The Cold War: The Truman Years

rumanHarry S. Truman was the last American president who did not attend college, but he was well educated. He was intelligent, a student of history who read widely and was well informed about public affairs. He served as an officer in the first world war, became a businessman, and eventually entered politics, which he learned from the ground up. The friends he made as a local official in his home county helped him get elected to the Senate from Missouri in 1934. He established a sound record as a Senator, especially as chair of an important committee during World War II.

Harry Truman was a modest man. He wasHis critics at the time might have said, “And with good reason,” though his stature as a president has grown considerably in recent years. Raised in Independence, Missouri, Harry Truman worked at various job after graduation from high school in 1901. When the United States entered World War I, Captain Truman commanded an artillery battery and saw significant action in France. Following the failure of a store he ran during the 1922 depression, Truman entered politics, holding various positions under the eye of Missouri party boss Tom Pendergast. In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until he was tapped by Franklin Roosevelt to run with him as vice presidential candidate in 1944.

When President Roosevelt urged Senator Truman to join him on the ticket, Truman balked. As a Senate committee chairman overseeing military procurement during World War II, he had taken on powerful industry leaders and accused them of profiteering and shoddy practices, even as young Americans were dying on the battlefield. Because of that fact, and because he was a loyal New Deal Democrat, Roosevelt wanted him on the ticket. (After Truman became President, General Marshall claimed that Truman’s work in the Senate “Was worth Two divisions to me.”)

Bess Truman didn’t like Washington at all and couldn’t imagine her husband being in the White House. But Roosevelt would not take no for an answer, so the reluctant senator from Missouri became vice president and soon thereafter was elevated to an office which he never sought and did not really want. Harry Truman was the last American without a college education to be elected president (he was reelected in his own right in 1948), but that is not to say he was not well-educated. He read widely, especially in history, and was nobody's fool. Despite all that, he was nevertheless ill-prepared to take over the most powerful office in the free world. Few if any men could have adequately replaced FDR.

truman being sworn in

Harry S Truman being sworn in as Bess Truman and FDR’s cabinet look on, April 12, 1945

After informing the Vice President of her husband’s death,
Eleanor Roosevelt said to the new President, “What can we
do for you, Harry? For you are the one in trouble now.”

Franklin Roosevelt had been president for over 12 years when he died. Schoolchildren who mourned his death had not been born when FDR was sworn in on March 4, 1933. No one will ever know how conscious Franklin Roosevelt was of his own mortality, but historians have speculated that he probably experienced a sense of denial regarding his health, coupled with a determination to stay alive until the great battle against evil was brought to a satisfactory conclusion. In any case, he shared practically nothing with his vice president, leaving him to sign letters of condolence and carry out other routine, mundane functions of the office of Vice President.

HST & FDRThe most glaring example of Franklin Roosevelt's cavalier attitude toward former Senator Truman was the fact that he never even brought Vice President Truman into his confidence on the atomic bomb project going on in New Mexico. President Truman had to be informed of the work being done to develop the device by Secretary of War Henry Stimson after he took office.

Thus Harry Truman, the man who would not be king, assumed leadership of the nation and much of the world at one of the most critical junctures in history. How was the world to be shaped now that two great, terrible wars had destroyed so much? While the defeat of Germany was virtually assured—Germany surrendered on May 8, less than a month after FDR’s death—the war in Japan was by no means over. During each wartime conference, however, the focus had shifted further and further toward postwar concerns.

(For a fine study of the final months of World War 2, see J. Robert Moskin, Mr. Truman's War: The Final Victories of World War II and the Birth of the Post war World.)

President Roosevelt’s role among the Big Three Leaders—FDR, Churchill, and Stalin—had often been to act as mediator between Churchill and Stalin, who frequently clashed during meetings as they contemplated the world after the defeat of Germany and Japan. By the time of the Yalta Conference in February, 1945, it was apparent that Stalin had little intention of allowing freedom and democracy to flourish in that portion of the world surrounding the Soviet Union. Roosevelt, who was by then gravely ill and exhausted from the long journey to Russia, found Stalin difficult and determined to have his way.

