Speaking of the Unspeakable

I could not understand why our surroundings had changed so greatly in one instant. I thought it might have been something which had nothing to do with the war, the collapse of the earth which it was said would take place at the end of the world, and which I had read about as a child… — Yōko Ōta, quoted in Robert J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima



Last month, I looked back at the Bikini Atoll Atom-Bomb tests of July 1946, in part through the eyes of David Bradley, a young American radiologist who, returning to a “happy, well fed and well amused” San Francisco in October, was surprised at first to find:

…so little interest in the Bikini tests. But we really had no right to be. Atomic energy was an uncomfortable subject. Things like John Hersey’s Hiroshima were rough. How much more pleasant to consider the coming miracles of healing, the prolongation of life, the days of sunny leisure which people were everywhere promising.

Hiroshima by John HerseyBradley is referring to the account by 31-year-old war correspondent and novelist John Hersey of the Bombing as experienced by six survivors, appearing – as historian Paul Boyer wrote in By The Bomb’s Early Light – in an unlikely setting:

Readers of the New Yorker had little reason to suspect that the August 31, 1946, issue would not offer the magazine’s usual urbane mélange of cartoons, humorous pieces, cultural comment. The cover was a lighthearted collage of summer fun and games: swimming, sunbathing, tennis, croquet. In fact, however…

…at 08:15 on the clear blue morning of August 6, 1945, Dr. Masakazu Fujii “was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital” beside the Kyo River – “he liked to read the Osaka news because his wife was there” – “when he saw the flash,” which, “to him, faced away from the center and looking at his paper, seemed a brilliant yellow. Startled, he began to rise to his feet.” In that moment:

…the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river. The Doctor, still in the act of getting to his feet, was thrown forward and around and over; he was buffeted and gripped; he lost track of everything, because things were so speeded up…

At that split second, Hersey’s readers learnt, 270 of the 300 doctors, and 1,654 of the 1,780 nurses in the city’s health department were vaporized, boiled or grievously wounded, while the new, state-of-the-art Red Cross Hospital was reduced to ruins soon besieged by legions of what seemed apparitions: flayed, walking corpses; charred, dying ghosts…


On September 8, seven months before Hersey arrived to conduct his interviews, Dr. Marcel Junod of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) became the first foreign doctor to enter ‘the city,’ or rather the void where “everything had been torn apart, blasted and swept away as if by a supernatural power.” In an “emergency hospital” in a “half-demolished school” with “many holes in the roof,” through which a drenching rain fell, Junod found “eighty-four sick and injured,” most dying, with “ten nurses and twenty schoolgirls, who seem to be very little,” trying to cope with “no water, no sanitary installations, no kitchen,” and “dressings made of coarse cloth.” ‘Treated’ once a day by a single doctor, the injured:

…often have uncovered wounds and thousands of flies settle on them and buzz around. Everything is incredibly filthy. Several patients are suffering from the delayed effects of radioactivity with multiple haemorrhages. They need small blood transfusions at regular intervals, but…

…there was no way, no chance, no time. “When we visited the ruined station,” Junod wrote, “the hands of the clock had stopped at this historic moment, 8.15.”

Indian soldiers wander in destroyed Hiroshima, June 1946

Indian soldiers wander in destroyed Hiroshima, June 1946. (Unknown author, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

Seventy years ‘later,’ as chronicled by the ICRC, the Moment continued to wreak havoc:

In the year ending 31 March 2015 alone, the Hiroshima Atomic-Bomb Survivors Hospital treated 4,657 individual officially recognized survivors whose care involved 62,130 outpatient visits and 34,807 inpatient admissions. Of the atomic bomb survivor deaths that occurred in the hospital through March 2014, nearly two-thirds (63%) were attributed to malignant tumors (cancer) of which the primary types were lung cancer (20%), stomach cancer (18%), liver cancer (14%), leukemia (8%), intestinal cancer (7%) and malignant lymphoma (6%).

In the same period, the Red Cross Hospital in Nagasaki treated even more survivors, 6,030, and handled 23,865 outpatients visits by survivors’ children, “underlining concerns about second-generation health effects of nuclear weapons.”


What is sometimes called ‘the Great Acceleration’ that began with the Bomb paradoxically brought customary human time – a present presupposing a future – to an end. And not just in Hiroshima

and Nagasaki, for as cultural theorist Timothy Morton writes, the “thinking style (and thus the writing style) that this turn of events necessitates is one in which the normal certainties are inverted, or even dissolved” for everyone.

Hiroshima survivor art, "Something Slimy Covered My Body," Satoshi Yoshimoto, 1973-4.

Art by Hiroshima survivor Satoshi Yoshimoto — Black Rain: “Something Slimy Covered My Body.” Black rain is created when normal rain is darkened by radioactive debris.

