Today marks the 70th anniversary of the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, instantly killing about 80,000 people and marking the first time any nation used nuclear weapons in combat. And for something to help you reflect on the enormity of the devastation wrought, you could do a lot worse than to read John Hersey's astonishing book-length Hiroshima essay, which took up almost the entire August 31st, 1946 issue of The New Yorker and has been digitally republished today.
Hiroshima is one of the most remarkable works of journalism ever published. Its narrative non-fiction style was unusual for the time, but even more striking was the way Hersey humanized the Japanese victims with sensitivity and dignity so soon after barrages of wartime propaganda had portrayed them as barbarians. Centering on six Japanese people caught up in the blast, Hiroshima's empathetic reporting on the most horrific situation imaginable should be considered essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the human impact of nuclear weaponry seven decades after it was first deployed.
The New York Times' obituary of Hersey, who died of cancer in 1993, notes that the newspaper printed an editorial drawing attention to Hiroshima on its publication. Albert Einstein reportedly ordered a thousand copies to spread the word, and several newspapers serialized it; Hersey asked them to donate to the American Red Cross rather than pay him. Now that the whole essay is available online to read for free, hopefully it will reach a larger audience than Hersey or Einstein could ever have imagined.