By the time of the Potsdam Conference, held just outside Berlin, Germany, in July, 1945, tensions between East and West had been ameliorated somewhat by satisfaction at the defeat of Nazi Germany. During that meeting, Stalin and President Truman met for the first time. Stalin reassured the president that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the defeat of Germany, which gratified Truman. The President also took the occasion to inform the Premier of the successful test of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, and was struck by the lack of surprise shown by Stalin. (As is now well known, Stalin was being informed of progress on the atomic bomb by spies in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.) The President also informed Prime Minister Churchill, who was replaced during the conference by newly-elected Prime Minister Clement Atlee, of America’s creation of the bomb and his intention to use it.

The Russians had seen their country invaded twice within a century by Napoleon and Hitler, and on both occasions the Russian people had suffered enormous casualties. Stalin was determined not to let that happen again. Furthermore, Communist doctrine called for a worldwide revolution of all workers toward the eventual overthrow of the capitalist system. Indeed the West had meddled in the Russian Revolution following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917, and anti-communist rhetoric and other activities had been pervasive in the West throughout most of the 20th century. The cooperation between the United States and Great Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II can be attributed to the fact that even conservative leaders such as Churchill saw Hitler as the far greater evil facing humanity.

President Truman’s Containment Policy. President Truman’s Cold War policy became one of “containment” of Communism, which meant not challenging the Communists where they were already established, but doing everything possible to see to it that their sphere of influence did not enlarge itself at the expense of “free” nations. Truman's policy was first explicitly proclaimed in a 1947 speech. Great Britain had been closely monitoring procommunist developments in Greece and Turkey since the end of World War II and had provided financial and military support to the anticommunist governments. Because of her own financial difficulties, however, Great Britain was obliged to cease aid to those nations. Thus the United States was left the responsibility of providing assistance.

President Truman went before Congress on March 12, 1947, and requested that Congress provide $400 million in military aid and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey, thus articulating what would become known as the Truman Doctrine. That policy would be generally followed by all successive presidents through Ronald Reagan. Truman stated that, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The Republican Congress supported Truman’s request, which bespoke the bi-partisan cast of America’s Cold War policy.

See Harry S. Truman, Truman Doctrine Speech, 1947. See also David McCullough’s Truman and the fine HBO film of the same name with Gary Sinese. Truman wrote his own Memoirs as well.

The Marshall Plan. Shortly after President Truman's speech, Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave an address on June 5, 1947, at Harvard University in which he outlined what would become known as the Marshall Plan. Europe was a George C. Marshalllong way from recovering from the Second World War, and the harsh winter of 1946-47 had exacerbated the suffering of many Europeans. He stated, “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

Secretary Marshall’s plan for massive economic relief, known as the European Recovery Program, provided funds totaling $20 billion to sixteen countries, including Germany. It was justified on humanitarian grounds, but was also clearly designed to help stave off the possible expansion of communism into Western Europe. Marshall offered to include the Soviet Union in his program, but Premier Stalin turned down Marshall’s offer, claiming it was a propaganda tool. The Marshall plan succeeded in both its purposes; it helped restore the European economy (which indirectly aided the American economy as well), and it helped reduce the danger of the growth of communism. Winston Churchill called the Marshal Plan “the most unselfish act by any great power in history.” (See Marshall speech)

Berlin. Following World War II Germany had been divided into four occupation zones allotted to France, Great Britain, United States, and the Soviet Union. The former German capital of Berlin fell within the Soviet sector, and that city was also divided into four zones. Access to the city was by air, and by a strip of land on which a highway and a railroad offered berlin airliftground access into West Berlin. Trying to strengthen their hold on the eastern sector, and perhaps irritated by the Marshall plan and anti-Communist rhetoric, the Soviets cut off ground access to Berlin in June, 1948. President Truman's response was the ordering of what became known as the Berlin Airlift. All available transport aircraft were pressed into service and began operating around the clock to provide Berlin with everything its population needed to survive, from food to fuel to clothing and other necessities of life. The Berlin Airlift was carried on into 1949 when the Soviets eventually backed down and reopened the ground access to Berlin. In all, some 2,200,000 tons of supplies were airlifted into Berlin in 267,000 flights. The airlift, which was opposed by some of the President Truman's advisers, was a diplomatic triumph for the president. (Left: Berlin children wave to American pilots.)

