Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists / Edition 1

Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists / Edition 1

by Robert H. Ferrell
The idea of revising what is known of the past constitutes an essential procedure in historical scholarship, but revisionists are often hasty and argumentative in their judgments. Such, argues Robert H. Ferrell, has been the case with assessments of the presidency of Harry S. Truman, who was targeted by historians and political scientists in the 1960s and ’70s


The idea of revising what is known of the past constitutes an essential procedure in historical scholarship, but revisionists are often hasty and argumentative in their judgments. Such, argues Robert H. Ferrell, has been the case with assessments of the presidency of Harry S. Truman, who was targeted by historians and political scientists in the 1960s and ’70s for numerous failings in both domestic and foreign policy, including launching the cold war—perceptions that persist to the present day. Widely acknowledged as today’s foremost Truman scholar, Ferrell turns the tables on the revisionists in this collection of classic essays. He goes below the surface appearances of history to examine how situations actually developed and how Truman performed sensibly—even courageously—in the face of unforeseen crises. While some revisionists see Truman as consumed by a blind hatred of the Soviet Union and adopting an unrestrainedly militant stance, Ferrell convincingly shows that Truman wished to get along with the Soviets and was often bewildered by their actions. He interprets policies such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and support for NATO as prudent responses to perceived threats and credits the Truman administration for the ways in which it dealt with unprecedented problems. What emerges most vividly from Ferrell’s essays is a sense of how weak a hand the United States held from 1945 to1950, with its conventional forces depleted by the return of veterans to civil pursuits after the war and with its capacity for delivery of nuclear weapons in a sorry state. He shows that Truman regarded the atomic bomb as a weapon of last resort, not an instrument of policy, and that he took America into a war in Korea for the good of the United States and its allies. Although Truman has been vindicated on many of these issues, there still remains a lingering controversy over the use of atomic weapons in Japan—a decision that Ferrell argues is understandable in light of what Truman faced at the start of his presidency. Ferrell argues that the revisionists who attacked Truman understood neither the times nor the man—one of the most clearheaded, farsighted presidents ever to occupy the Oval Office. Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists shows us that Truman’s was indeed a remarkable presidency, as it cautions historians against too quickly appraising the very recent past.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Ferrell’s disagreements with the revisionists are only part of the story he tells. An equally important [aspect of the book] is his critique of American military policy from 1946 to 1950. . . . [This new work from him] testifies to his enthusiasm for research and his ability and willingness to put his ideas forward clearly, sometimes rather colorfully, and often quite forcefully.”—Richard S. Kirkendall, editor of Harry’s Farewell: Interpreting and Teaching the Truman Presidency

Product Details

University of Missouri Press
Publication date:
Age Range:
18 - 10 Years

Read an Excerpt

Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists

By Robert H. Ferrell

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6520-3



In the early 1960s a well-known student of American history, the late John L. Snell, published an article in the American Historical Review in which he dealt with several books on the origins of the cold war; after criticizing two of them severely, he urged historians to turn their attention to that part of the recent past and write about it in the best traditions of their discipline. He could not have known then that in the next few years some able historians, just out of graduate school, together with a young student of English literature, a disillusioned foreign service officer, a linguist, and other interested individuals would radically reverse the views Snell and his contemporaries had advanced about American-Russian relations in 1945. Soon there would be a sizable literature on the origins of the cold war that would find enthusiastic acceptance among college and university students throughout the country. It would describe Snell and his aging colleagues as traditionalists, their historical opinions as received truths, and their conclusions as cold war rhetoric.

