Did President Truman make fatal errors of judgment that precipitated the world's slide into the Cold War?
By Arnold A Offner
Last updated 2011-02-17
Did President Truman make fatal errors of judgment that precipitated the world's slide into the Cold War?
Harry S Truman became President of the United States on 12 April 1945, amidst profound concern about his capacity for national or world leadership. He was untutored in foreign affairs, and knew nothing about the complex diplomacy of his predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt. At the same time the expedient Anglo-American-Soviet alliance - formed in opposition to Nazi Germany during World War Two - was growing strained over Russian actions in eastern Europe, and over Allied policy differences towards a soon-to-be defeated Germany.
...growing acclaim for his policies has overlooked the way in which his parochial ... outlook infused his policy-making...
After seven years in office, in his last year in the White House, Republicans would charge that Truman's administration had surrendered 15 countries and 500 million people to Communism, and sent 20,000 Americans to their deaths in Korea. But the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, would tell the US President that on the contrary it was he, more than anyone else, who had 'saved western civilisation' from Soviet aggression. And Truman's biographers, such as the prominent Labour MP Roy Jenkins, subsequently hailed him as a provincial politician who became a 'world statesman', and credited his administration with forging the containment policy that ultimately brought the demise of the Soviet Union and Communism.
Undoubtedly, Truman profoundly shaped US foreign policy during 1945-53, and had great success regarding postwar reconstruction in Europe and Japan. But growing acclaim for his policies has overlooked the way in which his parochial and nationalist outlook infused his policy-making, intensified Soviet-American conflict and division in Europe, and led to tragic interventions in Asian civil wars that made America's Cold War 'victory' exceedingly costly.
Born in Missouri in 1884, Truman was encouraged to read the Bible from an early age. This instilled in him the belief that 'punishment always follows transgression', a maxim he would apply to his deliberations over North Korea and the People's Republic of China (PRC). His self-tutelage in history, based on didactic Victorian biographies, instilled a belief that current events had precise historical analogues, and this led him to apply inexact analogies about 1930s appeasement to postwar disputes with the Soviet Union.
Thus the man who became US President in 1945 was less an incipient statesman than an intense nationalist...
During World War One Truman bravely commanded troops in France, but he deplored European politics and social mores, and vowed never to leave 'God's country' again. He identified with Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations, and as a senator during 1934-44 he supported neutrality revision, rearmament, Lend Lease for Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and US membership in a United Nations.
His internationalism, however, rested heavily on military preparedness, he too quickly blamed international conflict on 'outlaws' and 'totalitarians', and he hoped that Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 would lead to mutual destruction, although he opposed a Nazi victory. Furthermore, he likened Russian leaders to Hitler and Al Capone, and inveighed against the 'twin blights' of Atheism and Communism.
Thus the man who became US President in 1945 was less an incipient statesman than an intense nationalist, overly fearful that appeasement, lack of preparedness, and enemies at home and abroad would thwart America's mission ('God's will') to win the post World War Two peace on its own terms.
As plans were made for the division of power in the postwar world, Truman initially opposed any Anglo-American ganging-up on the Russians, and said he would keep every agreement with them. But his desire to appear decisive and tough spurred his belief that he could get 85 per cent of his own way out of every deal with the Russians, and that if not, they could 'go to hell'. Truman went to the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 to advance only American interests ('win, lose, or draw - and we must win'), and believed that the atomic bomb was his 'ace-in-the hole'.
Truman viewed the US as the world's trustee for atomic power...
Thus rather than meet the Soviet claim, based on the Yalta accords, to about $10 billion in reparations from Germany, the President insisted that each nation take reparations from its own zone in Germany. This denied the Soviets access to the industrial Ruhr, but zonal reparations also augured economic-political division of Germany.
