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_____________________________________________________________ H-DIPLO ROUNDTABLE Arnold Offner, _Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953_ (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). Roundtable Editor: Thomas Maddux Reviewers: Mark Byrnes, Carolyn Eisenberg, Eduard Mark, Andrew Rotter, William Stueck, Vladislav Zubok ________________________________________________________________ Commentary by Andrew Rotter, Colgate University Arnold Offner's new biography of Harry S Truman as a foreign policy president is a superb corrective to the misty-eyed nostalgia that has lately suffused the field. David McCullough's 1992 book inspired among Americans a wave of "give 'em hell Harryism"-the belief that the feisty little man from Missouri, faced with menacing communists and surrounded by spineless European allies and skittish advisers held over the from the appeasement-inclined Roosevelt administration, acted with determination and plain good sense to protect the free world from certain immolation. It was no accident that this interpretation of Truman proved appealing during the 1990s. McCullough's Truman had integrity, honesty, clarity of vision, and a style of leadership that left no doubt where he stood. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton seemed short on several of these qualities. What Harry would have done to those quarrelsome Iraqis, Colombian drug lords, Serbs and Rwandans and Islamic fundamentalists! Offner is not convinced. To him, Truman was narrowly parochial in outlook, an uncritical champion of "American values" as he understood them, willfully ignorant of other peoples and cultures, especially outside of Europe, and so unsure of his own fitness for the presidency that he almost reflexively demonized those who disagreed with him. As a result, Offner concludes, Truman's "foreign policy leadership intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Europe, and brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars and a generation of Sino-American enmity" (p. xii). A man of modest talents, Truman was plucked from obscurity by Tom Pendergast, the notorious Kansas City Democratic kingmaker, and elected country judge. He performed ably and for the most part dutifully and, in 1934, after four other possible candidates declined to run for senator from Pendergast, Truman gained the machine's support for his own bid and won the election. He became a moderate New Dealer, while nevertheless harboring suspicions that Franklin Roosevelt himself was a patrician "fakir," a word he never learned to spell. But he worked hard and played ball with his Democratic colleagues, and he was rewarded with re-election in 1940. Despite Roosevelt's expressed preference for others and his own modest national profile, Truman was made FDR's running mate in 1944. When the president died in April 1945, Truman, the failed haberdasher from Jackson County, Missouri, suddenly became the holder of the most powerful office in the world. He was unprepared for the job, and he knew it: he confessed to a diplomat that he was "the last man fitted to handle it" (p. 46). Certainly he faced a sea of troubles. The Nazis were nearly beaten, but the end game was proving tricky and there was full throated disagreement, within the administration and among the allies, about how to reconstitute Germany once it had surrendered. Japan fought on, without hope of victory but still capable of inflicting great damage on U.S. forces then closing in on the home islands. Truman had been president for nearly two weeks before Henry Stimson and Leslie Groves told him about the atomic bomb; Groves assured Truman that a bomb would be ready to use sometime during the summer. Western Europe was exhausted by war, while Eastern Europe had been liberated-ominously, thought Truman-by the Soviet Red Army. Haunted Jewish survivors of the Holocaust cast their eyes toward Palestine, oil-rich Iran was occupied by the rival powers, China had suffered eight years of war and was rent by political division, and nationalism flared in South and Southeast Asia. Overhanging all of these problems was the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union, battered by the war but still militarily formidable, ideologically hostile to American values, and led by a ruthless dictator who, in the view of many U.S. policymakers, was bent on world conquest. In his profound insecurity, Truman's impulse was to render snap judgments, substituting the appearance of decisiveness for the measured deliberation that might have introduced nuance into the policymaking process. Truman gave the Cold War its shape. He assumed the worst of the Soviet Union. He rejected Stalin's attempts to unite and weaken Germany, choosing instead the division of the country and the strengthening of its western sector. When, in 1948, the Soviets closed West Berlin to surface traffic, Truman authorized an airlift to keep its citizens supplied and out of communist hands. The president turned essentially local disputes (as in Greece and Korea) into international confrontations, exaggerated the Soviet threat in every venue (including Turkey and Iran), and eschewed balanced policies in favor of politically or ideologically driven initiatives (see Palestine/Israel and China) that destroyed