Approaching the commemoration of the bombings this summer, two veteran journalists have tried to put that decision in context. The book by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, written with the Associated Press’s Mitch Weiss, focuses on the 116 days between Truman’s sudden ascent to the presidency, after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in mid-April 1945, and the use of the first bomb, on Hiroshima, in early August. “Countdown 1945” contains no surprises and will quell no controversies. But it is a compelling and highly readable account of one of the most fateful decisions in American history.
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.
Presented as a countdown to the final event, the book moves along at a rapid clip, with colorful anecdotes enlivening the narrative. Navy frogmen like Kauffman are described as “half fish and half nuts.” Sisson and her cohort were not told that the machines they operated were producing bomb-grade uranium, prompting a joke: “My job is so secret, even I don’t know what I’m doing.” The bleakness of the desert bombing range at Wendover, Utah, where Tibbets and his crew practiced for the Hiroshima mission, inspired one disgusted airman to observe: “If the United States ever needed an enema, this is where they would insert the tube.”
The authors’ breakneck prose sometimes breezes past moments in history deserving of a more thorough treatment. For example, a “demonstration” of the bomb as an alternative to its military use — an idea promoted by several of the atomic scientists — receives bare mention. Wallace and Weiss pay proper attention, however, to an option that, in retrospect, seems the best — and possibly the only — course of action that might have brought an end to the war without either the atomic bomb or a horribly costly seaborne invasion: a conditional surrender by Japan.
From intercepted and decrypted Japanese messages, the United States knew, by late July 1945, that Tokyo was seeking an end to the war and was even hopeful that Moscow might serve as an intermediary with Washington. The one nonnegotiable Japanese demand, however, was that Emperor Hirohito — who had divine status in that country — not be removed from the throne and treated as a war criminal in any postwar, Nuremberg-style trial.
Truman was made aware of these facts while he was meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Potsdam in defeated Germany. Two of the president’s close advisers even urged him to accept this sole condition and offer Japan a quick end to the war. Fatefully, however, only four days after becoming president, Truman, in his first address to Congress, had emphatically declared: “Our demand has been and it remains unconditional surrender” — pounding the lectern with his fists to emphasize each syllable of the last two words. Believing that he had inherited both the mantle and the policies of FDR, his much-admired predecessor, Truman concluded there was no way he could go back on that promise.
At the end, Wallace and Weiss offer no argument as to the ultimate morality or immortality of the atomic bomb decision. But it is hard to disagree with their conclusion that “it is unrealistic to think Harry Truman would make any other choice.”
Perhaps unintentionally, “Countdown” also underscores just how much this country has changed in the past 75 years. Only two weeks after he became an “accidental president,” Truman was briefed on the atomic bomb by Army Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project. Handed a 24-page report, Truman balked, telling Groves, “I don’t like to read papers.” But the general stuck to his guns. “We can’t tell you this in any more concise language. This is a big project,” Groves insisted. For the next 45 minutes, the president listened as Groves talked about the bomb, its likely effects and the fact that Soviet spies had, for the past two years, been trying to steal America’s atomic secrets. It was probably the first that Truman, the country’s inaugural Cold War president, learned of Stalin’s treachery.
Since he had been on his way to Europe when the atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert, Truman can perhaps be excused for not appreciating the revolutionary — and indiscriminate — nature of the new weapon. In his personal diary at Potsdam, the president wrote that the bomb would be used “so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.” In fact, the aiming point for the Hiroshima bomb was neither the city’s port facilities nor the headquarters of Japan’s Second General Army but a distinctive T-shaped bridge spanning the Ota River, near the urban center. “It’s the most perfect AP [aiming point] I’ve seen in this whole damn war,” exulted Tibbets’s bombardier. Hiroshima was chosen as a primary target in part because of “adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.”
But subsequent events, not covered in the book, show that Truman grew in his understanding of the bomb. At a Cabinet meeting on Aug. 10 — the day after the bombing of Nagasaki, and as casualty reports from Hiroshima had begun to come in — Truman announced, according to Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, that “he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’ ”
The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World
By Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss
Avid Reader. 312 pp. $30