Veteran journalist Chris Wallace released his very first book on June 9 that takes readers on an intense 116-day period between the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Harry Truman’s order to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The book, “Countdown 1945” begins immersed in the mind of Harry Truman as he received the news of FDR’s death, and exposes his internal struggle that followed as the new president navigated new secrets and war. It’s not your typical history book; it resembles a thriller.
Wallace said that Truman’s letters sent to his wife, daughter, and sister were the keys to delving into Truman’s mind throughout those critical moments and capturing the intensity and drama of the historical moment in time.
“It’s a readable history,” Wallace told American Military News. “An engaging, interesting, and informative read.”
Retired Admiral William McRaven called it “the most exciting book I’ve read all year.”
Wallace was inspired by “April 1865: The Month That Saved America” which captured the final days of the Civil War. Until early 2019, however, he only knew he wanted to write a book that zeroed in on a key moment in history – but he didn’t yet know which moment.
The “moment” clicked for Wallace when he overheard a prebuttal delivered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her “hideaway” before President Donald Trump’s Feb. 5, 2019 State of the Union address.
“She said, ‘It was in this room that Harry Truman got the call that Roosevelt had died and he was now the president,’” Wallace explained. “I suddenly thought, ‘I’ve got it!’”
Wallace realized there were just 116 days between that moment and another huge moment – the dropping of the atomic bomb – and so he zeroed in on that time frame and dove into researching and writing over the next 8-10 months.
Truman didn’t even know the three-year-long, $2 billion Manhattan Project had existed when he was sworn in as America’s president on April 12, 1945, Wallace said. However, in the whirlwind of assuming the presidency amid a war, he quickly learned about the program – and was faced with the potential of using the deadly weapon that had never even been tested before.
“I was very impressed by how painstaking he was,” Wallace said, adding that Truman didn’t even initially consider using the atomic bomb.
Wallace pointed to an hour-long meeting between Truman and his entire war cabinet on June 18, 1945, in which they discussed critical war strategy, such as the number of troops needed to carry out the invasion, an estimated number of casualties, the duration needed to carry out their plans. Truman insisted on hearing the opinions of every official in attendance – even the most junior, John McCloy.
It was McCloy who told Truman, “I know we need to have our heads examined if we don’t at least consider using the atomic bomb.”
At the same time, Truman was hearing –and even welcoming – opposing opinions warning him against using it. One of those warnings came from Dwight Eisenhower.
“Truman didn’t always go along with the advice, but he wanted to hear it all,” Wallace said.
The bomb wouldn’t even be tested until the following month.
“Most of the military seemed to support using the weapon, particularly after it had been tested and they knew that it worked,” Wallace said. “Going ahead with the invasion was going to be a very bloody process as well. The estimates were somewhere between a quarter and a half million American casualties, and the war would go on for another year and a half.”
Most of the military believed the bomb was the key to ending the war, Wallace said. Eventually, so did Truman.
The 509th Composite Group – comprised of the Army Air Force’s best pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and support crew – carried out the deployment of the atomic bombs. Wallace said he was impressed by their meticulous planning and steadfast focus on the mission.
What surprised Wallace most about Truman, however, was that he “struggled deeply” with the decision to use the atomic bomb, despite his usual decisiveness.
“It was the most consequential decision that any president had to make, and he agonized over it,” Wallace said.
Wallace said that decision was made in a unique moment in history with the U.S. being the only nation to possess nuclear weapons, and the act couldn’t be taken today with the prevalence of weapons around the world or it could “end civilization as we know it,” Wallace said.
Wallace reflected on a phrase the late former President Ronald Reagan used to say, “A nuclear war could never be war and must never be fought,” adding, “In the world that we live in now, I think Reagan was right.”