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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 Mark S. Byrnes, Wofford College The strength of Arnold A. Offner's Another Such Victory lies in its judicious treatment of the particulars of Harry Truman's foreign policy. Offner has given us a thorough examination of the origins of the Cold War, one that deserves the considered attention of all cold war scholars. While he is predominantly critical of American foreign policy during the Truman years, he is consistently fair in his evaluation of it. The problem with this well-researched work is that ultimately its overarching argument is not persuasive. Offner argues that his treatment of Truman differs from past accounts in its focus on the influence of what he calls Truman's "parochial and nationalist heritage." (xii) By this, Offner means that the man from Independence never truly broadened his views beyond the limited horizons of the small American town from which he came. Throughout his life and presidency, Truman held an "uncritical belief in the superiority of American values and political-economic interests." From this flawed foundation came "his conviction that the Soviet Union and Communism were the root cause of all international strife, and his inability to comprehend Asian politics and nationalism." (xii) The result, according to Offner, is a more intense Cold War than was necessary, and far worse American relations with the communist states in Asia, punctuated by terrible wars in Korea and later in Vietnam. Offner is far too careful a scholar to argue that Truman caused the cold war. He wisely denies the idea explicitly: "No one leader or nation caused the Cold War." (456) Instead, he asserts that Truman's leadership (or lack thereof) "intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Europe and brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars and a generation of Sino-American enmity." (xii) Offner's choice of verbs here shows that he sees differing degrees of responsibility-he lays the most blame at Truman's feet in the case of the Chinese and Korean conflicts. Only with regard to Asia does Offner suggest that the course of the cold war could have been meaningfully altered had another man occupied the Oval Office. But in Asian policy, Truman "brought" about problems, rather than merely "intensified" a conflict that would have happened regardless. The argument that Truman's parochial nationalism is the key to understanding why the Cold War developed the way it did falls short on several counts. Offner simply attributes too much to Truman as an individual. It is no doubt true that presidents are quite important in making foreign policy. But Truman was arguably less important than his immediate predecessor Franklin Roosevelt and some of his successors, such as John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Offner notes in his biographical first chapter (at twenty-one pages, it seems somewhat brief, given that the argument rests on Truman's heritage) that Truman "would defer greatly to strong leaders" and specifically notes the influence of both George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Offner goes on to assert that Truman also "would denounce leaders whose styles or ways of thinking were unfamiliar."(3) Offner places greater importance on the latter observation and sees it as explaining Truman's later failure to deal well with Stalin and Mao. In the context of his overall argument, however, what is striking is Offner's concession that Truman deferred to his Secretaries of State, Marshall (1947-1949) and Acheson (1949-1953). If one includes Acheson's service as Undersecretary of State under James F. Byrnes (1945-1947), these two men guided the State Department through almost all of Truman's presidency. If Truman generally deferred to Marshall and Acheson when making foreign policy, how important was Truman's parochial nationalism? Perhaps his acceptance of their proposals owed something to Truman's underlying attitudes, but those policies were not the product of Truman's personal heritage. Unless one is inclined to label both Marshall and Acheson parochial nationalists too, it is difficult to see the importance of the concept to the formation of the administration's foreign policy. Ironically, one of Offner's more positive appraisals of Truman's diplomacy concerns the recognition of Israel, an episode that is perhaps the most striking example of Truman actually putting his personal stamp on policy and refusing to defer to the strongly held view of a key adviser. In his memoirs, Dean Acheson delicately observes that Truman had "deep-seated convictions on many subjects," and that his support for Jewish immigration to Israel was one of them. It is one of the few cases in which Acheson says he "did not share the President's views," but he defends Truman against the charge of being politically motivated by a desire to secure the Jewish vote in the 1948 election. (Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, New York: Norton, 1969, p. 169.) Offner agrees that Truman made policy toward Israel based on "political realities, not campaign concerns," and he states that Truman "sought a principled position." (298, 299) There