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Hiroshima | Study Guide

John Hersey

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Hiroshima | Context


World War II

Hiroshima takes place during World War II (1939–45). The war began on September 1, when Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany. German dictator Adolf Hitler sought to expand his territory and his power by conquering other countries in Europe. Hitler aligned with two other dictatorships, Italy and Japan. Benito Mussolini governed Italy. Under Japanese Emperor Hirohito, military leaders ruled Japan. General Tojo, a particularly aggressive prime minister, led Japan throughout most of the war, including the attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

World War II proved to be one of the deadliest in history, with possibly as many as 60 million or more lives lost. Millions of people from 61 countries served in the war efforts across Europe and throughout Asia. On the European front, at least 6 million Jews died at the hands of Hitler. The introduction of nuclear weaponry resulted in the loss of more than 150,000.

The Japanese-American Conflict

Japan entered World War II not only to expand its territory, but also because of its need for natural resources. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, because it wanted to disable American naval fleets and prevent the United States from interfering in Japanese plans to conquer the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, and Southeast Asia. As a result, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war. The United States joined the Allied Powers, which included Great Britain, France, and Russia. The Allies mounted a defense against the increasing aggression of the Axis Powers, made up of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The United States' alignment with the Allied Powers strengthened the Allies, leading to their eventual victory. Italy surrendered in September of 1943, followed by Germany in May of 1945. Japan was losing the war but would not surrender. U.S. President Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt, wanted the war to end, and he worried that an invasion of Japan would result in high American casualties. On August 6, 1945, Truman ordered the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, a city that served as a Japanese military center. Another bomb was on Nagasaki, Japan, a few days later. Japan announced surrender on August 15 but formally surrendered at a ceremony on September 2, 1945, bringing about the end of the war.

Atomic Weapons


In the early 20th century scientists began to explore the atom (smallest particle of an element, such as uranium or plutonium) and the effects of radioactivity (emission of energy (heat) when the nucleus of an atom disintegrates). By the 1930s widespread anti-Semitism and a sense of racial superiority in Europe resulted in the persecution of Jews and other ethnic groups, particularly in Germany. German Jewish scientists, such as James Franck and Felix Bloch, immigrated to the United States to continue their work.

By the dawn of World War II in 1939, no atomic bomb existed. An atomic bomb gets its explosive power when energy (heat) is released due to the splitting of the nuclei of atoms in chemical elements. However, scientists understood such a weapon could exist and if it did, it would be much more powerful than any weapon to date. Scientists warned President Roosevelt that Germany was capable of developing an atomic bomb, and the president approved research and funding of atomic weaponry. This research became known as "The Manhattan Project" and led to the development of the first atom bomb, which was detonated in 1945 at Alamogordo air base in New Mexico.

Scientific and Human Effects

The detonation of an atomic bomb may result in

  • a light flash
  • a wave of heat
  • shock waves
  • a fireball
  • a mushroom cloud
  • "black" or contaminated rain

Victims of atomic weapons, such as those at Hiroshima, are often burned and develop chronic illness due to radiation. The effects of radiation sickness may include

  • fatigue
  • blood disorders
  • cancers
  • various types of tumors
  • digestive disorders
  • disfigurement
  • death

New Journalism

Hersey's storytelling techniques can be described as "New Journalism," and he was one of the early writers of the genre. The writer of New Journalism conducts interviews, observes, and gathers facts with the goal of allowing the reader to experience an event almost firsthand. Details—such as the type of magazine Father Kleinsorge is reading and the thoughts Miss Sasaki has about plunging into her office tasks in the moments prior to the bombing—suggest the depth of questioning Hersey engaged in with each of the survivors.

In Hiroshima Hersey invites readers to join each main character as he or she begins an ordinary day. The reader learns what the characters ate, what their homes looked like, and the names of their children. And then the flash. The reader feels the force of the bomb through the details. The doctor's slippers fly out from under his feet. A mother is propelled across the room. Miss Sasaki leans over to talk to a co-worker and suddenly finds herself buried and in excruciating pain from a twisted and broken leg.

Unlike the traditional structure of a nonfiction article, the structure of New Journalism is similar in some ways to fiction. Characters are thoroughly developed—the reader knows what they think, what they feel, and what they say. Characters are a combination of strengths and weaknesses. They are real people who are changed by the events of the story, yet not always in positive ways. Father Kleinsorge ministers to those in need, though his own health is failing as he ultimately succumbs to his illness. Dr. Fujii remains self-absorbed and dies an unhappy man, despite his lifelong pursuit of pleasure.

Conflict builds and tensions are resolved as the plot unfolds. The initial shock of the bombing gives way to efforts to care for the wounded and finally to rebuild both the city and people's lives. The voice tends to be personal rather than that of an objective reporter, expressing the characters' views. The six main characters, through whose eyes the reader experiences the bombing, are not emotionally distanced reporters. They are people living through this horrific event.

The goal of New Journalism is not just to present facts, but to evoke a response from the reader. Hersey draws on his expertise as a wartime journalist to gather the details that bring to life the "story world" of the people and events of World War II-era Hiroshima, Japan.

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