In the very first sentence of Hiroshima, John Hersey conveys the shock and disorientation of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6, 1945. Early in the morning, Hiroshimans were going about their business, utterly unaware that the American military, fighting in World War Two against Japan, was about to drop an atomic bomb on their city. The next day, American forces dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki—altogether, these bombs claimed more than 200,000 lives.
Since 1945, nuclear missiles haven’t been used in a war, making the United States the only country in history to use atomic bombs on an enemy population. This is a controversial designation. Some believe that the United States was justified in killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, including children, for the “greater good” of pressuring the Japanese government to surrender right away. Had President Harry Truman not decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, they argue, World War Two would have continued for months or even years, leading to the deaths of many more people. On the other hand, some have argued that bombing Hiroshima was a human rights atrocity; furthermore, historians have suggested that the Truman administration chose to bomb Hiroshima not simply to end the war, but to assert its new superpower status. Since 1945, the world’s most powerful countries have stockpiled nuclear weapons, while other countries have pursued nuclear programs. Since understanding the legacy and the historical background of the bombing of Hiroshima is very important, one of the most surprising things about John Hersey’s book is that it doesn’t spend that much time exploring the political or ethical implications of Harry Truman’s decision to bomb Japan. Instead, Hiroshima revolves around the lives of six people who survived the explosion, while making very few references to politics or ethics.
Readers continue to debate what Hiroshima ultimately suggests about the morality of the bombing, and whether its lack of explicit political or moral information about the bombing is itself a political and moral position. One could argue that the book implies that the bombing was utterly unjustifiable. Hersey’s chilling descriptions of melted concrete and vaporized human bodies emphasize the human misery caused by the bombing—so much misery that there could be no justification for it. By this logic, Hiroshima would imply that the bombing of Hiroshima was a horrific crime, and that President Harry Truman was a war criminal. Hersey, writing for The New Yorker at a time when the vast majority of Americans believed that the bombing was morally justifiable, could never have said this explicitly. One could argue, though, that his focus on the egregious human toll of the bombing implicitly argues that it was unjustified.
However, others have argued that, by omitting any discussion of the decision to bomb Hiroshima, Hersey implicitly argues that America was morally justified in bombing Japan. Particularly in the second half of the book, characters express their outrage with the Japanese government (rather than the American government) for failing to provide for them after the bombing of Hiroshima. Other characters compare the bombing to a natural disaster—a horrible event that simply couldn’t have been avoided. In other words, the characters in Hiroshima express their anger with Japan’s government, or with the universe itself, but not, for the most part, with America, the country that was literally responsible for the bombing. (It’s likely that, had Hersey included any strong criticisms of the U.S., his editor, William Shawn, would have removed them to avoid controversy.) Thus, one could argue, Hiroshima reinforces the standard, mainstream interpretation of the bombing in 1940s America: that it was a horrible—though unavoidable and justifiable—tragedy that the Japanese had brought upon themselves. In all, there are persuasive arguments for both interpretations of Hiroshima’s take on nuclear war. Perhaps Hersey left his book open-ended not simply to avoid censorship or controversy, but so that readers could make up their own minds about a topic that’s too big and complicated for easy answers.
The Atomic Age, Politics, and Morality ThemeTracker
The Atomic Age, Politics, and Morality Quotes in Hiroshima
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 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.
A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.
The reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room-over the raised sleeping platform
The sounds came from one of the sandspits, and those in the punt could see, in the reflected light of the still-burning fires, a number of wounded people lying at the edge of the river, already partly covered by the flooding tide. Mr. Tanimoto wanted to help them, but the priests were afraid that Father Schiffer would die if they didn't hurry, and they urged their ferryman along.
[Fathers Schiffer and LaSalle] thanked God for the care they had received. Thousands of people had nobody to help them.
Japan is dying. If there is a real air raid here in Hiroshima, I want to die with our country.
About a week after the bomb dropped, a vague, incomprehensible rumor reached Hiroshima that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two.
When they came to know the war was ended—that is, Japan was defeated, they, of course, were deeply disappointed, but followed after their Emperor's commandment in calm spirit, making whole-hearted sacrifice for the everlasting peace of the world—and Japan started her new way.
Lieutenant John D. Montgomery, of Kalamazoo, as its adviser, began to consider what sort of city the new Hiroshima should be. The ruined city had flourished—and had been an inviting target—mainly because it had been one of the most important military-command and communications centers in Japan, and would have become the Imperial headquarters had the islands been invaded and Tokyo been captured.
"My child," Father Kleinsorge said, "man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin." And he went on to explain all the reasons for everything.
She would say, "It was war and we had to expect it." […] Dr. Fujii said approximately the same thing about the use of the bomb to Father Kleinsorge one evening, in German: "Da ist nichts zu machen. There’s nothing to be done about it."
Many citizens of Hiroshima, however, continued to feel a hatred for Americans which nothing could possibly erase. "I see," Dr. Sasaki once said, "that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb."
The bombing almost seemed a natural disaster—one that it had simply been her bad luck, her fate (which must be accepted), to suffer.
He registered himself as a Japanese citizen under the name he would henceforth hear; Father Makoto Takakura.
Nor did he have any place in the Japanese peace movement, for he had been out of the country at crucial moments in its development and, besides, his Christian outlook made him suspicious of the radical groups that were on the cutting edge of antinuclear activity.