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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nuclear Diplomacy and the Onset of the Cold War

by Jacques R Pauwels

Chapter 17 of The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War (James Lorimer & Company, 2002)

With the German capitulation in early May 1945 the war in Europe was over. The victors, the Big Three, now faced the complex and delicate problem of the post-war reorganization of Europe. In Western Europe the Americans and the British had already created a new order almost one year earlier, and Stalin had accepted that arrangement. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the Soviet leader clearly enjoyed the advantage thanks to the presence of the Red Army. Even so, at that time the Western Allies could still hope that they would be able to provide a measure of input into the reorganization of this part of Europe as well. Stalin had manoeuvred there to the advantage of the communists and their sympathizers, and to the disadvantage of all those who were rightly or wrongly suspected of being anti-Soviet or anti-communist, but everything was still possible. <170> Furthermore, with respect to Eastern Europe the Western outsiders had a foot in the door, so to speak, thanks to previous agreements such as those concluded at Yalta and Churchill's sphere-of-influence formula. As for Germany, the Western Allies actually enjoyed a light advantage over their colleague in the Kremlin, because as a result of earlier agreements ratified in Yalta, the Americans and the British together occupied a much bigger and much more important part of Germany as well as the lion's share of Berlin real estate.

In Western Europe everything had already been settled, but in Eastern Europe and in Germany everything remained possible. It was far from unavoidable that Germany would long remain divided in occupation zones and that Eastern Europe would linger for half a century in the iron grip of the Soviets. Stalin, who was to receive most of the blame for all this unpleasantness later on, actually had good reasons to be accommodating with respect to Germany and Eastern Europe. He was aware that unreasonable demands or recalcitrance vis-a-vis the British-Americans involved great risks. As Dresden had clearly shown, such conduct might be ruinous for the Soviet Union. In addition, Stalin hoped that goodwill and cooperation, in combination with his promise to declare war on Japan, might bear rich fruit in the form of American assistance in the virtually superhuman task that the reconstruction of the Soviet Union was certain to be.

Motivated by a combination of fear and hope, Stalin was prepared to cooperate with the Americans and the British, but of course he also fully expected to reap some of the benefits to which the victors felt entitled. For example, he looked forward to certain territorial gains (or compensation for earlier territorial losses of the Soviet Union or its predecessor, czarist Russia); considerable reparations from Germany; recognition of his right not to have to tolerate anti-Soviet regimes in neighbouring countries; and, last but not least, the opportunity to continue to build a socialist society in the USSR. His American and British partners had never indicated to Stalin that they found these expectations unreasonable. To the contrary, the legitimacy of these Soviet war aims had been recognized repeatedly, either explicitly or implicitly, in Tehran, Yalta, and elsewhere.

It was possible to talk with Stalin, but such a dialogue also required patience and understanding of the Soviet viewpoint, and had to be carried out in the knowledge that the Soviet Union was not prepared to leave the conference table empty-handed. Truman, however, had no desire to engage in such a dialogue. He had no understanding for even the most basic expectations of the Soviets, and he abhorred the thought that the Soviet Union might receive reparations for its sacrifices and might thus be offered the opportunity to resume work on the project of a communist society. Like numerous other leading Americans, the president hoped that it would actually be possible to squeeze the Soviets out of Germany and Eastern Europe without compensation, and even to somehow put an end to their communist experiment, which remained a source of inspiration everywhere on earth, even in the United States itself. <171>

Like Churchill, Truman found the stick of the hard line vis-a-vis Stalin much more promising than the carrot of the soft line. We have already seen that this had a lot to do with the fact that the military situation of the Western Allies in Germany had improved enormously in March and April of 1945. However, this turned out to be only a minor advantage in comparison to a potentially fantastic trump the new American president could soon hope to play in the card game with Stalin. On April 25 1945, Truman was briefed about the secret Manhattan Project or S-1, as the atomic bomb project was referred to in code language. American scientists had been working on this potent new weapon for years; it was almost ready, would soon be tested, and would shortly thereafter be available for use. The atomic bomb was to play an enormously important role in the new course taken by American policy in the spring of 1945 in Europe and also in the Far East. Truman and his advisors fell under the spell of what the renowned American historian William Appleman Williams has called a "vision of omnipotence". They were totally convinced that the atomic bomb would enable them to force their will on the Soviet Union. The atomic bomb was "a hammer", Truman himself stated, which he would wave over the heads of "those boys in the Kremlin". <172>

