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Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World

Review

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World

Where were you in August 75 years ago? It’s a good guess that most, if not all, of you were not yet born or too young to be aware that America and its European allies had defeated the Nazis and Fascists on the European continent. However, it was only one step toward world peace. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had perished. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers lay dead or wounded from the conflict. But the war still raged on in the air and waters near Japan. You’ve heard about it in school, movies and novels, but the true story, told in Chris Wallace and Mitch Weiss’ COUNTDOWN 1945, is more exciting than those tomes you cracked open in American history class.
 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been elected to his fourth term as president of the United States in January 1945. He had led America through the Great Depression of the ’30s, and World War II was all but over. A relatively unknown haberdasher named Harry S. Truman from Independence, Missouri, was his running mate in the 1944 election. Truman had been on the job for four months when he was summoned to the White House to learn that FDR had died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Now, at age 60, Truman was sworn in as the president.

"This page-turning account delves into the private lives of the actual men and women who created the atom bomb, tested it and armed it to finally detonate not once but twice over two major Japanese cities."

The war was far from over. Roosevelt had just returned from Yalta after meeting with other world leaders to decide how to defeat the Japanese and was resting at home following his return. Lengthy debates were held over land invasion versus air or sea. A new top-secret, untried, lethal weapon raised alarm with world leaders. The number of casualties among Allied troops versus the Japanese was hotly debated. No decisions were reached in Yalta. Truman had yet to be briefed and was now stepping into a gaping void that had to be filled.
 
Veteran journalist Chris Wallace provides us with a historical account of that world-shattering final decision, which reads like a thriller from page one. Hollywood couldn’t conceive of a plot any more taut than the real events behind the grueling decision to unleash a lethal weapon that would forever change warfare and planet Earth. The newly appointed President Truman faced an excruciating decision. This page-turning account delves into the private lives of the actual men and women who created the atom bomb, tested it and armed it to finally detonate not once but twice over two major Japanese cities. The history of that event is still being written as the fallout, a word perhaps invented for these times, following atomic testing in New Mexico and Nevada. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ultimately destroyed, and World War II officially ended.
 
If you ever have the opportunity to go to New Mexico, I encourage you to visit the Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos, which is now open to the public. Once completely locked down, this laboratory was secreted on a remote mesa not far from Santa Fe, the state capitol. Los Alamos was the seat of activity for the designing and building of the atom bombs code-named Little Boy and Fat Man that decisively ended the war and changed the world.

I visited Los Alamos as a child when it was a veritable fortress, and admission required birth certificates, Geiger counters passed over your body and car, and personal effects rummaged through by people wearing masks and gloves. I’ve been back twice as an adult after secrecy was lifted, accompanied by friends whose fathers were heavily involved in the scientific end of everything from the original atom splitting to now heading up security. No masks or gloves were worn. Just wonder at the history and science of another century. There are shrines in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. Humans tend to enshrine both the good and the evil.  
 
Had COUNTDOWN 1945 hit the market in less unsettling times, it would top the bestseller list overnight. It takes your mind off of current headlines for a few hours. Does today’s world make the atom bomb seem like no big deal? We appear to be living that old saw, “May you live in interesting times.”

Reviewed by Roz Shea on June 24, 2020

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World
by Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss

  • Publication Date: June 9, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982143347
  • ISBN-13: 9781982143343