Roads Not Taken

by William R. Keylor
The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953
By Robert Dallek
HarperCollins, 432 Pages, $28.99
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Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill in Potsdam, July 1945, before the start of the Big Three conference. / Photo: © Bettman / CorbisIn the course of the past four decades, Robert Dallek ’64GSAS has produced a succession of pathbreaking historical studies of the foreign policies of American presidents, from Franklin D. Roose­velt to Richard Nixon. His earlier works were based on extensive research in the primary-source collections of presidential libraries and government archives. They unearthed striking new information of great interest to professional historians and the general public. In An Unfinished Life, his biography of John F. Kennedy, for example, he presents a wealth of new information about ­Kennedy’s severe health problems gleaned from the previously unavailable medical files kept by JFK’s personal physician.

His latest book, The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945–1953, does not pretend to reveal long-hidden secrets of statecraft. It is based exclusively on secondary sources and is dominated by a single interpretive theme that is foreshadowed in the book’s title. In investigating the foreign policies of the major powers in the world during what might be called the Truman-Stalin era, he poses a simple question: “Why can’t a world with so many intelligent and thoughtful people do better?” Dallek laments the irrational, unrealistic actions of world leaders that were fueled both by highly distorted interpretations of historical precedents and by an egregious misreading of contemporary developments in the years after World War II. In highlighting several instances of such flawed leadership, he wistfully asserts that a heavy dose of rational, realistic analysis in the early stages of the Cold War would have resulted in a much more stable and peaceful international order than the one produced by statesmen (and they were all men) at critical turning points in world history after the breakup of the Grand Alliance in 1945.

This elegantly written book does not stop at identifying the many instances of what the author regards as woefully mistaken decisions. It takes the next step of proposing alternative policies that might have resulted in a much safer and more secure world than the one bequeathed by the architects of the Cold War. One can assign Dallek’s book to the genre of counterfactual history, which considers the what-ifs of the past. “Ultimately, one of the great tragedies of World War II after the death of so many millions,” he mordantly observes, is that “it became not an object lesson in how devastating modern weaponry had made wars of any kind . . . but the foundation for military buildups by America and Russia, the two greatest victors in the conflict.”

If only Truman had pressed for a new summit meeting with Stalin after the atomic bombardment of Japan to express America’s reluctance to build such destructive weapons in the future and to invite the Soviets “to join him in a shared effort to ban their development and deployment.” If only Stalin had explicitly expressed his genuine fears of a German revival, and had promised self-determination for the countries in Eastern Europe that his armies had liberated in exchange for “a [U.S.] commitment to Germany’s permanent demilitarization, the march toward East-West conflict might have been averted.”

If Truman had recognized “that China’s Communists might be willing to stand apart from Moscow” and were amenable to improving relations with the United States, Washington could have “abandoned Chiang for Mao and his transparently more popular party” during the Chinese Civil War, which reached its turning point in the years after the Second World War. The long period of Sino-American hostility might well have been prevented.

Turning his attention to postwar developments in the Middle East, Dallek wonders why “no one seemed to think of annexing a part of Germany comparable in size to the small area of Palestine to make up the new state of Israel . . . A Jewish state in Europe, where most of the settlers in the new homeland had been born, could have avoided the bloodshed” between Israelis and Arabs in subsequent years caused by the “displacement” of Palestinians. In fact, someone did propose the carving out of a homeland in Germany for the survivors of the Holocaust. King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia made just such a suggestion to Roosevelt during their secret meeting aboard a U.S. naval vessel in Egyptian waters on February 14, 1945, during FDR’s return trip from the Yalta Conference. It is hard to imagine that such a solution would have been palatable to the destitute Jews crowded into displaced-persons camps in Europe. One presumes that they had no interest in remaining in a country that had maltreated them so horribly during the war, but, rather, longed to reach the state that their coreligionists in Palestine already were preparing to create after the end of the British Mandate.

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