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From Roosevelt to Truman : Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War


Wilson D. Miscamble


Cambridge: University Press, 2007, xx-393 p.

ISBN: 0521862442;  9780521862448 (hardback); 9780521862448 (paperback)


Reviewed by Bernard Genton

Université de Strasbourg


The generally received assumption is that an ill-informed but energetic Truman quickly grasped the full extent of his responsibilities as the leader of the Free World and that he soon dealt the Soviet Union the tough policy that it deserved. Truman was thus the chief inventor of the Cold War, the war that the US ultimately won by proxy or default when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The origins of the Cold War have been amply researched and commented on, and there is a notable revisionist school of historians who argue that the Cold War resulted from an excess of untimely confrontational policies on the part of the US government. Had these policies been more understanding, the Cold War might have been avoided and the Soviet Union softened by influence.

As Wilson Miscamble’s remarkable study makes clear, a careful analysis of historical evidence paints a different picture. With the benefit of hindsight – sixty years have elapsed since the events reported and analyzed here – historical facts are viewed from the angle of historiography. The book focuses on the brief period from 1944 to 1947, when American foreign policy was transferred and transformed from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Grand Design” to the “Truman doctrine”. The compelling narrative covers eight chapters. After an introductory presentation of Harry Truman, the politician from Missouri with limited international expertise, but armed with a strong Wilsonian conviction that internationalism was the way of the future, the story unfolds in five carefully balanced and minutely organized episodes, followed by a more general and somewhat polemical conclusive chapter.

The “uncertain legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt” is covered in the second chapter, with a special focus on the Yalta agreement and Roosevelt’s final weeks. Miscamble seizes the opportunity to draw portraits of the main players, warts and all; a permanent trait of the whole study, this attention to psychological factors accounts for much of the book’s dramatic tension and efficiency. The “Churchill of the war years” – to be distinguished from the “Churchill of history” – was “egotistical, erratic, histrionic, truculent, impulsive and profoundly wrong-headed”, but “his humanity, his courage, his great gift for words” have been hailed by most historians [44]. Roosevelt, on the other hand, “possessed a first-class temperament but only a second-rate intellect”. His main guide was his “reliance on his brilliant political instincts”, and his faith in his personal abilities [36]. Accordingly, in spite of the partially true legend of personal affection, there were “substantial differences” between the two men during the war and “divergent conceptions of the postwar world order” [46]. There was “a clear divergence on the relative importance of China and France” [47], which was replicated in later disputes about the future of Eastern Europe and Germany. Both leaders entertained personal illusions that proved impossible to reconcile: Churchill saw the future through the “rose-colored glasses” of a “powerful Anglo-American partnership” [ibid.], while Roosevelt, ever suspicious of nineteenth-century thinking and imperial nostalgia, insisted on continued and “close collaboration with his major wartime allies, Britain and [my emphasis] the Soviet Union” [43]. There was an additional and even more “crucial difference”: Churchill “understood the essential nature” of the Soviet regime while Roosevelt “never did”. [51, cf. Patrick Glyn, Closing Pandora’s Box, 1992: 92]. There may have been some signals of doubts or second thoughts about US Soviet policy coming from Roosevelt in his last days, but they never materialized into anything tangible [72]. In his last telegram to Stalin, Roosevelt alluded to the Berne incident and the persistent failure of the Soviet Union to act on its promises in Eastern Europe, as “minor misunderstandings” not worthy of jeopardizing the Grand Design of Allied cooperation in the future [78].

