The United States and the Origins of the Cold War


The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, 361 pp., $12.50 (hardback), $3.95 (paper).

This is an unusual book about the Cold War: it doesn't try to "prove" that the United States or the Soviet Union is solely responsible for the origin of that era of mutual acrimony!

In The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis provides a detailed and fascinating study of American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union during and immediately after World War II. Gaddis, an associate professor of history at Ohio University, bases his assessment of the causes and results of this policy largely on recently-opened sources. Gaddis makes extensive use of information contained in the personal papers and official documents from the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

The conclusions drawn here differ from both the official histories of the Cold War and the revisionist interpretations which were first published in the late 1950's. Credit is given to New Left scholars for demonstrating the influence of economic considerations on American diplomacy, but Gaddis argues that many other forces also affected the behavior of the American government.

By using direct quotes from both war Presidents, high ranking members of both administrations and prominent members of Congress, Gaddis shows how domestic politics, bureaucratic inertia, quirks of personality, and perceptions—accurate or inaccurate—of Soviet intentions influenced both Roosevelt and Truman.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Roosevelt saw that this action would bring about the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination by uniting the Soviet Union with Great Britain and the United States in the war effort. A statement by Under-Secretary of State Sumner Wells summed up the general opinion within the Roosevelt administration: "In the opinion of this government…any defense against Hitlerism, any rallying of the forces opposing Hitlerism, from whatever source these forces may spring, will hasten the eventual downfall of the present German leaders, and will therefore redound to the benefit of our own defense and security."

Since the alliance between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. was based primarily on the need to defend themselves against a mutual foe, that alliance started to come apart almost as soon as the defeat of Germany became a virtual certainty in late 1944. Another source of increased strain between the two countries in 1944 and beyond was the increasingly strident anticommunist attitude taken by much of the Republican party. During the Presidential campaign, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, John W. Bricker, accused the Democratic party of merging with the American Communist party. Similar statements were also made by the Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. To offset these statements and at the same time continue the cordial relationship between the two countries, Roosevelt and his administration denounced domestic Communists like Earl Browder and at the same time denied any antagonism toward the Soviet Union.

However, once Roosevelt died, the American attitude toward the Soviet Union changed rapidly to one of suspicion, recrimination and then hostility. According to Gaddis, no one did more to shape Truman's views (on the U.S.S.R.) than American ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman. In one conversation, Harriman is reported to have told Truman that "Russian occupation of any country would resemble a 'barbarian invasion'—one could expect not only Moscow's control of that nation's foreign policy but the institution of secret police rule and the extinction of freedom of speech. Under these circumstances, the United States should reconsider its policy toward the Soviet Union."

Among the counselors who echoed Harriman's call for a harder line with the Russians were Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, General John R. Deane, Admiral William D. Leahy and financier Bernard Baruch. However Gaddis notes that there was also more cautious advice given by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and General George C. Marshall.

In addition to the conflicting advice Truman received from the high ranking members of his administration, the new President was also pressured by domestic politics even more than Roosevelt had been.

The influence domestic politics had on American foreign policy during the Truman administration is shown by the increasingly hard line taken against the U.S.S.R. when it was being criticized by such prominent Republican leaders as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr. and John Foster Dulles, the unofficial Republican spokesman on foreign affairs.

In an effort to encourage bipartisan support, Truman asked Dulles to be part of the American delegation to the London Foreign Ministers' Conference where the "Big Five" met to draw up peace treaties for Finland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria—all former German satellites. Even though he had no part of the decision making at the London conference, Dulles' anti-Soviet statements to the local press antagonized them and helped lead to the failure of that important meeting.

Gaddis' book provides surprising and intellectually refreshing insights on the origins of the Cold War. He acknowledges that due to the great differences in the political perspectives of the American and Soviet leaders, the Cold War may have been virtually unavoidable. However, Gaddis concludes that if responsibility for the Cold War must be assigned, the greater blame must be placed with Stalin because he had no Congress, public opinion, or press to contend with.

This is one of the best documented books I have read on the Cold War and believe it should be read by anyone interested in this vital era of American history. In my opinion this book provides considerable evidence that a far less hazardous relationship with the U.S.S.R. could have been attained with a more open and rational foreign policy by the Truman Administration.

R.A. Robinson has an associate degree in journalism from Los Angeles City College and has been a reporter with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner since 1972.