Martha Hennessy is just finishing a prison sentence for breaking into a naval base in Georgia to protest nuclear weapons held there. We recently shared the story of how she and six other protestors cut through locks while singing and praying, sprayed “Love one another” on the sidewalks of the base, and poured blood over a depiction of Trident nuclear weapons that were held on the base.
Hennessy is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. When Martha was a child, Dorothy gave her a story to read that seems to have sparked in the little girl a lifelong conviction to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. That story was called “Hiroshima,” a 30,000 word account of six people who survived the detonation of the atomic bomb over the Japanese city on August 6, 1945.
The reference to the article in our piece on Hennessy sent us to the archives, and the more we learned about it, the more fascinated we became. On the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb, it seems like a good time to dig into this momentous event in history — and the piece of storytelling that helped the world absorb what had happened.
The piece ran in the New Yorker magazine in an unprecedented format a year after the bomb — the publication dedicated an entire issue to just sharing that one story. It was written by John Hersey and caused such a reaction that it became a viral sensation, before there was such a thing. The issue immediately sold out and copies were selling at 120 times its cover price. Today, it’s regarded as one of the most important pieces of journalism in the twentieth century.
Here’s how the piece starts:
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. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. 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. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.
It’s a long piece, to be sure, but it’s worth the read. The bomb killed 75,000 people in Hiroshima, and injured that many again. The second bomb that detonated over Nagasaki had a similar effect. Today’s nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the atom bombs dropped to end World War II; we should be very clear about the effects of that power as citizens of the only nation to have used bombs of this magnitude.
Just because the Cold War is over doesn’t mean that nuclear weapons are a thing of the past. The destruction these weapons bring is a grave threat to our existence, and we dedicate a significant amount of resources to maintain and develop those weapons. In the next decade, the United States will spend $634 billion to upgrade our nuclear arsenal.
If we are to seek peace, we need to be thoughtful about the role our nuclear arsenal plays in our defense strategy: how much it costs to build and maintain these weapons — and how much it would cost to use them. That’s why we think “Hiroshima” is required reading for all of us.