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Ralph Reads: Governmental Ups and Downs

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Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and former CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves

This month’s column has good news and bad news regarding our federal government. Let’s start with the good news. There has been much written about the decision to use the atomic bomb to end World War II, much of which focuses on the development of the bomb. Chris Wallace’s book Countdown 1945 takes a different tack. This is the story of President Harry Truman’s deliberations culminating in his decision to drop the bomb, and the pilots and engineers who had to learn how to deliver it successfully and not get blown out of the sky while doing it.

Truman became president on April 12, 1945, the day President Roosevelt died. He had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. He was told about it by Harry Stimson shortly after he was sworn in as president, 116 days before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Truman’s decision regarding the bomb was complicated by conflicting opinions regarding the morality of using it where many civilians would be killed and many advisors’ belief that the bomb would be a dud. Wallace’s narrative makes clear how much Truman struggled with this decision. He kept hedging his bets and authorized preparations for a land invasion of Japan in addition to the Manhattan Project.

While Truman was deciding, work went forward on the bombing procedures. There were many questions to be answered. Who should fly the plane? Who should be the bombardier? What city should be targeted? What should we tell the world afterward? Should we warn the Japanese in advance and give them the opportunity to surrender?

Wallace takes us inside those deliberations and puts us into the minds of those decision makers. This is page-turning writing about one of the most significant events in world history. We are fortunate that our leaders decided to bring in a journalist, William Laurence, to document the process. They swore him to secrecy and gave him full access.  of our understanding of Aug. 6, 1945, comes from his accounts. Can you imagine that happening in our current political climate?

The previous book described government at its best. Now for the bad news. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis provides the reader a stark contrast to the previous example. The United States had everything it needed to prevent the pandemic from getting a foothold in this country. COVID-19 started on the west coast in February of 2020. The first cases raised the suspicions of Charity Dean, the Chief Health Officer of Santa Barbara County. Lewis names the people who understood early on what was happening and what needed to be done to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths.

You will read about selfless, dedicated, heroic people in this book who risked their careers fighting to stem the tide of this pandemic. You will also read about how many barriers they encountered in the health care system and federal and local governments. The book’s flyleaf lays the blame squarely on the Trump administration. That is a gross misstatement and is inconsistent with the content of this book. There is more than enough blame to go around. You will read about governors who dithered instead of making the right decision, government agencies and bureaucrats more concerned about protecting their power and image than protecting the American people. You will learn how the health care industry and the CDC prevented the early widespread rapid testing that was available. You will also learn how the CDC has devolved from an exemplary organization to a political organization incapable of leading a proactive attack against the disease. The pity is that there were people five to seven levels down in every one of these organizations who knew what to do, but they were hamstrung from preventing the disaster.

The attack on Pearl Harbor left our country in disarray for some time before we got onto a war footing and came together to defeat our enemies. People and agencies stumbled over themselves, not unlike what happened in the early stages of the pandemic. The important point of this book is that there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy. We have the tools. We need to use those lessons to reorganize and prevent this from happening again.

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