was no one alive for whom Truman had more respect than George Marshall, yet he defied his secretary of state, even in the face of Marshall's warning that he would not vote for the president in the upcoming election if he recognized Israel. In this case, it seems, Truman's personal inclinations served him well. While generally approving of the substance of policy, Offner observes that Truman's "inability to grasp the nuances of diplomacy caused him great difficulty." (299) But as Offner's narrative makes clear, the persistent attempts of the State Department to undermine his position also caused Truman serious problems. His difficulties were by no means all of his own making. As if sensing that the positive assessment that his scholarly judgment leads him to offer might undermine his case, Offner shifts his emphasis more to Truman's style than the substance of his policy. Truman may have wanted to do the right thing on occasion, Offner suggests, but his lack of sophistication impeded the effort. While style can matter in diplomacy, Offner does not convincingly demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between Truman's parochial nationalism and the substantive policies of Truman's administration. Far too often, Offner's focus on style becomes a tendency to quote Truman at his most down-to-earth, as if that is proof enough of his limited vision. Offner rarely misses a chance to quote Truman calling someone a "son of a bitch" (24, 51, 91, 115, 304) or telling someone to "go to hell" (32, 105, 162), and he seems to revel in Truman's errors. For example, in the chapter on recognition of Israel, Offner quotes Truman (not once, but twice) saying that his "soul [sic] interest" was to stop bloodshed in the region (275, 295). Quoting (and then repeating) Truman's slip seemingly serves no purpose other than making him appear to be someone of less than stellar intellect. Offner does the same thing with another Truman error: rendering the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek's name as "Chiang K.C." Offner quotes this mistake on three separate occasions (318, 344, 464). Surely once was sufficient. No doubt, Truman was sometimes unsophisticated in his language-in particular when angry or frustrated. This fact does not constitute evidence that Truman's policies were determined or even shaped by parochial nationalism. Despite his evident distaste for what he sees as Truman's simplistic world view, Offner's work consists of judicious treatment of particular subjects. For example, Offner criticizes Truman for precipitating the Berlin blockade of 1948-1949 due to the West's determination to create an independent West Germany allied to the United States and its allies in western Europe. (246) Nonetheless, he seems to admire Truman's handling of the crisis: "Truman did manage to make a virtue of some of his predispositions. He demonstrated his determination to sustain the U.S. commitment to Europe and to Allied unity, to avert war, to retain control over the military (especially atomic weapons), and to avoid taking partisan advantage of a foreign policy crisis." (271-272) If this is parochial nationalism at work, perhaps it is not all bad. To balance this positive assessment of Truman's actions, however, Offner does insist that Truman's "perspective was shaped by a relatively simplistic definition of the situation" and says that Truman's "exaggerated sense of 'contract'" prevented him from seeing the German situation from Stalin's perspective. (271) Overall, however, Offner gives credit to Truman when the evidence leads in that direction. This same chapter, however, raises a troubling characteristic of Offner's critique of Truman. He insists that Truman's flawed mindset led him to fail to understand other leaders and nations and thus led to poor policy choices that intensified the cold war, but he does not apply the same standard to Truman's diplomatic counterparts. Offner criticizes Truman for failing to see "the Soviet view of the current German problem" before the Berlin blockade, but quickly dismisses Stalin's bullying as an "ill-conceived coercive action." (271) Would it not be fair to say that Stalin failed to see the American view of the German problem, too? Did not his attempt at blackmail, holding the people of West Berlin hostage, seriously intensify the cold war? Perhaps Offner's strongest indictment of Truman's diplomacy concerns the president's disastrous decision to take the Korean War north of the 38th parallel and seek rollback rather than mere containment of the North Korean regime. It is hard indeed to argue with Offner's conclusion: "Truman's political myopia, and that of his advisers, precluded their grasping the PRC leaders' determination to define and defend their revolution." (420) What is lacking in Offner's account, however, is a similar critique of the "political myopia" of Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung. Offner downplays Stalin's decision to allow Kim to invade the south, explaining that Stalin's goals were "tsarist" rather than "global." Perhaps so, but why did he and Mao fail to grasp that their "sponsorship" of Kim's attack would run afoul of the American leaders' determination to defend their South Korean