In August 1946, The New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to John Hersey’s essay Hiroshima, which told the stories of six people who survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Blume provides the background to Hersey’s work: how the government tried to cover up or at least downplay the extent of the destruction and suffering unleashed on a largely civilian population, how Hersey managed to get the story anyway, and how it finally came to be published.
Despite covering a heavy subject, this is a captivating read because Blume is a good writer who through meticulous research has compiled many intriguing anecdotes and tidbits relating to a story that, on top of that, is inhabited by colourful characters like Harold Ross and William Shawn, the founder and the editor of The New Yorker, as well as other interesting people involved with the media, politics, or the military. The focus is on the measures taken by the government to hide the true effect of the atomic bombs from the public, how Hersey managed to even get to Hiroshima despite these measures and what happened there, and the goings-on at The New Yorker. All this is presented in a mostly straightforward way without many frills but a ton of facts.
But despite all these positive aspects, there is one big problem: Fallout suffers from being a very good book about not only a great book, but a milestone in the history of journalism. It needed to find its own feet, develop a strong narrative about propaganda and censorship, and the generally complicated relationship between the media and politics. Sadly, it doesn’t quite manage this. The consequence of this is a lack of substance, and an inability to firmly stand on its own. It does not step out of Hiroshima‘s admittedly very large shadow, and so it underperforms and also disappoints a little, because it is such a well-researched and well-written book that the potential for a more comprehensive approach was there. Maybe it didn’t aspire to provide more than insight and background on a landmark of journalism, but I still feel that it is a missed opportunity.
Despite this, it is an engaging and sometimes fascinating read that certainly works as an insistent reminder of the importance of independent journalism for a functioning democracy. Also, it very effectively brings up the horrors of nuclear war at a time in which the threat of one is maybe not as present in people’s minds as it should be.