Roosevelt and Churchill
Roosevelt and Churchill; drawing by David Levine

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….”

Second, so far as the succession to Roosevelt is concerned, Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan appears as virtually foreordained and less consciously sinister than most recent writing has argued. Sherwin notes—and Harriman agrees—that from the start American “policymakers never seriously questioned the assumption that the bomb should be used.” Moreover, “the available evidence suggests” that “the conveying of an implicit warning to Moscow” was not “the principal reason…for deciding to use” it. “To recognize that the President and his advisers weighed the implications of the [bomb’s] successful test in relation to all aspects of American policy does not ipso facto justify ascribing diabolical motivations to them.”

Correspondingly, the Soviet leaders play their parts in both books as not unduly alarmed by the news, conveyed to them during the Potsdam Conference, of the bomb’s success. Already well briefed by his spies, Stalin never lost his composure. And in the months that followed, he evidently made a deliberate choice to underplay the bomb’s value—to keep his own nerve and that of his countrymen until the time when the Soviet Union too would have its nuclear arsenal. If Harriman’s guesses about Stalin’s reasoning are correct—and only the opening of the archives in Moscow can answer such a question—the Soviet leader’s probable reaction was that Truman was only doing what he himself would have done in his place!

So much for points of agreement. The most obvious divergence between Sherwin and Harriman is in their assessment of the inexperienced new president within the confined sphere in which he did manifest a personal initiative. Sherwin depicts a man “at the mercy of events” and of his overbearing advisers. Harriman recalls that he “gained great respect for Truman at once, because he had grasped so quickly many of the problems we were facing with the Soviet Union.” The crucial conflict between the two accounts is over the timing of the Potsdam Conference. Sherwin is convinced that the president postponed it until mid-July so that the bomb’s test explosion in New Mexico would come before the end of his meeting with Stalin. Harriman dismisses such speculation as “nonsense.” Faced with a discrepancy this wide, a reviewer is tempted to throw up his hands. More responsibly, he may point to the fragmentary and inconclusive character of the evidence that Sherwin relies on. Perhaps we are simply left with the proverbial Scottish verdict “not proven.”

Where Sherwin keeps regretting that his country did not pursue a policy of trust toward the Soviet Union, Harriman is unremitting in his insistence that the Russians were “tough” and that they expected “us to be tough” in return; a “generous attitude toward them” they “misinterpreted…as a sign of weakness.” Both deal in might-have-beens. But Sherwin’s “road not taken” runs so wide of the diplomatic realities which he himself has established that it adds up to little more than a retrospective pious hope. Harriman’s similarly retrospective plea for hard-headedness and consistency departs far less from policies that proved practicable at the time and—which is perhaps even more to the point—may help to guide us in our current perplexities.

Three quotations in three different contexts illustrate how Harriman’s independent attitude was precariously poised between the American sentimentalists and the hard-liners. First, on arriving in Moscow in October 1943. Molotov: “I am glad you have come…. We have found you a very tough man to deal with”; Harriman: “I have come as a friend”; Molotov: “I know that. I intended my remarks to be complimentary.” Second, on reflecting on what he had accomplished or failed to accomplish halfway through his mission: “Each small victory at the expense of the Soviet bureaucracy was worth the fight; limited agreements were better than none.” Finally, a month before Yalta, in urging his government to extend to the USSR “generous” credits for postwar reconstruction (credits, incidentally, that never materialized): “One has to live in Russia a considerable period of time to appreciate fully the unbelievably low standards [of living] which prevail among the Russian people and the extent to which this affects their outlook.”

A capacity to see matters, whether territorial or economic, from the standpoint of his diplomatic adversaries was what distinguished Harriman from the fledgling cold warriors of the war’s end—that, and a lack of rigidity and bitterness. Even over the issue he regarded as the “touchstone” of Soviet behavior—the government of Poland—he tried to explain why Stalin and Molotov were unyielding in their insistence on a “friendly” regime. To Stalin, Poland was “the traditional invasion route into Russia. Napoleon had come that way, also Hitler, and in Poland he was absolutely determined to keep control.”

