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The Cold War and Détente

A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance

by Martin J. Sherwin
Knopf, 315 pp., $10.00

Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin 1941-1946

by W. Averell Harriman, by Elie Abel
Random House, 595 pp., $15.00

With the publication of these two books, the debate on the origins of the cold war launched by the “revisionist” historians of the 1960s has been raised to a new level of courtesy, nuance, and scrupulous documentation. This is not to say that in emphasis and structure Harriman’s war memoirs and Sherwin’s analysis of atomic grand strategy bear much resemblance. Although they cover an almost identical time span, the overlap in their subject matter is minimal. From an ideological standpoint, if we label Herbert Feis’s series of volumes as “right” and such works as Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy and Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War as “left,” we may put Sherwin in the left-center and Harriman in the right-center. One stresses the crucial importance of the bomb, the other such political and territorial disputes as the fate of Poland. They differ sharply on the reasons Truman chose the month of July 1945 for the Potsdam Conference. How is it possible, then, to find two such divergent books alike responsible and persuasive?

The first and most obvious answer is that neither puts all the blame on the Americans or the Russians—a gross simplification that in the high tide of the original controversy threatened to engulf the historiography of the cold war. The fact that Sherwin is closer to the revisionists and Harriman to the “official” line springs naturally from their choice of themes rather than from any tenacious preconception. Both demonstrate that the central and intractable problems they discuss arose well before the American entry into the Second World War. Both clearly imply that more alert statesmanship on Roosevelt’s part could have mitigated the eventual strain with the Soviet Union. And both of them, in their candor and reflectiveness, illuminate the new and current debate over the definition and limits of East-West détente.

The major novelty in Sherwin’s book is his contention that “as early as 1943…the potential diplomatic value of the bomb began to shape” Roosevelt’s atomic energy policies. After some initial waffling, in August of that year he swung around to Churchill’s view that both during and after the war the exploitation of such energy should remain an Anglo-American monopoly—i.e., he rejected an international solution in which the Soviet Union would share. This understanding found formal expression a year later in a secret aide-mémoire drawn up at Hyde Park—a document, Sherwin argues, “far more important than historians have generally recognized,…overshadowed” as it has been “by the drama of Yalta.”

When he initialed the aide-mémoire in September 1944, Roosevelt had only seven months to live. He knew he was a dying man—although how much he allowed this recognition to guide his conscious thoughts and actions remains within the realm of speculation. Yet he refrained from telling his scientific advisers what he and Churchill had agreed to; hence “the Anglo-American atomic energy partnership…died with him.” Nor did a more open and trusting attitude toward the Soviet Union take its place. Quite the contrary, untried and uninformed, surrounded by counselors “who, for the most part, viewed Soviet intentions in a…sinister light,” the new president, Harry S. Truman, saw no other course than to interpret Roosevelt’s legacy in the narrow nationalist framework which led initially to Hiroshima and beyond that to the nuclear arms race which still dominates our lives. “Truman transformed FDR’s concealed skepticism about the likelihood of continued cooperation into the explicit guiding principle of American-Soviet relations.”

Sherwin’s depiction of a Roosevelt willing to accept Churchill’s guidance in atomic energy matters and masking his “skepticism” about the trustworthiness of Stalin goes far to rescue the wartime president from the conventional right-wing charge of “naïveté.” By the same token it suggests that Truman’s accession entailed less of a shift in policy than pro-Roosevelt left-liberals have preferred to imagine. Sherwin’s Roosevelt is more Machiavellian, his Truman more plausible, than the stock figures of partisan polemic.

But this painstaking correction of the record is only half of what Sherwin offers. Underlying his scrupulous historical account we find a passionate advocacy—all the more compelling in the moderation of its tone—for what he calls in Robert Frost’s words “the road not taken.” The tragedy of the years 1941-1946, he argues, lay in the American refusal to confide sufficiently in the Russians during the war so that postwar international cooperation and control in the atomic energy field could become a realistic option. It was not necessary, he explains, to have handed over scientific secrets (these the Soviet Union was acquiring in any case through espionage). It was imperative rather to forestall a nuclear arms race by giving the Russians a general idea of our projects.

Some such policy was what a number of the leading scientists wanted—notably Niels Bohr and Leo Szilard, and, more belatedly and tentatively, the president’s top advisers like Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant. But their efforts were fitful and uncoordinated: they were never able to bring their consensual pressure to bear. And this lack of a united front, Sherwin surmises, can in large measure be ascribed to the compartmentalization of research imposed for security reasons by the military director of the bomb’s manufacture, General Leslie R. Groves. Until the very last year of the war, Groves’s orders forbade general policy discussions among the widely scattered potentates of the scientific community. “What scientists viewed as the most important part of the creative process, Groves considered no more than idle chatter.” Not until three days after the signing of the Hyde Park aide-mémoire was Bush at last able to acquaint Roosevelt with the advanced thinking of his scientific peers.

