What did Harry S. Truman believe in?
sehepunkte 12 (2012), No. 12
Why did the Great Alliance between Great Britain, the USSR and the United States break up within a few years after defeating Nazi Germany and Japan? Who is to blame for the fact that the cooperation of the "Big Three" turned into rivalry and confrontation after the end of the war? Why was the victory against the aggressor states followed by a cold war instead of peaceful coexistence? Generations of historians have asked themselves these questions and answered them in very different ways. In the tradition of George F. Kennan, a school assigns responsibility to the Soviet Union for breaking the alliance. She emphasizes Moscow's ideologically founded confrontational stance towards the western capitalist world and Stalin's excessive need for security. A group of revisionist historians, on the other hand, based on William Appleman Williams, refers to efforts by the USA to spread its economic and value system in Eastern Europe without regard to a legitimate Soviet need for security. The revisionists see Washington as the main culprit for the transition to bloc formation and confrontation.
Frank Costigliola takes part in this decades-old debate Roosevelt's Lost Alliances for fresh impulses and provides arguments beyond the well-known schemes. Instead of national interests, he puts emotions and "personal diplomacy" (3) - the personal relationship between the leading figures of these countries - at the center of his investigation. It shows how US President Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded during the war in building a relationship of trust with both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and thus keeping the coalition together despite conflicting interests. After Roosvelt's death, this relationship of trust was lost because his successor Harry S. Truman could not or did not want to continue Roosevelt's mediating role.
Costigliola goes far to lay the foundations on which his argument is built. He first examines the childhood and adolescence of the "Big Three" in order to get closer to their ways of thinking, attitudes towards life, fears and hopes. From Stalin's difficult and violent childhood, he derives his deep-seated distrust of friends and foes as well as his deeply felt need for recognition and security. In Churchill's biography, Costigliola emphasizes an early developing hostility towards Marxism and communism, which he never abandoned even during the war and post-war years and which determined his thinking. Roosevelt, on the other hand, who grew up in prosperity, security and an atmosphere of familiar warmth, appears to have been free from such previous burdens. In his carefree youth, according to Costigliola, skills and manners formed that made the later successful war president Roosevelt: the ability to trust and gain confidence, self-confidence, the awareness of one's own charm and the ability to use this charm.
How Roosevelt used his charm to win the ideological opponents Churchill and Stalin for an alliance and to lay down the main features of a post-war order is impressively demonstrated by Costigliola by means of the war conferences on board the Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland, in Casablanca, Tehran and Yalta. In doing so, he relies on documents that have not yet been processed, such as the reports on the Yalta conference in the diaries of Roosevelt's daughter Anna, letters from Roosevelt's longtime private secretary Marguerite LeHand and transcripts of conversations by Roosevelt's confidante Harry Hopkins.
Costigliola contrasts the successful conferences and consultations during the war with the Potsdam Conference and the months after this last meeting of heads of state from East and West. Truman's chief adviser in Potsdam was therefore shaped by negative experiences with Russian occupation soldiers and the Moscow bureaucracy and urged the US president to take a tough stance on the Soviets. Truman, who preferred to rely on these advisors than to build a relationship of trust with Stalin, therefore resisted Russian reparations demands on Germany as a whole and refused a proposal by his Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who wanted to pass nuclear technology on to the USSR, in order to promote a nuclear arms race prevent. According to Costigliola, Truman did not understand how Roosevelt could bridge cultural conflicts, allay Stalin's fears and win over the Soviet dictator. While Roosevelt had traveled halfway around the globe several times in spite of poor health to discuss problems face-to-face and to establish trust, Truman shied away from personal meetings after the Potsdam conference, although relations between the two countries deteriorated dramatically. Instead of moderating between Churchill and Stalin, he turned one-sidedly to Great Britain. In doing so, Costigliola argues, he gambled away the chance of peaceful coexistence between East and West.
Costigliola's book is carefully researched, well written, and exciting to read. He can substantiate his thesis about the central importance of Roosevelt for the cohesion of the "Great Alliance" with the help of an abundance of primary sources. A completely new understanding of the beginnings of the Cold War does not necessarily result from this. Even if Roosevelt showed greater skill than his successor in dealing with Stalin and Churchill, it was primarily the shared insights into the military necessity of cooperation in the war against the Axis powers that held the alliance together until 1945 . This necessity ceased with the end of the war and conflicts of interest broke out. It therefore remains more than questionable whether Roosevelt would have been able to maintain the good relationship with Stalin had he lived longer. The Four Freedoms Speech, which he delivered to Congress on January 6, 1941, is rightly considered to be the quintessence of what the American President believed in: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from economic hardship and freedom from fear of military aggression - everywhere of the world. Ultimately, Roosevelt should have measured his ally Stalin by the standards of these four freedoms - and it is not very likely that the dictator would have lived up to Roosevelt's claims. Costigliola reminds us of the enormous importance the diplomatic and psychological skills of leading statesmen have in international relations, but it does not render the substantive dimension of negotiations, interests and conflicts of interest insignificant.
Frank Costigliola: Roosevelt's Lost Alliances. How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2012, IX + 533 pp., ISBN 978-0-691-12129-1, GBP 24.95
University of Augsburg
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