Frustrated by the inability of the Polish government-in-exile—the so-called London Poles—to face up to reality and to come to some sort of understanding with the Soviet Union before the Red Army overran their country, and by the corresponding unwillingness of his chief in Washington to do anything that might alienate the Polish-American vote, Harriman finally had to settle for the transparent face-saving device of adding four non-Communists to the government the Russians had installed in Warsaw. He is candid in admitting his failure. Ultra-scrupulous in passing judgments, he distributes the blame widely and refuses to point an accusing finger at any Western statesman.

But is that the whole story? On Harriman’s bête noire of Poland, as with Sherwin’s melancholy conclusions about the bomb, further might-have-beens spring to mind which neither mentions or to which neither pays adequate heed. At least three unanswered questions are left with a reviewer who has spent a quarter century mentally exploring “roads not taken.”

At the very start of this retrospective exercise, even those of us who revere the memory of Roosevelt are obliged to ask whether he behaved correctly in running for a fourth term. We now know, as we did not know at the time, that he felt almost certain he could not live out this term; indeed—on the usual assumption that the war in the Pacific would go on at least a year longer than it did—he may well have suspected that he could not see the conflict through to its close. In these circumstances, would it not have been better to have groomed a successor who, fully informed as Truman never was, could have grappled vigorously with the agonizing and interlocking dilemmas of postwar settlement? Or was there no available candidate capable of holding the Democratic party together and defeating Thomas E. Dewey in what in fact proved to be the closest of Roosevelt’s electoral victories? This particular ethical and political question may be insoluble—but it is noteworthy that Sherwin omits and Harriman only tangentially confronts the new evidence we possess on Roosevelt’s health during his last year of office. They simply assume his continuance in that office, while understandably lamenting his passing.

A more perplexing, because less hypothetical, gap in both books is their reluctance to plumb the full monstrousness of Stalin’s character. Surely here is matter for protracted reflection by anyone who undertakes to trace the cold war’s origins: it is the assessment of the Soviet dictator’s human qualities that has obliged left-liberals in the intervening years to revise most sharply their wartime opinions. If we now realize that Stalin was only a few degrees less loathsome than Hitler, where does this leave us on the matter of “trust” between allies? Sherwin never asks the question. As a glance at his index suggests, it is a rather abstract “Soviet Union” rather than its leader that occupies his attention. As for Harriman, with his characteristic honesty he avows himself to be as puzzled now as he was thirty years ago: “It is hard for me to reconcile the courtesy and consideration that he showed me personally with the ghastly cruelty of his wholesale liquidations…. I must confess that for me Stalin remains the most inscrutable and contradictory character I have known—and leave the final judgment to history.”

But here a historian must object. There is no such thing as “history”—and if there were, it would render no “final judgment.” History, to paraphrase a celebrated dictum about the Supreme Court, is what the historians say it is. After all, Harriman himself in composing his memoirs is functioning as a historian; it is of no importance that he does not belong to the professional guild; he cannot get off the hook by pleading his amateur standing. In his assessment of Stalin, Harriman’s emotional reticence plays him false. Moreover, it does not seem to have occurred to him that the Soviet tyrant was the consummate actor whom Russian accounts such as Khrushchev’s or Solzhenitsyn’s have portrayed in eloquent detail. Feigning “courtesy and consideration” toward Harriman would have been child’s play to a man covertly sadistic enough to have kept close associates under the illusion that they were still his friends until the very eve of their downfall.

If Roosevelt, fatally ill, was losing his grip on events, and Stalin was shamming, to whom can a memoirist or a historian turn to guide an imaginative reconstruction of a possible policy? No one is left except Churchill: he alone held the key to whatever future might have been. Here Sherwin would dissent; the British prime minister’s concept of an Anglo-American atomic partnership he rejects at the very start of his book. Harriman’s view is more nuanced. While fully appreciating Churchill’s limitations—in particular his attachment to the British Empire—he depicts a leader more consistent and realistic than Roosevelt and more forthright than the American president in acquainting his countrymen with unpalatable truths.

Where Harriman parts company with Churchill is in his judgment of the informal spheres-of-influence agreement that the British prime minister negotiated with Stalin in October 1944. It was imperative, Churchill felt, to do something both to recognize and to delimit the Soviet domination of East Central Europe in the wake of the Red Army’s sweep through the northern Balkans—and at a time when Roosevelt, absorbed in his own campaign for reelection, could not possibly have traveled abroad for a meeting of the Big Three. The spheres-of-influence agreement was never accepted by the United States; its gaps and inadequacies are all too obvious—most notably its silence on Poland. It is not surprising that Sherwin has nothing to say about it, although if he did, he would doubtless reject it as a shabby lapse into Realpolitik. But it comes as something of a shock to find Harriman branding the agreement as “notorious” and depicting Churchill as feeling “guilty” about it. One can plausibly argue that an effort such as the British prime minister made to put on paper, and thereby to set limits to, the de facto authority that the armies of both East and West were currently wielding, was simply a logical extension of the American ambassador’s own position.

