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 and Elie Abel
Random House, 595 pp., $15.00

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.