flexibility and left the United States vulnerable to charges that it no longer believed in democracy-charges that stuck among Asians, Africans, and African Americans. Above all, Truman absorbed the lessons of his hardline advisers, among them Averell Harriman, Bernard Baruch, and George Kennan, and resolved that the Soviet Union could not be trusted. It must instead be contained through a combination of political and economic isolation (the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan), and military force-retention of nuclear supremacy, the North Atlantic Alliance in Europe, and intervention on the Korean peninsula in 1950. Offner's interpretation of Truman's foreign policy is a good deal more critical than that of the so-called "orthodox" Cold War historians, particularly John Lewis Gaddis and those, like Kathryn Weathersby, who make a fetish of each newly-translated document extracted from the Russian archives. Offner uses the Russian material, but properly contextualizes it within the larger body of evidence derived from American and British sources. Offner's take on Truman is somewhat more critical than that of Melvyn Leffler in _A Preponderance of Power_; to Offner, Truman exercised precious little realism or prudence in his dealings with the Soviets. (Offner follows closely, however, the critique of Gaddis in Leffler's 1999 _AHR_ essay "The Cold War: What Do 'We Now Know'?".) At the same time, Offner does not criticize Truman as harshly as do the radical revisionists, among them Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz (on the atomic bomb), and Bruce Cumings (on the Korean War). Offner argues that Truman's policies lacked wisdom and subtlety and in these ways made the world more dangerous, but he stops short of accusing Truman of criminality, and he credits the president with several successes: the Marshall Plan ("perhaps the most enduring and inspiring foreign policy initiative of the Truman administration," p. 244), the Berlin Airlift, balanced defense budgets, and the preservation of a non-communist South Korea. Offner fits most comfortably alongside the moderate Cold War revisionists: William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Lloyd Gardner, Barton J. Bernstein, and Thomas Paterson. Accordingly, Stalin was a very bad man, but his foreign policy was cautious and thus need not have prompted such a militant and far-flung response. Truman practiced atomic diplomacy. (On atomic matters generally, he was out of his depth.) Provincialism and insecurity blinded him to splits within the Communist camp and differences between national liberation movements and communist-sponsored revolutions. He promoted American values, democracy and capitalism, as if they were universal, and saw skeptics of this view as enemies. He was racially insensitive, blunt to the point of rudeness, close minded and prickly if criticized. He was a creature of the political culture that produced him but also one of its agents, and as such bears considerable blame for making the Cold War worse than it otherwise might have been. My sympathies inclined me toward Offner's interpretation, and as I read this impressively documented study these hardened into convictions. Several of Offner's contentions will nevertheless inspire controversy even among those who accept his overall argument. It seems rash, for instance, to insist that Truman's private upbraiding of secretary of state James Byrnes for losing his nerve at the Moscow Conference in December 1945 amounted to "a personal declaration of the Cold War" by the president (p. 124), weeks before Kennan, Stalin, and Winston Churchill weighed in with declarations of their own. Offner distinguishes the incendiary rhetoric and aggressive purpose of the Truman Doctrine from the more practical aims of the Marshall Plan, but Truman regarded them as "two halves of the same walnut," even if Offner prefers not to. Chen Jian's most recent book (_Mao's China and the Cold War_) suggests, contrary to Offner's claims, that the Truman administration did not lose a chance to establish good relations with Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists in 1949. Stalin's attempt to achieve a united Germany in March 1952 surely had more to do with creating discord in the Allied camp than it was a sincere effort to reopen talks on the issue; NATO was by then in place, and Stalin had to know that the Americans would not now abandon their plans for West Germany's revival and rearmament as an independent entity. Beyond that lie several matters that I would express not as criticisms but as suggestions for further thinking. _Another Such Victory_ is dense with detail about Truman's Cold War crises. (This seems to me especially true of Offner's account of German policy. I should add that I have always found U.S. postwar policy toward Germany mind-numbing, rather like German music. Maybe that's just me.) Regardless, the effect of all this detail was to create in me a feeling of sympathy for Truman. Perhaps he was out of his depth on nuclear and other issues because the waters in which he struggled were both turbulent and deep. The president could have done better: smarter choices were made available to him by some in his administration. But he had a hard job. Offner's analysis of Truman rests on the claim that the president was an insecure