It was left to a nonscientist, Henry L. Stimson, the revered senior statesman and secretary of war, to become the president’s official worrier about the atom bomb. In his cautious, methodical fashion Stimson was groping for an international solution when events overtook him. First Roosevelt died. Then, in the new situation of the European war drawing to a close and the bomb probably succeeding, Stimson suddenly changed course. Linking his concern for postwar atomic controls to his alarm at Soviet behavior in East Central Europe, he rallied to the diplomatic strategy of a quid pro quo—the argument that “a clear demonstration” of the bomb’s “extraordinary power would induce the Soviets to exchange territorial objectives for the neutralization of this devastating weapon.” And in so doing the man who had undertaken to be the voice of “restraint” in Washington unwittingly played into the hands of the hard-liners. Ironically enough, during the last half of 1945 nuclear weaponry proved to be what it has remained ever since—too overpowering a trump for diplomatic bargaining. The United States, Sherwin concludes, had forfeited its chance for postwar cooperation while gaining nothing substantial in return.

A rather different notion of a quid pro quo is the dominant theme in Harriman’s war memoirs. As the American who saw the most of Stalin—from his first mission to Moscow in the autumn of 1941, when the military experts were almost unanimous in predicting that the Russians would succumb to the Nazi invasion, to his two-and-a-half-year service as ambassador—he is entitled to speak with a unique authority. In constant contact with the Soviet war effort, prodding, cajoling, ever sanguine despite repeated rebuffs and frustrations, he saw the Russians through the crucial final years of the conflict and into the murky postwar era. Now in his eighties, he has waited an entire generation to publish his account of his own actions. And the book is doubtless the better for its long period of gestation: in full knowledge of the ideological and historiographic battles that have raged in the meantime, Harriman commands an overview that is again without parallel.

His collaboration with Elie Abel works smoothly most of the time. While it necessitates writing in the third person—an occasionally awkward device—the dual authorship has the advantage of permitting the narrative to proceed on three simultaneous levels. First there are Harriman’s notes and memoranda from the war years themselves; then there is Abel’s connecting prose, which deftly provides the essential background on the aspects of the conflict to which the memoirs do not bear personal witness; finally there are Harriman’s current assessments in thirty-year perspective—the whole having the quality of stereo vision that made a film like The Sorrow and the Pity so engrossing both to aging former participants and to those too young to have experienced the events in question.

These devices permit Harriman a certain amount of deserved self-congratulation. Their only notable drawback is that they offer scarcely a glimpse into the private man. At one point a Russian acquaintance bizarrely inquires: “How can a man with a hundred million dollars look so sad?” We are never told the answer. The self-portrait, such as it is, that the book presents is of an energetic, confident diplomat, full of bounce. His personal loneliness, although implied, is never explicitly mentioned. With his evident distaste for exposing his own depths, it is not surprising that Harriman never goes very far in exploring the intimate secrets of others.

What stands out most dramatically in his account is how little he has felt obliged to change his mind over the years. Today, as in the period 1941-1946, he believes that the way to have dealt with the Russians was in strictly business terms. It was not true, as the cold warriors maintained, that “the only argument they understood was force.” It was rather that altruism and generosity did not figure in their mental constellation; they did not expect something for nothing; the notion of quid pro quo was second nature to them. Hence, Harriman kept pleading, the time for hard bargaining was while the Soviet Union still desperately needed American aid. “Nothing would be gained—and much might be lost…—by refusing to negotiate Stalin’s territorial demands [in East Central Europe] until after the war was won.” In this view, Harriman stood with Churchill. Roosevelt thought otherwise—with results that have plagued us to this day.

Within their divergent perspectives, Sherwin and Harriman establish some central points that can perhaps from now on be accepted as uncontroversial. First, concerning Roosevelt himself: from both books there emerges a president unable or unwilling in any sustained fashion to focus on the questions his advisers thought most pressing—Poland or the bomb, as the case might be. Harriman recalls that he “found it difficult to capture” his chief’s “attention for a serious talk about the problems of…Eastern Europe.” Sherwin paints a pathetic picture of the last conversation between Stimson and Roosevelt—one elderly, the other dying—in all its inconclusiveness about the nuclear future.

In this perspective, the Yalta Conference figures as rather less epochmaking than it has usually been depicted. Sherwin and Harriman would agree that Roosevelt’s inveterate practice of glossing over painful issues had already allowed most of them to be settled by default. As the former ambassador judiciously observes: “I suppose that if FDR had been in better health, he might have held out longer and got his way on a number of detailed points. But I can’t believe that it would have made a great difference….”

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