Possession of the atomic bomb appeared to open up all sorts of previously unthinkable and extremely favourable perspectives for the protagonists of the hard-line policy. Thanks to the bomb, it would now be possible to force Stalin, in spite of earlier agreements, to withdraw the Red Army from Germany and to deny him a say in the post-war affairs of that country. It now also seemed a feasible proposition to install pro-Western and even anti-communist regimes in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and to prevent Stalin from exerting any influence there. It even became thinkable that the Soviet Union itself might be opened up to American investment capital as well as American political and economic influence, and that this communist heretic might thus be returned to the bosom of the universal capitalist church. "There is evidence", writes the German historian Jost Dulffer, that Truman believed that the monopoly of the nuclear bomb would be "a passepartout for the implementation of the United States' ideas for a new world order". <173>

In comparison to Roosevelt's delicate and often difficult soft-line policy, the hard-line policy - that is, the policy of the all-powerful stick that the nuclear bomb promised to be - appeared to be simple, effective, and therefore extremely attractive. Had he remained alive, Roosevelt himself would probably have opted for this course. His successor, Truman, had no experience with the course of the carrot. For this rather unsophisticated man from Missouri, the simplicity and the potential of the new hard line proved altogether irresistible. And so it came to atomic diplomacy, which has been elucidated in such enthralling fashion by Gar Alperovitz.

The monopoly of the atomic bomb was supposed to allow America to impose its will on the USSR. At the time ofthe German surrender in May 1945, however, the bomb was not yet ready, but Truman knew that he would not have to wait much longer. He therefore did not heed Churchill's advice to discuss the fate of Germany and Eastern Europe with Stalin as soon as possible, "before the armies of democracy melted", that is, before the American troops were to pull out of Europe. Eventually, Truman did agree to a summit meeting of the Big Three in Berlin, but not before the summer, when the bomb was supposed to be ready.

At the Potsdam Conference, which lasted from July 17 to August 2, 1945, Truman received the long-awaited message that the atomic bomb had been tested successfully on July 16 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The American president now felt strong enough to make his move. He no longer bothered to present proposals to Stalin, instead he made all sorts of demands; at the same time he rejected out of hand all proposals emanating from the Soviet side, for example proposals concerning the German reparation payments, including those based on earlier agreements such as Yalta. Stalin, however, failed to display the hoped-for willingness to capitulate, not even when Truman attempted to intimidate him by whispering into his ear that America had acquired an incredible new weapon. The Soviet sphinx, who had certainly been informed already about the Manhattan Project by his spies, listened in stony silence. Truman concluded that only an actual demonstration of the atomic bomb could persuade the Soviets to give way. Consequently, no general agreement on important issues could be achieved at Potsdam.

In the meantime, the Japanese battled on in the Far East, even though their situation was totally hopeless. They were in fact prepared to surrender, but not unconditionally, as the Americans demanded, since to the Japanese mind this conjured up the supreme humiliation, namely, that Emperor Hirohito might be forced to step down and possibly be accused of war crimes. American leaders were aware of this, and some of them, for example Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, believed, as Alperovitz writes, "that a statement reassuring the Japanese that 'unconditional surrender' did not mean dethronement of the Emperor would probably bring an end to the war". It should indeed have been possible to bring about a Japanese capitulation in spite of their demand for immunity for Hirohito. There was the precedent of the German surrender at Reims three months earlier, which had not been entirely unconditional, as we have seen. Furthermore, Tokyo's condition was far from essential: later, after an unconditional surrender had been wrested from the Japanese, the Americans would never bother to lay any charges against Hirohito, and it was thanks to Washington that he was able to remain emperor for many more decades. <174>