Tensions heightened dramatically in 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear bomb. Until that time the United States had been the sole possessor of those powerful weapons, but now the arms race swung into full gear. The bombs produced in the 1950s eventually grew to dwarf the Hiroshima bomb in explosive power, exceeding its capacity by a factor of 10,000.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The continuing tension between the Eastern and Western powers led several European countries to begin considering a mutual defense pact in 1948. The United States and Canada eventually entered into the discussions, as it was apparent that the defense interests of the nations on the western side of the Atlantic coincided with those of Europe. Negotiations continued until a treaty was signed in Washington in April 1949 which created the 12-nation pact of the United States, Canada, and 10 Western European nations. The treaty obligated each member nation to share the responsibility for collective security of the North Atlantic region. For the first time in its history, the United States had seen fit to discard the policy first established by presidents Washington and Jefferson of steering clear of permanent, entangling alliances. NATO was expanded in the 1950s and now includes several nations in Eastern Europe.

Now that the Cold War is over, it is relatively easy to view it objectively. We can ask whether the United States played its cards correctly, and question whether we might have been able to lower tensions sooner and more sharply. Since the U.S. and its allies “won” the Cold War (and one can properly ask whether it is really over), it is easy to say, “Well, of course we played it right—after all, we did win, didn’t we?”

A more critical view might suggest that while Americans have indeed seen the fall of the Soviet Union and much of the apparatus of Communism, during those tension-filled years the U.S. might have pushed its luck so far that the only reason we did not get into a nuclear war was plain good fortune.

In the aftermath of attacks on New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001, Americans certainly understand the fear that comes from threats of violence. Yet during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the fear of nuclear war went beyond the fear of attacks on isolated cities or installations. For a time, the possibility of total nuclear war could not be ruled out. Questions were raised not only about the level of destruction that might result from a nuclear exchange, but also about what life might be like after a nuclear war. In fact, movies like On the Beach, based on the novel by Nevil Shute, raised the possibility of the extinction of all human life on Earth, and few saw that scenario as a far-fetched fantasy

The Cold War Turns Hot: Korea, The Forgotten War

General Douglas MacArthur is one of America's most colorful historic characters. Son of a career army officer, he served over 50 years in the Army and fought in three wars. In 1935 he retired as Chief of Staff of the Army and went to the Philippines, where he took over command of all American and Philippine military forces during the years leading up to World War II. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor they invaded the Philippines. MacArthur was forced to abandon the islands; he retreated to Australia and assumed command of all forces in the Southern Pacific area. From there MacArthur led U.S. forces back through Indonesia and retook the Philippines late in the war. Following the reduction of Okinawa, he and the Navy and Marine forces under Admiral Nimitz began planning the invasion of Japan. Before that could occur, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender.

As the senior representative of the Allied Powers, MacArthur made a memorable speech about the horrors of war as he accepted the formal Japanese capitulation aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September, 1945. He stayed on as the senior allied occupation officer, and became virtually the acting emperor of Japan. He was a strong force in converting Japan into a modern, democratic state, and was even involved with writing the pacifistic Japanese Constitution. Most Japanese admired MacArthur and were gratified by his moderate, even-handed treatment of the Japanese people during the postwar years. He was truly a benevolent dictator.

(When this author asked a student who was raised in Japan what her countrymen and women thought of MacArthur, she answered, “They thought he was a god.”)

