- Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists by Robert H. Ferrell
First published in 2006 and now reissued in a paperback edition, this useful book, well suited for classroom use, gives us both less and more than its title implies. A collection of Robert Ferrell’s reflections on the Truman administration published from 1972 to 2002, it takes its name from an initial chapter on Cold War revisionists, then segues to chapters on the nuclear bomb, the early Cold War, Korea, and the historiography on Harry S. Truman.
Ferrell’s critique of the revisionists is restrained and gentlemanly. He calls the father of the genre, University of Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams, a friend. He shrinks from describing as Marxist the far-fetched assertion by Williams that the central theme of U.S. foreign policy was a perpetual quest for “Open Door” markets. Indeed Ferrell almost seems to buy Williams’s implausible declaration that the Open Door interpretation was simply an adaptation of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to the wider world of diplomatic history. In reality it was much more akin to Karl Marx’s interpretation of the dynamics of capitalism than Turner’s evocation of pioneers moving toward the setting sun. Ferrell admits as much by describing Williams, Lloyd Gardner, and other revisionists as “socialists.” By the time he gets around to Gabriel Kolko he finds it impossible to avoid “Marxist” (p. 13). The “C-word” never makes the text, although Ronald Radosh’s autobiographical work, Commies, makes clear that a strong, covert Communist allegiance was central to the upbringing of at least some Cold War revisionists, sometimes characterized as “red diaper babies.”
Two chapters on post-World War II U.S. foreign relations—“Diplomacy without Armaments” and “NATO”—are rewarding. In sharp, concise prose, Ferrell describes a diplomatic world in which the United States, with conventional military forces that could accurately be described as impotent, successfully contained Soviet expansionism. What Ferrell does not do—it likely would require a separate article—is explain why the Soviet Army did not simply march into Western Europe. The U.S. nuclear monopoly in the years immediately after the war no doubt had a lot to do with Soviet restraint, even if Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov might protest that his government was not impressed with the bomb. The USSR, moreover, needed to recover from the appalling wartime devastation, including the deaths of some 26 million, widespread destruction, and huge population dislocations. Having to pursue a rough equivalent of the Marshall Plan for his own country, Iosif Stalin moved with deliberation to consolidate his grip on territories the Red Army had occupied by the end of the war. The United States, [End Page 203] with no such needs, could achieve hegemony in Western Europe through economic aid and other manifestations of soft power.
A brief piece on the origins and nature of the Korean War neatly strikes a balance between the Truman administration’s missteps and General Douglas MacArthur’s feckless arrogance. The essay also shrewdly assesses decision-making on the Communist side, clearly outlining a chain of command (or at least consent) that ran from Kim Il-sung to Mao Zedong to Stalin.
A briefer essay evenhandedly discusses Truman biographies and biographers. I will admit to some surprise in seeing my own effort, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (1995), described as “psychological.” The book attempts to explain Truman’s motivation and character but is by no means “psychobiography” as the term is usually understood. That said, Ferrell deftly pegs the origins of my interest in Truman when he writes, “Hamby is a native of Humansville (population, 1,084), one of those wonderful Missouri farm villages with piquant names, such as Peculiar” (p. 106). The implications of mentioning Peculiar I will leave to others.
Ferrell has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an interpreter of U.S. politics and diplomacy. He acknowledges the aid and encouragement of another remarkable scholar, Lawrence Kaplan. The two of them have...