man, His Accidency, thrust into a role for which he hadn't asked and that was plainly too much for him. "They didn't tell me anything about what was going on," he complained to Henry Wallace a month after taking office (p. 23). Deeply anxious about his public performance, the status of Western Europe, Russian probes or presences in the Near East and a host of other things, Truman was "self-deprecating" but also belligerent, seeking to mask his anxiety with rhetorical toughness and contrived decisiveness. He aimed to leave no doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing. There is a commonsensical logic to this argument, which reminds me slightly of Richard Hofstadter's thesis that a national "psychic crisis" propelled the United States into war with Spain in 1898. Still, I wonder whether historians ought to making clinical judgments about their subjects. We aren't trained to know how the insecure-or, for that matter, the confident or depressed-will act under stress. It seems to me possible that insecurity, like schizophrenia, encompasses a range of symptoms and manifests in a variety of behaviors. Insecure people might be belligerent, and might feign decisiveness, but they might also act uncertainly and inconsistently-which description seems to me to fit Truman at least through early 1946. Let us agree, at least, to explore more deeply the psychological dimension of presidential decision making. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York _Times_, Thomas E. Mann found reason to compare George W. Bush to Truman. Both men, he noted, came to the presidency "without a clear mandate from the electorate," both were regarded as intellectual lightweights by critics, both spoke plainly (Bush? So says Mann), and both faced serious threats to the nation's security. Mann concludes with the hope that Bush will become even more like Truman, rejecting unilateralism and pre-emptive military actions in favor of alliance building and containment of enemies. The comparison seems to me strained, because Bush has steadfastly ignored world opinion in his quest to destroy evildoers and to pursue American interests, as he defines them, by all conceivable means. What with all the irresponsible saber rattling in Washington this season, I confess myself nostalgic for containment. Give me some nation-building in the name of democracy, some meaningful consultation with the allies, a military interventions against an aggressor, not against some thinker of nasty thoughts (and then only as a last resort), and I will be a happy man. Truman did not fully achieve these desiderata, but he came closer to them than the current president seems destined to do. The richness of Offner's account, the fullness of his evidence, invite speculation on some broadly cultural aspects of Truman's Cold War that Offner hasn't the space or the inclination to explore. Take, for example, the matter of race. Save for chapters on Truman's policy toward the Middle East and China, Offner focuses on U.S. relations with Europe and the Soviet Union. That reflects the priorities of the administration. Yet Truman did have policies toward Asia, Africa, and Latin America, areas in which rising nationalism inevitably brought the United States into confrontation with issues of race. As Mary Dudziak and Thomas Borstelmann have recently demonstrated, the absence of civil rights for blacks in the American south embarrassed the Truman administration in its efforts to win the sympathies of people of color who sought liberation throughout the Third World. Truman's racial prejudices, suppressed but not eradicated, reinforced American Eurocentrism and prevented the president from taking seriously liberation movements in Indochina and South Africa, to name just two. An analysis of Truman's policies from the standpoint of gender might also be enlightening. Men who value toughness, and say so as often as Truman did, may have something to hide. Truman would "stand up" to the Soviets, and he refused to "baby" them-no man would do that. French misbehavior in the Middle East following the war prompted Truman to wish them "castrated" (p. 51). There was no military rationale to build a hydrogen "Super" bomb beginning in 1950, but Truman authorized it anyway: ours had to be bigger than the Soviets' if we weren't to get pushed around. Writing in his diary during the summer of 1948, David Lilienthal praised Truman as "a real man" (p. 457). No description could have made the president happier. The claim that gender had influence on Truman's decision making presumes that language matters-that it is meaningful, as Frank Costigliola has argued, when people use certain words instead of certain other words. Truman had a fascinating relationship with words. He was blunt. When he lectured the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov on April 23, 1945, he did so in "words of one syllable" (p. 31). Yet, Truman valued words, or said he did. When, in late 1950, British prime minister Clement Attlee asked the president to put in writing a promise to "consult" before using atomic weapons, Truman demurred, claiming that "if a man's word wasn't any good it wasn't made any better by writing it down" (p. 400)-a statement that either gave Attlee faith in what Truman said or destroyed Attlee's faith in documents Truman had previously signed. Truman