Conveying this ‘world turned upside down’ – turning this ‘turn of events’ to good account – was the absurd challenge faced by Hersey, a theme symbolically introduced in his opening chapter, ‘A Noiseless Flash,’ with the literal collapse of language endured by one of his interviewees, Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works, “paralyzed with fear, fixed still in her chair for a long moment,” when:

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking beneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.

The Bomb is a Letter Bomb, as Peter Schwenger titled his study on ‘Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word’, arguing that “nuclear disaster” – as it has already befallen us, and all-too-likely may again – generates “images which, at the deepest level, turn upon themselves to question the very notion of imaging itself”: the “questions that were initiated by the birth of the bomb” – the diabolical, proliferating consequences of nuclear futurelessness – “will not leave: we can’t go home again.”

Though unavoidable, this exile was a fate the American novelist William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Lecture, refused to accept:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

“Because of this,” he suspected, “the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart,” the perennial theme “which alone can make good writing” and is “worth the agony and the sweat.” What, then, should s/he do? Well, simply “forget” the Bomb “forever,” reclaim “the old verities” and “universal truths lacking which any story” – perhaps any world – “is ephemeral and doomed.” And until the writer “relearns” these pre-Bomb “things,” s/he “labors under a curse,” unable to help humanity “endure and prevail.”

The “basest of all things,” Faulkner argued, “is to be afraid”: and nuclear fear is the basest fear of all.


But for Hersey, it was neither possible nor courageous to ‘never talk of This again’: to ‘ban the Bomb,’ but only from our minds! Many Americans seemed already acclimated to the Abyss, somnolently ‘at home’ in the brave new world. And the best way to wake them, he reasoned, was to humanize a handful of the hated, relentlessly-stereotyped ‘Japs’ who had been attacked: to let the old ‘enemy’ speak of the new one.

“I felt,” Hersey recalled in 1984, “I would like to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings, and I cast about for a way to find a form for that.” During his three weeks in Hiroshima, he was “terrified all the time,” confronting the incomprehensible truth that “these ruins had been created by one instrument in one instant. If I felt that coming there eight months later, what must the feelings of the people who were there at the time have been?” It was only, he modestly insisted, his “struggling efforts to understand what they must have felt that produced whatever I was able to produce.”

John Hersey

John Hersey

But what a politically explosive ‘product’ that was, “a remarkable work of reporting,” as psychologist Robert J. Lifton and historian Greg Mitchell wrote in their 1995 study Hiroshima in America: a Half-Century of Denial, restoring “to public consciousness not only the subject of Hiroshima but the reality of the human costs of the bomb.”

The novella-length article rapidly sold out, reissued as a bestselling book before the end of the year. In addition, all 30,000 words were read on ABC Radio over four consecutive evenings, meaning millions of Americans registered the atrocious reality of atomic war in a radically new way, falling from the 30,000-feet at which the Bomb was dropped to at least glimpse its impact on:

  • the Methodist pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto, gazing from a soon-to-be-engulfed hilltop at “an astonishing panorama,” a “thick, dreadful miasma” covering what had been, heartbeats before, the city center;
  • Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, trying to shepherd her three small children through hell, all silent “except for the five-year-old, Myeko, who kept asking… ‘why is it night already?’’;
  • Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon working for 19 “gruesome” hours in the remains of the Red Cross Hospital – “dust, blood and vomit everywhere” – where “patients were dying by the hundreds, but there was nobody to carry away the corpses”;
  • the German Jesuit priest Wilhelm Kleinsorge, who on the morning of August 7 – haunted by yesterday’s “silence in the grove by the river, where hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together” – walked dazed past “many dead in the gardens” of Asano Park, finding at “a beautiful moon bridge…a naked, living woman who seemed to have been burned from head to foot and was red all over”;
  • Dr. Fujii, “stupefied” to find himself “squeezed…under beams” in a half-submerged hospital, who somehow “wriggled” free to stagger into streams of “wounded…hurrying across the bridge in an endless parade of misery,” many exhibiting “terrible burns on their faces and arms”;
  • and the book-buried, badly-injured Miss Sasaki, rescued and “dragged” by an unknown man, through heavy rain to a corrugated-iron “kind of lean-to” he’d flung together, the scene, for me, of one of Hersey’s most harrowing passages:

She was grateful until he brought two horribly wounded people – a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn – to share the simple shed with her. No one came back. The rain cleared and the cloudy afternoon was hot; before nightfall the three grotesques under the slanting piece of twisted iron began to smell quite bad.


Not every reader was harrowed, either because they were seemingly determined not to be – “I read Hersey’s report,” Lifton and Mitchell quote one New Yorker subscriber, “It was marvelous. Now let us drop a handful on Moscow” – or because they recoiled at the attempt to ‘humanize Hiroshima,’ tell a relatable tale ironically obscuring what a New York Times editorial called “the special horror of the atom bomb,” “precisely its direful arithmetic.” Radical journalist Dwight Macdonald excoriated a “naturalism” that “is no longer adequate, either esthetically or morally,” to “cope” with the “modern horrors” of the Age. “The ‘little people’ of Hiroshima,” Macdonald, wrote in disgust:

…whose sufferings Hersey records in antiseptic New Yorker prose might just as well be white mice for all the pity, horror, or indignation the reader – or at least this reader – is made to feel for them.

