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3. Mr. Mee Replies

May 2024
3min read

Mr. Abel and Ambassador Harriman may well be right in their understanding of the origins of the Cold War. I believe they are right in most of what they say in the first half of their comments, and, on some issues, I think they are making points that I was trying to make myself. For example, that the “fate of Poland… had been pretty much decided before Roosevelt and Churchill went to Yalta in February, 1945” is one thing I was attempting to express; that “as the Nazi threat diminished, so did the need for Allied cooperation” is another.

On other points, I believe Mr. Abel and the ambassador are mistaken:

1) They say, “Seizing upon what purports to be a Soviet transcript of” the Potsdam plenary session of August 1, 1945,1 reproduce an exchange among the Big Three that appears to outline explicitly understood spheres of interest in the world. I don’t know what is meant by “purports.” I have quoted what the Soviet government has published as its English-language version of the conference transcripts. Now, it is possible that the Soviets just made up this exchange out of whole cloth: they have been known to have a taste for inventing history. And it is true that the American notes, which are not literal transcripts, and which are often sketchier than the other countries’ sets of transcripts, do not appear to cover such a specific discussion of global spheres of interest. But when we turn to the British records (to be found in the Foreign Office archives under file reference CAB 99 38 8461), they seem to confirm the Russian transcripts.

2) I go on, they observe, “to express astonishment that Germany should somehow have emerged as the ‘very center and source’ of the Cold War as a result of the Potsdam negotiations”; they imply that I have ignored Germany’s historically central position in European policy calculations. But, no, of course Germany was in the same geographical neighborhood before Potsdam. That is not the issue I meant to raise. The issue is whether mere geographical position creates an inevitable casus belli . I think not. To believe that it does is to believe in a form of historical determinism.

3) They remark that “Truman demobilized the Army and Navy with extraordinary speed.” Well, yes, he did. I am not sure that the point is entirely relevant, but the truth is that he could not do otherwise, given America’s traditional aversion to standing armies and the climate of opinion at the time. However, he tried. On August 17, 1945, three days after the surrender of Japan, he announced that he would ask Congress to approve a program of Universal Military Training. Congress declined. Demobilization proceeded.

4) It is also true, as they point out, that Truman “kept the national defense budget to an average of $13 billion a year” between 1947 and 1950—but it is really not possible to slip by the context of that so easily. In 1939 the entire federal budgetcovering all U.S. domestic and foreign operations, including all the programs of the New Deal—was $9 billion. During the war, it increased more than tenfold, to grotesque proportions by the standards of the day. Then, after the war, Truman held just the defense portion of the budget to $13 billion. For a peacetime budget, in that era, and just after Congress had quashed Universal Military Training, $13 billion was a fierce sum of money.

5) That, as they say, “precious few American companies were doing business in Europe thirty years ago” is a point I was trying to make; the multinational companies followed the Marshall Plan. A number of Frenchmen have written eloquently on the matter.

6) “The few opinions Mee cites against the argument of military necessity [for the use of the atomic bomb] are for the most part regrettably retrospective.” This is not, regrettably, true. The Strategic Bombing Survey spoke after the war. But Eisenhower of the Army, Leahy and King of the Navy, LeMay and Arnold of the Air Force, and others told Truman before the bomb was used that it was not militarily necessary. That is the fact, whether or not it is persuasive.

The plan to use the atomic bomb in order to save an indeterminable number of American lives had been accepted long before Potsdam. But military situations change: that is the nature of war. And, in a changing military situation, a competent general changes his plans. To imagine that American military commanders would not change their plans in a fluid situation is to imagine that the American command was composed of obstinate fools. The notion is a beguiling one, I grant, but it does not seem to be true.

Indeed, as men such as Eisenhower and Leahy and LeMay saw the military situation in Japan change—as they observed that the Japanese were not able to get a single one of their planes off the ground by the time of Potsdam—they changed their minds about what was needed to end the war.

The military men were flexible; it was the diplomats, some of them (not Ambassador Harriman, I hasten to note) who were inflexible. Why? In this case, I can only suppose, in default of another plausible explanation, that it is at least marginally possible—however extraordinary—that the American Secretary of State told the truth when he said that the bomb was used not for military reasons but for the diplomatic aim of making “Russia more manageable in Europe.”

7) Mr. Abel and Ambassador Harriman quote Churchill as saying that there was “unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table” about the use of the bomb. The pertinent question this raises is what table Churchill sat around.

Finally, I am vexed about the relatively minor point that Mr. Abel and Ambassador Harriman still believe that Truman “informed” Stalin about the atomic bomb. As Churchill makes clear in his Memoirs of the Second World War (and Byrnes in his, Leahy in his, and Bohlen in his), Truman purposely told Stalin about the existence of “a new weapon of unusual destructive force” in a vague fashion precisely because he hoped Stalin would not understand that he was being told about an atomic bomb.

To believe that these men acted as I have suggested is not to deny them their humanity at all; quite the contrary: it is simply not to deny the possibility that they were human.

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