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Book excerpt: "Countdown 1945" and the race to the atomic bomb

Simon & Schuster

In Chris Wallace and Mitch Weiss' new book, "Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World" (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS), Harry S. Truman ascends to the presidency upon FDR's death, whereupon he learns of a secret weapons project aimed at ending World War II.

In the excerpt published below, the vice president's very ordinary day in April 1945 suddenly becomes a day that alters his life – and a nation at war – as he assumes the responsibilities of the office of President of the United States.

Read Chapter 1 of "Countdown 1945," and don't miss CBS News national security correspondent David Martin's interview with Chris Wallace on "CBS Sunday Morning," to be broadcast June 7!

April 12, 1945
Washington, D.C.

Harry Truman needed a drink. It was his eighty-second day as vice president. And as usual, he spent the afternoon in the Senate chamber, this time overseeing a debate about a water treaty with Mexico. As senators droned on, his mind wandered to his mother and sister, who still lived near the old Truman family farm back in Grandview, Missouri. Truman pulled out some paper and a pen, even though he was seated at his elevated desk on the rostrum in the Senate chamber.

"Dear Mamma and Mary," he wrote, "a windy Senator from Wisconsin" was going on and on about "a subject with which he is in no way familiar." It was part of Truman's job as president of the Senate to officiate over sessions like this. But he couldn't wait for it to end. There was someplace else he wanted to be. He had no idea his life was about to change forever.

Now, just before 5:00 p.m., the Senate mercifully recessed for the day. Truman started walking across the Capitol by himself, without his Secret Service detail – through the Senate side, across the Capitol Rotunda, then Statuary Hall, and onto the House side. Dressed smartly as usual, in a double-breasted gray suit, with a white handkerchief and a dark polka-dot bow tie, Truman was always in a hurry. And part of that was he walked fast.

He headed from the main public floor of the Capitol down to the ground floor, downstairs to House Speaker Sam Rayburn's private hideaway, Room 9, which was known as the "Board of Education." It was the most exclusive room in the Capitol – entry by Rayburn's personal invitation only. Most afternoons, members of Congress met here after official business hours to discuss strategy, exchange gossip, and "strike one for liberty," enjoying a drink, or two. Truman was a regular. And his drink of choice was bourbon and branch water.

The Board of Education was a classic Capitol refuge, some twenty feet in length and filled with big leather chairs, a couch, and a long mahogany desk that doubled as a liquor cabinet. The only dissonant note was an ornate painted ceiling, festooned with birds and animals and plants. Rayburn had a mural with a Texas "lone star" added at one end of the room.

When Truman arrived, Rayburn – "Mr. Sam" – told him that the White House was looking for him. "Steve Early wants you to call him right away," Rayburn said, referring to President Roosevelt's longtime secretary. Truman fixed himself a drink, then sat down and dialed the White House switchboard, National 1414.

"This is the VP," Truman said.

When Early got on the line, he was brief and direct. His voice was tense. He told Truman to get to the White House "as quickly and quietly" as he could, and to come through the main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Rayburn was watching Truman, who he always thought was kind of pale. Now he "got a little paler."

"Jesus Christ and General Jackson," Truman exclaimed as he hung up the phone, too shocked to even hide it. He tried to remain calm. He told the others in the room he had to go to the White House on "a special call." He immediately stood up, walked to the door, and put his hand on the knob, then stopped and turned. "Boys, this is in this room. Something must have happened."

Truman closed the door firmly behind him, then broke into a full run, this time through the now almost-empty Capitol. His footsteps echoed around the marble corridors as he dashed past statues of generals and politicians, past the Senate barbershop, and up the stairs to his vice presidential office. He was out of breath. He grabbed his hat and told his staff he was headed to the White House, but to say nothing about it. He didn't have time to explain. And anyway, he really didn't know much more than that.

Outside, it was raining. Truman got into his official black Mercury car and gave instructions to his driver, Tom Harty. Once again, he left his Secret Service detail behind. Between the weather and traffic, it took Truman more than ten minutes to get to the White House. And all that time, he wondered what was going on.

President Roosevelt was supposed to be in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had spent the past two weeks recovering from exhaustion after a wartime summit in Yalta with British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.

Maybe FDR had returned to Washington. His old friend Julius Atwood, a retired Episcopal bishop, had been buried in Washington earlier in the day. Had the president attended the ceremony and now wanted to see Truman? But since becoming vice president almost three months ago, he had met privately with Roosevelt only twice. Why now?

