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How John Hersey Bore Witness

The author of Hiroshima showed the world the realities of American power.

Illustration by Dale Stephanos

Some writers are known for their oeuvre. Some are known for their personality. John Hersey, as the subtitle of Jeremy Treglown’s biography attests, is known as the “author of Hiroshima.” Taking up most of the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker, Hersey’s article was a media sensation, selling out that issue of the magazine, and a spectacular success when reprinted as a book a few months later. Nothing he did after—not his speculative novel imagining China conquering the United States and forcing its white citizens into slavery, White Lotus; not his nonfiction account of a grisly police murder in the 1967 Detroit riot, The Algiers Motel Incident (later fictionalized by Kathryn Bigelow in the film Detroit); not his social novel of bourgeois malaise, The Marmot Drive; not his commentary accompanying Ansel Adams’s photographs of Japanese-Americans interred in a concentration camp during World War II, Manzanar; not even his best-selling meditation on fishing, Blues—would reach the level of renown achieved by his slim book about the American atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Indeed, little of Hersey’s other work is read or remembered today. Most of it is out of print.

by Jeremy Treglown

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $28.00

Sadly, I’m not here to tell you that Hersey is a forgotten genius awaiting rediscovery. Some of his work is plodding and mediocre. His formative years at Time and Life left a deadening, middlebrow mark on his style, blunting the edges of an otherwise singular perspective. Hersey is at his best in extremity, as in his war writing and in Hiroshima, where his restrained, sober voice is able to describe violence and horror that in the hands of a more lively writer might seem lurid. He can write about the panicked tension of a bombing run, a sniper attack, and people’s skin melting off their bodies without letting his prose turn purple, without trying to make his sentences perform the reaction the reader must feel. Hersey is often regarded as a progenitor of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but he couldn’t be further from the antic gyrations of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, or Michael Herr, or even the brilliantly rococo self-dramatizations of Joan Didion. The title Treglown takes for his biography is apt: Not only morally but also stylistically, Hersey is “Mr. Straight Arrow.”

Yet Hersey’s writing is stranger and more obsessive than its conventional form would suggest. His lifelong fixation on East Asia and his insistent interest in the extremes of the human condition were no doubt related to a sense of alienation he seemed to have felt his entire life. His stories and books always seek out the victims of violence, the survivors, the men and women who are trampled by power yet find a way to keep going. Many of his stories might today raise ethical questions about co-opting others’ voices—victims of the atomic bomb, concentration camp survivors, black Americans brutalized by police violence—yet in his time he was one of the few to bring these stories into the mainstream of American culture.

He also happened to live during a time of epochal change, the dawn of what his employer of many years, Henry Luce, called “the American Century,” a period today shrouded in myth. People talk about “World War II–style mobilization,” the Marshall Plan, and the “Good War” without any real sense of what actually happened in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, or any apprehension of what those grim decades were like for the people who lived through them. We tend to forget that most Americans favored staying out of the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or that, after that attack, most Americans saw the war primarily as a mission of vengeance against the Japanese, who many thought deserved complete extermination. The racial hatred that swept America in the war years is well documented by historian John Dower in his book War Without Mercy, and exemplified by an iconic photo that ran in the May 22, 1944, issue of Henry Luce’s Life, showing a demure young woman gazing thoughtfully at the Japanese skull her Navy boyfriend had sent her.

Likewise, we might remember Hiroshima, in part thanks to Hersey, but we tend to forget that dropping the atomic bomb was seen by analysts at the time as militarily unnecessary, since Japan was already near collapse and suing for peace, and that the decision to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians was made largely as a show of force against Soviet Russia, to keep the Russian army from encroaching on America’s gains in East Asia, and because of technocratic inertia: So much money and effort had been sunk into the Manhattan Project that the “gadget” simply had to be used. We also tend to forget about the American napalm raids on Japan before Hiroshima, such as the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed more than 100,000 civilians and displaced more than a million people.

Recalling these atrocities puts Hersey’s groundbreaking work in its appropriate context. Hiroshima may have turned out a massive success, but it was written against the grain. Treglown’s careful study of Hersey’s life and work helps shed light on a time as distant and mythic to us today as the Wild West was to Hersey. Mr. Straight Arrow stands out in Treglown’s biography as a writer of empathy and curiosity, a writer whose plain style conveyed the desperate struggle for survival and dignity in the face of oppression, violence, and political chaos.

A classic insider-outsider, never quite at home in the elite world in which he moved, Hersey spent his career shuttling between the margins and the center, struggling to connect. Born in June 1914, just before the start of World War I, in the Chinese port city of Tientsin (now Tianjin), Hersey was the son of Protestant missionaries, which fact helped him get a scholarship spot at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut; he then entered Yale on another scholarship. His brother’s old Hotchkiss roommate, Sheldon Luce, helped get him a job offer from Henry Luce at Time-Life. He turned it down and spent a year studying English literature at Cambridge on a Mellon scholarship instead, then worked for a few months as a private secretary for Sinclair Lewis. 

