- Perspectives on From Roosevelt to Truman
Editor's Note: This forum offers two contrasting perspectives on a new book by Wilson D. Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, which reassesses U.S. policy under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and the origins of the Cold War. Because reactions to the book have been so divergent, we solicited reviews from two experts on the early Cold War, Ruud van Dijk and Arnold A. Offner, whose views of the book differ markedly.
- From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War
The "new Cold War history," despite its numerous and significant accomplishments, has not generated a consensus about the conflict's origins. As several early reviews have already shown, Wilson Miscamble's From Roosevelt to Truman is unlikely to create one either. For one thing, Miscamble's critique of Cold War "revisionists," though often compelling, is too direct and blunt for the great majority of his colleagues to welcome this book as a new standard. For another, even though the book is unabashedly Washington-centric, its discussion of the motives and actions of especially the Soviet leader Josif Stalin will strike many as incomplete as well as insufficiently nuanced. Still, as a result of Miscamble's study of the transition in U.S. foreign policy from Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman in 1945 and 1946, certain arguments about the onset of the East-West conflict are going to be more difficult to make than before.
A work based as much on original research as on recent and traditional Cold War scholarship, From Roosevelt to Truman is mostly about the way President Truman perceived, tried to continue, but also changed the foreign policy he inherited from Roosevelt, especially toward Stalin's Soviet Union. Miscamble's achievements in reengaging one of the oldest issues in Cold War [End Page 133] history are many, but his main contribution is to offer us a genuinely fresh look at how the situation looked to Truman. Miscamble does so by rigorously trying to read the story "forward," instead of letting himself be guided by the concerns of a later time.
Sharply critical of Roosevelt, nuanced and ultimately sympathetic toward Truman, and unfailingly admiring of British leaders such as Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin, Miscamble apparently hopes most of all in this book to correct accounts by "revisionist" historians, especially those in the United States. In particular, he seeks to refute the "reversal" thesis, which holds that as soon as Truman assumed the presidency in April 1945 a fundamental shift took place in U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
Miscamble is tough on those who have argued that the new president in his first meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in April 1945 took a new hard line, signaling to Moscow that the wartime collaboration between the two countries was coming to an end. Miscamble scorns claims that Japan was about to throw in the towel in the late summer of 1945 and that its surrender could have been achieved through diplomacy. He is equally dismissive of "atomic diplomacy" arguments, especially those arguing that Truman decided to drop nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union. Miscamble argues that contrary to most of the recent scholarship on early U.S. Cold War policy, the Truman administration did not have the contours of a new strategy of containment in place by the summer of 1945. Instead, according to Miscamble, Truman and his advisers did not think strategically about the U.S. role in the postwar world (certainly not in a way fundamentally different from Roosevelt) and did not definitively embrace an anti-Soviet foreign policy until early 1947 following Britain's warning that it would soon abdicate its traditional role in the eastern Mediterranean. On all these issues, Miscamble presents...