Harry S. Truman, the accidental president from Independence, Missouri, has enjoyed a rebirth of popularity since the 1970s, after leaving office with exceptionally low approval ratings in January 1953. His more recent popularity revolves around the Truman story of humble origins, machine politics, and a good man having greatness thrust upon him. Truman rose to the occasion and demonstrated effective leadership in a time of crisis. He took decisive action to end the war and win the peace, carrying forward the plan to create a strong international entity in the United States and championing the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from World War II among other initiatives.
Moreover, his resolute resistance to the Soviet Union as the Cold War began to dominate international politics in the latter 1940s proved critical to ensuring a democratic Western Europe. For most historians, especially those of the dominant consensus mindset that assign blame for the origins of the cold war to Stalin and Soviet adventurism, Truman acted forthrightly to counter Soviet might. Couple that with an apparent hominess and frankness and Truman’s resurrection was assured. That is essentially the story told in David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman biography and a host of other publications.
Offner takes issue with this dominant interpretation and assigns the preponderance of blame for the origins of the cold war to Truman. Like revisionist historians of the 1960s and 1970s, he contends that Truman was essentially a small time politician from a backwater who proved unable to master the tides of history around him. While acknowledging his successes with the Marshall Plan and selected other initiatives, Offner finds that the Truman should nonetheless receive the lion’s share of the condemnation for the cold war.
Representative of many such statements in Another Such Victory, Offner writes that “Stalin put the interests of the Soviet state before the desire to spread Marxist-Leninist ideology, pursued pragmatic or opportunistic agreements, recognized America’s vast military and industrial power, and always calculated what he called the ‘correlation of forces’” (p. 27). In other words, Offner asserts that Stalin and the Soviet Union was never the threat that Truman believed. Truman’s lack of experience on the international stage and a raft of character flaws made matters much worse than they ever had to be with the Soviet Union.
Offner presented a restatement of a standard revisionist conception about the origins of the Cold War. Truman and several of his advisors, he wrote, “were American politicians of limited international experience and vision suddenly thrust into positions of global leadership. Their soles, their sensibilities, were undoubtedly hardened by witnessing a global war of unparalleled devastation and atrocities. They were appalled and frightened by Soviet advances in Europe and Asia and readily equated Communists with ‘Nazis and Fascists’ or other imperial or ‘Tsarist’ aggressors. They quickly persuaded themselves that if they got ‘tough,’ they could make the Russians more ‘manageable’ and willing to accede to American principles and interests…” (p. 99). At the same time, according to Offner, Truman mishandled the Soviet Union at every turn, misjudged intentions in Eastern Europe, failed in China and Korea, and engaged in nuclear threats and innuendo in an effort to force greater pliability from cold war rivals.
In the end, Offner’s Another Such Victory is largely a restatement of the criticisms of American leadership offered in the revisionist work of such authors as Gabriel and Joyce Kolko’s The Limits of Power, first published more than thirty years ago, and Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace (1977).
Additionally, Offner’s work abandons much of the nuanced criticisms present in Melvyn Leffler’s masterful A Preponderance of Power (1992), which also seeks to roll back the arguments of the pro-Truman community but does so with more balance and reason. Indeed, a major criticism of Offner’s book is that despite its in-depth research and detailed documentary approach, he says little in this book that moves the historiography beyond where Leffler left it nearly 25 years ago. What he does do, and it is an important contribution, is provide a massively referenced presentation of the story well-grounded in documentary sources.
Beyond that, we learn that Truman was parochial, given to fits of rage, racist and biased toward others, limited in experience and judgment, and manipulative in his dealings with Stalin. He might have taken a different approach, Offner states, by seeking a true collaborative arrangement with the Soviet Union. His personality and limitations would not allow it, according to Offner.
As a counterpoint to the Truman revisionist position present in such works as David McCullough and Robert H. Ferrell, Another Such Victory may prove useful. Offner, however, goes too far in his zeal to tarnish Truman’s image. Melvin Leffler’s work is much more useful as thoughtful criticism of Truman and the origins of the Cold War.