President Truman and the origins of the Cold War




This article is very long and difficult.  It was prompted by Professor Wilson Miscamble’s theory that – contrary to the accepted theory – Truman did not come into office looking for a fight with the Soviet Union.


This article, therefore:

  1. starts by debunking the theory that Truman came into office looking for a fight with the Soviet Union.
  2. agrees with Miscamble that Truman tried to cooperate with the Soviet Union – at the start of his Presidency.
  3. doubts Miscamble’s claim that Truman continued trying to cooperate with Stalin until autumn 1946.
  4. suggests that it is possible to see the change in policy towards the end of Potsdam Conference.
  5. suggests that this change in course during the Conference was caused by the successful trial of the atomic bomb, and the effect it had on Truman’s and Stalin’s behaviour.
  6. concludes by suggesting that the Cold War started on 21 July 1945.

The Miscamble interpretation - the introduction to Wilson Miscamble's book (difficult).



Part 1 - the theory that Truman came into office looking for a fight with the Soviet Union is wrong


Ever since the Gar Alperovitz in the 1960s, it has been more or less accepted that Truman’s accession to the Presidency marked a change in US policy.


Roosevelt, the thinking goes, was soft on Stalin. He believed that he could woo Stalin with his reasonableness – i.e. that Roosevelt was, is the unspoken accusation, Stalin’s ‘appeaser’. Truman, it is claimed, changed all that namby-pamby stuff. He stood up to Stalin. A story many historians relate is of a meeting on 23 April 1945, early in Truman’s Presidency, between the President and Soviet Minister Molotov:


[It was] a meeting at which, according to columnist Drew Pearson’s colorful description, Molotov “heard Missouri mule driver’s language.” At this celebrated clash, Truman reprimanded Molotov for the Soviet failure to carry out the Yalta accord on Poland, sharply curtailed the Soviet minister’s attempt at an explanation, and stated bluntly “that he desired the friendship of the Soviet government but that it could only be on the basis of mutual observation of agreements and not on the basis of a one way street.” Although Charles Bohlen’s official minutes do not record the incident, Truman claimed that in an acrimonious final exchange Molotov exclaimed that “I have never been talked to like that in my life,” to which he retorted: “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.”

Wilson D Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (2007), page ix


This incident has been seen by many historians as evidence that Truman’s succession to the presidency was a turning point in America’s foreign policy. Daniel Yergin in his book Shattered Peace (1977) claimed that the meeting ‘signified a major shift in American attitudes towards the Russians’. And this view has trickled down into your textbooks, many of which credit Truman with taking a new tough line towards the Soviet Union into the Potsdam Conference … often quoting his statement: ‘I’m tired of babying the Soviets.’


But how true is this interpretation? Truman’s ‘babying’ statement was made in January 1946 – SIX MONTHS after Potsdam. A LOT of water had flowed under the bridge between Truman’s accession the Presidency in April 1945.

And what of the celebrated slapping-down of Molotov? It is likely that the actual meeting was a good deal less confrontational than it was later made out to be. Drew Pearson was a muck-raking journalist famous for making up scandals about politicians – we can’t trust him for anything other than adding a salacious slant on events. Truman too was notorious for exaggerating, and the autobiography which recounted the event was written in 1956, at the height of the Cold War – i.e. when he had every reason to stress his anti-Soviet credentials (one historian has accused him of ‘sexing up the Cold War’). The initial briefing memo given to Truman for the meeting had advised the President had to ‘make it clear to him that it is your intention to carry on President Roosevelt’s policy of collaboration and the development of friendly relations with the Soviet Union’. According to Bohlen, who took the official minutes, Truman spoke ‘sharply’ and ‘with great firmness’, but Molotov was not downbeaten, and even suggested afterwards that he and Truman pose for photographs.


Enter Professor Reverend Wilson D Miscamble, and his book, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (2007). Says Miscamble, ‘One must resist the temptation to use a single incident as emblematic of his whole approach to the Soviets.’ Far from confronting the Soviets in the early months of his presidency, claims Miscamble, Truman actively tried to continue Roosevelt’s policies of cooperation – as Truman wrote in 1956: 'It was my intention to continue both the foreign and domestic policies of the Roosevelt Administration.'




