Despite its many strengths, the book has some notable shortcomings. While the focus on national leaders makes dramatic sense, it is also misleading. Some presidents were “deciders,” others were not. Despite his reputation for not “passing the buck,” Harry Truman was without a clue when it came to complex international issues. His exceptionally important German policy was totally framed by others in the bureaucracies for reasons of their own. It is not sufficiently informative to know what Truman felt and thought in order to comprehend American choices. In just this way, the inner life of George W. Bush is not an adequate guide to government motivation.
An additional problem is that Leffler too readily accepts everyone’s thinking as equally understandable and well intentioned. Unlike most Cold War authors, he is careful to offer two perspectives rather than one. Yet his virtual silence in the face of outlandish ideas obscures important issues. He tamely informs us that “when Truman ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, these were not tough decisions for him. They were necessary in his mind, to save American lives. They vividly demonstrated American power; they confirmed that enemies of America would pay for their transgressions.”
This seems accurate enough. But is this the place where historical investigation ought to begin or end? How does it happen that this ostensibly decent man from Missouri was willing to drop atomic bombs on two cities, populated mainly by women, children and the elderly, despite the existence of alternatives and contemporary evidence that the war with Japan could end without the use of these weapons? And why was it that experienced advisers did not insist on a formal process of decision-making before killing 200,000 people and using weapons that were known to be the most lethal instruments ever developed by human beings?
For the Soul of Mankind
By Melvyn P. Leffler
Hill and Wang, 608 pages
This critical edge is also missing when Leffler turns to the subject of the Vietnam War, which he obviously opposes. However, he goes to extraordinary lengths to give us the mind-set of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and their high-level experts. He repeatedly describes how anguished everyone felt, how trapped they seemed to be, how valiantly they struggled to find good options where none was available, how threatened they all felt. By its act of “aggression,” Hanoi had thrown down the gauntlet, leading these officials to fear that if Vietnam fell, so would Laos and Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and who knew what else. Leaders everywhere would know that the word of the United States was not to be trusted. Berlin might be threatened. Perhaps Moscow itself might be moved to embrace the Chinese version of communism.
One ends up sympathizing with these worried people, rather than the dead Vietnamese. Yet it would have been useful to point out that such thinking was based on misperceptions and lies. Vietnam was a single country that the United States, for purposes of its own and in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, had chosen to make two. Therefore, the very concept of North Vietnamese “aggression” made no sense and the elaborate trail of consequences was simply imagined. Perhaps people were sincere, but the important question is why two shrewd presidents and their Ivy League advisers were peddling these false ideas. Part of the answer resides in their conformity, careerism, the desire for political advantage and a morbid enthusiasm for military adventure. Yet the deepest reason was that Washington had a wildly ambitious agenda, believing that nations across the globe must follow the American example.
The author seems determined not to cast stones. So much Cold War historiography has been mired in sterile arguments over culpability that he aims to move his readers to a higher plane, where we can more easily view the tragic course of events. Yet it is a fair question whether one can adequately understand the dynamics of the Cold War without considering whether anyone was really responsible for it. And was it really the case that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in equivalent actions with equivalent results and that each nation had comparable weight in international affairs?
American and Soviet leaders looked forward to a world in which their social system might prevail, and in pursuit of their ideals all contributed to a dangerous polarization. Yet it is also noteworthy that at every point in the Cold War, the United States exerted greater power than the USSR, whether measured by military, economic or political strength. And at every point in this conflict, American ambitions far exceeded those of Soviet rivals.
For Stalin and his successors, control of the nations along Soviet borders and insurance against German revival were vital matters. Other items were peripheral. By contrast, American aspirations were limitless. It was not enough that countries in the Western Hemisphere have friendly governments, which in many instances meant dictatorships as brutal to their own citizens as the regimes of Eastern Europe. U.S. leaders also considered all of Europe and the decolonizing nations of Asia and Africa to be within their bailiwick. The Vietnam War occurred because U.S. officials took it upon themselves to decide how the Vietnamese people should be governed, regardless of their own preferences.
Moreover, in the long litany of actions and counteractions, some behaviors were more damaging and consequential than others. Of these, it is U.S. nuclear decisions that were the most pernicious. A recipe for trouble was offered by the choice to keep Stalin in the dark about the U.S. development of the atomic bomb, to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in a demonstration of American power, to attempt to retain a nuclear monopoly for years afterward and, when that proved impossible, to insist that arms control agreements inscribe American superiority.
And then there was Germany. No single issue mattered more. The survival of the World War II alliance depended on the ability of the occupying powers to work together, and in this they failed. Leffler emphasizes how important all of this was. However, in relating the story in all its complexity, he minimizes two crucial points. One was the American refusal to give the Soviets the reparations that were promised at Yalta. At that meeting, President Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had stipulated that the Soviet Union was entitled to half of an estimated $20 billion in equipment and supplies from occupied Germany. However, from the moment Truman became president, Washington retreated from that commitment. By the time of Potsdam, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes had abandoned it.