The next two chapters (“Initiation” and “Instruction”) examine in fascinating detail the mechanics of the succession in the first six or seven weeks of Truman’s presidency. The new president famously – and accurately – confided to his sister-in-law on April 12 1945: “the world fell on me”. Often described as “a person of rough fiber, plain, warm manners, direct approach, and earthy humor” [87, quoted from Robert J. Donovan, Tumultuous Years, 1982: 395] Truman also had a darker side, an instinctive “distaste for complexity” [89] and, as several historians and witnesses have noted, a “deep insecurity…masked with occasional demonstrations of bravado” [ibid.] Since Roosevelt had left his vice-president in the dark about most major issues, and no one in particular in charge of continuing his foreign policy, the new president had no other choice than a piecemeal approach, based on “careful planning” and “group consensus”: the early Truman “relied on advisers much more than did Roosevelt” [90]. Chronologically speaking, the first item on the agenda was the San Francisco conference. During the first cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Stimson informed the president of the Manhattan Project, to little visible effect. The much publicized meeting with Molotov on April 25 was a milder affair than Truman reported many years later in Years of Decisions, and a direct confrontation does not appear to have taken place. In the following weeks, the “fledgling president” [131] continued to muddle through the complications of foreign policy, facing the double challenge of putting an end to one war in Europe and pursuing another one in the Pacific. In late June, in one of his first significant moves, Truman decided to replace Secretary of State Stettinius with a political heavyweight he admired, James F. Byrnes.

In the next chapter (“Negotiation”), Miscamble discusses the Potsdam Conference, Truman’s first major international mission. Truman came to Potsdam with much apprehension, but also with the conviction that he would be able to establish a personal rapport with Stalin, whom he believed to represent a Soviet version of a typical American political boss, like Tom Pendergast, Truman’s one-time mentor in Missouri politics – an “analogy” Miscamble, in a typical side comment, finds “both astoundingly naïve and ample ground for poor boss Tom, whatever his flaws, to pursue legal action for defamation of character were he still alive” [193]. In a particularly interesting passage, Miscamble focuses on the influence of Joseph Davies, the pro-Soviet politician and presidential adviser who sat next to Truman at the Potsdam negotiating table and who made sure the negotiating process – chiefly determined by Byrnes – never strayed too far from the pre-established tracks of the Grand Design. The eventual Potsdam agreement was an arrangement which combined the three previously unrelated issues of reparations, the satellite states and the Polish borders. Potsdam was formally conducted in the spirit of the previous Yalta accord, but in fact it paved the way for the division of Germany.

The chapter on Hiroshima offers a dispassionate narrative and analysis of Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan. Miscamble delivers on his promise to clarify important questions, such as the main reasons why the bombs were used and the role they played in the rapid surrender of Japan, not forgetting retrospective interrogations about the morality of using this new weapon of mass destruction. The decision to use the bomb was made – on board the Augusta sailing back to the US from Potsdam – through the “prism of forcing a Japanese surrender” [226] and as such, it was perfectly in keeping with the Rooseveltian strategy of sparing as many American lives as possible. Furthermore, the Japanese government or military had never sent any signs which might have “encouraged either Truman or Byrnes to consider any change in strategy” [224]. While there is no evidence whatsoever that Truman and those assisting him had any moral qualms about using the bomb or about its legitimacy as a weapon of war under the circumstances, he did measure the terrible consequences of such weapons afterwards. Soon after the bombing of Nagasaki, Truman revealed his “personal anguish” and “growing recognition” of the extraordinary nature of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings [244]. In 1948, during a briefing on recent atomic tests by Atomic Energy Commission Chairman David Lilienthal, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mentioned in the conversation, Truman told Lilienthal: “I don’t want to have to do that again ever” [ibid.] Miscamble argues forcefully that Truman “simply allowed the predetermined policy to proceed” [225]: the objective was to intimidate the Japanese into surrender, which is exactly what happened, as we are given to see in a vivid summary account of the Japanese turnabout after Hiroshima, when Hiro Hito finally “swallowed” his “own tears” and gave his “sanction to accept the Allied proclamation” [231].

Surprisingly, this major upheaval of the military balance between Allies did not result in an atomic diplomacy, as American efforts still tended to accommodate the Soviets and still sought cooperation with Stalin. The show of strength in Japan, the episode of intimidation, was not followed by a more decisive, confrontational Soviet policy, but rather by a long period of “indecision and even confusion” all the way to the end of 1946 [262]. According to Miscamble, who never misses a chance to drive this particular point home, this was due to the fact that “neither Truman nor Byrnes possessed a clear understanding of the nature of Stalin and his regime” [ibid.] And they did not appear to “grasp fully the dramatic impact of World War II on the architecture of the world” [263]. Present-day historians like Walter Russel Mead explain that the US “wrestled among three major options between 1914 and 1947”: lending support to the waning power of the British Empire, isolationism, replacing Britain as the “gyroscope of the world” [263]. While the US eventually chose this last option, says Miscamble, “this choice appeared by no means obvious in late 1945 and 1946”, when many Americans “still thought in terms of the United States serving as a mediator between the British and the Soviets” |ibid.]

