John Hersey, Hiroshima, and the End of World
It was the end of the world, but if you didn’t live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, you didn’t know it. Not in 1945 anyway. One man, John Hersey, brought that reality to Americans in an unforgettable fashion in a classic 1946 report in the New Yorker magazine on what happened under that first wartime mushroom cloud. When I read it in book form as a young man — and I did so for a personal reason — it stunned me. Hersey was the master of my college at Yale when I was an undergraduate and he was remarkably kind to me. That report of his from Hiroshima would haunt me for the rest of my life.
In 1982, I actually visited that city. I was then an editor at the publishing house Pantheon Books. I had grown up in a 1950s world in which schoolchildren “ducked and covered” (diving under our desks) in drills to learn how to protect ourselves — I know it sounds ridiculous today — should Russian nuclear weapons hit New York, the city I lived in. Yellow signs indicating air-raid shelters were then commonplace on the streets. In those years, people not in cities were building their own personal fallout shelters, stocked with food, and some even threatened to shoot anyone who tried to join them there as the missiles descended. (A friend of mine remembers just such a threat, delivered by one of his schoolmates about his father’s shelter.)
We were, in other words, in a Cold War world that always seemed to be teetering at the edge of the apocalyptic. And yet here was the strange thing: with the obvious exception of Hersey’s book, there were still, in those years, remarkably few ways to see under those mushroom clouds that had destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was August 2017 and Donald Trump had not yet warmed up to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s portly dictator. In fact, in typical Trumpian fashion, he was pissed at the Korean leader and, no less typically, he lashed out verbally, threatening that country with a literal hell on Earth. As he put it, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And then, just to make his point more personally, he complained about Kim himself, “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state.”
Only a year and a half later, our asteroidal president would, of course, say of that same man, “We fell in love.” Still, that threat by an American leader to — it was obvious — launch a nuclear strike for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nearly obliterated in August 1945 was memorable. The phrase would, in fact, become the title of a 2018 bestselling book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by journalist Michael Wolff. Two years later, amid so many other threatening phrases from this president, “fire and fury” has, however, been left in history’s dustbin, largely forgotten by the world.
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”
The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.
Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.
Or American Carnage From a Pandemic President
The year was 1991 and the United States was suddenly the globe’s lone superpower, its ultimate hyperpower, the last and greatest of its kind, the soon-to-be-indispensable nation. The only one left — alone, utterly alone and triumphant atop the world.
Who could have asked for more? Or better? It had been a Cold War fantasy of the first order — until that other superpower, the Soviet Union, imploded. In fact, even that doesn’t catch the true shock of the moment, since Washington’s leaders simply hadn’t imagined a world in which the Cold War could ever truly end.
Now, go ahead, blame me. In this pandemic moment that should perhaps be considered a sign of a burning, sickening future to come, I’m stoking your nostalgia for better times. Admittedly, even that past was, in truth, a fantasy of the first (or perhaps last) order. After all, in retrospect, that mighty, resplendent, lone superpower, victorious beyond the wildest dreams of its political elite, was already about to embark on its own path of decline. Enwreathed in triumph, it, too, would be heading for the exits, even if so much more slowly than the Soviet Union.