ally? (370) Whatever Stalin's goals, tsarist or global, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in this case the Soviet leader unnecessarily intensified the cold war, in a far more provocative fashion than Truman ever did. It was Stalin's decision to unleash Kim that led Truman to adopt the apocalyptic conclusions of NSC-68 and "set the nation on an aggressive course." (348) (Offner gives surprisingly little attention to that seminal document, perhaps because it was so unquestionably the product of Truman's advisers and contrary to the president's personal inclination to restrain military spending.) Lastly, Offner fails to pay enough attention to the influence of public and Congressional opinion and its limiting effect on the practice of diplomacy. Can one truly understand the Truman administration's policy toward the Chinese Communists without considering the role played by the China Lobby? The Truman administration's non-recognition policy (no matter how unfortunate) was not made in a vacuum, but Offner devotes only one paragraph to domestic pressures. (340) One can agree with Offner's assessment of the decision to go north in Korea and still wonder whether it would have been politically possible for Truman to order General Douglas MacArthur to cease military operations when he had the enemy on the run. Even after the massive intervention of the Chinese in the fall of 1950, MacArthur's enthusiasm for a wider war held considerable appeal to some in Congress and among the public at large. What would their reaction have been if, before Mao's involvement raised the stakes, Truman had stopped a military advance in its tracks and left an aggressor to survive and menace the south in the future? Congressional and public opinion may not have determined Truman's policies, but as the leader of a democratic state he had to remain mindful of it. Every president has to balance an understanding of the conditions and perspectives of other nations with the demands of his own people. Too often, the latter factor is missing in Offner's analysis. It sometimes seems as if Offner wishes that Truman had been a disinterested cosmopolitan internationalist, immune from any hint of anything as crass and distasteful as political concerns or national self-interest, who might have been able to lead the world to the promised land of international peace and cooperation. In short, Truman should have been Henry Wallace. Offner describes Wallace as an "advanced" man, "a plant geneticist and agronomist who also understood atomic science," while Truman was "a country farmer given to homespun." (174) However much Offner may regret FDR's decision to drop Wallace from the ticket in 1944, the reality is that Wallace was not the vice-presidential candidate because he was seen as a political liability by FDR (who certainly was no parochial nationalist). The kind of cooperation Wallace envisioned was never, as Offner admits, in the cards: "The Second World War generated inevitable Soviet-American conflict." (456) Truman just made that conflict worse than it needed to be, Offner tells us. Maybe so. But he may also have kept it from being much worse. There can be no doubt that at numerous points in his presidency, Truman faced domestic pressures for a far more confrontational policy toward the Soviet Union and its allies than the one he pursued. The true political alternative to Harry Truman was not Henry Wallace, but Thomas Dewey or Robert Taft. If Truman's policies assumed, as Offner argues, the superiority of American aims and interests, that may be in no small part because the nation he led assumed it too. Truman may have represented his nation too well. Both had considerable strengths and weaknesses. Offner certainly has a point that Truman had an unfortunate tendency to reach for the easy analogy, that he sometimes simplified the complex situations he faced. But he also often had the wisdom to see the merit in the advice he received, and to reject some proposals that were not consistent with his views. The end of World War II left the United States feeling much like the stunned vice-president had felt on April 12, 1945: "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen" on it. A nation that had spent most of its history in willful ignorance of the world and its complexities was now thrust into the middle of virtually every issue and conflict in the world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to East Asia, places previously of limited importance to a primarily hemispheric power. Like Truman himself, it may well have doubted its ability to take up the mantle of leadership. Like him, it could exhibit both the considerable confidence (even arrogance) and innate insecurity that come with sudden power. Its people and its leaders, even the more cosmopolitan among them, were hardly immune from the traits Offner ascribes to Truman. Perhaps the dignified military man George Marshall and the suave diplomat Dean Acheson expressed their views without the sometimes salty and earthy language used by their chief, but their perspective was not so different from his. The mistakes of the Truman administration were bigger than one man or group, and so were its successes. Mark S. Byrnes Wofford College