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August 13, 2010

Book Review: Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and the Potsdam by Gar Alperovitz (1994)

by Lane Smith

In the book Atomic Diplomacy, Gar Alperovitz offers an in-depth look at the diplomatic strategy used by President Truman from March 1945 through August 1945 and the impact the successful testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico had on it. Alperovitz incorporates a great variety of sources into his argument and steadily builds a case against the necessity of the use of atomic weapons. The use of the bomb, however, was not the focus of Atomic Diplomacy. Alperovitz, at the time of publishing (1965), strives to examine the measurable impact the possession of the bomb had on Truman's strategy when dealing with the Soviet Union and how this diplomatic strategy set the stage for the Cold War.

Alperovitz begins his analysis of Truman's diplomatic strategy with a look into the president's first discussion with Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov over the issues concerning the government of Poland. Alperovitz sets the stage for his book with this conference because he feels it best illustrates Truman's diplomacy prior to the knowledge of a successful nuclear bomb test. Despite not having the trump card of a functioning nuclear arsenal, Truman took a much more aggressive stance when negotiating with the Soviets than his predecessor, Roosevelt. This aggressive stance that resulted in a fruitless conference with Molotov actually resulted in the 'strategy of delay' that Alperovitz attributes to the Americans in the time period between Germany's surrender and the development of the bomb. The strategy of delay, according to Alperovitz, consisted of a conscious effort by Truman and other American diplomats to delay any final decisions on the power balance in Europe until the United States had the bargaining chip of being the sole possessor of atomic weaponry. Alperovitz also argues that it was important to the United States to delay any progress made in Europe so that Russia remained focused on that area. This was because the United States preferred being the sole power in the Pacific War to take Japan's surrender. Alperovitz believes this was delay was also an intentional effort to keep Russian troops out of Manchuria and allow Stalin to have that important area under Soviet control.

The delay strategy was just the first focus of Alperovitz when covering the extremely important months of March 1945 to August 1945. He points out that once Truman received word that the bomb had been successfully tested while attending the Potsdam Conference, his diplomatic strategy completely changed. Even Churchill noticed a significant change in the president's attitude at the conference. Beyond the change of tone from Truman, there was also the issue of how the bomb should be used. Alperovitz does an excellent job describing the debate about using the bomb on Japan or lack thereof. He describes the decision as being an almost certainty before Truman even listened to his entire interim committee. Alperovitz makes it seem that the key men who had the ear of Truman, Secretary of State Byrnes and Secretary of War Stimson, had already convinced the president that using the atomic bomb in Japan would be extremely valuable the United States' position in the post-war world. It was generally believed that an invitation to alliance to control nuclear energy would be a useful bargaining chip when dealing with Russia after the conclusion of the war. Alperovitz goes further into depth about the strategic changes by Truman after learning of the bomb's capability but manages to keep all the diplomatic complexities extremely interesting and easy to follow.

The last section of Atomic Diplomacy offers Gar Alperovitz's conclusions about the strategic role of the atom bomb. The author doesn't waste time with a gray-area narrative that leaves the reader to make their own assumptions. Instead, he offers a strong case against the use of the bomb by citing examples directly from top U.S. officials. Alperovitz also begins to make the connections between Truman's handling of the Potsdam and the eventual beginning of the cold war. Although not so bold to suggest that the book was a comprehensive analysis or absolute answer to the questions about the decision to bomb Hiroshima, Alperovitz's conclusion definitely does the job of tying together the entire book.

Atomic Diplomacy, in the 1965 version, had no visuals. The book's content, however, was well-written enough that no visuals were needed. Alperovitz does an outstanding job of explaining diplomatic relations in a way that is easy to follow and doesn't leave the reader behind in a cloud of diplomatic jargon. The citations and authors notes are very nicely tied in at the bottom of the book in a way that is extremely useful to the reader. Alperovitz's straight-forward writing style makes any additional visuals useless. The book is written on a level that anyone with basic knowledge of WWII could pick up Atomic Diplomacy and easily follow the narrative. Those with limited knowledge of WWI that read the book, however, are in for a shock. The connections that Alperovitz makes could certainly disturb someone who had previously learned the 'unleaded' version of the history behind the Atomic bomb. The writing style of ease of understanding makes Atomic Diplomacy that much more of a powerful book.

Overall, Atomic Diplomacy by Gar Alperovitz is an excellent read for anyone looking for more information on the atomic bombings of Japan or on pre-Cold War diplomacy. While some may argue against the validity of Alperovitz's connections, they are presented in a way that is sure to provoke a response and an appreciation of all who read the book.

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