There are a number of books out there on the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More are military histories, some are cautionary essays and yet others deal with the process behind the making of the nuclear bombs. Chris Wallace has tried to blend all these approaches together in Countdown 1945, which comes with the rather elaborate sub-title of “The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World.”
And to a large extent, it works. We would say that if there is a single book that you should read to understand about the planning and process that went into the making of the first (and thankfully, only) atomic bombs that were dropped on human targets, this is perhaps the best book for them. Wallace has adopted an almost diary-like approach to the chain of events, beginning with 12 April 1945, when Roosevelt died, and Harry Truman took over as the US President, and ending with August 10, 1945, the day after the second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Not every day is covered in this period, but there is a fair amount of detail for the days that mattered.
What makes Countdown 1945 a very good book to read is its flow. Wallace is excellent at describing events without complicating matters, and his character sketches are very much on point. He also adopts a style similar to Bob Woodward in going with active speech and conversations, which help move the story faster. From the very beginning, he picks out the key characters in the plot – President Truman, Paul TIbbets (the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and oversaw arrangements for the bombing) and of course, the scientist behind the bomb and the famous Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer – and weaves the narrative around them.
The result is a book that almost reads like a thriller at times, even though you know what the climax will be. No, you will not get the level of intensity, perspective and almost intimidating detail that you get on perhaps the best book on the subject, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, but what you will get is history told with story telling flair. And a whole lot of trivia besides. You get a closer look at the arguments that happened behind the scenes, the military politics and of course, the actual testing of the weapons. The dropping of the bombs itself occupies a single chapter and contains the reactions of the crew on the aircraft that dropped the bombs, and the way in which exultation turns to shock and even horror in some cases, tells you the impact Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on people.
No, this is not a perfect book. In fact, if you are one of those who are horrified by the bombings, you might not like the subtle air of triumphalism that underlies the narrative. There is also not much of the Japanese perspective and even lesser detail given to the devastation that the bombs wrought on the people and cities on which they were dropped. Wallace clearly belongs to the school of thought that the bombs were necessary to end the war and that comes through. However, that does not detract from the fact that Countdown 1945 is one of the most readable books about the use of the atomic bombs. And at just over 300 pages, it is a quick, speedy read.
Definitely worth it for anyone interested in the Second World War, we would say.