called the Soviets "barbarians," suggesting that there was no point in reasoning with them. Most often, Truman compared diplomacy to poker; the atomic bomb, for example, was his "master card" or his "ace in the hole." The analogy both domesticates and dramatizes international relations. Poker is a man's game, played for high stakes though rarely life and death. Those who play it honor its rules, but they're encouraged to bluff with a straight (poker) face. Doubtless the president used poker analogies unthinkingly, while nevertheless expressing through them a wish to be reassured that, win or lose the hand, in the end he would push back from the table alive and well. The tart language of which Truman was fond had a function: it allowed him to let off steam without hurting anything except feelings. Molotov was taken aback when Truman addressed him in words of one syllable, and the Soviet foreign minister no doubt reported to Stalin that the new man would be hard to deal with, but thereafter the president calmed down and dealt more patiently with the Russians, for awhile. Truman told Attlee in December 1950 that the only possible response to Communism was to "eliminate it" (p. 421). Into his diary in early 1952 went the president's harshest invective: the Russians honored no agreements, made slaves of their POWs, "raped" (Offner's characterization) the Baltic states and occupied Eastern Europe, and supported fellow traveling "thugs," presumably the North Koreans. "This is the final chance for the Soviet Government to decide whether it desires to survive or not," Truman wrote (pp. 409-10). Yet, having made these threats, Truman refrained from carrying them out. Sometimes it takes saying or writing something to make one realize how foolish or impractical it sounds. I noted earlier that Truman's relative disinterest in the world outside the West allows Offner to limit his treatment of U.S. policy toward the periphery. Perhaps because of this, Offner somewhat underestimates the contributions of smaller powers, West and East, to the development of the Cold War. American power was preponderant, not all encompassing, and recent scholarship has shown that both postwar superpowers could be manipulated by their supposed clients. The British often instructed the Americans on colonial and postcolonial questions, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. It was a British and French initiative, the Dunkirk Pact of 1947, that became the nucleus of NATO. (Ernest Bevin called Dunkirk "a sprat to catch the American mackerel," and it worked.) The French guided the process of German reintegration with the Schuman and Monnet Plans, the Germans themselves had much to do with shaping the Berlin Blockade crisis and its resolution, and the Japanese, despite obvious constraints, managed their American occupiers in ways that served their own purposes. The North and South Koreans took turns tormenting their powerful sponsors. Offner's focus on Truman is a focus on the United States, which is appropriate. But let us remember that the Cold War was a multivalent thing, with sources, influences, and outcomes that were sometimes beyond the grasp of even its most powerful participants. One final point, on the matter of the use of atomic bombs against Japan and the message they were intended to send to the Russians-"atomic diplomacy." Offner's position is that anti-Soviet politics were integral to the decision to use nuclear weapons by preventing "serious thought...about not using atomic bombs" (p. 99). To Offner, warning the Soviets about American power by using it was more than a diplomatic "bonus" attached to defeating Japan more quickly: it was a significant objective in its own right. In this way, Offner is more amenable to the "atomic diplomacy" argument that is, say, Barton J. Bernstein, who first described it as a "bonus." Certainly Truman, Stimson, and other U.S. officials hoped that using the bomb would frighten the Soviets into more agreeable behavior. Where this hope ranked among the reasons for the Hiroshima bombing is hard to say. What if the Soviets were not in August 1945 threatening to liberate Manchuria and northern China from the Japanese and likely to demand a share of the occupation authority in Japan itself? Would the United States have used the bomb anyway, just to end the war more quickly? Of course. Would the bombing have been morally cleaner had the Soviet Union not been its implied secondary target? That seems doubtful. Once the war was over, "atomic diplomacy" became a tautology: no U.S. policy, toward the Soviet Union or anyone else, could take place in the absence of the bomb. There would always be an implicit threat of an atomic attack by the United States at least until its nuclear monopoly ended in the summer of 1949. Thereafter, as more and more nations made nuclear weapons, atomic diplomacy would become increasingly universal. That these issues seem so fresh, so fraught, so debatable, testifies to the extraordinary tensions of the early Cold War. No one gets the last word on a period like this, or on a man like Harry Truman. But if Arnold Offner hasn't solved Truman in all ways and for all time, he has done more than anyone else to make us understand the foreign policy of this mulish man from Missouri. "Give 'em hell, Harry"? No thanks. Andrew Rotter Colgate University