Why did the Japanese think that they could still afford the luxury of attaching a condition to their offer to surrender? The reason was that in China the main force of their army remained intact; they thought that they could use this army to defend Japan itself and thus exact a high price from the Americans for their admittedly inevitable final victory. However, this scheme would only work if the Soviet Union did not get involved in the war in the Far East, thus pinning the Japanese forces down on the Chinese mainland. Soviet neutrality, in other words, allowed Tokyo a small measure of hope, not hope for a victory of course, but hope for negotiations with the United States and the possibility of somewhat more favourable conditions of capitulation. To a certain extent the war with Japan dragged on because the USSR was not yet involved in it. But already in Tehran in 1943, Stalin had promised to declare war on Japan within three months after the capitulation of Germany, and he had reiterated this commitment as recently as July 17 1945, in Potsdam. Consequently, Washington counted on a Soviet attack on Japan by the middle of August. The Americans thus knew only too well that the situation of the Japanese was hopeless. "Fini Japs when that comes about", Truman wrote in his diary, referring to the expected Soviet intervention in the war in the Far East. <175>

In addition, the American navy assured Washington that it was able to prevent the Japanese from transferring their army from China in order to defend the homeland against an American invasion. Finally, it was questionable whether an American invasion of Japan would be necessary at all, since the mighty US Navy could also simply blockade that island nation and thus confront it with a choice between capitulating or starving to death.

In order to finish the war against Japan without having to make more sacrifices, Truman thus had a number of very attractive options. He could accept the trivial Japanese condition with regard to immunity for their emperor; he could also wait until the Red Army attacked the
Japanese in China, thus forcing Tokyo into accepting an unconditional surrender after all; and he could starve Japan to death by means of a naval blockade that would have forced Tokyo to sue for peace sooner or later. <176> Truman and his advisors, however, chose none of these options; instead, they decided to knock Japan out with the atomic bomb. This fateful decision, which was to cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, offered the Americans considerable advantages. First, the bomb might still force Tokyo to surrender before the Soviets got involved in the war in Asia. In this case it would not be necessary to allow Moscow a say in the coming decisions about post-war Japan, about the territories which had been occupied by Japan (such as Korea and Manchuria), and about the Far East and the Pacific region in general. The United States would then enjoy total hegemony over that part of the world, something that may be said to have been Washington's true, albeit unspoken, war aim in the conflict with Japan.

This point deserves closer examination. As far as the Americans were concerned, a Soviet intervention in the war in the Far East threatened to achieve for the Soviets the same advantage which their own relatively late intervention in the war in Europe had produced for the United States, namely, a place at the round table of the victors who would force their will on the defeated enemy, decide on borders, determine postwar socio-economic and political structures, and thereby derive for themselves enormous benefits and prestige. However, Washington absolutely did not want the Soviet Union to enjoy this kind of input. The Americans had eliminated their great imperialist rival in that part of the world. They did not relish the idea of being saddled with a new potential rival, a rival, moreover, whose detested communist ideology might become dangerously influential in many Asiatic countries.

American leaders believed that after the Japanese rape of China and the humiliation of traditional colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, and after their own victory over Japan, only the elimination of the USSR from that part of the world - seemingly a mere formality - was required in order to realize their dream of absolute hegemony in the Far East. Their disappointment and chagrin were all the greater when after the war the Soviets actually managed to maintain a measure of influence in North Korea, and when China was "lost" to Mao's Communists. To make things worse, in Vietnam, previously known as French Indochina, a popular independence movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh had plans that proved to be incompatible with the grand Asian ambitions of the United States. No wonder, then, that it would come to war in Korea and Vietnam, and almost to an armed conflict with "Red China".

