In just a few hours, veteran news anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, an exercise that will shine a bright light on the character of these individuals vying to occupy the Oval Office starting next January 20th.
As a seasoned journalist, Chris Wallace has a unique perspective of those who are called to occupy the seats of power. He has recently put this quality to good use in offering a better understanding of Harry S. Truman, one of the most consequential President in American history.
In Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, the anchor of Fox News Sunday surprised me with his portrait of Truman. I had always been under the impression that the 33rd President was a trigger-happy man who was only too pleased to bomb America’s nemesis in the Pacific. The reality is much more nuanced.
On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt’s Veep left behind the bourbon and branch water drink he was enjoying on Capitol Hill to reach the White House urgently. Notoriously sick, the news of the death of the United States Commander in chief nevertheless sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Clearly unprepared, Truman was de facto constitutionally called to replace the beloved leader.
Approximately two weeks after becoming the new White House resident, Secretary of War Henry Stimson broke the news to President Truman that he was about to possess a new superweapon, the atomic bomb, which could play a determining role in the end of the hostilities with Japan. Only two months after being sworn in, Truman travelled to Potsdam for a summit with seasoned leaders Churchill and Stalin. His education as a warlord must have been quite brutal.
Confronted with a seemingly war with no end, the President juggled many different scenarios over several weeks. At first, he considered a ground invasion, a scenario that entailed “[…] a long and bloody conflict.” Another option was “[…] a nonmilitary demonstration [of their new weapon], so the Japanese would see the futility of continuing the war.” But the possibility that the bomb might not work disqualified that option. Furthermore, Secretary of War Stimson, Chief of Staff Leahy, General Marshall and General Eisenhower were all against going for the atomic avenue. And they were no peaceniks. According to the author, “Truman spent more and more time on the question of how to deliver a final ultimatum to Japan”. After several weeks of “long and careful thought”, of agonizing, losing sleep and suffering from headaches, the new President “[…] felt it was inescapable that if the weapon worked, he must be willing to use it.” Even if he didn’t like it.
Even though I will always feel that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been one of the greatest human tragedies of history, I am nevertheless of the opinion that the Americans were blessed to have a thoughtful and considerate man like Harry S. Truman to end the war.
Throughout his book, Chris Wallace depicts him as a decent, loyal and straightforward man whose favorite expression was “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” (I might adopt it myself!). The kind of person you would like to have breakfast with at your favorite eatery. To that effect, my favorite passage from the book is worth quoting at length:
One evening, after another frustrating day at the conference, Truman’s motorcade was leaving the palace when an Army public relations officer asked if he could get in the president’s car. Once the two men were by themselves in the backseat, the colonel said, “Listen, I know you’re alone over here. If you need anything like, you know, I’ll be glad to arrange it for you.”
“Hold it, don’t say anything more,” the president interrupted. “I love my wife, my wife is my sweetheart. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff. I don’t want you ever to say that again to me.” Truman and the colonel rode the rest of the way back to the Little White House in silence.
Chockfull of interesting details that entertain the reader, I was captivated to read about the creation of the Underwater Demolition Teams – the ancestors of the American Navy SEALs – who had to endure “Hell Week”. I also enjoyed learning about Sergeant Bob Caron – a tail gunner from New York – who wrote to the Brooklyn Dodgers to ask for a baseball cap of his favorite team, which he wore during the fateful mission on August 7th, 1945. These are the type of eccentricities that give life to history.
Countdown 1945 deserves a place in the gallery of great books about past US Presidents. Chris Wallace has an engaging pen and a knack for evoking the kind of details that humanizes the characters of his story – even though I would never be fond of being invited to a liver and bacon meal like the one Truman and Stalin liked so much to share at Potsdam.
Hopefully, Chris Wallace’s questions and interventions in tonight’s presidential debate will highlight the qualities required for the highest office in the United States.
Chris Wallace (with Mitch Weiss), Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2020, 313 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Allie Lawrence from Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), who has been extremely kind in helping me obtaining a copy of this enthralling book.