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

From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War by Wilson D. Miscamble. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 393 pp.

Few twentieth-century presidents remain as enigmatic as Harry S Truman. With the presidency thrust upon him in 1945, he made one of the most momentous political and military decisions of the century: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. He followed that by helping to formulate, preside over, and administer a policy of containment that all but assured a 50-year Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Historians have struggled to agree on the origins of the Cold War and Harry Truman’s part in it, dividing themselves into orthodox, revisionist, and realist camps. We can easily define their banners. The orthodox group saw the Cold War as a reaction to the expansionist designs of the Soviet empire. The revisionists argued that the Cold War was simply another stage in the long life of American imperialism. Realists took a Bismarckian approach; that is, the Cold War was a traditional political, economic, and military effort to balance global power among peer competitors. In From Roosevelt to Truman, Wilson D. Miscamble adds some balance but with a distinct partiality toward the orthodox camp’s rationale.

Miscamble’s Truman is a supremely loyal and unsure man. What sets him apart from Roosevelt is his surprising inexperience in executive leadership and politics. In the early months of his presidency, he merely mimicked Roosevelt’s policies for winning and securing the peace. Nevertheless, Truman became a quick learner, and his classroom was increasing interaction with his aggressive Soviet counterparts. As late as July 1945, Truman still harbored hope that the US and Soviet governments could work together amicably in the postwar world. He wrote, “I can deal with Stalin . . . he is honest but smart as hell” (pp. 120, 192). Soon after that summer, however, Truman recognized that Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov was not a broker for postwar peace but the point man in a systematically offensive Soviet foreign policy. Thus, the ad hoc (and not systematically designed) policy of containment was a measured response to Soviet expansionism. Despite this familiar orthodox line of reasoning, Miscamble succeeds in demonstrating “the complexity, uncertainty and sheer messiness of policy-making” (pp. xiii–xvi ) that many Cold War historians, in all camps, resist.

Franklin D. Roosevelt left Truman a legacy of international dialogue built mostly upon personalities. He and his emissaries were more trusting than doubtful. Also, Roosevelt believed that the greatest challenge in the postwar world would be colonialism, not communism. According to Miscamble, he naively believed that he could work with Stalin, and that belief transferred to Truman. Truman’s early actions in foreign policy were products of astute but often misguided advice from Roosevelt’s advisors and emissaries. At one such meeting in May 1945, Truman visited Roosevelt’s longtime secretary of state Cordell Hull. “Displaying an admirable quotient of gullibility,” Hull told Truman that peace was impossible without Russian cooperation and all differences could be resolved; “this after all ‘was what statecraft was for’ ” (p. 142). Neither understood at that point that the Soviets were bent on an offensive, land-grabbing foreign policy, which only direct confrontation could stop.

Historians have argued that an aggressive US foreign policy was evident as early as April 1945 during talks between Truman and Molotov. Miscamble argues, however, that these talks show Truman’s willingness to work with the Soviets. He says that Truman deliberately “spiced up” the memoirs years later to portray a harsher stance against Molotov than he really took during the talks. Documents from both American and Russian sources confirm this license. Unfortunately, the damage was done. An imagined heated discussion between the two largely determined the subsequent historiography and, in succession, the national memory of Truman’s harshness toward Molotov. In addition to the spurious ferocity of the conversation, Miscamble states that “those [historians] who focus on this episode miss the forest while fixating on a single tree” (p. 324). The majority of the book is an attack on revisionist writing. Miscamble cautions his tradesmen when he notes that “questions a historian asks hold great importance and influence” (p. 220).

None of these historians have impacted the memory of Truman’s presidency more so than Gar Alperovitz. Alperovitz claimed in Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam that Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan solely as a diplomatic tool against the Russians. Of this, Miscamble boldly proclaims, “The time has come to move beyond him and his distorted ‘thesis’ once and for all” (p. 220). Many things influenced Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. Two float to the top—his desire to save American lives and to carry on Roosevelt’s legacy. Saving American lives required reducing the closing costs of the war. Roosevelt had already decided to employ the bomb as a complement—not an alternative—to all other plans, including the firebombing, blockade, and invasion. Truman was just continuing Roosevelt’s policies. Neither Truman nor any other member of his administration sought to use the atomic bomb as a diplomatic tool against the Soviets. Alperovitz built such notions upon a “quicksand of faulty assumptions.” In fact, Miscamble believes the most striking thing about the issue was “how little [the Truman administration] sought to use [the bomb] for diplomatic ends and purposes” (p. 325). Despite the fact that the atomic bombs never were intended to influence the Soviet decision-making process, Miscamble notes that without their forcing a quick and decisive end to the war, the Red Army would have begun seizing Hokkaido on 18 August. Thus, without the atomic bombs, much of Japan would have ended up under Soviet control.

Miscamble’s work is impressive in its analysis and audacious in its lines of argument. In his final analysis, he contends that “the Truman administration rightly moved—faltering at first, but then with increasing authority—to meet the aggressive designs of the Soviet Union” (p. 321). It is clear that Truman initially believed there were no conflicts between the victors of the war that could not be resolved, no irreconcilable differences among them. “The time has come,” he declares, “to drive a stake finally and completely through the heart of the false accusation that Truman quickly reversed Roosevelt’s accommodating approach” (p. 171). Thus, Miscamble’s argument is courageous, his tone refreshing, and his analysis well worth careful review and contemplation.

Michael Perry May

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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