Thanks to the atomic bomb, America could hope to go to work in the Far East on its own, that is, without the party being spoiled by unwanted Soviet gatecrashers. But the nuclear bomb offered Washington a second important advantage. Truman's experience in Potsdam had persuaded him that only an actual demonstration of this new weapon would make Stalin pliable. A nuclear explosion in Japan would therefore also be useful as a new signal for the Kremlin, a signal that would make the one flashed at Dresden look like a mere wink of the eye. <177>

Truman did not have to use the atomic bomb in order to force Japan to its knees. As the post-war US Strategic Bombing Survey was to acknowledge categorically, "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, Japan would have surrendered, even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated". <178> However, Truman had reasons to want to use the bomb. The nuclear bomb enabled the Americans to force Tokyo to surrender unconditionally, to keep the Soviets out of the Far East and, last but not least, to force Washington's will on the Kremlin with respect to European affairs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pulverized for these reasons. Many American historians realize this only too well. Sean Dennis Cashman writes:

With the passing of time, many historians have concluded that the bomb was used as much for political reasons ... Vannevar Bush [the head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development] stated that the bomb "was also delivered on time, so that there was no necessity for any concessions to Russia at the end of the war". Secretary of State James F Byrnes [Truman's Secretary of State] never denied a statement attributed to him that the bomb had been used to demonstrate American power to the Soviet Union in order to make [the Soviets] more manageable in Europe. <179>

Truman himself, however, hypocritically declared at the time that the purpose of the two nuclear bombardments had been "to bring the boys home", that is, to quickly finish the war without any further major loss of life on the American side. This explanation was uncritically broadcast in the American media and it developed into a myth eagerly propagated by the majority of American historians and still widely believed to this very day.

The atomic bomb was ready just in time to be put to use before the USSR had a chance to become involved in the Far East. Even so, the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima on August 6 1945, came too late to prevent the Soviets from entering the war against Japan. This ruined Truman's delicate scenario, at least partly. Despite the terrible destruction wrought in Hiroshima, Tokyo had not yet surrendered when on August 8 1945 - exactly three months after the German capitulation in Berlin - the USSR declared war on Japan. The next day the Red Army attacked the Japanese troops stationed in the northern Chinese region of Manchuria. It was not that long ago that Washington had wanted Soviet intervention in the war against Japan, but when in the summer of 1945 that intervention was about to materialize, Truman and his advisors were far from ecstatic about the fact that Stalin was keeping his word. It now became crucial to end the war as quickly as possible in order to limit the damage done by the USSR's intervention.

Tokyo did not immediately react to the bombing of Hiroshima with the hoped-for unconditional capitulation. Apparently, the Japanese government did not understand initially what had really happened in Hiroshima, because many conventional bombing raids had produced equally catastrophic results; an attack by thousands of bombers on the Japanese capital on March 9 and 10 1945, for example, had exacted more victims than in Hiroshima. The Japanese authorities could not ascertain immediately that only one plane and one bomb had done the damage. That is why it took some time before the unconditional capitulation craved by the Americans was forthcoming. As a result of this delay the USSR did get involved in the war against Japan after all. This made Washington extremely impatient. Already one day after the Soviet declaration of war, on August 9 1945, a second bomb was dropped, this time on the city of Nagasaki. About this bombardment, in which many Japanese Catholics perished, a former American army chaplain later stated: "That's one of the reasons I think they dropped the second bomb. To hurry it up. To make them surrender before the Russians came." <180>

It nevertheless took another five days, until August 14, before the Japanese could bring themselves to capitulate. In the meantime the Red Army was able to make good progress, to the great chagrin of Truman and his advisors.