American use of atomic bombs against Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was intended to shorten the war and save lives. But Truman believed as well that the bombs would cause Japan to 'fold up' before the Soviets entered the Pacific War, which would assure exclusive US occupation of Japan, and a chance to negate concessions due the Russians in Manchuria. In effect, the prospect of political gain in Europe and Asia precluded serious US thought of not using atomic bombs against Japan.
Truman viewed the US as the world's trustee for atomic power, sided with Cabinet advisers who thought America's technological genius assured its supremacy in an arms race, and proved as resistant in many ways as Joseph Stalin, who sought atomic parity, to international control of atomic energy. The President also chided Secretary of State James Byrnes for reaching compromise accords in Moscow in December 1945 on eastern Europe, Asia, and atomic power. The Russians understood only an iron fist, Truman said, and he was tired of babying them.
Truman began his 'get tough' policy in 1946 with strong protests against Russian troops in Iran, and denial of Soviet claims to share control of the Turkish Straits. The President also took at face value the 'Russian Report' produced for him by White House aides. This was a series of questionable worst-case scenarios, which suggested there was a Soviet desire for global conquest by subversion and force.
The administration skilfully built public support for vast US aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan...
Soon Great Britain announced that it was halting aid to Greece and Turkey - aid that had long been afforded these countries, in order to protect vital British interests in the Mediterranean region.
This led to the president’s epochal statement to Congress in March 1947 that it was America’s duty to help free peoples everywhere to resist totalitarianism, and to his call for economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey - resulting in the taking over of Britain’s former dominant role in the Mediterranean. In fact, this meant supporting Greece’s right-wing-authoritarian government against its left-wing-republican opponents, and also supporting Turkey, which was under no threat from any internal enemy or from Russia but was considered strategically vital in the Mediterranean, and was useful in US war plans being developed in case of hostilities there.
The Truman Doctrine may have been intended to rouse the public and Congress to national security expenditures, but it ignored the complexity of Greece's civil war, vastly overstated the global-ideological aspects of Soviet-American conflict, and set an unfortunate precedent for subsequent US interventions in conflicts across the globe.
Truman's greatest success came after Secretary of State George Marshall invited Europe to forge its own economic recovery programme in 1947. The administration skilfully built public support for vast US aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan, which, when implemented, spurred US-European trade and western European recovery, integrated western Germany, and assuaged France. US financial and economic controls precluded Moscow's taking part, however, which led the Russians to crack down on eastern Europe and enabled Truman to blame them for the Cold War.
The President also defeated Stalin's 1948 blockade of western Berlin, intended to block formation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), with an airlift of supplies into the city. Truman refused to withdraw US occupation troops from Berlin - and he was not prepared to prompt war over the blockade either, or to transfer presidential control of atomic weapons to the military.
Eventually, his steadfast moderation forced Stalin to accept a diplomatic end to the Berlin blockade in 1949, while the US now joined with 11 European nations to form its first peacetime alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which the FRG joined in 1955. Meanwhile, the Soviets fostered the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which joined the Warsaw Pact in 1956.
Truman's containment strategy proved less successful in Asia. Although America's exclusive occupation of Japan promoted parliamentary government, economic productivity, and then sovereignty in 1952, under the umbrella of US forces stationed there, US policies in China and Korea brought grave consequences.
Thus the matrix was set for long-term, hostile policy towards the PRC well before Sino-American conflict in Korea.
Truman initially assumed neutrality in the postwar conflict in China between Jiang Jieshi's Guomindang (GMD) - which he regarded as the world's 'rottenest' government - and Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whom he derided as bandits. But Truman could not perceive China's civil war apart from the Soviet-American Cold War, and he fatally flawed General Marshall's mediation mission in 1946 by continuing military aid to the GMD, despite its intransigence in negotiations with the CCP.
The President refused to deal with the rising CCP, and then approved the State Department's 1949 White Paper, which detailed US aid to the GMD to show that policymakers had not 'lost' China. But it also challenged the CCP's legitimacy to govern, and called on the Chinese people to throw off their Communist yoke, and to resist serving Russian interests. Truman would not recognise the PRC, denied its presumptive right to rule Taiwan, and backed GMD bombing campaigns and economic warfare from that island. Thus the matrix was set for long-term, hostile policy towards the PRC well before Sino-American conflict in Korea.
