Chris Wallace's New Book Tells Atomic Tale of 'Uncertainty,' and He Talks Life During Protests and a Pandemic
The Fox News Sunday anchor has stayed at his Annapolis, Maryland, home with wife Lorraine — though he's apart from his six children and his six grandchildren
Chris Wallace didn’t know it at the time, but the research he conducted into the 116 days that led up to the drop of the first atom bomb in 1945 would resonate today in ways most Americans could have never expected.
The Fox News Sunday anchor is set to release Countdown 1945 (subtitled "The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World") in the midst of a global pandemic and, now, one of the most tense sociopolitical moments in modern history.
Instability, to say the least, seems to be on everyone’s mind.
PEOPLE spoke with Wallace about his book in the middle of last week, before protests against racial injustice and police brutality spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd's death while in custody in Minneapolis.
While many of the demonstrations have been peaceful, some have included violence and destruction — including clashes between protesters and police and looters and bystanders.
“The case of George Floyd reopened a painful wound in America,” Wallace told PEOPLE on Thursday, addressing the now drastically different backdrop in the news cycle and society at large. “Blacks in this country see police not just as protectors, but as a potential threat. The protests were understandable and totally justified. The rioting and looting were indefensible.”
Even prior to the rapidly unfolding civil unrest, the U.S. was in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown for nearly three months as part of a worldwide effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The pandemic caused millions of Americans to rethink their daily lives — including Wallace, who has been hosting his weekly program from a makeshift studio above his garage.
Wallace has stayed at his Annapolis, Maryland, home with wife Lorraine Wallace — though he's apart from his six children and his six grandchildren. He and Lorraine, who live right off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, have been on lockdown together since mid-March, taking walks when they can and putting a newfound effort into the family vegetable garden.
"We're eating well and we're taking two-mile walks every day," says the anchor, 72, "So, I'm actually in good shape. But I'm being careful."
Wallace has been on camera for more than four decades, delivering the nation's news to living rooms around the country. But now that the pandemic has forced his first-ever book tour into a series of remote Zoom appearances at presidential libraries across the country, even he — a thoroughly experienced journalism vet — is forced to learn and adjust.
“I think interviews when you're face-to-face rather than face-to-satellite, they go better,” says Wallace, who has worked at Fox News since 2003. “You pick up on people's body language, non-verbal cues, things like that. I think you can sometimes break through the talking points and get more to what they really are thinking and feeling in real time. When you're doing it on a satellite and there's a little bit of a delay in the sound, it's just tougher.”
Wallace says he’s been using telecommunication to stay in touch with his family, as well. On Mother’s Day, he and Lorraine took part in a group Zoom call with other members of their family, including his kids and theirs.
But it's just not the same, he says: "You don't get to put your grandson on your lap.”
Wallace’s Countdown 1945 — his historical nonfiction debut, which comes out on Tuesday — hones in on a different year in American history, recounting the months that preceded the U.S. dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands and effectively ending the second World War.
Countdown 1945 tells the story through the perspective of President Harry S. Truman and two civilians: Hideko Tamura, a 10-year-old girl living in Hiroshima whose life was forever changed by the sudden death of family members and the bombing of her hometown; and Ruth Sisson, a 19-year-old American “Calutron Girl” who unknowingly helped enrich uranium to make the weapons of mass destruction while working at a Department of Energy plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Wallace says he was “fascinated” to learn about Truman’s “very meticulous, very painstaking” decision-making process. The 33rd president stepped into the office while the country was still in the midst of World War II, unexpectedly taking over after Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
Wallace first "became a student of presidential decision-making" while covering President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s, he says. In Countdown, he writes that Truman welcomed wartime advice from both political supporters and opponents.
Truman, a Democrat, had lunch with his future Republican successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, days before the U.S. bombed Japan.
“Eisenhower said he thought [Truman] shouldn't drop it,” Wallace says. “Truman didn't go with that advice, but he welcomed it. He wanted to hear the best information.”
Wallace says he found that Truman was torn over the decision, impacting him personally as the weight of his eventual call grew heavier on his mind.
"I actually think the whole story has a lot of echoes of what we're going through now," Wallace tells PEOPLE, adding, "I think the decision to use the bomb speaks to the kind of uncertainty that we know now."
Scientists didn't agree on exactly what the bomb would do, Wallace says. Some thought it wouldn't work, others thought the blast would ignite the atmosphere.
“Everybody thinks of Truman as 'the buck stops here' — this famously decisive man who would decide what he was going to do and never look back,” Wallace says. “He agonized over the decision to use the bomb. He couldn't sleep at night. He wrote about it in his diary in very apocalyptic terms, the fire destruction prophesied in the Bible. He had searing headaches that kept him up, that he'd had often in his life when he was under particular stress.”
But more pertinent to the everyday experience, Wallace also lends history's ear to Tamura's and Sisson's understanding of 1945 and its lasting impacts.
As a young girl, Tamura witnessed the biblical damage Truman had nightmares about. The 10-year-old also lived out the traumatic aftermath in the decades that followed, she told Wallace in his book.
“Interestingly enough, the survivors were not considered heroes. They were considered damaged goods because of physical ailments,” Wallace says, citing what he learned from Tamura. “People didn't want them as employees because they were weak, and men didn't want women who were survivors as wives because they worried about birth defects and illnesses.”
The horror wrought by the 1945 bombing lingered for years, Tamura told Wallace. "At one point, she seriously considered committing suicide when she was 17 years old," he says.
Instead, she lived. "She ended up coming to the States and got married and had kids and has had a full life," according to Wallace.
Now in her mid-80s, Tamura flew from her home in Oregon to Washington, D.C., to meet with him and a Fox News crew for an on-air documentary about her and about Wallace's book, which will air on Sunday.
Wallace says she had one request: “She said she wanted to see the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima."
The emotional moment Tamura comes face-to-face with the military aircraft that changed her life was captured for the upcoming piece. Wallace calls her visit nothing short of “extraordinary."
“When she actually saw the bomber and she said it reminded her of an old man who needed to go to sleep," he says. "I think she found some closure. I think she found some forgiveness, some reconciliation with the plane — but more importantly, the whole series of events.”