The Korean Peninsula had been a colony of Japan until World War II. In 1945 it was divided at the 38th parallel into two nations. At that time the United States and the Soviet Union jointly administered Korea in a manner similar to the disposition of occupied Germany at the time. Both nations had occupying forces in Korea, the Soviets in the North, Americans in the South. The North Korean government was Communist, the South Korean government non-communist and quasi-democratic, and both claimed sovereignty over the entire peninsula. The situation also resembled what would ensue in Vietnam after the French were defeated in 1954.

In 1949, after American educated strongman Syngman Rhee was elected President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the United States withdrew its occupying forces, except for a small advisory command. Soviet forces had withdrawn from the North in 1948. In 1950 North Korean Communist leader Kim Il-sung met with Soviet and Chinese Communist leaders and proposed to take over all of Korea by force. He met no objections from either nation and was offered their support. China repatriated 50,000 Korean soldiers who had fought for the Communists in China’s Civil War, and they became an important element of the North Korean People’s Army.  Thus the struggle for control of Korea broke out when the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel in force in 1950.

korea memorialWar Breaks Out. In June, 1950, North Korean troops surged across the border into South Korea, triggering the first major confrontation between the forces of the communist and non-communist worlds. The United States, which had occupied South Korea as part of the post-war administration of former Japanese colonies, became immediately involved in the war. Critics of American foreign policy claimed that when the Truman administration adopted its containment policy, the theoretical line drawn around areas that would be protected against communist aggression failed to include Korea. In addition, because the U.S. was preoccupied with affairs in Europe as well as rebuilding Japan on a democratic footing, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and his Chinese and Soviet counterparts felt that the United States would not defend Korea. President Truman, however, contradictory to what others might have believed, decided immediately that, in keeping with his containment policy, the United States would come to the aid of South Korea. He appealed immediately to the United Nations for support, and was rewarded with a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council calling for a military defense of the Republic of Korea. For the first time, an international body voted to oppose aggression by force.

President Truman then ordered American naval and air forces to begin supporting the South Korean army. When it became apparent that the North Korean army could not be stopped by naval and air support alone, the President made the decision to commit ground forces to Korea. As the Security Council resolution had called for all nations with adequate military forces to contribute to South Korea’s defense, other nations such as Great Britain, France, Canada and Australia prepared to send military units to Korea. The United States, however assumed the major share of the burden of fighting the Korean War. President Truman named General Douglas MacArthur, America’s supreme commander in the Far East, commander of all forces to be engaged in Korea.

As Commander of all United Nations forces, General MacArthur immediately dispatched available ground units to Korea. Having been involved only in occupation duty since 1945, however, the American troops were ill prepared and ill equipped for combat against a well-trained army. Sent to Korea piecemeal, they, along with the South Koreans, were soon driven into a defensive perimeter around the South Korean port of Pusan, and for a while it looked as though North Korea would gain firm control of the entire nation. MacArthur visited the American troops in the Pusan perimeter and told their commanding general that his men would have to hold on while MacArthur prepared a countermove. If they were driven off or captured, retaking the peninsula would be an extremely difficult task.

Back in Japan General McArthur and his staff examined their options and came up with a bold proposal, which he submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for approval. MacArthur’s plan called for an amphibious invasion of South Korea at the port of Inchon, not far below the 38th parallel. It was a daring move, as the attack would fall well behind North Korean lines. A variety of factors helped make MacArthur’s surprise move an unqualified success.

First, Inchon was an unlikely site for an invasion because of its high tidal swings, meaning that the enemy would not expect a landing there. Second, the geography of South Korea meant that the North Korean supply lines could be severed trumn macarthurwith a quick strike inland from Inchon. In addition, Inchon was near the capital of Seoul and Kimpo airfield, the capture of which would be valuable. The First Marine Division under the command of Major General Oliver P. Smith and the 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General David G. Barr, conducted the landing, successfully capturing Seoul and Kimpo airfield in the process. The North Korean army, its supply lines severed, fell back in disarray across the 38th parallel. The breakout of American and Korean forces from Pusan soon followed.