And so the Americans were stuck with a Soviet partner in the Far East after all, but that did not prevent Truman from having things his way. Already on August 15 1945, Washington rejected Stalin's request for a Soviet occupation zone in the defeated land of the rising sun. And when on September 2 1945, General MacArthur officially accepted the Japanese surrender on the American battleship Missouri in the Bay of Tokyo, representatives of the Soviet Union, and of other allies in the Far East, including Great Britain and the Netherlands, were allowed to be present only as insignificant extras. Japan was not carved up into occupation zones, like Germany. America's defeated rival was to be occupied in its entirety by the Americans only, and as American viceroy in Tokyo, General MacArthur would ensure that, regardless of contributions made to the common victory, no other power would have a say in the affairs of post-war Japan. <181>

The American conquerors recreated the land of the rising sun according to their ideas and to their advantage. In September 1951, a satisfied America would sign a peace treaty with Japan. The USSR, however, whose interests had never been taken into account, did not co-sign this treaty. The Soviets did pull out of China, but they refused to evacuate Japanese territories such as Sakhalin and the Kurils, which had been occupied by the Red Army during the last days of the war. They would be mercilessly criticized for this in the United States afterwards, as if the attitude of the American government itself had nothing to do with this issue. In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet declaration of war on Japan would also be presented as a cowardly attack on a defeated country, even though Washington had urged Moscow for years to take such a step. <182>

America owed its monopoly of power in defeated Japan at least partly to the atomic bomb. In Europe, however, Truman's nuclear diplomacy was to have tragic consequences. Roosevelt's successor in the White House had hoped that the nuclear demonstration would force Stalin to give in to American demands with respect to Germany and Eastern Europe, but this hope was not to be fulfilled. Gar Alperovitz has described in great detail how, immediately after the bombings in Japan in early fall of 1945, the Soviet leader was apparently sufficiently intimidated to make concessions, particularly with respect to Balkan countries such as Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, where he allowed a political pluralism to blossom and free elections to be held. In the United States, the media noted these changes and did not hesitate to credit "Truman's firmness, backed by the atom bomb", as the New York Herald Tribune wrote on August 29 1945. However, when the Truman administration kept making new demands, for example with respect to the makeup of governments in Sofia and Bucharest, and was clearly no longer interested in dialogue on the basis of the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements but determined to roll back Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Stalin's attitude would harden and he would install exclusively Communist and unconditionally pro-Soviet regimes in all countries occupied by the Red Army. <183>

Stalin was undoubtedly willing to engage in a dialogue, that is, in a dialogue between equals, between co-victors in the war against Nazi Germany. Even much later he remained interested in such a dialogue, which was reflected in his reasonable approach to the post-war arrangements regarding Finland and Austria. The Red Army would in due course pull out of these countries without leaving behind any Communist regimes. It was not Stalin, but Truman, then, who in 1945 (and afterwards) failed to display interest in a dialogue between equals. With the nuclear pistol on his hip, the American president did not feel that he had to treat "the boys in the Kremlin", who did not have such a super-weapon, as his equals. "The American leaders waxed self-righteous and excoriated Russia", writes Gabriel Kolko, "[and] they refused to negotiate in any serious way simply because as self-confident master of economic and military powers the United States felt it could ultimately define the world order". <184>

Viewed from the Soviet standpoint, America's nuclear diplomacy amounted to nothing less than nuclear blackmail. Although initially intimidated, Stalin ultimately refused to submit to this blackmail, so that Truman was never able to harvest the fruits of his nuclear policy. First, the Soviet leader soon learned that concessions in Eastern Europe merely led to an escalation of American demands, and that Washington would only be satisfied with a unilateral Soviet withdrawal from countries such as Poland and Hungary, an unacceptable demand. Contrary to conventional Cold-War era wisdom, negotiated withdrawals of the Red Army from occupied countries, leaving capitalist structures very much intact, were very much acceptable to Stalin, as was clearly demonstrated by the case of Finland. This country, which had fought against the USSR on the side of Nazi Germany, did not become a Soviet satellite because, as the Finnish scholar Jussi Hanhimaki has emphasized, a deal was negotiated whereby the Soviets achieved what they were after, namely, "security of their northwestern frontier and, in particular, [a] guarantee that the country would never again be used as a base for an attack against the USSR". As for the Americans, writes Hanhimaki, they "believed that if they became too aggressive in Finland they would only be inviting Finland's inclusion in the ranks of the people's democracies". The case of Finland demonstrates that it was not impossible to do business with Stalin. With respect to Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the Truman administration - overconfident with the nuclear pistol at its hip - did reveal itself too aggressive and denied the Soviets the security they sought; in doing so, they did indeed "invite the inclusion" of these countries in the ranks of the Soviet satellites. <185>

