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The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire

Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick offer a major reexamination of modern American history in “The Untold History of the United States,” which has many strengths.

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The Hardliners Emerge

Once Roosevelt was dead, the hardliners on the Russia issue took over, including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Gen. Leslie Groves, and Churchill.

Truman began to favor Churchill and England in the allied relationship, something Roosevelt tried to avoid. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 182) Byrnes, a South Carolina politician with little foreign experience, told Russian Foreign Minister V. H. Molotov that Truman planned on using the atomic bomb to get the USSR to comply with American demands on post-war behavior. (ibid. p. 184)

Wallace, who stayed on as Secretary of Commerce, was being marginalized. Truman nominated financier Bernard Baruch to head the Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw development of nuclear strategy. Baruch laid down terms that all but eliminated the Soviets from joining in the effort.

Finally, Truman invited Churchill to America to make his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March 1946. As the authors note, it was that militant, bellicose speech which “delivered a sharp, perhaps fatal blow to any prospects for post-war comity.” (p. 191)

A few months later, Henry Wallace tried to counter the sharpness of Churchill’s speech at Madison Square Garden. There, appearing with Paul Robeson and Claude Pepper, Wallace pleaded for a foreign policy that tried to understand the fears of Russia, that tried to meet her halfway. After all, he argued, Russia had been invaded twice by Germany in less than 30 years and had suffered over 20 million dead by the blitzkrieg alone.

Wallace also asked that America not follow the British imperial model in the developing world. And he added that the proper body to have far-flung foreign bases around the world was the United Nations, not the United States. (p. 201)

The speech was sharply criticized in the mainstream press as being a straight right cross to the chin of Byrnes. Even though Truman had read the speech in advance, he fired Wallace, thus eliminating one of the few remaining voices for a more conciliatory approach toward the Soviet Union.  (Pgs. 202-04)

The ouster of Wallace also was the death knell for any hope that FDR’s more balanced strategy toward the World War II alliance would survive into the post-war era. The same month of Wallace’s speech, Elliot Roosevelt published an article in Look detailing how Truman and Churchill had derailed his father’s plans for peace after the war. (ibid, p. 200)  Churchill feared Wallace so much that he placed spies around him.  (p. 138)

This aspect of the Stone-Kuznick book directly ties into the decision to use the atomic bomb. The first point to recall is one that is mentioned by the authors in passing, that the Germans had abandoned their atomic bomb research. Yet, that research was the reason that FDR approved the Manhattan Project in the first place. (p. 134)

Therefore, by the time frame of 1944-45, when the testing of this devastating new weapon was approaching, the reason d’être for the bomb – to serve as a deterrent to a German bomb – had disappeared. But Truman still used it on the remaining Axis Power belligerent, Japan.

Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The question has always been: Was it necessary to use the bomb to induce Japan into surrendering? Or were diplomacy and a second-front invasion by Russia in 1945 enough to get a surrender without either the bomb or an American invasion? (A particularly good polemic against using the bomb is the late Stewart Udall’s The Myths of August.)

Soviet leader Josef Stalin had promised Roosevelt that he would open up a second front against Japan three months after Germany was defeated – and Stalin kept his promise. On Aug. 8 – two days after the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and one day before the second bomb destroyed Nagasaki – the Soviets launched a three-pronged invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria.

 
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