After I heard Chris Wallace on special Dispatch Live event with Jonah Goldberg, I put Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World by Chris Wallace, with Mitch Weiss on my TBR pile.
Not that I am particularly interested in WWI (military history is Jeff’s bailiwick) or the dropping of the atomic bomb, but because I was interested in seeing how Wallace made the subject interesting given we all know what happened and the issues involved have been debated too death. I was curious to see what an old school, straight shooter journalist made of the history.
It turned out the easiest way to get a copy from the library was to listen to the audiobook narrated by Wallace himself. So when it became available, I grabbed it and started listening.
Not surprisingly, Wallace is a great narrator and the style and focus of the book work well in audio format. Unlike some more dense and technical history, I found this enjoyable to listen to and easy to pay attention
As to content, I found it to be a compelling and informative look at the events leading up the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in August of 1945. It gives you the perspective not only of President Truman and other larger than life figures but also of a host of minor characters from scientists and military leaders to those who worked at Oak Ridge and Japanese citizens who experienced the destruction of Hiroshima.
Like John Hersey in his book “Hiroshima,” Wallace and Weiss humanize events too often reduced to technical or diplomatic arcana by telling their story through the lives of individuals. Truman is, of course, a major player, but so is Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that bombed Hiroshima, and his crew. Also profiled are the scientists at Los Alamos, like Robert Oppenheimer and Don Hornig, who built the weapons dropped on Japan. Ruth Sisson, one of the “Calutron Girls” at Oak Ridge, Tenn., ran a machine enriching the uranium used in Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb. A Navy demolitions expert, Draper Kauffman, would have been among the first to land on the beaches of Kyushu had an invasion of Japan’s home islands been deemed necessary. One of the book’s most affecting stories is that of Hideko Tamura, a 10-year-old girl who was in Hiroshima on the day the bomb fell. Hideko survived the attack; her mother, Kimiko, did not.
Despite knowing the ending, the narrative has energy and drama as find yourself pulled into the story in real time as it were.
On one hand, the book reads like a riveting novel as Wallace reveals the machinations and internal debates among the scientific community to devise a workable atomic bomb as quickly as possible. We see Albert Einstein; we see Robert Oppenheimer; we see Enrico Fermi, each of whom played a role in developing the bomb, but then later came to regret the awesome power they helped unleash upon the world.
But “Countdown 1945” is also a profound story of decision making at the highest levels — and of pathos. The alternative to using the bombs would have been for a war-weary America to invade Japan. Yet as Wallace notes, the closer American troops got to Japan, the more “fanatical” the Japanese defenders became. American military planners feared that the war could go on not for months but for years, especially if a guerrilla war was carried out. And most estimates believed it would cost 500,000 or even a million American lives. Gen. Douglas MacArthur put it bluntly: An assault on Japan, he said, would be “the greatest bloodletting in history.”
Countdown doesn’t attempt to provide any definitive answers to the great question of whether the U.S. should have dropped the bombs, except in noting that it is hard to see Truman making a different decision, but it does provide a great deal of context and perspectives. The reader/listener is left to make their own decision or to dig deeper into the issue
To answer the question which spurred me to listen, I think Countdown is a great example of the value of popular history. Americans would do well to better understand the events outlined here, and wrestle with all they entail. Wallace provides a great introduction for just such a project.