Pt.7 Peter Kuznick (co-author with Oliver Stone of The Untold History of the United States): Truman breaks Roosevelt’s alliance with the Soviet Union and pushes the world into a bitter, decades long conflict
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion about The Untold History of the United States, by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. And Peter’s in the studio with us.
Thanks for joining us again, Peter.
And just to remind everybody, Peter’s a professor of history and the director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University. And as I mentioned, he cowrote the ten-part Showtime series and the book Untold History of the United States.
So we’re just carrying on our discussion. If you haven’t watched the previous segments, you should, because we’re moving our way through things more or less chronologically.
So United States enters the postwar period as the superpower of the globe. And here’s a little bit from the film, where Oliver gives us a sort of a lay of the land of the United States and the world at that time.
NARRATOR: There was a brief moment in time when the United States, alone among the victors, was on top of the world. Its death toll was 405,000, compared to the Soviet Union’s 27 million. The economy was booming. Exports more than doubled prewar levels. Industrial production had grown 15 percent annually. The U.S. held two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves and three-fourths of its invested capital. It was producing an incredible 50 percent of the world’s goods and services.
So United States is now the global economic power. It is the global military power. It has used the atomic bomb to tell the world, we are going to make this world as we like it. Pick it up from there, because we start to enter this period of this enormous battle against the Soviet Union, which perhaps wouldn’t have happened if Roosevelt had lived longer or his vice president, Wallace, had remained vice president.
PETER KUZNICK, PROF. HISTORY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: That’s what we argue. We argue that Truman’s policies toward the Soviet Union were very, very different than Roosevelt’s or Wallace’s would have been.
Truman takes office on April 12, sworn in April 12. First day in the office is April 13. He immediately changes the tone of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Immediately. He gets briefed. He turns to people who Roosevelt paid little attention to on these issues, people like Stettinius, who nobody had any respect for, who was acting secretary of state, or Jimmy Byrnes.
So Byrnes flies up the first day, and he gives Truman this briefing, which Truman hears from other people that the Soviets have broken all of their agreements, the Soviets have gone against what they promised at Yalta. And so Truman’s early tone is very belligerent and very hostile.
Harriman, who was the ambassador to the Soviet Union, convinces Stalin to send Molotov before Molotov goes to San Francisco for the founding meetings for the United Nations, to come to Washington. That gave Harriman a chance to come here also, ’cause they have been telling Harriman not to come, and he wanted to come. And Harriman comes and briefs Truman, and others talk to Truman, and Harriman tells Truman that there’s a barbarian invasion of Europe going on at the hands of the Soviets.
So Truman now, who doesn’t really know anything about what’s going on, when he meets with people, he says, this is a terrible mistake. He says, I shouldn’t be president; I’m not big enough. In fact, he’d had a recurring nightmare as vice president in which there’d be a knock on the door in the middle of the night, the Secret Service would be there, and they’d say, the president is dead; you’re president now. This was his nightmare.
So on April 12, he’s—I think it was a Friday afternoon. He’s drinking with his buddies at the Capitol at Sam Rayburn’s office. And he gets a call from Steve Early at the White House, who says, rush over here as fast as you can. He gets greeted at the door and they send him upstairs. Eleanor Roosevelt greets him at the door. She’s a big woman and Truman was a little guy, she towers over him and says, the president is dead. And the room starts spinning. His nightmare starts coming back. He finally gets his bearings, and he says, I’m so sorry; is there anything I can do? And Eleanor says to him, is there anything we can do for you? You’re the one in trouble now.
But Truman was overwhelmed from the very beginning and admits it to everybody. Everybody he meets with, he says it’s a terrible mistake; somebody else should take over for me. But during this time he’s being advised he’s got to at least look presidential and act like he knows what’s happening.
And Molotov comes to meet with him on April 23. Truman says beforehand—they’ve got this big meeting where they go around, and Leahy, Admiral Leahy, and Stimson and Marshall and the others are there, and they disagree about how to handle the Soviets. Stimson says, well, they’re not really breaking their agreement. Stimson’s the secretary of war at the time. And he says, they’re doing exactly what we expected them to do.
JAY: And later Churchill says more or less the same thing, that Stalin actually didn’t break any of the agreements.