One telling example of the continuing fumble was Truman’s insistence on international control of atomic energy, even in the face of vocal opposition in Congress. The first Western statesman to understand the true nature of Stalinism was not Truman, but Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary and former trade-unionist who “knew instinctively” that the West had little to gain from seeking cooperation with the Soviet Union [277]. On the American side, some actors were more lucid than others. George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” of February 22, 1946, which defined the true nature of Soviet power – “impervious to the logic of reason, it is highly sensitive to the logic of force” did have an impact on some senior policy makers, but this impact “should not be exaggerated” [280]. Apparently, the telegram was never brought to Truman’s personal attention.  Another famous episode, Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in March did not in any way mark the reshaping of American policy: in fact, Truman distanced himself from this message, while Walter Lippmann, the leading liberal columnist, called it an “almost catastrophic blunder” [284]. Byrnes’ departure from the State Department in late 1946 did not have significant policy implications, as George C. Marshall, his successor, did not have “any intention to take American policy in any new direction” [304].

In the final chapter (“Transformation: Truman’s Foreign Policy”), Miscamble states his thesis bluntly: “Truman never self-consciously decided to transform the foreign policy content and approach he inherited from FDR. Instead, external circumstances drove the creation of the Truman’s administration foreign policy” [308]. Thus ends the story of a growing awareness of the new circumstances created by World War II, thus the Truman Doctrine was born. Not the lucid vision of a few analysts like George Kennan, but rather the obstinacy and adventurism of Stalin and Molotov were the keys factors in generating this new awareness. On the one hand, one had the Prague Coup and the Berlin Blockade, on the other the Marshall Plan. These were the main markers of the transformation, and they eventually generated the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington in April 1949. But the truth of the matter remains that if the United States ultimately assumed this position of leadership of the West, it was “more reluctantly and haphazardly than the Soviets did in the East” [315].

The story told by Miscamble broaches far-reaching themes, well beyond the intricacies and complications of day-to-day foreign affairs, and it sometimes borders on the Shakespearean: men of character confronted with issues larger than themselves. The leads are two able American politicians, Truman and Byrnes, facing an unprecedented situation and a new world order whose emergence dawned on them slowly. They shared a constant attention to “the domestic political consequences” of international initiatives, and their outlook was “to some extent limited by concern with the home scene of the United States” [174]. But this did not keep them from making slow progress toward a better apprehension of the nature of Soviet power. While Truman and his administration followed in Roosevelt’s steps for more than two years, it became clear over time that FDR’s “rather romantic plan and vision for the post-war world” could not and would not provide the substance for a “realistic foreign policy” [323]. The changes were gradual and often followed the trial and error pattern. Ultimately, it fell to men like Truman, Marshall and Acheson – “men of the political center – and comrades in arms like Clement Atlee and Ernest Bevin – men of the democratic left” – to defend the Free World and contain the Soviet Empire: by the early 1950s, all of them were acutely aware of the danger that Stalin and his system presented” [331-332].

Miscamble’s study of the initial confusion and fragility of American foreign policy, moving along predetermined lines and then changing its course, is quite convincing, but it does have one blind spot: the permanent, systematic presentation of the Soviet Union as a monolithic source of brutality and evil. Oblivious to the endless sacrifices of the Russians during their “Great Patriotic War”, Miscamble never even remotely envisages the possibility that the power and solidity of the Soviet Union may have been overestimated at the time, nor does he consider the reasons for Stalin’s world-wide popularity after World War II. After all, Truman himself, in the early days of his presidency, expressed his personal fondness for “Uncle Joe”. These questions remain unaddressed in this otherwise masterful demonstration of historical scholarship, which reads like a novel.











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