Jesus Christ and General Jackson

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.

FDR: The Fearless President

3DaysAtTheBrink_BretBaierI have always loved to read about FDR, one of my favorite Presidents. Being a fan of presidential libraries and having done some research in a few in the past, I have vivid memories of the time I spent at his inspiring Presidential Library at Hyde Park. I was therefore very interested in Bret Baier’s latest book, not only because it covers a period of contemporary history – World War II – for which I have an unquenchable intellectual thirst, but also because he dove into the presidential archives, a real treasure trove for anyone eager to fully understand the magnitude of the accomplishments of those larger than life Commanders in chief who lead America at crucial times.

The title of Bret Baier’s book Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II refers to the Tehran Conference (1943), where the Big Three (FDR, Churchill and Stalin) agreed on the necessity to open a second front on the West – with Operation Overlord – to relieve some pressure on the Soviet troops, which occurred on June 6, 1944. But only a quarter of the book is devoted to the historic conference.

Continue reading “FDR: The Fearless President”

Making James Bond Blush

TheForce_SaulDavidFew years ago, while visiting in Italy, I booked a talented guide to visit Monte Cassino and its vicinity. As I left the train, upon arriving in the bucolic town whose name is associated to one of the most famous battles of World War II, I was struck by the breathtaking landscape. Up above a steep mountain, the famous Benedictine Abbey lays towering over the surrounding valley.

I immediately wondered what kind of soldiers could conquer such a hostile environment and dislodge the Germans, ferociously guarding the impregnable summits forming the Winter Line set up to block the Allies on their way up North to the Eternal City, Rome.

Some years later and thanks to renowned military historian Saul David, I finally found the answer between the covers of the book The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. Assembled from scratch with Canadian and American soldiers in the summer of 1942 “for a top mission behind enemy lines”, the First Special Service Force was initially trained to operate in winter conditions with a new snow vehicle.

The mission of the unit soon became the object of turf wars and power plays between British and American top brass and politicians. While Churchill – who had a “”particular interest” in the Force” jealously fought toe and nails to reserve these exceptional warriors for an eventual foray in Norway (operation Jupiter), US Army chief of staff George Marshall considered such a venture to be a sideshow. The American warlord was certainly frustrated to exclude such a powerful tool from a vital theater of operations.

Continue reading “Making James Bond Blush”

USSR and Red Army contributions were essential in defeating Hitler

With the risk of sounding repetitive, I feel it is important to stress the contribution of the USSR to WW2. With the Western countries’ voluntary amnesia when the time comes to commemorate and express gratitude for the sacrifices endured by the Soviet people, I strongly believe certain truths need to be reminded, often. I came upon these very interesting graphics yesterday on Twitter, which led me to the following blog. Even though they are in French, the images speak for themselves.

High and low estimations of war casualties, in the millions. source: www.les-crises.fr
High and low estimations of war casualties, in the millions. source: http://www.les-crises.fr

For every American soldier killed, 60 Soviet soldiers were killed. source: www.les-crises.fr
For every American soldier killed, 60 Soviet soldiers were killed. source: http://www.les-crises.fr

Without the Red Army, winning World War II would have been just impossible. True, Winston Churchill provided with the moral courage to carry on during the darkest hours of the conflict, notably at the very beginning and the United States provided essential material through the lend-lease agreements. But, when you look at these two very eloquent graphics, you cannot fail – if you are intellectually honest – to realize that the Soviet boots were essential to win the war on the ground.

I use the word sad, but I should write shameful. You can’t rewrite history with the blood of those who fell and the sweat of those who fought.

Remembering Jewish Soldiers of the Red Army

parade-031209According to a very interesting story published in the Jerusalem Post today, almost half of the Israelis polled are in favor of making May 9th, which is the day when Soviet Victory over Nazism is commemorated in Russia, a national holiday in Israel, too. Even more interesting is the fact that Yad Vashem (the Memorial and Museum to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem) evaluates that no less than 1,5 million Jews took arms and fought barbarism during World War II. Here’s the eloquent example reported by the JPost:

“Anatoli Shapiro, for example, a Red Army officer who commanded the division that liberated Auschwitz, was the first man to open the gates and inform its prisoners ‘the Red army has come to liberate you.’ His story reflects most of all the essence of the Jewish fighters, fighters who didn’t just ask to bring freedom to Europe, but fighters who fought to save their brothers and sisters.”

There is ample academic research (you could fill a few bookshelves of books about that subject) supporting the fact that, without the USSR, it is doubtful that the Allies would have crushed Hitler’s hordes. It is no less significant to recognize the service of Jewish soldiers who were part of the Red army. On May 9th, we not only salute the Soviet (Russians, Ukrainians and others) men and women who made tremendous sacrifices, the ultimate one in the case of several millions, but also these Jewish and Israeli people who also carry that involvement as a badge of honor. A national holiday is not an exaggerated way to say: Thank you!