Consider the ideas about the origins of the cold war that were being proposed in the early 1970s. How different they were from the views of a decade earlier! So-called revisionist historians were writing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's subtle treatment of the Soviet Union had been reversed by his successor, Harry S. Truman, who saw foreign affairs as a checker game instead of the chess game it really is; that the United States under Truman's direction had tried to oust the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe, giving little or no consideration to Russia's security needs in an area close to its borders; that the Americans had dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese in order to alert the Russians to U.S. power; that the government had striven to keep the Russians aware of the Americans' monopoly of atomic power and, largely for such a purpose, advanced a system of international control of atomic weapons — the Baruch Plan — that was almost bound to fail. Meanwhile, the United States government had used every economic device at hand, such as cutting off lend-lease to the USSR, reneging on the reparations agreements concluded at the end of the war, and refusing to consider seriously the Russians' pressing need for a postwar loan. Then, early in 1946, the Americans had seized upon an admitted Soviet reluctance to get out of northern Iran and, in a confrontation at the United Nations, virtually forced the Russians out. The next year, 1947, had marked a rapid increase in American-Russian antagonism, for President Truman intervened in the Greek civil war with the Truman Doctrine and in order to gain support scared hell out of the country, to use a phrase attributed to Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg. (Somewhat later, beginning in 1950, the administration would get what it deserved for this tactic, at the hands of a senator who took a free ride on the anticommunist bandwagon.) The Truman Doctrine inspired the administration to sponsor the Marshall Plan, a program worthy in itself but which had the unfortunate effect of dividing Europe; the president, the revisionists believed, probably had this divisive effect in mind, for in his memoirs he described the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan as being two halves of the same walnut. All the while, through a series of moves, the administration was creating a new state in Europe, West Germany, for the purpose of enlisting German industry and eventually a German army to protect the free world against world communism. By the early 1970s the revisionists had begun to turn attention to the nation's postwar policies in the Far East and were reexamining the origins of the Korean War; the outbreak of that conflict, they believed, was at least in part attributable to the policies of the United States.


The new historical views of the cold war were fascinating interpretations, and in seeking to understand how such a literature could arise, the inquiring observer notices, first of all, the relative youth of the interpreters. The authors of the revisionist books and articles were young men who remembered little or nothing about World War II. Lloyd C. Gardner, later professor of history and chairman of the department at Rutgers, had no thoughts about a career in history in 1939, when he was five years old. Barton J. Bernstein was born in 1936, Gar Alperovitz in 1937, and David J. Horowitz in 1939. It is possible to list the ages of other revisionists as well, such as that of the later foreign service officer and journalist — and a markedly good one — Ronald Steel, born in 1934. It is true that the teacher of some of the leading revisionists, a charismatic figure who inspired them to adopt his own "open door" approach to their historical judgments, William A. Williams, was an adult in 1939, a first-year student at the United States Naval Academy. The point remains that most of the revisionists could not have remembered much if anything about World War II, the beginning of the cold war, and even the Korean War. They came of age in the middle and late 1950s and shortly thereafter were in graduate school preparing to enter the teaching profession in colleges and universities.

At risk of seeming unduly analytical about a group of young men as fascinating as their interpretations — individuals who were good, sharp writers, who had a way of cutting quickly to their point or points, who must all have been fine lecturers and impressive seminar teachers — one should venture to suggest another factor in their professional growth. They came into the teaching profession in a heady decade when the student population was tripling, faculties were tripling, grants were easy to come by, and books easy to publish. Indeed, anyone with brains and ambition could attain the titles of doctor and professor in a phenomenally short time, with quite a decent salary and the prospects of quick promotions and more salary.

And always there was that generation gap, the feeling that the older scholars — not so old, the oldsters themselves might have thought, but it made no difference what they thought — were, if not over the hill, then intellectually trapped in fantasies about World War II and what they believed had happened afterward. They were judged able to think of few international influences other than Hitler, Munich, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the long war, and especially the Russians' refusal of friendship after the fighting. This older generation had written the textbooks and the monographs and was in control of the departments and the deanships, and it could not get Hitler out of its thinking. Its contemporaries were running the federal government and dominating foreign policy. The young men who came into the teaching profession in the early 1960s viewed this scene with the impatience of all young men, an impatience in fair part generated by the fact of youth — their having been too young to have made many mistakes or to have known deep disappointment — and by the fact that they came to manhood at a time when the draft calls for the U.S. Army were small because no large war was being waged, or even a police action like Korea, so their careers were not blighted or interrupted by military service. Having come to their own stations of life without interruption, they considered the preceding generation to be a fountainhead of stupidity:

