Before writing Hiroshima, Hersey was an infield war correspondent, writing for Life magazine and The New Yorker. He followed troops during the invasion of both Italy and Sicily during World War II. In 1944, Hersey began working in the Pacific Theater and followed Lt. John F. Kennedy through the Solomon Islands. Hersey was one of the first Western journalists to view the disaster that was Hiroshima after the bombing. Hersey was commissioned by William Shawn of The New Yorker to write a series of articles about the effects of a nuclear explosion by utilizing witness accounts as this subject had been virtually untouched by journalists. Hersey had originally interviewed many more witnesses, but he focuses his article on only six of the witnesses.
Publication in The New Yorker
The issue of August 31, 1946, arrived in subscribers' mailboxes bearing a light-hearted cover of a summer picnic in a park. There was no hint what was inside. Hersey's article began where the magazine's regular "Talk of the Town" column usually began, immediately after the theater listings. At the bottom of the page, the editors appended a short note: "TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors." One of the few people other than the principal editors of The New Yorker tipped to the forthcoming publication was the magazine's principal writer E. B. White, to whom Harold Ross confided his plans. "Hersey has written thirty thousand words on the bombing of Hiroshima (which I can now pronounce in a new and fancy way)", Ross wrote to White in Maine, "one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it.... [William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker] wants to wake people up, and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it, if it is done."
Containing a detailed description of the bomb's effects, the article was a publishing sensation. In plain prose, Hersey described the horrifying aftermath of the atomic device: people with melted eyeballs, or people vaporized, leaving only their shadows etched onto walls. The New Yorker article Hiroshima was an immediate best seller and was sold out at newsstands within hours. Many requests for reprints were received by the magazine's offices. The ABC Radio Network preempted regular programming to broadcast readings of the complete text by well-known actors in four half-hour programs. Many radio stations abroad did likewise. The Book of the Month Club rushed a copy of the article into book format, which it sent to members as a free selection.
Published a little more than a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the American public was shown a different interpretation of the Japanese that had been in the media previous to this. The Americans could let go of some of the guilt knowing that the Japanese did not blame them for this terrible act of war. After reading Hiroshima a Manhattan Project scientist wrote that he wept as he remembered how he celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb. Scientists along with the American public felt shame and guilt at the suffering of the people of Hiroshima. As voiced by witnesses in Hiroshima, the people of Hiroshima did not blame the Americans for the infliction but instead their own government. Many Japanese believe that the dropping of the atomic bomb saved Japan and it was widely thought that the Japanese Government would have destroyed the entire country before losing the war.
The 31,000 word article was published later the same year by Alfred A. Knopf as a book, Hersey's work is often cited as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism in its melding of elements of non-fiction reportage with the pace and devices of the novel. Hersey's plain prose was praised by critics as a model of understated narrative. Hershey rarely gave interviews and abhorred going on anything resembling book tours, as his longtime editor Judith Jones recalled. "If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima", wrote Hendrik Hertzberg, "yet Hersey's reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly."
The author said he adopted the plain style to suit the story he strove to tell. "The flat style was deliberate", Hersey said 40 years later, "and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator. I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible."
The founder of The New Yorker Harold Ross told his friend, author Irwin Shaw: "I don't think I've ever got as much satisfaction out of anything else in my life." But The New Yorker's publication of Hersey's article caused trouble with respect to Hersey's relationship with Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time-Life and Hersey's first mentor, who felt Hersey should have reported the event for one of Luce's magazines instead. Despite Luce's misgivings about Hersey's choice of The New Yorker to print the Hiroshima story, the magazine's format and style allowed the author much more freedom in reporting and writing. The Luce publications – Time, Life and Fortune – had nothing similar. Moreover, The New Yorker went to unprecedented lengths to keep the Hersey story secret. The weekly magazine's top editors observed complete secrecy about the printing of the article. While editors Harold Ross and William Shawn spent long hours editing and deliberating every sentence, the magazine's staff was not told anything about the forthcoming issue. Staffers were baffled when the normal weekly proofs were not returned, and their inquiries were not answered. Even the advertisement department was deliberately not informed.
Time magazine said about Hiroshima:
“Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilization, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr. Hersey. When this magazine article appears in book form the critics will say that it is in its fashion a classic. But it is rather more than that”.
The magazine later termed Hersey's account of the bombing "the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II."
It was also met with approval by The New Republic which said “Hersey's piece is certainly one of the great classics of the war”. While the majority of the excerpts praised the article, Mary McCarthy said that “to have done the atomic bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead”. It was quickly a book in the Book-of-the-Month Club and distributed for free because of its impact on the humanity of the human race. Hiroshima was also read word for word on the radio by the American Broadcasting Company, amplifying its effects.
Discouraged in Japan 1947-1949
At the same time, Hiroshima was banned from Japan by the US Government, which occupied the country until 1951. According to Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, "Occupation authorities suppressed various accounts of the atomic bombings. A noteworthy instance involved the denial in later 1946 of a request by the Nippon Times to publish John Hersey's Hiroshima (in English); the widely read American book was not brought out in Japan until 1949." It was discussed around the table and excerpts were seen in other papers where it was either applauded or met with disdain. Hiroshima was not banned according to Douglas MacArthur in 1948 despite numerous charges of censorship made against the censors office by the US news media, after translating the work into Japanese, it was published in 1949. The original English version is reported to have reached Tokyo, by January 1947.