KUZNICK: Right, because Stalin had met with Churchill, and they divided up Europe—75 percent here for Russia, 75 percent in Greece for Britain, and Stalin lets the British go in there and mow down the resistance forces in Greece.
JAY: Yeah, to the chagrin of many of the Greek communists, who felt that some of the—.
KUZNICK: Right, and to the chagrin of Tito and the Yugoslavs and others. And that’s really the beginning of the break with Yugoslavia is over—because Tito is supporting the communists and the rebels.
JAY: So let’s go back to—.
KUZNICK: Let me say about the April 23 meeting.
JAY: Yeah, go ahead.
KUZNICK: So at that meeting Truman says, I’m not going to be able to get 100 percent of what I want from the Russians, but I expect to get 85 percent. And he goes in there and he starts berating Molotov for breaking their agreements. Molotov said, I’d never been talked to in that way in my life. And Truman says, carry out your agreements and you won’t have to be talked to like that.
Afterwards, Truman starts bragging. He said, I gave it to him one-two to the jaw. And this was the typical Truman, somebody who doesn’t really know, who’s very insecure, but masks it with this kind of bluster.
The tone of America’s relations to the Soviet Union changed overnight. From April 13 to April 23, in a ten-day period, we had gone from being wartime allies and comrades to basically being—and accusing them of breaking their agreements.
JAY: If I have one critique of the series and the book—and on the whole, I mean, obviously, I think you guys did a tremendous job—is that maybe it’s a little bit too much about the personality, and in the sense of this: if it wasn’t Truman, it would have been someone else. And what I mean by that is it’s in the nature of capitalism in the United States to expand—not just the United States; any of the countries. Why did Germany go to war? I mean, it’s in the nature—if it’s there to be had, they’re going to want it. If they can have the world, they’re going to want it. And I’m not even persuaded, frankly, that if Roosevelt hadn’t lived and he was in these new circumstances, yeah, maybe he wouldn’t have been so belligerent, but I don’t think Roosevelt was against running the world; he probably just thought he would have done it—let’s have a real democratic world, except we’re still going to run it.
KUZNICK: Roosevelt had an idea for the various policemen who would help run the world. That would include the United States. It would include the British. It would include the Soviets. So it’s not that the U.S. wasn’t going to run the world; it’s that the U.S. was going to run the world in partnership, and they were going to set up a United Nations that was going to oversee and try to prevent these kind of conflicts.
JAY: But what would Roosevelt have done when he’s meeting national liberation struggles that want to start nationalizing American oil or British oil and they’re starting to get funding from the Soviets? Is—I mean, you know, what I’m saying is you start to get in these objective conflict of interests that I’m not sure which president—.
KUZNICK: And we don’t know. That’s a good point. But we do know that Truman surrounded himself—and Roosevelt did, too, also, to an extent—with Wall Street people, with top corporate executives. But Roosevelt trusted his own judgment. Truman gives in to these people in a very different way. Now, Wallace would have supported those kinds of Third World revolutionary movements.
JAY: And we’ve discussed Wallace quite a bit before, and we had a little bit of an argument about why did Roosevelt bail on Wallace. So if you want to, go back and watch that if you haven’t.
But let’s revisit Wallace again now, ’cause Wallace stays in Truman’s cabinet.
KUZNICK: Because Wallace stays—yes, he stays in on Roosevelt’s cabinet originally. Roosevelt asked him to stay on and says, you can have any position you want except for secretary of state. He said, I don’t want to break poor Cordell Hull’s heart by kicking him out of secretary of state. So Wallace chooses secretary of commerce, just as Herbert Hoover had done in the Harding administration given that same basic choice.
But from inside the cabinet, Wallace basically conducts guerrilla warfare against Truman’s policies. Wallace meets with Truman. He writes things to Truman.
And Truman was ambivalent. Truman doesn’t start off as—I mean, he does start off as a hardline, crazy cold warrior, but then he becomes ambivalent and he says, oh, I can deal with Stalin; he’s like Boss Pendergast in Kansas City. I know this kind. He’s a fine man. I don’t like the people around him, but Stalin’s a fine man. Stalin was not a fine man, obviously, but Truman says that, and Wallace appeals to him.