Harry S. Truman, official portrait (cropped)

Harry S. Truman

What possible expressive style, though – what mode of ‘post-naturalism’ – could hope to describe the indescribable? Macdonald complained that “the mounds of dead are only seen vaguely in the background,” and novelist Mary McCarthy suggested that instead of interviewing the survivors, to “have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead.” But because literature cannot perform such miracles, should it conclude that ‘the best is silence,’ or cede all ground to ‘direful arithmetic’? Is it an injustice to the Bomb’s victims to listen to its survivors?

Certainly, the US government wished Hersey hadn’t listened, shattering the complacent consensus around the ‘legitimacy’ of the 1945 attacks. On the day of Hiroshima, President Harry S. Truman stated plainly that “the Japanese” had “been repaid many fold” for Pearl Harbor. But now so many Americans could put six specific faces to ‘the Japanese,’ a rationale of collective, deliberately disproportionate punishment no longer sufficed. The palate had to be cleansed, and was, by a February 1947 article by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson which, Lifton and Mitchell wrote, “caused a sensation nearly akin to that produced” by Hersey, “reducing the critics to silence” (well, not quite) by insisting the Bombings were the only way to end the war, and thus saved far more lives than they took. And though both claims have long been debunked, they continue to shape the Orwellian ‘memory hole’ where the true story of Hiroshima lies buried.

Hersey himself was acutely aware of the drastic existential constraints on his venture, writing after introducing his interviewees that “a hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.” Though almost all survivors, or hibakusha, suffered loss, injury, illness, and even stigmatization in the new Hiroshima and Japan, many became tireless advocates for a nuclear-weapon-free world, convinced their miraculously-spared voices should and must be heard. And after decades of often lonely struggle, in the last dozen years hibakusha – together with Indigenous survivors of nuclear testing – have played a key role in the ‘Humanitarian Initiative,’ a global alliance of anti-nuclear states and movements turning the small world of traditional disarmament diplomacy upside down and generating the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ whose Preamble acknowledges the part played by hibakusha in galvanizing global “public conscience in the furthering of the principles of humanity as evidenced by the call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”


When she heard that the Ban had entered into force in January this year, hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow, 13 at the time of the Bombing, “remained in my chair,” “put my head in my hands,” “cried tears of joy,” and “found myself speaking with the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was immediately in conversation with these beloved souls – my sister, my nephew Eiji, other dear family members, my classmates, all the children and innocent people who perished.”

“I was,” she said:

reporting to the dead, sharing this good news first with them, because they paid the ultimate price with their precious lives. Like many survivors, I made a vow that their deaths would not be in vain…

Thurlow, a Canadian citizen since the 1950s, of course understands that the Ban – currently snubbed by the ‘nuclear nine’ (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, US) and their 32 pro-Bomb allies, including Canada – cannot by itself deliver abolition. Unlike Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however – who refuses to meet her, and dismisses the Ban as “sort of useless” – she dares to dream the Treaty may prove “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons”: not that humanity can ‘go home’ again – turn back the clock to 8:14 – but that it might still avoid self-destruction.

Rebecca Johnson and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow embrace after the adoption of the Ban Treaty, 7 July 2017.

Rebecca Johnson and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow embrace after the adoption of the Ban Treaty, 7 July 2017.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn subtitled The Gulag Archipelago – his indefinable attempt to surface the trauma of the Soviet death camps – ‘An Experiment in Literary Investigation.’ The Humanitarian Initiative, I suggest, was a political experiment in the spirit of Hersey’s literary experiment, rooted in respectful recognition of the unique importance of survivor testimony. But however much his article shows the importance of continuing to seek ways to speak truth to power – even (or especially) nuclear power – there remains a sense in which the ‘unspeakability’ of what happened in Hiroshima renders any and all language ineloquent. A 1977 Japanese study on the attack insisted: “It is no exaggeration to say that the whole city was ruined instantaneously.” The arithmetic is certainly direful – of 76,000 buildings, 48,000 were destroyed, another 22,000 damaged – and such erasure, as Richard Rhodes concludes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, cannot be eulogized:

The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living, and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged. … Only the living can describe the dead; but where death claimed nine out of ten, or, closer to the hypocenter, ten out of ten, a living voice necessarily distorts.

The “terrible silence” that the hibakusha-author Yōko Ōta recalled – “which made one feel that all people and trees and vegetation were dead” – suggests an unutterable, because utter, desolation: an absence even of absence. Such silence, Rhodes writes, was “the only sound that the dead could make,” a voicelessness prophesying “the worst case of our common future.”

Our certain future, I believe. Unless we lift the Curse.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.