On the notion of drawing a line down the center of Europe Harriman differed with his second in command in Moscow, George F. Kennan. One suspects (and here again Harriman’s reticence veils the issue) a clash of temperaments between the ambassador and his most knowledgeable counselor. In the late 1950s, it is true, Kennan revised his position, advocating the simultaneous withdrawal of American and Soviet forces from Central Europe. But by then, as he later admitted, it was too late to muster serious support for a policy of “disengagement.” It was Kennan’s original view that was confirmed by the course of events, including the curiously muted moment in Helsinki last summer when the spheres-of-influence way of thinking received a belated and left-handed de jure recognition from President Ford himself.

All of which brings us at last to the matter of détente. Sherwin offers a starting point. In explaining why scientists such as Conant recommended that the bomb be used, he stresses their hope that “the last and most terrible act of the Second World War would serve notice to the world that there must be no third great war.” And this in fact was what happened in the succeeding quarter century. The cold war never flared into a widespread or nuclear engagement.

In that sense détente has always been with us. For a full generation a recognition of the limitless perils of nuclear warfare has acted as a powerful force of restraint both in Moscow and in Washington. More precisely one may date détente from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962: here the game theories of atomic diplomacy were tried out and proved too risky for both sides. If this be so, Nixon and Kissinger cannot claim credit for a policy which—although unexpressed—already existed in the tacit assumptions of superpower reckoning. All they actually did was to give such a set of assumptions a name and to surround it with an aura of public relations razzle-dazzle.

Indeed the vacuous rhetoric with which two successive Republican administrations have preached the virtues of détente recalls the similarly empty phraseology of Democrats in the years 1941-1946. Conservatives who today refuse to face up to the realities of Soviet rule because to do so would in some unspecified way rock the boat or be “bad for business” are echoing the arguments of liberals who during the Second World War could see no evil in “Uncle Joe.” The fact that this style of thinking has prospered both on the right and on the left suggests its ideological amorphousness—plus laziness of mind and short-range considerations of politics at home.

In his foreword to his book, Harriman, with his customary good sense, cuts through all the twaddle. While voicing his “hearty approval” of détente, he reminds us of its limits. It is not the same thing as entente: it does not mean “harmonious…understandings”; it signifies no more than a “relaxation of tensions.” It can perhaps best be defined as “competitive coexistence.”

All this may sound excessively elementary. But some such return to fundamentals is required if those of us who favor détente—albeit with skepticism—are to make any headway against the spreading disillusionment with it. Just as Roosevelt’s unwillingness to keep Americans fully informed about the implications of the Red Army’s advance through East Central Europe in the years 1944-1945 was in part responsible for the subsequent backlash of anticommunist hysteria, so Kissinger’s corresponding reluctance to speak out on specific acts of Soviet repression has helped to undermine the “credibility” of his own policy. Détente does not demand silence on basic issues of individual freedom.

One may go farther. Détente, Harriman might have added, has never really applied outside Europe and outside the sphere of nuclear armament: the Helsinki agreement epitomized the linkage of the two. Elsewhere the Soviet Union has always interpreted détente as permitting the encouragement of revolutionary movements. And the American government has been somewhat less than candid in pretending not to know this and in crying out in horror at Russian support for Asian or African guerrillas. Such disingenuousness on our leaders’ part suggests that they too subscribe to a special and self-serving interpretation of détente: what the Russians and the Chinese do is all right so long as they stay within their own parts of the world; when they venture outside, they are breaking the rules of the game; the United States is the only true world power, the only one with license to intervene anywhere.

Perhaps we should give the last word to Andrei Sakharov. As a restrained advocate of détente, he believes that it can eventually facilitate a “deep liberalization of Soviet society.” But he warns that it requires a “unified, long-term, thought-out Western policy,” immunized “from intraparty fights.”* These words could have carried an equal force had they been uttered three decades ago.

This Issue

February 19, 1976