At 5:25, Truman's car turned off Pennsylvania Avenue, passed through the Northwest Gate, and drove up under the North Portico of the White House. At the front door Truman was met by ushers, who took his hat and directed him to the president's small oak-paneled elevator.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was waiting for him in her private study on the second floor, along with her daughter and son-in-law, Anna and Lieutenant Colonel John Boettiger, and Steve Early. The two women were dressed in black.

The first lady walked up to Truman, put her arm on his shoulder, and said, "Harry, the president is dead."

Truman was too stunned to speak. He had hurried to the White House to see the president. Now, here he was, suddenly finding out he was the president.

It took him a moment to steady himself. He asked Mrs. Roosevelt, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Is there anything we can do for you?" she replied. "For you are the one in trouble now."

Minutes later, at 5:47, the news bulletin flashed across the country and the world: FDR, the man who led the nation over the past twelve years, through the Depression and Pearl Harbor and now to the verge of victory in Europe in the Second World War, had died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of sixty-three.

The White House, mostly deserted with Roosevelt away, suddenly sprang into motion. A meeting of the Cabinet was called for 6:15. Truman directed that congressional leaders be asked to attend. And Harlan Stone, chief justice of the United States, was summoned to the White House to administer the oath of office. There was one more thing Truman needed to do.

At 6:00, he called his wife, Bess, at their modest two-bedroom apartment up Connecticut Avenue. His daughter, Margaret, answered the phone. She hadn't heard the news yet, and she started kidding around with him as usual. He cut her off and told her to put her mother on the line.

Truman normally shared everything with Bess. But there was no time for that now. He told her President Roosevelt was dead, and he was sending a car for her, Margaret, and his mother-in-law, Madge Wallace, who lived with the family. He wanted them by his side when he took the oath of office.

Truman hung up the phone. He could tell that the conversation had shaken his wife. Ever since he'd accepted the nomination for vice president the previous summer, he knew this was her greatest fear – that FDR would not live out his fourth term. Now he and his family had been thrust into the position she dreaded.

When Truman arrived at the Cabinet Room, he was the first one there. He sat at the big table. Soon the room filled around him. One Roosevelt staffer later described Truman looking "like a little man as he sat waiting in a huge leather chair." But when all the Cabinet officials who were in Washington arrived, Truman stood. "I want every one of you to stay and carry on," he told them, "and I want to do everything just the way President Roosevelt wanted it."

There was a delay as they waited for the chief justice to arrive. And Truman's family had to get through a large crowd that had gathered outside their apartment building. Staffers also scurried to locate a Bible, finally finding a Gideon in the desk of the White House chief usher.

At 7:09, Truman and Chief Justice Stone stood in front of the mantel at the end of the Cabinet Room, with Truman's family and top officials forming a semicircle behind them. The chief justice started the oath. "I, Harry Shipp Truman," he said, assuming Truman's middle initial S came from his father's family, when in fact it stood for nothing.

"I, Harry S Truman," he responded, correcting the chief justice.

Truman Swears Oath 1945
Harry S. Truman takes the oath of office as the 33rd President of the United States, following the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, April 12, 1945. AP

That wasn't the only glitch. After Truman completed the oath, the chief justice told him that he'd held the Bible in his left hand, but placed his right hand on top of it. So they had to do it again, this time with the new president raising his right hand. When the swearing-in was finally over, Truman kissed the Bible, then turned to kiss his wife and daughter.

After the oath, Truman talked briefly to his Cabinet. He repeated his intention to pursue Roosevelt's agenda. He said he always wanted their candid advice, but made it clear he would make the final decisions. And once he made them, he expected their full support.

As the meeting broke up and the other officials went home for the night, one man stayed behind: Henry Stimson, the secretary of war. He asked to speak to the new president alone "about a most urgent matter."

At age seventy-seven, Stimson was a legendary figure who had served five presidents. Truman would be his sixth. Sitting with the new president, Stimson said he'd keep it short. The subject was complicated, and he'd provide more detail later. But he wanted Truman to know about "an immense project that was underway" to develop "a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power." The project was so secret – and so potentially dangerous – only a handful of people knew about it. Stimson said he would brief Truman about it fully after the president had a few days to settle in.

That was all. Stimson's short, mysterious briefing left Truman puzzled. But he was trying to process so much: FDR's death, the nation's reaction, his sudden responsibility for leading the war effort in both Europe and the Pacific. Stimson's "project" was one more job that was now his. And he had no idea what it really amounted to. It was a day, he later said, when "the world fell in on me."

"I decided the best thing to do was to go home and get as much rest as possible and face the music," he wrote in his diary. 

Excerpt from "Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World" by Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss, published by Simon & Schuster. © 2020. Reprinted by permission.

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