As we approach Labor Day Weekend, there is an easily overlooked anniversary coming up. On August 31, it will be 70 years to the day since John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” was published in the pages of The New Yorker.
Though it came out more than a full year after the actual bombing itself, the magazine article— which soon became a book—was one of the first in-depth, on the ground examinations of the atomic bombing that was available to the general public. (Wartime restrictions on news coverage in Occupied Japan were still in place, newsprint was rationed, and the events took place on the far end of the globe. All of which meant that there was scant first-hand reporting about what had happened in Hiroshima.)
And the story was one of the first to talk about a troubling new feature of the atomic bombing: radiation sickness.
Hersey’s article stood out in other ways as well. It focused on the human side, rather than statistics, following the stories of six individuals who survived the blast. And it took a sympathetic tone towards persons who had been on the opposing side in the war.
Everything about the story was daring: not only did it take an unusual, novelistic approach, but the 30,000-word article took up the entire magazine. The edition containing the story was prepared in secret, amid concerns as to how the article would be received.
The editors needn’t have worried. All 300,000 copies immediately sold out, and within two weeks, a second-hand copy of this special edition of The New Yorker sold for 120 times its cover price. The article was reprinted and serialized all over the world, in one of the first instances of a story going viral. Where newsprint was not available, Hersey's opus was simply read aloud and broadcast over the airwaves, says this engrossing article in the BBC Magazine.