This book is a provocative, forcefully argued, and thoroughly documented reassessment of President Truman’s profound influence on U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War. The author contends that throughout his presidency, Truman remained a parochial nationalist who lacked the vision and leadership to move the United States away from conflict and toward détente. Instead, he promoted an ideology and politics of Cold War confrontation that set the pattern for successor administrations.
This study sharply challenges the prevailing view of historians who have uncritically praised Truman for repulsing the Soviet Union. Based on exhaustive research and including many documents that have come to light since the end of the Cold War, the book demonstrates how Truman’s simplistic analogies, exaggerated beliefs in U.S. supremacy, and limited grasp of world affairs exacerbated conflicts with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. For example, Truman’s decision at the Potsdam Conference to engage in “atomic poker” and outmaneuver the Soviets in Europe and Asia led him to brush aside all proposals to forgo the use of atomic bombs on Japan.
Truman’s insecurity also reinforced his penchant to view conflict in black-and-white terms, to categorize all nations as either free or totalitarian, to demonize his opponents, and to ignore the complexities of historic national conflicts. Truman was unable to view China’s civil war apart from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Belittling critics of his support for the corrupt Guomindang government, he refused to negotiate with the emergent PRC. Though he did preserve South Korea’s independence after North Korea’s attack, he blamed the conflict solely on Soviet-inspired aggression, instead of a bitter dispute between two rival regimes. Truman’s decision to send troops across the 38th parallel to destroy the North Korean regime, combined with his disdain for PRC security concerns, brought about a tragic wider war.
In sum, despite Truman’s claim to have “knocked the socks off the communists,” he left the White House with his presidency in tatters, military spending at a record high, McCarthyism rampant, and the United States on Cold War footing at home and abroad.
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"This major book is a critical revisionist portrait of Truman’s personal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. . . . The importance of the scholarship, the author’s careful voice of reasonable criticism, the lucid writing style—all should give the book a popular readership that reaches beyond the university and foreign policy publics."—J. Garry Clifford, University of Connecticut
"At a moment in the early 2lst century when the choices in a new crisis seem simply black and white, this is precisely the kind of historical perspective we should have. Professor Offner has reopened a long overdue debate on Harry Truman—both on the man and his role in the origins of the Cold War. . . . [I]t certainly demands to be read and widely discussed."—Walter LaFeber, Cornell University and author of America, Russia and the Cold War
Arnold A. Offner is Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College. He is the author of American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938 and The Origins of the Second World War: American Foreign Policy and World Politics, 1917-1941, and co-editor of Victory in Europe, 1945: From World War to Cold War.
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