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Monday, November 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Truman Toppled

Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 by Arnold A. Offner. Stanford University Press (Stanford Nuclear Age Series), Stanford, 2002, 656 pages, $37.95.

Perhaps the winners do not write the history after all. Or perhaps the type of history they write, after the event, sometimes describes victory as pyrrhic. The title of this book by Arnold A. Offner is based on King Pyrrhus’ rueful reflection on the ultimately counterproductive victory of his Greek forces against the Romans in 280BCE. The author, who teaches political science at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, chose this title because he believes that the Cold War was far too costly for both sides, could have been avoided, and that, consequently, no one should be celebrating victory now that it is over.

This study goes well beyond the framework of conventional Western revisionist approaches that have documented how the American side exaggerated the Soviet threat and manipulated the Cold War to further its own global agenda. Offner takes the revisionist argument a step further, charging that President Harry S. Truman was partially to blame for causing the Cold War and the sharp polarization it spawned for the next four decades. Truman, the author argues, was too inexperienced, narrow-minded, nationalistic, and provincial to understand that Soviet policies in the Second World War’s wake were designed to protect it rather than conquer the world.

There can be no mistaking this assessment of Truman for David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a heroic, increasingly assertive president, or for the many other books that have celebrated the rise of the obscure politician from Missouri to the office of president. Offner, in true academic style, sets out his view of Truman’s unheroic shortsightedness and proceeds to support his view by giving ’im hell in a detailed, compact narrative that begins, essentially, in April 1945, when Vice President Truman was sworn in as the thirty-third president of the United States a few hours after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. (Offner spends very little time on Truman’s life before that moment, indirectly implying that there isn’t much to say.)

Offner is relentless in following the twists and turns of Truman’s foreign policy through 1952, the end of his second term as president. The account is chronological, with chapters on each important turning-point, such as the Potsdam conference in 1945 and the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan, postwar US-Soviet relations, the Truman Doctrine of 1947, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin blockade, the establishment of the state of Israel, US policy toward China, and the Korean War. Offner carefully documents how Truman misread the intentions of his adversaries while remaining convinced of the moral superiority of American values. Out of his depth in the complex world of post-Second World War international politics, the lawyer from small-town America reduced everything to a battle between good and evil. Moreover, Truman believed that evil could only be dealt with by Old Testament-style retribution; thus, “punishment always followed transgression,” according to Truman (p. 92).

Offner remains focused on Truman’s personality throughout this account; in doing so, he views the broader process of US policy formulation through a wide lens. Truman’s moralistic simplicity, coupled with his xenophobia, precluded any kind of sophisticated debate about the political motivations of the Soviets and Chinese, and certainly did not allow for any consideration of a less belligerent and punitive approach toward them. Senior policymakers rapidly fell into line. Cold warriors such as James Forrestal and James Byrnes led the way, but so-called moderates (such as Dean Acheson) also followed suit. There was no alternative to Truman’s ideologically driven anticommunist crusade.

The pyrrhic victories, meanwhile, kept piling up, according to Offner. If the justification and outcome of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima was dubious, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was totally unproductive, for the Japanese surrender was prompted more by Soviet military advances in Manchuria. The Truman Doctrine, aimed against a communist takeover in Greece that was doubtful at best, served to plunge that country into decades of authoritarian rule. The Marshall Plan wrought a devastating polarization across Europe by persuading the Soviets to abandon “the concepts of separate national roads to socialism and pluralistic governments in Eastern Europe….” (p. 229) The blockade of Berlin contributed to the East-West division of Germany, which Stalin had not desired; the consequences of the particular conditions under which Israel was established, which concerned Truman even then, are still painfully evident.

Truman’s handling of the situation in China was no better and as unconstructive as his other foreign-policy initiatives. In the case of the USSR, Truman had initially treated the Soviets with respect and grudgingly admired Stalin before coming round to considering him a demon, but there was no such ambivalence in the case of the Chinese — on either side. The president considered the nationalists “grafters and crooks,” but he thought the “so-called commies” were “bandits”; thus, he concluded that giving aid to China would be like “pouring sand in a rat hole” and stayed out of the conflict until the communists took over (p. 307). At that point, he made the colossal blunder of thinking Mao Zedong’s government was a Soviet clone; by ignoring its legitimate national-security concerns, he thus pushed them firmly into the Stalinist camp.

The anticommunist campaign had a downside domestically as well. Nine days after announcing the doctrine that pledged anticommunist support for Greece and Turkey (on March 12, 1947), Truman signed Executive Order 9835, which established a surveillance program (to be administered by the FBI) designed to ascertain the political loyalty of federal employees. The order resulted in the purge of many employees suspected of communist leanings. It also paved the way for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s notorious anticommunist crusade at home that echoed Truman’s policy abroad.

Several reviewers have pointed out that the strongest part of Offner’s persuasive and methodically presented thesis is his treatment of Truman’s policies in Asia. They are referring not only to his analysis over China, but also Korea, where the Soviets and Chinese became reluctant participants in a war that turned out to be so costly and resulted in the establishment of different types of authoritarian regimes on either side of the 38th parallel. But Offner supports his thesis equally well when he discusses the Truman Doctrine in Greece.

Dean Acheson, then undersecretary of state, agreed with Truman that Greece should be made an example in order to intimidate the Soviets, despite the fact that Stalin was not aiding the Greek communists in their increasingly weak attempts at waging a civil war. Offner writes that Acheson, addressing unconvinced congressmen at the White House, declared that “the last barrier to a Soviet breakthrough was Greece, and if it fell, ‘like apples in a barrel infected by a rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all the East.’ The infection would then spread to Africa, Asia Minor, and through France and Italy to all of Europe” (p. 198). A little later, Truman would claim that if Greece “fell,” the Iron Curtain would sooner or later extend all the way to western Ireland (p. 207). Among those on record as having serious doubts about Acheson’s hyperbolic analysis was George Kennan, the diplomat whose original appraisal of Soviet intentions lay at the core of Truman’s Cold War policies.

Faced with growing incredulity not only in Congress but within the administration, Truman and Acheson conceded that their intended policy toward Greece had more to do with US interests. The speech announcing the Truman Doctrine was intended to rouse the public rather than offer a realistic sense of “the complexity of the Greek civil war and the nature of the Greek and Turkish governments” (p. 201). Offner cites a British diplomat who described the speech as having less to do with Greece and Turkey and more to do with the US attitude toward the Soviets, although the USSR was not mentioned by name (p. 201). Many in Congress were still unconvinced, and several members were concerned that Truman was bypassing the United Nations and playing a reactionary role in Europe by supporting the Greek and Turkish regimes (p. 204).

The Truman administration ignored a report of the United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans that found that the Greek government’s persecution of minorities and political opponents had helped start the conflict. And as the war wound down and the internationally isolated, left-wing rebels showed interest in a compromise, the Americans rejected that prospect in the name of inflicting a “crushing defeat on ‘international Communism’” (p. 208). The civil war went on for another year and was then followed by the consequences of the US military solution to Greece’s problems: an authoritarian regime backed by the army that lasted until the army decided to run the country in 1967. King Pyrrhus knew all about the type of victory Truman had created in Greece.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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