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The power of influence in writing on nuclear issues, – impressive storytelling in Lesley Blume’s “Fallout”

We’re in a storytelling crisis”: Advice for writing on nuclear issues, from the author of “Fallout” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Sara Z. Kutchesfahani | December 16, 2020  Storytelling is an important tool to change public perception. Recent research has shown that people are ready for nuclear weapons to enter the storytelling space, as long as these new stories are told in less intimidating ways and feature nuclear weapons in the background—rather than the forefront—of a story. Very few publications in the national security space provide a forum for storytelling, with the notable exception being the online publication Inkstick.

How can nuclear policy experts become better storytellers? I thought Lesley M. M. Blume would have some prescient advice. Her new book powerfully shows how one courageous American reporter unraveled one of the deadliest cover-ups of the 20th century—the true effects of the atomic bomb—potentially saving millions of lives. Fallout tells the incredible story of how New Yorker journalist John Hersey of Hiroshima fame was able to go to the Japanese city in the aftermath of the bombing and interview six survivors.

Even before the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the US government and military had begun a secret propaganda and information-suppression campaign to hide the devastating nature of nuclear weapons. The cover-up intensified as Allied occupation forces closed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Allied reporters, preventing leaks about the horrific long-term effects of radiation that would kill thousands during the months after the blast. For nearly a year, the cover-up worked—until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and managed to report the truth to the world.

As Hersey and his editors prepared his article for publication, they kept the story secret—even from most of their New Yorker colleagues. When the magazine published “Hiroshima” in August 1946 as a single issue, it became an instant global sensation, and it changed the US public’s perception of the dropping of the bombs virtually overnight from that of pride to that of visceral repulsion and existential fear. Hersey’s story brought home, for millions across the United States and around the world, the true implications of the then-new atomic age.

On December 10, I interviewed Lesley about her brilliant book. We talked about how the publication of Hiroshima changed the US public’s perception of the bombs, the lessons learned, and how nuclear experts can become better storytellers. The transcript is below. [on original].

2020. Blume’s book Fallout, published in August 2020, documents the Hiroshima cover-up and how a reporter – John Hersey – revealed it to the world. …………

Lesley M. M. Blume: There was the “before” Hersey’s Hiroshima, and then there was the “after” Hersey’s Hiroshima. Before Hersey’s book came out, the atomic bomb had been largely painted by the US government and military essentially as a conventional mega weapon. It was quickly becoming an accepted part of our conventional arsenal, even a tenable cost-saving weapon—it costs a lot less money to lob a nuke at somebody than it does to move troops into an area to wage combat—and, as such, there was a widespread acceptance of and enthusiasm about the weapon between August 1945 and August 1946. The bomb was normalized, in the public’s estimation, with surprising rapidity. [US President] Harry Truman himself referred to the bomb as just a “bigger piece of artillery.”

After Hersey’s Hiroshima comes out, readers—and not just American readers, but readers around the world—are seeing what these then-experimental weapons indeed do to human beings, not just at the moment of detonation, but in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years to come. This is because Hersey was able to document the first part of the long tail of nuclear weapons, namely that they are the weapon that continues to kill indefinitely after detonation.

The book immediately affected American attitudes: the vast majority of polled Americans in August 1945 were thrilled about the bombs because, they were told, the bombings had saved both American and Japanese lives, hastened the end of the war, and avoided a land invasion. Not only that, but they also viewed it as pure vengeance. When President Truman made his announcement about the Hiroshima bombing, he said that the Japanese had been repaid manyfold for Pearl Harbor. Many people agreed with him then, and they agree with him now; people are still passionate about the payback element of it………..

Lesley M. M. Blume: As I’ve been doing publicity for Fallout this fall since the book came out on August 4, I’ve been pretty shocked by an increased complacency toward the nuclear landscape, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has deemed the most perilous ever. I‘ve been shocked by how, here we are in the most perilous nuclear landscape in 75 years, how the nuclear threat is not on most people’s minds. And it certainly wasn’t a significant election issue by any stretch of the imagination. Whenever you would see these write ups about where the candidates stood on 10 or 12 issues such as trade with China, the pandemic, or climate change, the nuclear landscape was never one of them. The younger my interviewers were, the less concerned they were, and that’s because it hasn’t been a part of their psyche of what’s surrounding them—and not just because we’ve been dealing with other urgent existential threats like the pandemic and climate change………

And as the pandemic worsens, this issue is getting less and less attention. Fallout came out in the United Kingdom a few weeks ago, and there was no bandwidth for op-eds about staring down the nuclear threat. Nor was there much of an appetite among US editors for an op-ed advocating that the nuclear landscape be a bigger election issue—even among publications that gave Fallout considerable launch coverage.

As vaccines start to roll in, and it’s the beginning of the end for the pandemic, we need to be anticipating the moment when the news landscape opens up enough for us to leap in and start to drive home the urgency of this threat. The nuclear challenges that still face us have never been resolved in 75 years—even during historical moments when world leaders put their all into creating de-escalation mechanisms, when whole populations were completely immersed in the dangers of the nuclear threat. We are now far from eras of peak awareness like the 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s, and we need to work really, really hard to create an increased awareness as soon as possible. Because with the pandemic, there’s a vaccine; with climate change, we can work to dial it back. But nuclear disaster on a global scale? There’s no coming back from that. As Albert Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

December 17, 2020 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, media, weapons and war

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