And Wallace says, look at the world from the Soviet perspective, which is a thing that American leaders don’t do. He said, from the Soviet perspective, the world looks very different than it does from the U.S. perspective. As President Kennedy later says at his AU commencement address in 1963, for the Soviet Union, it was as if the entire United States east of Chicago had been wiped out. He says, they were devastated by the war, they were terrified by the American bomb.
JAY: Well, then, I was going to go ask you about that. Then let’s go that step.
KUZNICK: Because the Soviets knew—.
JAY: How did the Soviets see the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
KUZNICK: The Soviet—because the Japanese had been trying to negotiate through the Soviets to get them better surrender terms, the Soviets knew better than anybody that the Japanese were trying to surrender. In fact, when Hirota meets with Malik in Tokyo on June—I think it was 2 and 3, Malik, the Soviet ambassador to Japan, says that the Japanese are desperate to surrender and get out of the war. They knew that. And, in fact, Stalin says that to Harry Hopkins, who was there. Then he says it to Truman.
So the Soviets knew that there was absolutely no military necessity or justification for using the bomb. When Stalin finds out that the Americans are going to be using the bomb, then he tells his generals and his scientists, speed up as quickly as possible, the generals to get ready to invade as quickly as possible, and the scientists to speed up the Russian bomb. When the United States bombs Hiroshima, the Soviet response was: the bomb was dropped on us. That was their response.
And they knew that from the beginning this was as much a diplomatic weapon as a military weapon. It was a club, a sword of Damocles that the Americans were holding over the Soviet head. And Byrnes uses it in the foreign ministers meeting to the point where—I think it was Gromyko says to him: what is that? You’ve got an atomic bomb in your pocket? Are you trying to threaten us with this? And the Soviets would not be intimidated, but they were very concerned.
JAY: I think part of what needs to be told here is that this antagonism with the Soviet Union and this Cold War did not start after World War II. It started after the Russian Revolution.
JAY: And if you want, Roosevelt was the aberration. The more consistent U.S. mindset towards the Soviet Union, right from—you know, the idea that workers can take over the country is not an acceptable idea.
KUZNICK: No, and it wasn’t acceptable during the Paris Commune, and the capitalists were terrified in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and it wasn’t acceptable.
JAY: Now, I’ll bet you there aren’t many people watching this that know what the Paris Commune is, but go to Wikipedia, look it up, because you really should know what the Paris Commune is, ’cause it’s one of the more important modern historic events, I think.
KUZNICK: Yes, in 1871.
But, yes, the United States sends troops to Russia, along with British and French and Japanese and other troops, tens of thousands of troops there, basically trying to defeat the Bolsheviks in 1918 and 1919. So you’re right, certainly, that the Cold War begins right after the Russian Revolution.
Russian Revolution poses exactly the kind of threat that you’re talking about. It was anticapitalism. Also, in terms of foreign policy, they opened up the files and showed all the secret agreements, between the British and the French, especially, to divide up the world after World War I, which undermines the whole basis for Truman’s kind of international peace that he was proposing with the Treaty of Versailles and his other seemingly liberal global efforts.
JAY: So Roosevelt and, even more, Wallace break with what had been traditional U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. If anything, Truman and his gang are kind of going back to where things were before the war alliance.
KUZNICK: Yes. The United States doesn’t recognize the Soviet Union until 1933 under Roosevelt. And then when the war starts, the United States reaches out to the Soviet Union, promises a second front, and isn’t able to deliver. It’s unfortunate, but Roosevelt’s heart was in the right place in terms of dealing with the Soviet Union. And the last telegram he sends related to this he sends to Churchill, and he says, these kind of issues come up every day between us and the Soviets, but they get resolved, and let’s not make too much of them; there’s no reason why we can’t continue this kind of post-war collaboration and friendship.
JAY: So what are the economic and political forces that are driving Truman? And, again, I don’t think we’re just talking about Truman; we’re talking about a whole stratum of professional foreign policy technocrats and the military and so on who all want to get this heat on, not—you know, they want to get as close to a hot war with the Soviet Union as they can get. In fact, some of them wanted a hot war.