Part 2 – at the start of his Presidency Truman tried to cooperate with the Soviet Union


Now, of course, it is undeniably true that Truman changed those policies eventually. In the end, the Truman Doctrine changed American policy from one of cooperation, to one of containment and confrontation: ‘Clearly after 1947, Truman led a major transformation of American foreign policy,’ admits Father Miscamble.


But the question is: When did this change start? According to Miscamble – far from the impression given by the common (mis)representation of Truman’s meeting with Molotov – Truman did not immediately ride into battle with the Soviets, but came to his new position gradually, as Stalin’s policies gradually provoked America into the Cold War. According to Miscamble, Truman tried to follow Roosevelt’s policies toward the Soviet Union until the autumn of 1946. (And thus, Father Miscamble goes on to claim that revisionism – the attempt to blame the US for the Cold War – is ‘a dead duck’.)


To a significant extent, some of the facts about the Potsdam seem to support Miscamble’s view of Truman’s early period in foreign affairs.


When he first took over as President, Truman was painfully aware that – having had no experience whatsoever, he was a novice:


As you know I was Vice-President from Jan. 20 to April 12, 1945. I was at Cabinet meetings and saw Roosevelt once or twice in those months. But he never did talk to me confidentially about the war, or about foreign affairs or what he had in mind for the peace after the war.

3 March 1948 – Letter from Truman to his daughter Margaret.


All the evidence is that at first, he was decidedly nervous about foreign affairs:


I knew the President had a great many meetings with Churchill and Stalin. I was not familiar with any of these things and it was really something to think about but I decided the best thing to do was to go home and get as much rest as possible and face the music.

12 April 1945 – Entry in Truman’s Diary.


In his early months in the White House, therefore, Truman continued to rely on Roosevelt’s pro-Soviet foreign advisers, especially Joseph Davies and Edward Stettinius. Truman asked Stettinius to resign in June 1946, but he took Davies to Potsdam with him as Special Advisor with the rank of Ambassador.


As he went to Potsdam, Truman followed Davies’ lead of cooperation with the Soviets, and seemed genuinely taken with Stalin:


Just spent a couple of hours with Stalin. Joe Davies called on Maisky and made the date last night for noon today. Promptly at a few minutes before twelve I looked up from my desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway.

I got to my feet and advanced to meet him. He put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook, I greeted Molotov and the interpreter and we sat down.

After the usual polite remarks we got down to business. I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes and no to questions after hearing all the arguments. It pleased him. I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite -- but I have some dynamite too, which I am not exploding now … Most of the big points are settled. He'll be in the Jap war on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.

We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real show, drinking toasts to everyone. Then had pictures made in the backyard. I can deal with Stalin. He is honest, but smart as hell.

17 July 1945 – Entry in Truman’s Diary.


As late as 19 July, the American delegation was trying to cooperate with the Soviets, although there were beginning to be doubts, as Stimson recorded in his diary:


I am beginning to feel that our committee which met in Washington … and was so set on opening communications with the Russians … may have been thinking in a vacuum … It is a very difficult problem because they are crusaders for their own system.

17 July 1945 – Entry in Stimson’ Diary.


Also in the early days at Potsdam, Truman appeared to want to follow Roosevelt’s policies of drawing in the Soviet Union to help in the Pacific War:


I've gotten what I came for - Stalin goes to war [against Japan] August 15 with no strings on it. … I'll say that we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed! That is the important thing.

18 July 1945 – Letter from Truman to his wife Bess.


And he also appears to have genuinely shared Roosevelt’s anxiety to stay out of European affairs if at all possible:


I have to make it perfectly plain to them [Russia and Great Britain] at least once a day that so far as this President is concerned Santa Claus is dead and that my first interest is U.S.A., then I want the Jap war won and I want 'em both in it. Then I want peace - world peace and will do what can be done by us to get it.

20 July 1945 – Letter from Truman to his wife Bess.


That takes us up until 20 July. Perhaps he didn’t like it, but Truman can be seen to be consciously following Roosevelt’s policy of cooperation towards the Soviet Union.




Part 3 – Truman did NOT continue trying to cooperate with Stalin until autumn 1946


Did Truman, however, continue this policy up until autumn 1946? I am not as knowledgeable as Professor Miscamble, but it seems to me that it is untenable to argue that Truman was still seeking rapprochement as late as that – Churchill’s Fulton speech was made in March 1946, and the Kennan telegram was discussed in February 1946, and it is hard to gloss these as evidence of 'attempts at cooperation'.



