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From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
How many of these difficulties came to the attention of Franklin Roosevelt in the weeks following the Yalta meeting is not clear. It is clear that the President was shocked and offended when Stalin, upon learning that American officials in Italy had been approached by German peace feelers, reacted violently (this was another instance when Stalin’s pathological suspiciousness overcame him) and accused Roosevelt of trying to make a separate peace with the Germans behind his back and at Russia’s expense. The President, for his part, reacted with no smaller indignation to what he felt had been a wholly unwarranted suspicion on Stalin’s part. The matter had still not been fully cleared up when death overtook the President on April 12.
It is hard to know how much of all this had got through to Truman before Roosevelt’s death. He had never been consulted by the President or even taken into confidence on problems of Soviet-American relations. But he had been a regular reader of official communications passing through the White House Map Room and must have picked up something of what was going on. And now, with Molotov arriving on a visit to Washington some days after his assumption of the presidential office, Truman did convene a gathering of persons from whom he thought he could expect guidance on how he should conduct himself. Most of those participating in this discussion had already been troubled by, or made aware of, the serious difficulties now arising in the Soviet-American relationship.
A number of tales have circulated about the rough reception Truman gave Molotov when the two of them met, the following day. Some of these stories were subsequently overdramatized by journalistic hearsay, but there is no doubt that the language Truman spoke to Molotov on that occasion was more businesslike, more serious, and more blunt than anything that either Molotov or Stalin were accustomed to hearing from American lips. In the ensuing weeks, to be sure, Truman somewhat softened his words, if not his attitudes, in his communications with the Kremlin. The influence of Harry Hopkins and others who for one reason or another had an interest in preserving some of the amenities of the earlier wartime relationship may have made themselves felt at this point. And Truman, in attending the Potsdam Conference of midsummer 1945, was anxious to be seen as not departing drastically from the line followed at the earlier Big Three meetings by his greatly more prestigious and internationally respected predecessor. He was still swayed by the atmosphere that had outwardly prevailed at those earlier meetings so that we find him even affected by the old assumption that success or failure in influencing the Soviet side depended in large part on the question of whether Stalin did or did not “like you”—or, as the saying went, whether you could “get along with Stalin.”
Potsdam has to be regarded as a final, halfhearted and largely unsuccessful effort to preserve something of the wartime relationship.
But these concessions on Truman’s part were no more than superficial aspects of a wartime relationship that, never solidly founded in the first place, was now in reality deeply undermined. Altogether, the Potsdam Conference, the last of its kind ever to take place, has to be regarded in retrospect as a final, halfhearted, and largely unsuccessful effort to preserve something of the earlier wartime relationship. But from the time when it became undeniably evident that the Soviet authorities were determined to treat the European peoples overrun by the Red Army in a manner wholly unreconcilable with American hopes, these unreal expectations could no longer be maintained.
This transition from one publicly held concept of Soviet Russia as a friendly object on the horizon of America’s political perspectives to another and almost totally contrary one was bound to be, for our government and public, a complicated, delicate, and in some respects even perilous process. There was, in particular, the danger that many people who had once been assured that the future of world peace would rest upon an enduring Soviet-American amity might now rush to the opposite extreme (as indeed numbers of them did) and conclude that if collaboration with Russia was impossible, then war was inevitable. The main purpose of my own “X” article and of others of my public statements at that time was to assure these people that even though it was impossible to collaborate very extensively with Moscow, this did not mean that it was impossible to live without catastrophe in the same world with the Soviet Union. There was also the further danger that if the deterioration in Soviet-American relations was seen as a serious reversal in the fortunes of this country, many Americans would be vulnerable to the suggestion that this reversal was explicable only by the presence in the higher echelons of American government and society of traitors secretly doing the bidding of the Soviet Communist authorities.