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3: Hiroshima: a war ends, and an "age" begins

Seminar PowerPoint slides

No emblem so powerfully symbolizes the end of the war in Asia-- and the dawning of a new 'atomic age'-- as the mushroom-shaped clouds that loomed over Japan in August, 1945. In this seminar we read two accounts of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima side-by-side, juxtaposing the single most influential American-authored account with a lesser-known diary written by a Japanese physician. These documents help us appreciate the magnitude and horrific destructiveness of nuclear weapons in a visceral way that highlights consequences both psychological and physical. Hersey's Hiroshima and Hachiya's Diary reveal something of how both those whose military had dropped the bombs, and those who suffered their consequences, made sense of this new addition to the arsenal of twentieth-century warfare. In addition, these works-- and their varied contemporary receptions-- help illuminate the twinned experiences of winning and losing the most destructive war in human history, perhaps also gesturing towards reconciliation between victors and vanquished.

Seminar questions

  • As a reader (not necessarily as an historian) which work did you find more powerful and why?
  • How would you characterise Hersey's Hiroshima? Is this 'straight journalism' or something else? What do critics who label it a 'non-fiction novel' mean by that designation?
  • What are the most important points for historians to draw from Hiroshima?
  • How do you imagine American readers responded to this piece in 1946 (or soon thereafter)? What might account for its status as the most widely read description of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima?
  • in what ways does Dr Hachiya's diary differ from Hersey's reportage? What distinctive insights are afforded by reading a Japanese account of these events?
  • to what extent can-- or should-- we read these two accounts as gestures towards postwar reconciliation?

Required reading:

Primary sources: John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946)

Michihiko Hachiya, Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 - September 30, 1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995) e-book [SELECTIONS including John Dower, Foreword to the 1995 edition; and Diary entries up to Aug. 18, 1945, pp.1-91]

Supplementary reading:

Kathy Roberts Forde, "Profit and Public Interest: A Publication History of John Hersey's Hiroshima," Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 88, iii (Autumn 2011): 562-79

Yuki Hiyamoto, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima (Fordham University Press, 2012) e-book

Averill A. Liebow, Encounter with Disaster: A Medical Diary of Hiroshima (Norton, 1971)

M. Susan Lindee, Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (University of Chicago Press, 1997) e-book

Sadako Teiko Okuda, A Dimly Burning Wick: Memoir from the Ruins of Hiroshima (Algora Publishing, 2008) e-book

Michael Yavenditti, ‘John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of Hiroshima,’ Pacific Historical Review, 43, 1 (Feb. 1974): 22-49

Ran Zwigenberg, Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2014) e-book