Our elders seem mired in the dead past: the Depression, the War, and the competition with Russia. The Second World War, which most of us are too young to remember except through the movies, was the last war that conceivably could be defined as just. What followed the defeat of Germany and Japan was a series of dynastic struggles between the new superpowers. Korea, like Vietnam, now seems like just another imperial war for spheres of influence, and the cold war itself little more than a power contest between rival empires, both prevented from launching a full-scale war from fear of suffering instant obliteration. Can there be anybody under forty who sincerely believes in the morality of American foreign policy, or that such a word is relevant to any nation's diplomacy?

One should perhaps explain at this point that the older generation was not charmed by the cold war revisionists. But behind their hurt feelings, these critics of the cold war revisionists constantly wondered why the new left writers (as some of them described themselves) adopted one special interpretation of U.S. foreign policy, the Williams interpretation about the open door. The generation gap may have been responsible; for the most part the older generation could not believe in absolutes. Whatever the reason, the majority of older historians were incredulous as they observed the easy way in which the revisionists picked up the favorite thesis of Williams and used it as a basis for their writings. One of their impulses for using the thesis was understandable. Walter LaFeber and Lloyd Gardner had been trained at the University of Wisconsin and were Williams's students. It is difficult to understand why at Wisconsin, where a half century earlier Frederick Jackson Turner had taught about the importance of the frontier in the development of the nation, Williams was able to capture so much attention for another monocausal interpretation. I recall keenly the first time I heard this interpretation from Williams himself in the mid-1950s — during a little seminar for historians conducted by George L. Anderson at the University of Kansas. Williams gave a paper showing how the open door policy was naught but an extension of Turner's old frontier thesis, and how hope for an open door for American commerce had dominated U.S. foreign policy since the 1890s, if not earlier. I was chosen to respond first to the paper and could only express my simpleminded wonder that such an all-encompassing thesis should be developed, considering that the author's generation had been brought up on a historical diet of the essays of Beard and Becker, which taught that historical truths are relative.

Whatever one might think of the datedness of one-cause history, the revisionists almost without exception espoused the open door theory of U.S. foreign policy and in books and articles pushed the theory for all the traffic would bear, and a good deal more. LaFeber's doctoral thesis, entitled "The New Empire," a survey of U.S. foreign policy from 1860 until 1898, quickly published, concluded that a search for raw materials and markets was the dominant force of the time. Gardner's thesis, also published and also soon available in a paperback edition, came very close to saying that in the 1930s the effort to push a diplomacy of U.S. commerce, the open door for U.S. products, led to a clash with the Axis powers and eventually war. As Irwin Unger said, how much more easily could the younger generation have hoped to tangle with the older than to assert that the war against Hitler was only a war for American markets? LaFeber and Gardner passed from their doctoral theses into analyses of the cold war, using the Williams principle. They not merely gathered around their arguments against U.S. management of the cold war an old-fashioned aura of the open door (everyone knew, of course, that the open door policy failed in China when tried at the turn of the century), but they also pointed out that such a recent piece of journalism as Henry Luce's 1941 "American Century" editorial in Life magazine was only a reassertion of the open door. According to LaFeber, in the post-1945 years the U.S. open door policy toward trade and politics in Eastern Europe clashed with the USSR's desire for security around its borders. The then young military historian Stephen E. Ambrose slipped into cold war revisionism and wrote agreeably that the policy of containment of Russia "was never more than a euphemism for the expansion of American influence and dominance."