He took another shot at Time. Within two years, he was given a desk in the Foreign News section and sent to cover the war in China. He visited Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Chungking (Chongqing), saw Chiang Kai-shek, and returned to his birthplace, Tientsin, then occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army, just as a crisis broke out that nearly led to war between Japan and Great Britain. In autumn 1939, as Poland fell to German and Russian tanks, he courted Frances Ann Cannon, whose other beau, a roguish young man named Jack Kennedy, was seen by her parents as something of a problem.

Germany conquered France. Henry Luce published his now-famous editorial in Life declaring that in “The American Century,” the United States “must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world.” Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill, enabling economic and military support for the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China. In December 1941, the Japanese navy and army launched simultaneous surprise attacks on U.S. and British colonial military bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, and Sarawak.

Within hours of the attack on the Philippines, an editor at Knopf asked Hersey to write about it. This invitation led to his first book, Men on Bataan, a hasty synthesis of interviews, correspondents’ cables, and biographical sketches, one part biography of General Douglas MacArthur, one part apologetic summary of MacArthur’s disastrous failed defense of the Philippines, and one part oral history of the soldiers who fought there. Hersey then convinced Luce to send him to the Pacific as a war correspondent. He was soon filing stories from the USS Hornet, at the time the only American carrier operating in the Pacific, and collecting material on a lusty, aggressive, hyper-competent bomber pilot named William “Gus” Widhelm, material that would go into Hersey’s 1959 bomber novel, The War Lover.

By October 1942, he was on Guadalcanal with a company of Marines making a bloody, confused assault across the Matanikau River, which ended in defeat—and Hersey’s second book. Only mildly marred by the sentimentality that infects so much American war writing, Hersey’s account of the first American land offensive of World War II, Into the Valley (1943), sated a fierce public thirst. It is a grim and harrowing book, portraying the Marines not as gung ho warriors but as men desperate “to get the goddamn thing over and get home.” It shows them withdrawing in fear, under fire, and focuses on the runners, wire-stringers, and medical corpsmen who Hersey argues were the bravest men on the battlefield. Hersey’s description of the company’s retreat, which he made alongside stretcher bearers and the walking wounded, is a study in pathos. One man begs the medics to help him “take a crap”: They do, then he passes out and dies. The book sold well, despite its gloomy tone, and solidified Hersey’s reputation as a first-rate war reporter. 

The next year, after crossing two oceans, Hersey landed at Sicily a few weeks after the Allied invasion there and began writing stories about the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, the body responsible for governing the Sicilians liberated by General George S. Patton’s Seventh Army. The occupation inspired Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, which won a Pulitzer. The novel’s narrative is flawed by its crude caricatures of the Sicilian people, a prose style sometimes heavily accented by saccharine Time-Life portentousness, and a disappointing lack of complexity in its protagonist, Major Joppolo; nevertheless, it offers a shrewd and subtle depiction of what it might mean for America to be “the Good Samaritan of the entire world.”

Having grown up as a missionary’s kid in China gave Hersey a distinct perspective, making him at once critical of heavy-handed bureaucratic missteps and idealistic about the effect that one good man in the right place might have. A Bell for Adano isn’t quite The Quiet American, but I found it insightful reading in 2005, having recently come back from a combat tour in Iraq. The military Hersey describes in A Bell for Adano is one I recognized from Baghdad: a hidebound institution that reacted with sometimes astonishing stupidity, run by professional sociopaths and staffed by idealistic young officers whose missionary zeal was matched only by their naïveté. Early in the novel, the American commander, General Marvin, has his men throw a Sicilian cart-driver and his cart into a ditch because they’re “holding up traffic,” then orders a colonel to shoot the cart-driver’s mule to stop its braying, a scene whose casual cruelty reminded me of driving Iraqi families off the road when they got in the way of our convoys.

In 1944, Luce sent Hersey to Moscow, where he wrote about culture and politics, visited war-torn cities in Estonia and Poland, interviewed concentration camp survivors, toured the Warsaw Ghetto, and saw evidence of the Nazi “Final Solution” firsthand. Some of this material went into stories for Life, some of it into his second novel. A deeply researched, fictionalized portrayal of Jewish efforts to document life in the Warsaw Ghetto, The Wall, published in 1950, was the first American novel to deal with what later came to be called the Holocaust.

