As a result of watching the Ken Burns special on The War, I’ve been considering reading books that focus on WWII. I read the Manchester
memoir almost arbitrarily—it had been on my shelf a long time—and then my sister and I started talking about memoirs of the period. She thought Bohlen’s was one of the best. I knew about him, of course, because I’ve read a lot of George Kennan and they were friends and colleagues.
So I found a used copy on Amazon and ordered it. When it arrived, I thought I’d just sample the first chapter, but I read nearly 150 that first day and then just kept reading. Bohlen was a foreign service officer who decided to become a Soviet specialist shortly before the US established diplomatic relations with the USSR so he was assigned to the first Moscow Embassy in 1934. Though he served other places (Japan—where he was interned at the beginning of the war, France and the Philippines) Bohlen’s expertise and interest were in the USSR and he served presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson as interpreter and/or advisor. He translated for top US officials dealing with the Russians and so was present at numerous historic meetings (starting with Teheran and Yalta) and gradually evolved from “just the translator” into an aide and resource to Presidents and Secretaries of State. He was especially close to Roosevelt advisor Harry Hopkins and traveled with him to Moscow to confer with Stalin in May of 1946, before the Potsdam Conference (which he also attended).
Bohlen’s deep involvement in US foreign policy with respect to Russia from 1934 through the Cuban Missile and after is fascinating. He talks about internal issues with respect to foreign policy both in the US and in the USSR. He had personal relationships with all the presidents through Johnson and with all the Secretaries of States (Hull, Stettinius, Byrnes, Marshall, Acheson, Dulles, Herter and Rusk) as well as personal interaction (friendships were not really possible) with Russian leaders from Stalin to Kosygin and Brezhnev, especially with Khrushchev, as well as with their foreign ministers and other prominent members of the government. He was Ambassador to France and wrote about de Gaulle and his peculiarities. His insights into people and issues are profoundly interesting to anyone who’s read extensively on these periods. There’s even a chapter on the McCarthy era difficulties—Bohlen was not easy to confirm as Ambassador to Moscow because McCarthy and initially other right Republicans believed that at Yalta Roosevelt had condoned the USSR’s domination of Eastern Europe (among other issues).
Charles Bohlen lived from 1904 to 1974. The book was published in 1973.