As American naval air and ground units entered the fray, and as the South Korean Army pulled itself together, the UN forces pursued the North Korean Army across the border. South Korea was once again secure. It does not go too far to claim that at that juncture, the Korean War had been won—the invasion had been repelled. General MacArthur chose to push the North Korean army back toward the Chinese border, however, feeling that China would not dare to intervene in the conflict. In a meeting with President Truman at Wake Island, he assured his commander-in-chief that Chinese intervention was unlikely. President Truman was aware that China had threatened to intervene in Korea, communicating their intent via neutral embassies. Truman felt the Chinese were bluffing. Both he and General MacArthur were wrong.

In November 1950 on Thanksgiving Day, a huge Chinese army swept across the border and soon drove the Americans back in the direction from which they had come. Part of that painful withdrawal included the movement of the First Marine chosinDivision and the Seventh Army Division from the Chosin Reservoir area, a fighting withdrawal that took place in bitter cold weather. “Frozen Chosin” became an epithet for the painful process of extricating American troops from what had seemed a virtual death trap. The gains that had been made at great sacrifice were mostly lost, as the North Korean army once again crossed into South Korea and recaptured the capital of Seoul.

To bolster his defenses General MacArthur sought permission to attack Chinese forces across the Yalu River in Chinese territory. He wanted hit the Chinese army in their sanctuary. He believed that attacking bases from which the Chinese army was being supplied was a key to defeating them in South Korea. The Truman administration, not wishing to escalate the crisis nor provoke a full, all-out war between United States and Communist China, restricted MacArthur's movements to the territory of North Korea. When informed that he might bomb the southern half of bridges over the Yalu River, MacArthur fumed, “In all my years of military service I have never learned how to bomb half a bridge!”

Uncomfortable with the Truman administration's policies, General MacArthur openly criticized his commander-in-chief and sent a letter to a Republican congressman which was released to the public. After consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Truman relieved the five-star general of his command for insubordination.

President Truman’s firing of General MacArthur, one of the great heroes of the Second World War, the man who accepted the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on behalf of all Allied forces, caused a firestorm of criticism. When the general returned to the United States, he was fêted in New York with the largest ticker tape parade ever conducted in that city. He was greeted by enthusiastic admirers as he toured the country, accepting salutes and parades in his honor in a number of cities. In his farewell address to a joint session of the United States Congress, he gave a moving speech in which he claimed that, “In war there can be no substitute for victory.”

See MacArthur’s Farewell Address to Congress. See also William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978), one of several biographies. MacArthur also wrote his own memoir, Reminiscences. An excellent 1977 film, MacArthur, starring Gregory Peck, was directed by Joseph Sargent.

President Truman replaced General MacArthur with General Matthew Ridgway, another World War II veteran, and General Ridgway soon began reclaiming some of the ground that had been lost following the Chinese invasion. But further attempts to push the war back to the Chinese border were not feasible, and the fighting degenerated into a stalemate around the 38th parallel. In the presidential election campaign of 1952, General Eisenhower, the Republican candidate, promised that if elected he would go to Korea and seek a solution to the conflict, a promise he fulfilled. Eventually a cease-fire was agreed upon and the fighting came to a desultory conclusion. That cease-fire, however, was not quite the same thing as peace, and tensions along the border between North and South Korea continued for many years. At the current time, American troops are still stationed in South Korea.

memorialThe Aftermath of Korea. During the years since the fighting ended, response to the Korean War has been mixed. At the time, returning veterans of Korea discovered that their fellow Americans seemed almost totally ignorant of the war they had just fought. The conclusion of the war—a negotiated truce rather than a victory—left  a sour taste with many Americans, for whom memories of the overwhelming victories of the Allies over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were still relatively fresh. Some immediate good came from the war, however; the United States Army that started fighting in Korea in 1950 was undertrained, under-disciplined, and under supplied. After several years of combat in Korea, the United States Army had been restored to good fighting condition. For all its frustrations, the war had what was ultimately a successful outcome: South Korea retained its freedom and became a prosperous, democratic and economically viable nation.

