- - Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Before there were baby boomers there were baby bombers. I was one of them, the cohort of kids who came along just as World War II was ending and the Nuclear Age was beginning. We were the first Americans born in the shadow of a mushroom cloud and raised to adulthood in the mad, mad, mad world of Mutually Assured Destruction. Looking back, it didn’t faze us all that much, despite the best efforts of everyone from over-solicitous schoolmarms to Soviet-backed “pacifist” groups to scare us out of our wits. 

Even to a reasonably observant third grader, the regularly scheduled “civil defense drills” at John Eaton elementary school in Washington, D.C., seemed more comical than frightening. We were herded downstairs to the ground floor, told to seek shelter crouching underneath desks, and to shield ourselves with our hands, palm-sides outward, because the skin was tougher there. How any of this was supposed to mitigate the effect of a direct nuclear hit on the nation’s capital was never explained.

It all started with the 116 days skillfully and engagingly depicted by Chris Wallace and Mitch Weiss in “Countdown 1945” — from the day Franklin Roosevelt died to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s unconditional surrender. Mr. Weiss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and Fox News’ Chris Wallace is the most seasoned, rational and articulate television journalist currently anchoring a Sunday morning news show.

Given the competition, that may not be saying much, but having known Chris in his days as an NBC White House correspondent in the Reagan years, I can confirm that he was already a cut above most of his media colleagues then. Well-read, cultured and with a solid grounding in politics and history, he also had the gift of the gab.

This may explain why “Countdown 1945” is such a good read, crammed with information, fleshed out with vivid anecdotes, and told in a narrative that never flags. 

At the heart of the story is the flawed, feisty figure of Harry Truman, a seemingly mediocre product of one of the nation’s most corrupt political machines, “Boss” Tom Prendergast’s thoroughly rotten party organization that ran the state of Missouri out of Kansas City and put Truman into the Senate.

From there he was plucked by FDR to replace incumbent vice president — and parlor pinko — Henry Wallace (no relation to the author) on the 1946 Democratic ticket. Truman once compared Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to Prendergast, and he actually meant it as a compliment. 

Little Harry was no genius, and his short fuse and fragile ego sometimes served him badly, but he was a genuine patriot with a strong store of common sense. And in making the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he proved his mettle and may have saved millions of lives.

His senior military commander, soldier-statesman George Marshall had briefed Truman on “the bloody campaign … just waged at Okinawa, where the U.S. forces killed more than 100,000 Japanese without a single surrender. Marshall said even their civilians would commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner.” 

He added that the Japanese would have to be shocked into surrendering, and that one way to shock them “would be to invade the Japanese homeland. Marshall said it would ‘cost’ between 250,000 and 1 million U.S. casualties, with similar loss on the Japanese side. The other military leaders … agreed with Marshall’s estimate. The goal, they said, would be to end the war by November 1946.”

The alternative to that broader, bloodier Armageddon was a smaller, more targetted one. Truman asked Secretary of War Henry Stimson “which Japanese cities were devoted exclusively to war production. The secretary went down the list, mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman told the men in the room he had reached a decision: he would use the atomic bomb. He had given it ‘long and careful thought’ and ‘did not like the weapon.’ But he felt it was inescapable that if the weapon worked, he must be willing to use it.”

Use it he did, and it worked. Japan, like Germany before it, surrendered unconditionally. Looking back on what may have been the single most important decision of his presidency, Truman summed it up this way: “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities.” Given the stark alternative — and considering the systematic barbarity of Japanese conduct throughout the war — it was almost certainly the right answer to a hard call.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss

Avid Reader Press, $30, 312 pages

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