KUZNICK: Leslie Groves, for example, in December 1945 writes a very important memo in which he says that if anybody else is developing an atomic bomb, meaning the Soviet Union, then we should attack them preemptively. So he was calling for a preemptive war against the Soviet Union at the end of 1945. And there were others who were pushing a similar line. Wallace—if you read Wallace’s journals, he’s very, very upset about the warmongering sentiment in certain parts of the administration and the military.
JAY: We’re hearing it today about Iran.
KUZNICK: Yeah. Well, that’s the same kind of approach. Look at the world through the eyes of your adversaries. They weren’t even our enemy at that point, but they were our competitors in certain ways. And Wallace’s genius was to see it the way it looks to them. He says, we’ve got all the atomic bombs. We’ve got the thriving economy. We’re developing military bases around the world from which to attack the Soviet Union. He says, look at it from their perspective. They don’t see the United States as being the night in shining armor on a white horse coming in to help the world; they see the United States as this aggressive antagonist that’s trying to deny the Soviets the gains from the post World War, from World War II.
The Soviets—that was the other thing about the atomic bomb. The Soviets immediately said, all of the gains we’ve made in the war are now going to be eroded by the fact that the United States not only is having the bomb, but it’s brandishing it, it’s wearing it on its hip.
Stimson, the secretary of war, who goes way back—Stimson was first secretary of war under the Taft administration, so we’re talking about somebody who goes way back. And he was not in any way a liberal. He was a Victorian conservative by all means. But he writes a memo to Truman. He’s 78 years old at this point. He’s about to retire. His last cabinet meeting, I think it was September 21, 1945. The last cabinet meeting was devoted to his memo, in which he calls for sharing the atomic—actually getting rid of all atomic bombs, opening up to the Soviets. He says, if we want somebody to act trustworthy, we’ve got to trust them. And he calls for this kind of postwar collaboration with the Soviet Union.
They have a cabinet meeting at which Wallace is the strongest supporter of what Stimson is calling for there. And Truman is open. He’s—you know, Truman at this point is still somewhat ambivalent.
When we finally do go before the United Nations with what’s called the Acheson–Lilienthal plan, they make one terrible blunder. And this was a plan for the United Nations to take over all the development of nuclear power, so no country will have nuclear weapons. And Acheson—Oppenheimer really drafted this. But then the person they choose to present it to the United Nations was Bernard Baruch, and Baruch did it in such a way as to use it as an advantage against the Soviets. The Soviets of course reject it, which everybody knew that they would. It was a terrible tragedy. And at that point, the United States decides to go ahead with building up its nuclear stockpile, its nuclear arsenal, and using it.
JAY: And Wallace critiques it, and Wallace gets fired.
KUZNICK: Yes. Wallace spoke out very strongly against the Acheson—against Baruch and Baruch’s plan, and he’s speaking out very strongly against the Cold War as it’s developing. He gives a very important speech at Madison Square Garden in September 1946.
And the interesting thing about that speech is that Truman read it. Truman went over it page by page and told Wallace he agrees with every word of it. Then Truman went before the press and said he agrees with what Wallace is saying in this speech. Once Wallace said it and he says the United States is not going to support the British, and we’re not going to send our troops after oil in the Middle East, and we’re going to maintain friendship with the Soviet Union, after that, everybody’s—attacks Wallace for this leftist speech and they attack Truman for having approved it. Then Truman tries to backpedal.
JAY: But when you say “everybody,”—.
KUZNICK: I’m talking about the conservatives.
JAY: In the ruling circles,—
KUZNICK: Yes, yes.
JAY: —because—I mean, I only know from your book, but according to your book, Wallace is actually very popular amongst American people.
KUZNICK: Yes, Wallace is still enormously popular at that point. And Truman wanted to keep him in the cabinet in order to have support from the left, ’cause Wallace was the leading spokesperson for the left. But when Wallace critiques the Cold War as it’s emerging, especially Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, Churchill comes there, and—.
JAY: Well, we’re going to—. Okay. Well, let’s stop here, ’cause that’s sort of the beginning of the next segment. So we’re going to pick up with Churchill’s famous speech about the Iron Curtain and this whole world that Truman helps create gets handed over to President Eisenhower.
So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick on The Real News Network.
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