(W)Archives: “Drop One on Stalin”

November 28, 2014

Senior American diplomat Victoria Nuland was embarrassed earlier this year when someone (by which I mean the Russians) publicly released a recording of a phone call between her and U.S. Ambassador Ukraine George Pyatt in which she said “F— the EU.” Not long after, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was caught on tape by someone (by which I mean the Russians) saying “screw it, we should take up arms and kill the goddamned katsaps”—a pejorative term for Russians—“along with their leader.” Clearly worked up about the situation in the Crimea, she went on to say of Russians living in Ukraine that “we should hit them with an atomic weapon.” Sanctimonious people everywhere and pro-Russian partisans seized on these incidents as being deeply meaningful, indicating the incompetence, cynicism, vulgarity, and fundamentally dangerous nature of American and Ukrainian leaders and policies.

However, it’s worth remembering that Harry Truman spouted off in much the same way and yet today he is revered as one of this country’s greatest presidents. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum holds in its archives a remarkable to-do list written on White House letterhead in Truman’s own hand that demonstrates this. The document appears to date from the spring of 1946 when there were major coal and railroad strikes. Truman expresses his annoyance with several union leaders, indicating that they should be “call[ed] in” and told that “patience is exhausted.” The next item on the list is “declare an emergency—call out the troops.” (In real life he took a proposal to Congress to draft the striking workers into the military, but the situation was resolved literally while he was speaking to Congress requesting legislation to allow this.) Warming to his subject, Truman indicates his intention to “court martial” any leader who interferes. He laments the fact that President Roosevelt “didn’t have the guts” to shoot some troublesome American whose name is, sadly, illegible. Turning to foreign affairs, Truman reminds himself to, “get plenty of atomic bombs on hand—drop one on Stalin, put the United Nations to work and eventually set up a free world.”

I am pretty sure that I would have heard about Truman nuking the Soviet Union if it had actually happened. Maybe President Truman was having a bad day, maybe he was letting off some steam, maybe he was expressing himself informally and never intended to do any of these things. Maybe, just maybe, Nuland and Tymoshenko were doing the same thing. I’ll wager that every world leader, every politician and, in fact, almost everybody, has done something similar. What of it?

To quote perhaps the only world leader who never blew his stack: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Florida Keys–Public Libraries