Part 4 – it is possible to see a change in policy towards the end of Potsdam Conference


In fact, it is possible to see the beginnings of an anti-Soviet stance developing in Truman as early as towards the end of the Potsdam Conference:

  1. There is a discernible switch from Davies to anti-Soviet advisers such as Henry Stimson and James Byrnes, and even to military advisers such as Generals Marshall and Eisenhower.
  2. On 23 July Truman received a report from the Naval Department. It stated that Soviet naval power was a growing danger, and concluded: ‘To preserve the peace, we must demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the penalties of war will be certain and severe. We must therefore maintain … readiness to take and sustain prompt and effective military action’.
  3. On 25 July, Truman reneged on Roosevelt’s Yalta deal regarding Poland, and stuck in his heels about reparations: ‘It was a bombshell and sort of paralysed the Russkies’ he commented in his diary.
  4. On 26 July, America, Britain and China issued the Potsdam Declaration calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender WITHOUT getting Stalin’s agreement or signature, and in fact in defiance of an alternative declaration suggested by the Russians.
  5. On 26 July, also, Truman received a report from the joint chiefs of Staff which listed Soviet violations of agreements made with the USA since 1941, and declared: ‘The Soviet Union is concentrating on the build up of its war potential … The ultimate objective of the Soviet Union is to dominate the world’. It finished by outlining US military policy in the event of a war, concluding: ‘Our military policy … must be based on the elementary assumption that the Soviet mentality will recognise only one deterrent to their policy of aggression, and that is force.’
  6. On 26 July also talked to the US ambassador to France, Jefferson McCaffery: ‘He is scared stiff of communism, the Russian variety which isn’t communism at all but just police government pure and simple’.

So did the change in Truman’s policy happen at Potsdam? Certainly historian Walter LaFeber thinks so: ‘I think Potsdam marks the point at which Truman and Stalin don't have a whole lot to say to each anymore. Their armies are essentially doing the talking.’

Potsdam perhaps doesn’t mark the point where Truman turned AGAINST the Soviet Union (the Truman Doctrine in 1947 is that). But it is evident that during the Conference he stopped trying to propitiate the Soviets, and just started telling them, in a take-it-or-leave-it way.

Potsdam marks the point where he made the mental change from cooperation to confrontation, and the months from August 1945 to March 1946 simply chronicle the outworking of that change of attitude.



Part 5 – this change in course during the Conference was caused by the successful trial of the atomic bomb


So – what could have caused such a sea-change in Truman’s attitude and conduct?

The cause, obviously, was the atomic bomb.


Truman had received notice of the successful bomb-test on 17 July, but it was not until 21 July that Stimson received and read out the full report to Truman and Byrnes (note that Davies was NOT present):


They were immensely pleased. The president was tremendously pepped up by it … He said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.

21 July 1945 – Entry in Stimson’s Diary.


That effect was immediate and obvious. Next day, Stimson went to tell Churchill about the Bomb:


Churchill read the report in full. He told me that he had noticed at the meeting of the Three yesterday that Truman was evidently much fortified by something that had happened and that he stood up to the Russians in a most emphatic and decisive manner; telling them as to certain demands that they absolutely could not have… He said “Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday. I couldn't understand it. When he got to the meeting after having read this report he was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.” Churchill said he now understood how this pepping up had take place and that he felt the same way.

21 July 1945 – Entry in Stimson’s Diary.


Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy noticed the same thing:


Throughout it all the 'big bomb' is playing its part - it has stiffened both the Prime Minister and the President. After getting Groves' report they went to the next meeting like little boys with a big red apple secreted on their persons.

23-4 July 1945 – Entry in McCloy’s Diary.


The effect of the atomic bomb was more than simply that it gave Truman confidence. It affected the whole balance of power – as Stimson noted in his diary: ‘with our new weapon we would not need the assistance of the Russians to conquer Japan’. And with that knowledge, the USA was released from any need to ‘baby’ the Soviets any longer – which explains why Truman suddenly became much tougher in his demands, and started thinking of what would happen in a war if the Soviets started one.




If this interpretation is correct, then US policy changed very suddenly, on 21 July 1945, from cooperation to confrontation. Add to this historian David Holloways’ theory that finding out about the atomic bomb made Stalin more intractable, then it is possible to say that the day the Cold War started was 21 July 1945 – the day they found out about the Bomb.