Modernity began, for want of a more pinpoint starting date, 75 years ago today, when an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. An exceptionally useful and accessible account of the decision to use that weapon is to be found in a new book by the Fox News journalist Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss: Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World.

Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 – 84 days into his fourth term as president. His successor, Harry Truman, took the oath of office at the White House that evening at a gathering of family and cabinet members.

When everyone had left, one man stayed behind to speak with the new president. He was the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, who had in his time already served five presidents, and he asked to speak to Truman alone “about a most urgent matter.” It seems incredible – yet it was vintage FDR – that this was the very first Truman had heard about the atomic bomb.

Countdown 1945 chronicles the 116 days between that day and August 6, when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima. It tells moving, personal stories of Americans who played pivotal roles in the development of the weapon, the agonizing decision to use it, and the mission that delivered it.

As Admiral William McRaven says in a jacket blurb, “even though you know the ending, you can’t put [this book] down.” That’s because it involves you so immediately in the lives of the diverse actors in the drama, from the crew of the Enola Gay to a little Japanese girl who survived the bombing, went on to become a teacher in America, and whose granddaughter was born exactly 62 years after that fateful day.

There has been, in the intervening years, a great deal of revisionist history written to the effect that the bomb need never have been dropped, that somehow Japan – which had fought with increasing ferocity as the Allies advanced across the Pacific, culminating in the killing ground of Okinawa – was somehow already beaten.

But as you read the growing casualty estimates (anywhere from a quarter million to a million U.S. service personnel), you can’t help realize not only that the two atomic bombs saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, but that they also preserved the lives of as many if not far more Japanese.

Countdown 1945 is fast-paced, wide-ranging and vivid, yet it’s rendered in language that might be appreciated by a bright high school senior, coming to the subject for the first time. And as Admiral McRaven suggests, no matter how much of the story you already know, you’ll find this book a remarkable achievement.  

© 2020 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.