Seventy-five years ago this week, an article by novelist and war reporter John Hersey, titled simply "Hiroshima," occupied the entire feature section of the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker. Soon it would be hailed by many as one of the most important magazine stories of the century. Its impact, arriving at a time when few Americans had been exposed to the extent of the atomic bomb's horrific and lingering effects on Japanese civilians, was immediate and profound. Copies sold out within hours (Albert Einstein himself ordered a thousand); it was read in its entirely over nationwide radio; newspaper commentators instructed everyone to read it.
For officials and military leaders who took part in the decision to deploy the new weapon over the center of two cities, killing over 200,000 (the vast majority of them civilians), however, the Hersey piece posed a threat to the narrative they had promoted on why this use was necessary. But what did the man with ultimate responsibility for that, President Harry S. Truman, think about the article?
The White House was already pressuring MGM to make sure that its forthcoming movie drama, The Beginning or the End (explored in my book) painted the president and his decision in a positive light, and ordered revisions and a costly re-take of its key scene with Truman. Those close to Truman, however, had largely remained silent about the Hersey article. They didn't want to stir controversy and draw even more attention to it.
Then, on October 7, 1946, Leonard Lyons reported in his widely syndicated daily gossip column:
A White House visitor asked President Truman: "Did you read the Hiroshima piece?" He said: "What was that?" and the visitor told him: "The John Hersey piece in The New Yorker." Mr. Truman replied: "I never read The New Yorker. Just makes me mad."
Bemused, or maybe a little perturbed, famed New Yorker editor Harold Ross two days later sent Truman press secretary Charles Ross (no relation) at the White House three copies of the issue which contained the Hersey opus, along with a clip of the Lyons item. The editor explained simply that he felt the article was "one that should be read by all the influential people in the world that can be got to read it." Would the press secretary read it himself and perhaps recommend it to the President? "I wouldn't have paid any attention to this," editor Ross explained, "but I was told by a Washington newspaperman today that he is certain President Truman had not [even] heard of it." That would indeed make the president one of the relatively few in high government or intellectual circles who had not. Harold Ross added: "I think he ought to know about it."