“Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.”
—Memo to Harry Truman from his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson
If there was any doubt that all politics is theater, Michael Dobbs’ historical recreation of the Yalta Conference will put that notion to rest. As Six Months in 1945 opens, the Big Three—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—are en route to Yalta. And what could have drifted into mundane details of Russian roads and the Crimean countryside becomes a living, oppressive landscape in the hands of Dobbs. Then, as the Big Three gather, each one eyeing the others with their own agenda, the performance begins.
Roosevelt, ailing from age and his failing body, struggles to remain diplomatic in the face of America’s onetime Russian foe; Churchill, suspicious of being left to tend to Europe’s reconstruction; Stalin, the most enigmatic of the three, recognizing the need for diplomacy, yet wanting to gather the spoils of war for himself. Had we been seated at the Yalta conference ourselves, we might not have come away with the layer of detail and personal observation that Dobbs imbues in a mesmerizing sequence of events.
And to think, as one war draws down, another war is just beginning.
Dobbs, a journalist and historian with a long list of accomplishments to his name, is the only writer who could have simultaneously provided the narrative drive and the historical accuracy to such a monumental era in world history. Where most historical accounts can drown the vibrancy of events in muted language and factual accuracies, Dobbs ensures that the pace of Six Months in 1945 remains kinetic. Simple conversations that would sink in lesser hands are shot through with immediacy and candor, and a full sense of the gravity that these men and women faced are included with every passing chapter. As Truman takes the mantle of the presidency, he’s humanized as despondent and uncertain:
“A gang of reporters accosted [Truman] as he left the office of the secretary of the Senate… He shook hands with every one of them, his eyes filling with tears. ‘Boys,’ he told them, ‘if you ever pray, pray for me now.’”
Truman, a neophyte and Midwestern gentleman, is suddenly thrust into a situation of unenviable proportions; a situation of which Roosevelt decided to share very little with him—including the development of the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all time. It’s disorienting to believe that Roosevelt and Truman barely communicated, but it’s true.
It’s difficult to read Six Months in 1945 without the specter of the bomb looming over the chapters. Perhaps because, rightly so, we’ve been conditioned to regard it as one of the, if not the, single most defining moment in American history. But the events that lead to the finality of World War II were spread out, multi-faceted, and often just as critical. Poland, for example, became a bargaining chip that Stalin sought to seize and the German surrender to the Red Army was another series of logistical headaches and political posturing. All of this in the wake of the Red Army’s unfiltered brutality against German citizens, with Japan’s last fight still to come.
The six months of Dobbs telling feels like a lifetime of events all encapsulated into a series of interconnected chess moves. It’s maddening at times to see the weighty hand of politics play out across the world’s stage. but Dobbs never loses momentum; he breaks personalities and actions down into their own chapters when needed, allowing for a steady follow-thru. Even those who have trouble digesting the geography and personnel of History should have no problems following along with Dobbs as the guide.
Six Months is 1945 is the sequential third party in the Dobbs’ “Cold War trilogy”, though the publications have appeared backwards chronologically: Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire appeared in 1998 and One Minute to Midnight, exploring the Cuban Missile Crisis, appeared in 2009. All are worth the time and money for students and non-students alike because Dobbs has written much more than an intensely researched, riveting account of six crucial months in history; he’s brought our world closer by examining the remote details of our past.