The Korean War provided lessons that might have been well applied to Vietnam. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the Korean War did not substantially prepare the United States for its next involvement on the Asian mainland. The enemy faced in Korea was not the same as the enemy faced in Vietnam. One lesson that the West failed to learn from both the Korean and Vietnamese experiences, however, is that many of the communist leaders both in Korea and in Vietnam were far more nationalistic than communist. What they sought for their nations rose above mere ideology. One positive result of both wars, however, was that the United States chose not to use tactical nuclear weapons in Korea, for which the world may be properly grateful. Had that door been opened, there is no telling what the outcome might have been.

Although no final judgment can be offered even half a century after the end of the Korean fighting, the opinion of historian Max Hastings has some merit:

If the Korean War was a frustrating, profoundly unsatisfactory experience, more than 35 years later it still seems a struggle that the West was utterly right to fight. (Max Hastings, The Korean War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, p. 344.)

As many Americans stationed in Korea have said, the Korean people to this day are grateful to the Americans who gave their lives in defense of that nation.

McCarthyism: The Cold War at Home. As the Cold War progressed, and as the presence of Soviet spies operating in the West, including in the United States, became known, many Americans began to see Communism is an immediate threat to their way of life. With revelations of the spying of Klaus Fuchs, who had smuggled atomic bomb secrets out of New Mexico, and as Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were revealed to be spies, a fear gripped much of America. Thus by 1950 the time was ripe for a demagogue to seize the issue of anti-Communism and turn it to his own ends. What resulted was one of the most disgraceful episodes in American politics. That trend had already begun with the blacklisting of anyone in Hollywood or other areas of the country about whom it could be claimed that they had the slightest degree of sympathy for the Communist movement. Hundreds of lives were disrupted. (See Guilty by Suspicion starring Robert De Niro, 1991.)

Sen McCarthy & Roy CohnSenator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who had served with the Marines in World War II, though he had seen no combat, was elected to the Senate in 1946. (He later lied about his military record, claiming to have seen action.) Looking for an issue on which to run for reelection in 1952, McCarthy hit on the idea of anti-Communism, which he certainly did not have to invent. He launched his “project” with a speech in February, 1950. The press zeroed in on McCarthy's charges, which sounded serious (though they were in fact fabricated), and McCarthyism was born.

Taking the already present suspicion and fear of the Soviets to new levels, McCarthy went on a frantic chase after Communist conspirators, who he claimed existed in virtually every corner of American life. With little or no evidence, he carried out what can only be called a witch hunt, ruining lives and reputations in the process and eventually bringing himself into disgrace.

McCarthy attacked all branches of government, including the State Department and the U.S. Army, the latter of which proved more than a match for McCarthy’s recklessness. In a series of televised hearings, McCarthy and aide Roy Cohn (many called him McCarthy’s hatchet-man) tangled with a tough Army lawyer named Joseph Welch. Welch put Cohn on the spot over some doctored photographs. When McCarthy tried to protect his protégé by slandering a lawyer in Welch’s law firm, Welch turned on McCarthy with a withering indictment. He accused the Senator in front of television cameras of being shameless and dishonorable, as spectators applauded.

The first Senator to attack McCarthyism on the floor of the Senate was Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. She called for an end a smear tactics in her “Declaration of Conscience”  speech, although she did not mention McCarthy by name. McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate. An alcoholic, McCarthy died in 1957, but much of the damage done by the Senator and his aides such as Roy Cohn could not be repaired. One such casualty was J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, whose top-secret security clearance was suspended in 1953 because of his alleged leftist sympathies during the 1930s.

Because frustration existed over FDR's unprecedented decision to run for third and fourth terms, breaking the precedent set by George Washington, an amendment to the Constitution limiting the president to two terms was proposed in 1947 and finally ratified in 1951. It included a provision that did excepted President Truman. Because his political fortunes seemed to be waning, however, he chose not to run, and was succeeded by General Dwight D Eisenhower.

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