In the meantime, Luce offered Hersey the job of managing editor, but Hersey declined, which caused a falling out between the two. Luce’s increasingly heavy-handed political agenda—avowedly Republican and fervently anti-Communist—had been sparking conflicts with his reporters in the field, especially when it came to China, and Hersey’s letter turning down Luce’s promotion made a point of Hersey’s “being politically a democrat, both with and without a capital D.” This testified to the rift emerging between Hersey and his employer, since Hersey’s politics were never ideological, but rather grounded in the complexities of experience. Treglown writes:

Hersey was never a Communist. His attitude to China was that of an ‘apprehensive liberal’…. Still, to Hersey, not being a Communist was not the same as being dogmatically anti-Communist. On his arrival in Moscow, he brought himself up to date by reading back numbers of Time and was shocked by the magazine’s partisanship. 

Luce and Hersey would never be close again, and Hersey soon left Time-Life.

Over the winter and spring of 1945 and ’46, Hersey, now a freelancer, sailed down the Yangtze, examined the war’s impact in Beijing and Shanghai, and traveled to Japan, where he spent six weeks in Hiroshima researching what he planned would be a series of articles for The New Yorker. Hours of interviews and the close study of complex documents resulted in an intimate, devastating portrait of the victims of American military violence, a deeply textured yet plainspoken narrative with the unity and momentum of Greek tragedy. Hersey’s decision to focus on six people physically affected by the bomb (including two doctors, a Protestant minister, and a German Jesuit priest) helped make his horrific narrative relatable. Yet, as Treglown attests, Hersey “worked like a war poet as much as a journalist. The power of his text is not just a matter of raw material.” Hersey’s careful attention to detail—his “fastidiousness in deploying the idioms of his witnesses,” his focus on how plants were affected by the bomb, and his painstaking scientific research—gives the work a vivid granularity and an immersive feel.

Beyond the recognition Hersey rightfully deserves for Hiroshima, he should also be recognized as one of America’s most important writers of World War II. Men on BataanInto the ValleyA Bell for AdanoHiroshimaThe Wall, and The War Lover are works of remarkable range and insight, taking us from Guadalcanal to the Warsaw Ghetto, from the victims of American bombing to the men in the air dropping bombs, from defeat to occupation. Into the Valley stands with Richard Tregaskis’s Guadalcanal Diary, published at nearly the same time, as an important early account of a key battle; A Bell for Adano should be read alongside John Horne Burns’s caustic novel The Gallery as a critical depiction of American occupation.

The War Lover is in itself a significant literary achievement. A taut psychological thriller about the conflict between a nihilistic but heroic bomber pilot and his anxious co-pilot, the novel presents a fuller and more finely grained picture of flying a bomber over Europe than any other novel, even Catch-22. If The War Lover lacks the humor of Joseph Heller’s famously absurdist work, it also abjures its cartoonish adolescent simplifications. The War Lover rather more resembles the underappreciated Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens, James Jones’s classic The Thin Red Line, or Martha Gellhorn’s The Wine of Astonishment, and belongs with them as a serious exploration of the moral, social, and psychological nuances of American military life during World War II.

It’s been said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but no deity has yet found a method for teaching us history. We much prefer the simplicity and comfort of myths: that we fought World War II primarily to stop the Nazis; that dropping the atomic bomb was a regrettable necessity; or that the literature of World War II is best exemplified by stories of American trauma. The actual truth behind the so-called Good War is much less glorious, much more multifaceted, even contradictory. It was both a desperate existential struggle and an aggressive imperial expansion; a brutal war for racial extermination and an idealistic struggle for universal human rights; a cynical and pragmatic slog to get the job done and a revival of America’s Protestant mission in the wilderness; a war fought by a Jim Crow military that also saw real gains in racial equality; a time of collective sacrifice and unprecedented national unity that was also characterized by scandalous profiteering, bitter racial strife, and incessant political infighting. As a marginal member of the elite, a deeply embedded critic of empire, and a liberal reformer when the term still meant something, John Hersey lived and in some ways embodied these contradictions.

Treglown’s engaging biography brings to life crucial decades of the “American Century” in all their fraught complexity, decades that we must reexamine in order to understand how we’ve gotten where we are today. Now that the American-led global order that Henry Luce helped imagine seems destined to splinter into conflict amid ecological and political calamity, it’s urgent that we turn to history—not only to understand the present, but also to understand how it could have been otherwise.

The coincidences and mysteries that make up a life like Hersey’s—the mix of obsession, conflict, and chance that led to something as seemingly inevitable as his now legendary story of Hiroshima—are small instances of the vast contingency that rules the world of human action. Close attention to the specific details of complex global events is a wedge that can be driven into the seemingly inevitable progression of the past, and might also help us perceive turning points in the present. Such careful attention was a hallmark of Hersey’s writing, as it is of Treglown’s. It is an example worth following.