Is Your Life" that could have been concocted by a Marx Brothers scriptwriter.
At home, Mr. Tanimoto had no place in the Japanese peace movement, for he had been out of the country at a time that an antinuclear group named Nihon Gensuikyo was taking over. "Like many hibakusha, he was repelled by the growing political coloration of these doings, and he stayed away from the mass meetings in Peace Park on the subsequent anniversaries." To this day most hibakusha blame their own country for the bomb, not America, and their simple, apolitical slogan is, "No more Hiroshimas or Nagasakis."
As he did in 1946, Mr. Hersey again pricks the American conscience, compelling us to re-examine the issue of nuclear weapons and our responsibility for having dropped the first two atom bombs. In July 1945, the Japanese Government had offered to make peace through the Soviet Union; and although the Russians never passed this overture on to us, we had intercepted the message to Moscow, which was in a Japanese code broken in 1940. Many prominent Americans opposed dropping the bomb: Joseph Grew, the prewar ambassador to Japan, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Adm. William D. Leahy, Truman's chief of staff, Far Eastern experts in the State Department, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and well-known scientists. But Truman, like the vast majority, saw the bomb as the savior of millions of American lives. When asked in 1958 if the decision had come only after considerable soul-searching, the President replied, "Hell, no, I made it like that!" And he snapped his fingers. As for the bomb: it was "nothing else but an artillery weapon."
In his dissenting opinion at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, Justice Radhabinad Pal of India declared: "If any indiscriminate destruction of civilian life and property is still illegitimate in warfare, then, in the Pacific War, the decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives of the German Emperor during the first World War and of the Nazi leaders during the second World War. Nothing like this could be traced to the credit of the present accused."
This section contains 1,714 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)