Perhaps the revisionists' fascination with the Williams theory of the open door, a belief that American commercial expansion was the root cause of the cold war as of other discreditable episodes in the nation's history, derived from the politics of several of the revisionists. Williams and Gardner were socialists, and so were Horowitz and Gabriel Kolko; the latter two subjected their readers to heavy doses of socialism. Kolko was constantly talking about the necessary preconditions of this event or that, and the preconditions were almost always economic.

The fallaciousness of such an approach as the open door was often pointed out, but the explanations evidently were not convincing. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1972, Carl Degler, in a review of Williams's latest book showed the improbability of an economic cause for the Spanish-American War of 1898, which Williams attributed in fair part to the desire of American farmers to expand their markets. If the farmers wanted markets, Degler countered, that desire might explain their support of the war, but how about the city folk who, if the farmers had been denied foreign markets, would have had cheaper food because of overproduction at home? What did they have to gain by supporting the farmers? Williams, Gardner, and other revisionists — good socialists — were bothered, indeed haunted, by capitalism, a kind of bogey. Were they not sophisticated enough as students of American history to know that if there ever was a predatory, power-seeking era, an unabashedly exploitive period when the capitalists prowled through the cottages of the proletariat like wolves, that time had long since passed? As for U.S. goals in World War II, John L. Gaddis in a paper at a Boston meeting of the American Historical Association in 1970 showed that economics could not possibly explain the U.S. motives in fighting the Axis powers:

Public and private statements made by policymakers at the time ... indicate that they did not accord the open door the importance revisionist historians have given it. President Roosevelt and his advisers did place great emphasis on reviving a multilateral system of world trade, but this was only one element of a larger scheme for avoiding future wars, influenced primarily by a determination to avoid the mistakes of World War I and the interwar period. Washington officials articulated with at least equal emphasis such other goals as unconditional surrender, the disarmament of defeated enemies, self-determination, and the establishment of a new collective security organization.

Carried to its logical conclusion, the revisionist economic interpretation indicated, of course, that the cold war was an unavoidable conflict, a clash for which individuals could bear no responsibility. But then the revisionists wobbled on their one-cause interpretation and spent much analysis on how certain individuals, had they been listened to, could have changed history.

Might it not be that the concern of the revisionists with their open door theory showed that they were bothered by the enormous international, domestic, political, economic, and social transformations during the 1960s and the decades prior to it — changes that many of the revisionists did not like and for which they were seeking a satisfying explanation? In an article Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. pointed out how, in the course of the changes of a quarter century, the individual often found himself in the hands of a kind of soulless, uncontrollable organization, and rather than seeking to control change so as to allow for the continuing movement of the individual will, many people railed against change or attributed it to some single, simple cause when, in fact, it was due to the interaction in almost cosmic proportions of a vast complex of ideas and interests. "The basic task," as Schlesinger proposed it, was not to ride off to tilt against some windmill, but "to control and humanize the forces of change in order to prevent them from tearing our society apart."

But all this discussion of what was at the center of revisionist thought about the cold war or what might have been at the center is to say nothing about the scholarly techniques of revisionist writers — about which something needs to be remarked in general before turning to specific points of revision and how the revisionists sought to prove them. Here one came to the issue, then much discussed, of a usable past. Let no reader hesitate to accuse the cold war revisionists of taking the present into the past. And in the course of observing their uses of the past it was not necessary to agree with Unger (who saw a good deal of historical revision as an effort to domesticate American radicalism) in order to conclude that cold war revisionists were not very tidy in their methods. Adam Ulam wrote an injunction about historical scholarship that the revisionists would have done well to take to heart; the historian, Ulam said, must accept the past as he finds it:

Before he becomes a philosopher of history or a judge, he must tell us what actually happened. His primary duty is not to be attuned to the currently fashionable trends in public thinking or to be a counselor to statesmen. It is to ascertain what, in terms of our knowledge, is a fact, what could be a reasonable hypothesis, and what must remain a conjecture. If he does not meet that test, he is a moralist or a publicist but not an historian.


Excerpted from Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists by Robert H. Ferrell. Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >