By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, his grand vision of the world was rapidly slipping from his grasp. Once Nazi Germany was defeated, FDR hoped to leave Europe to Britain and the Soviet Union, but he had no answer to the question of just how Britain was supposed to single-handedly defend freedom on the Continent, overmatched as it clearly was. “Facing the question honestly might have forced him to contemplate a transformation in American foreign policy, which he deemed unacceptable,” wrote the historian Wilson D. Miscamble.
But, of course, that transformation would take place anyway, under Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman. This period of transition, from the end of World War II to the drawing of the battle lines of the Cold War, is one of the most consequential periods of transition in American history. Michael Dobbs, a gifted storyteller and thorough researcher with an eye for detail, has chosen just this period for the final installment of his Cold War trilogy, “Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman — From World War to Cold War.”
The action begins at Yalta in February 1945, and Mr. Dobbs ably renders the portraits of the Big Three heads of state. Roosevelt is physically weak in the last months of his life, but in relatively good humor and still globe-trotting. He is confident in his powers of persuasion, but self-conscious about his interlocutors’ negotiating reputations, which eclipse his own. Winston Churchill is given to grandiloquence and poetic indulgence, but he, too, has nagging concerns: He will stand for election soon after.
Then there is Joseph Stalin, the West’s wartime ally of necessity. He is playing the long game and will outlast in office both Roosevelt and Churchill. Stalin is imperious and distrustful. Mr. Dobbs describes the USSR’s “twisted Darwinian process” that produced Stalin: “The most ruthless politicians rose naturally to the top, eliminating their rivals.”
Stalin’s paranoia would rear its head again and again. In March 1945, Stalin would suspect the Allies of striking a separate peace with Germany. He trusted FDR, but Churchill was “capable of anything.”
This was still the age of empire. At one point during the Yalta conference, Churchill jotted down on a piece of paper the names of several European countries and how the great powers would share control over them. (“Romania: Russia 90 percent, the others 10 percent.”) Stalin took a look, approved and silently drew a check mark on the paper. The crudeness of it all made Churchill suggest the paper be burned.
We know how it ended. One major legacy of Yalta was Soviet domination over Poland. All Churchill could do was protest, since the United States and the Soviet Union had the power to ignore his moral anguish over selling out the country whose defense was the impetus for war in the first place. Communism’s march soon swallowed up Romania, even as the West grew victorious in battle and the development of nuclear weapons made Stalin’s participation in the Pacific virtually unnecessary.
The “iron curtain” descended, and a global ideological war between erstwhile allies had begun. The death of Roosevelt only added to the gloom. But then something gave a jolt to the Western powers: Harry Truman ascended to the presidency to succeed FDR, and, Mr. Dobbs writes, “he was not a man to be pushed around.” Indeed he was not. Truman brought his Midwestern moral compass and an outsider’s disdain for cozy diplomacy: “Truman believed in getting problems out into the open. FDR was a master fudger. The new president demanded clarity.”
Secretary of War Henry Stimson said Truman’s pugnacity was “like a shot out of a Gatling gun.” Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov received a dismissive dressing down from Truman at their first meeting. Things were going to change, and not a moment too soon. In the hands of a lesser historian, the second half of the book would be treacherous terrain for a storyteller. Because it ends before Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech, the Truman Doctrine or the intrigue surrounding Stalin’s final days, it risks demonstrating all the drama of a staring contest.
But there is tension and suspense aplenty in the gathering storm clouds, and Mr. Dobbs is equal to the task. He describes the race to Berlin; the fraught coexistence of the American and Russian troops presiding over victory in Europe as Moscow and Washington drifted; the competition to acquire, and decision to use, the bomb; the surprising tedium of great power diplomacy in Churchill’s post-election absence; and the somber atmosphere of inevitability of it all.
This is the period when two of the 20th century’s heroes of Western civilization, FDR and Churchill, passed the torch to a man neither of them really knew nor trusted. In Washington, there is a grand monument to FDR and plans for one of the era’s other American hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who followed Truman in the White House. But Truman was no mere placeholder, and he needed no hand-holding to set the world on course. Mr. Dobbs‘ book removes all doubt: Truman got it right, right from the start.
Seth Mandel is assistant editor of Commentary magazine.