Truman boldly intervened with US forces in June 1950 to thwart North Korea's attack on South Korea, a sovereign, UN-recognised state. He also gained UN sanction to restore peace in Korea. But his despatch of the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits signalled renewed involvement in China's civil war, and soon he publicly escalated a 'police action' in Korea into a major issue of American security and world peace. Then his decision in September to send US/UN forces across the 38th parallel to destroy or punish the North Korean regime, and to unify North and South Korea by military means, escalated the war from containment to 'rollback'.
...Truman would agree only to consult before using atomic weapons...
The President dismissed as blackmail PRC warnings that the advance of US troops towards its borders would cause it to enter the war in Korea, but then found himself forced to witness America's bitter retreat. Then a hasty remark - where he indicated that use of the atomic bomb was always under consideration - caused British leaders to fly to Washington to preclude atomic war, and to assert that PRC leaders could be Marxist and nationalist, while not bowing to Stalin. Despite their arguments, Truman would agree only to consult before using atomic weapons, and he insisted that China's new leaders were complete satellites of Russia, who sought to conquer Asia.
Truman recognised the need to settle the war in Korea, but he would not compromise with the PRC, and he pressed the UN to brand it an aggressor. Then his refusal to abide by the Geneva Convention of 1949, which called for compulsory exchange of all prisoners of war, and his insistence on voluntary repatriation, intended to embarrass the PRC, delayed a settlement until President Dwight Eisenhower gained one in 1953.
Truman's intervention preserved South Korea's independence and enhanced the UN's collective security prestige. But his later action led to US-PRC conflict, embittered relations for a generation, and set the stage for long-term political-military commitments to South Korea, to the GMD on Taiwan, and to France waging war in Indochina. Further, America's military budget nearly quadrupled between 1950 and 1953, the President's domestic programme lay in shambles, and McCarthyism was rampant nationally.
...there is no evidence that he intended to move his Red Army west of its agreed occupation zones...
It is certainly the case that World War Two generated complex problems, and led to the US and the USSR, with entirely different political-economic systems, confronting one another across war-torn continents. It is also certain that Stalin was a brutal dictator, although there is no evidence that he intended to move his Red Army west of its agreed occupation zones, and he always put Soviet state interests ahead of his desire to spread Communist ideology.
So it was inevitable that Truman's policy-making would reflect a desire to assure US access to vital resources and markets, and to avert appeasement in the face of Stalin's harsh realpolitik and pressure for security. But from the Potsdam Conference to the Korean War, Truman insisted that either the Soviet Union or the PRC was at the root of every problem in the world.
He also assumed the superiority of US values and institutions, which meant he could order the world on American terms. And he promoted a politics and ideology of confrontation that revealed a lack of presidential leadership to move the US away from Cold War conflict and toward détente.
Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1971 by Gordon H Chang (Stanford University Press, 1991)
Harry S Truman: A Life by Robert H Ferrell (University of Missouri Press, 1996)
We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Man of the People: A Life of Harry S Truman by Alonzo L Hamby (Oxford University Press, USA, 1998)
Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation by Deborah Welch Larson (Princeton University Press, 1985)
A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War by Melvyn P Leffler (Stanford University Press, 1992)
Truman by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, 1993)
On Every Front: The Making and Unmaking of the Cold War by TG Paterson (WW Norton , 1994)
Harry S Truman: Fair Dealer and Cold Warrior by William E Pemberton (Twayne, 1989)
Arnold A Offner is Cornelia F Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, and a past President of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He is author of numerous books, including Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 (Stanford University Press, 2002) and American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938 (Harvard University Press, 1969). He is currently writing a biography of Senator Hubert H Humphrey.
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