Wilson D. Miscamble. From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xx + 393 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-86244-8.
Reviewed by Ingo Trauschweizer (Department of History and Political Science, Norwich University)
Published on H-War (October, 2007)
This is an excellent book that should reinvigorate the debate of the origins of the Cold War. Perhaps even more importantly, it offers a challenge to the argument made by Melvyn Leffler and others that the United States became a national security state in the aftermath of the Second World War by design. Instead, Wilson Miscamble suggests that the Truman administration exhausted all options of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union before a clear shift in American foreign policy became discernible. He discusses the transition from Franklin D. Roosevelt's conciliatory policy toward the Soviet Union to Harry S. Truman's policy of containment as a gradual process that took several years. Truman is the book's central character. Miscamble relies on a range of detailed biographies of the future president to consider the man: from humble beginnings in Missouri to his life-changing experiences on the battlefields of the First World War, and then on to political life in Missouri, in the U.S. Senate, and as vice president. While the first chapter treads on familiar ground, it is nevertheless crucial to Miscamble's understanding of Truman as an American internationalist. Based on this solid foundation, he concludes that Truman, much like FDR, sought a postwar order that relied upon the United Nations and on cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Truman did not sharply reverse American strategy and policy until 1947, when conflicts in the Middle East and southern and Eastern Europe had finally convinced the president and his advisers that conciliation would be repaid only with deceit.
Miscamble presents a masterful narrative that is informed by command of an expansive literature. In the majority of footnotes he engages the secondary and memoir literature. Given the sheer volume of works that have addressed the broader theme of the origins of the Cold War, and the specific question at what point Truman abandoned Roosevelt's foreign policy, this approach is necessary. But this is also a deeply researched empirical study. The author tells us that his interest in the subject dates back to his master's thesis at the University of Queensland, and it quickly emerges that he has spent his entire career in the critical archives and research libraries in the United States and Great Britain. Doing so has allowed him to fill crucial gaps and reinterpret questions that have seemed irresolvable. Miscamble, whose earlier book on George Kennan and the foundations of containment ranks among the best studies of U.S. foreign policy in the late 1940s, has established himself as a leading scholar of the Truman administration. In presenting a history of strategy and policy that transcends traditional diplomatic and policy history, Miscamble also reminds us that studies of national administrations remain an important endeavor in the rising field of Cold War international history.
At first glance, Miscamble's conclusions seem to support those of traditionalists who argued that the Cold War came about due to the policies and character of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin. From Roosevelt to Truman, however, does not intend to apportion blame. Instead, Miscamble focuses on how policy was made in Washington, often with critical input from British government officials and politicians. This is not a study of the origins of the Cold War per se. Rather, the book traces the gradual transition of America's world view through the lens of the president and his closest advisers. Miscamble holds that Truman was honest when he proclaimed on April 12, 1945, that he would continue to pursue Roosevelt's policies. His disillusionment with Stalin and the Soviets set in over time. This argument is presented in eight carefully considered chapters. Following on Truman's pre-presidential life and career, Miscamble takes great care to assess his inheritance, Roosevelt's policies, both expressed and intended. It is widely known that Roosevelt had failed to inform Truman of critical aspects of his relationship with Stalin. But Miscamble also points out that recent scholarship has found that Roosevelt's Soviet policy by 1945 was based on illusions more than reality. Truman inherited an ambiguous legacy. Even Roosevelt's advisers were divided in their interpretations of FDR's intentions, and the departments of State and War had vastly different goals and objectives. Therefore, when considering Truman's eventual shift from cooperation to confrontation, it is necessary to remember that there were few highly placed government officials in April 1945 who truly believed that the Soviet Union would show restraint in Eastern Europe.
Truman was faced with an impossible task, continuing a policy that had depended entirely on Roosevelt's personal style. The new president quickly determined that certain tactics and the tone of negotiations had to become harsher, but he nevertheless intended to maintain the strategic course that had been set during the wartime alliance. Truman envisioned a world order monitored by the United Nations and other crucial international bodies that had been created since 1944. For this, continued cooperation with the Soviets was essential. Truman kept this course until long after the Potsdam Conference, despite advice to confront the Soviets given not only by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, but also by W. Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador in Moscow, and other officials in Washington. The meeting at Potsdam in July 1945 did not represent a fundamental turning point. Truman was not yet willing to abandon the policy of conciliation, despite news of the successful test of the atom bomb, but he and his new secretary of State, James F. Byrnes "offered Stalin a different face...; [and] moved beyond the sad Rooseveltian effort to offer concessions in hopes of winning Stalin's trust" (pp. 215-216). This was followed almost immediately by the use of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Miscamble briefly engages the scholarly debate, but he asserts that Truman's decision cannot be understood in moral terms. For the president and his military advisers the atom bomb was a legitimate weapon of war and Japan was still at war with the United States. There may have been hope of intimidating Stalin, but that was a secondary consideration at best. In August 1945, Truman and Byrnes still hoped to secure "a cooperative postwar relationship with the Soviet Union" (p. 260). The fundamental shift in American foreign policy only came after a further year and a half of indecision during which Truman dithered between conciliatory and confrontational courses of action. By early 1947, there was no choice but to become more openly involved in European economic and political affairs.
In the final analysis, the fundamental transformation of American foreign policy was not the shift from cooperation to containment that helped bring about the protracted Cold War confrontation, but rather the shift from isolationist instincts to internationalism. Miscamble holds that "Roosevelt and Truman together combined to destroy American isolationism, but under Truman's leadership, the United States moved to a level of world engagement and assumed international commitments far beyond anything that Roosevelt had conceived" (p. 308). Truman confronted the reality of the postwar world, while FDR had pursued an idealistic illusion. Miscamble is sympathetic to Truman, but certainly not uncritical, particularly of his tendency to view the world in simplistic moral terms. But Miscamble concludes that despite the flaws, and despite Roosevelt's incredible failure to prepare Truman for the great challenges he was to face, Truman's foreign policy was successful. It changed the way most Americans saw the world and the role of the United States in it. Miscamble acknowledges that this transformation did not follow a conscious plan. Instead, "external circumstances drove the creation of the Truman administration's foreign policy" (p. 308). Truman thus emerges as an adept crisis manager who listened to his advisers and understood his intellectual limitations. Unlike Woodrow Wilson or FDR, Truman "proved capable of tempering his idealism and overseeing a realistic foreign policy that garnered congressional support" (p. 329).
Some historians may find the book's focus on U.S. government policy narrow in light of the international and transnational methodology that has advanced our understanding of the Cold War of late. Others will disagree with the argument that Soviet actions caused the Cold War confrontation. Perhaps, an additional introductory chapter considering the international context from the perspective of Moscow and Stalin would have enhanced the book. But ultimately, Miscamble's argument and conclusions are persuasive and it is quite likely that diluting the comprehensive and clearly structured exposition would have had a less than desirable effect. The book's subtitle, Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, is somewhat misleading. While Potsdam and Hiroshima indeed represented a change in the tactics of American foreign policy, its fundamental transformation came much later, and while that transformation led into the Cold War, the central theme of this important study is the changed nature of U.S. foreign and defense policy to an involved internationalism. Everyone interested in international relations and American strategy and policy in the twentieth century will find this book provocative, if not definitive. It deserves a wide readership.
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Ingo Trauschweizer. Review of Miscamble, Wilson D., From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War.
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