Near the end of his new book, The Lost Peace, historian Robert Dallek quotes a 17th Century Swedish statesman saying this: "Dost thou not know my son with what little wisdom the world is governed?"
And that's just what you feel after reading to Dallek's history of the years 1945 to 1953, when the hopeful end of World War Two segued into the fearful Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the planet.
That's how Robert Siegel opens up his interview with Robert Dallek. Dallek's thesis in the book is that leaders in the post-War period consistently misunderstood each others intentions and motivations. He quotes Nietzsche, "Convictions are greater enemies of the truth than lies." They cover a lot of ground in the interview, everything from Chiang Kai-shek to containment, but at the heart of it is this exchange.
Siegel: A great overarching question about post-War U.S. foreign policy is this: Was there really a possibility of a much less hostile relationship between US and our wartime ally the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin?
Dallek: We’ll never know. This is what we call counterfactual history or speculation. But, you know, it seems to me, at least we could’ve tried to think outside the box. The hydrogen bomb for example, George Kennan wrote a 79-page memo that he presented to Dean Acheson, Secretary of State
Siegel: We should explain. He was the US diplomat based in Moscow, the first head of the policy planning office at State…
Dallek: That’s right. And he was a brilliant and astute diplomat who knew the Soviet Union more intimately than any other diplomat in the U.S. or abroad. And he believed it was a mistake to build these hydrogen bombs.
What he told the administration was, "These are not usable weapons." You can’t use them on a battlefield because you’ll destroy your own armies. The only place you can use them is as Weapons of Mass Destruction against cities. And he believed we should have gone to Stalin and raised the issue of barring the building of these as we had the use of poison gas after WWI.
…There were possibilities to explore which we never did because the story is that Truman had a meeting with his special committee. He asked if the Soviets could do it, build a hydrogen bomb, they said yes. And he said we must do it too, and this meeting took 17 seconds.
I always find it amazing when world changing decisions are made so quickly. A reminder, once again, that at the highest levels of any organization, it's just a bunch of people in a room talking to each other.