Second, after Soviet strategists had had the time to digest the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they, like some Western military analysts, refused to believe that a war could be won solely from the air, even by means of atomic bombs. Stalin thus concluded that the best defence against the nuclear threat consisted in having the Red Army cling as close as possible to the American lines in the liberated and/or occupied territories of Eastern and Central Europe. Under those conditions the American bombers would not only have to face a very long journey before they could drop their bombs on the USSR itself, but in case of an attack on the lines of the Red Army they would inevitably also endanger their own troops. This meant that the Red Army proceeded to entrench itself along the demarcation line between the occupation zones of the Western Allies and the Soviets themselves. In 1944 and 1945, Stalin had initiated little or no social or political changes in the countries that had been liberated or occupied by the Red Army, including Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, and he had even countenanced certain anti-Soviet and anti-communist activities there. (In Romania in the summer of 1945, for example, anti-Soviet agitation by King Michael and other leaders had been tolerated by Moscow.) All that changed quickly under the pressure of American nuclear diplomacy. Communist and unconditionally pro-Soviet regimes were installed everywhere, and opposition was no longer tolerated. Only at that time, that is, in late 1945, did an "iron curtain" descend between Stettin on the Baltic Sea and Trieste on the Adriatic. This expression was first used by Churchill on March 5 1946, during a speech in Fulton, a town in Truman's home state, Missouri. It was fitting in some way, because without Truman's nuclear diplomacy, Europe may possibly never have been divided by an iron curtain. <186>


170 Stalin in Eastern Europe: Deutscher, page 519; Parenti (1969), pages 136-38.

171 Soviet Union remains obnoxious source of inspiration: Horowitz (1965), page 278; Christopher Lasch in introduction to Alperovitz (1985), pages 19-20. Manhattan Project: McCullough, pages 376-77.

172 Atomic bomb and Truman's feeling of omnipotence: Williams (1962), page 250; also McCormick, page 45. Truman's "hammer"-quotation: Bernstein, page 32; Parenti (1969), page 126.

173 German historian about Truman: Dulffer, page 155.

174 Japanese condition not essential: Alperovitz, pages 28, 156.

175 Truman's entry into his diary quoted in Alperovitz, page 24.

176 Truman's options: Fraser.

177 A-bomb used to intimidate the Soviets: Zezima, page 127.

178 Quoted in Horowitz (1967), page 53, footnote.

179 Advantages of the use of the nuclear bomb: Who built America?, page 469; Slusser, page 121; quotation from Cashman, page 369.

180 Nagasaki: Alperovitz (1985), pages 26-27; McCormick, page 46; quotation of army chaplain: Terkel, page 535.

181 Americans exclude their allies from Japan: Ambrose (1993), page 49; Paterson, Clifford, and Hagan, page 457; Slusser, page 121; Sherry (1987), page 339.

182 American-Japanese peace treaty: Paterson, Clifford, and Hagan, page 458.

183 Stalin's reaction: Alperovitz (1985), pages 248-64; Alperovitz ( 1970), page 14; Horowitz (1967), page 56 ff. New York Herald Tribune quoted in Alperovitz ( 1985), page 252, footnote.

184 Quotation regarding American self-confidence: Kolko (1976), page 355.

185 Hanhimaki, pages 354-55.

186 Soviet attitude vis-a-vis nuclear weapons: Horowitz (1965), pages 95, 255, 270-71; Holloway, page 147. Anti-Soviet agitation tolerated in Romania: Alperovitz (1985), pages 266-68.

Bill Totten


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