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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
The author, John Hersey, was born in China in 1914 and spent the next 9 years there until his family returned to America. He worked as a journalist for several years after studying at Yale and Cambridge. During World War II, Hersey served as a Time magazine correspondent and later as a senior editor for Life. He was famous for his ability to discuss on an individual level the tragedies of war. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Bell for Adano, a novel portraying the Allied Forces’ occupation of Italy. His non-fictional writings on the war include Men on Batman (1942) and Into the Valley (1943), both about battles in the Pacific arena. "Hiroshima," a factual account of atomic bomb survivors based on interviews, was published in 1946. His next major project after "Hiroshima" was a historical novel, The Wall, about the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The novel was critically acclaimed and is considered the first American-written novel dealing with the Holocaust.
His account of six survivors in Hiroshima was first published as an article in The New Yorker magazine in August of 1946, one year after the bomb was dropped and World War II ended. The New Yorker devoted that entire issue to "Hiroshima," preempting any other articles or cartoons. The issue met with a tremendous response in the United States and sold out within hours. Numerous newspapers and magazines commented on Hersey’s article, and the full text was read on the radio in the U.S. and abroad. The Book of the Month Club even sent a free copy in book form to all its members. "Hiroshima" was published as a book later that same year.
A new edition was compiled forty years later, when Hersey returned to Japan to chronicle what had happened to the six main characters in that time. Hersey wrote his findings in a new final chapter, "The Aftermath," and this edition was published in 1985. "Hiroshima" remains in print and is considered a classic of World War II storytelling.
The book starts on August 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on human beings, and ends in 1985, with updates on the lives of the six survivors chronicled in the book. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and a few days later on Nagasaki, Japan had been at war with the United States for three and a half years. It was by then a losing fight for Japan, as resources and soldiers had been severely depleted and the civilian population was living on meager rations. The atomic bomb attacks were a final devastation to Japan’s war effort, and it surrendered unconditionally only nine days after Hiroshima’s destruction, on August 15, 1945.
For its part, the United States meant to use the atomic bomb as an extreme measure that would force Japan to give up its losing war. In World War II, Japan had waged a "total war," in which civilians were as dedicated and indoctrinated to the national cause as were soldiers. Everyone had been taught that it was honorable to die for the Emperor, and families and communities were prepared to commit suicide rather than be taken as prisoners if the American forces were to invade. Faced with such stubborn resistance and wide-spread brainwashing, the U.S. leadership feared massive casualties on both sides if they were forced to wage a land war in Japan. To this day, the American government states this reason for its use of the atomic bomb on civilian populations.
After Japan surrendered, the U.S. set up an occupational government to purge military leaders and rebuild the country. For these first few post-war years, Americans were fascinated by their former enemies and very focused on how they could transform and revitalize Japan. It was in this environment that John Hersey’s "Hiroshima" debuted. The U.S. public was eager for the information in this factual account of atomic bomb survivors.