Harry S. Truman: 33rd Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Harry Truman was not a national or worldly figure. Many people were appalled that an ignoramus from Missouri, an average man who had led an undistinguished life before getting into politics, was now the de facto leader of the free world.
Truman had been a farmer and businessman. He was plainspoken and blunt, proving a good leader is not necessarily about depth of knowledge but common sense. Truman was concerned about making what he perceived to be the right decisions morally versus politically.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Upon FDR’s death and Truman’s swearing in, one of the first things he was apprised of was the Manhattan Project and the capability of the atomic bomb. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered; however, a costly invasion of Japan was imminent with upwards of a million casualties predicted. Truman’s “Missouri common sense” guided him in giving authorization to drop the bomb. On August 15, the Japanese surrendered.
This initial decisiveness defined Truman’s presidency. He believed in making decisions, sticking with them, and being responsible for them; hence, his slogan, “The Buck Stops Here.” Post-war, the battle now would be between the U.S. and the USSR, or between capitalism and communism, over who would control the direction of the world.
On Friday, February 21, 1947, the British Embassy informed the U.S. State Department officials that Great Britain could no longer provide financial aid to the governments of Greece and Turkey. American policymakers had been monitoring Greece’s crumbling economic and political conditions, especially the rise of the Communist-led insurgency known as the National Liberation Front, or the EAM/ELAS. The United States had also been following events in Turkey, where a weak government faced Soviet pressure to share control of the strategic Dardanelle Straits. When Britain announced that it would withdraw aid to Greece and Turkey, the responsibility was passed on to the United States.
In a meeting between Congressmen and State Department officials, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson articulated what would later become known as the domino theory. He stated that more was at stake than Greece and Turkey, for if those two key states should fall, communism would likely spread south to Iran and as far east as India. Acheson concluded that not since the days of Rome and Carthage had such a polarization of power existed. The stunned legislators agreed to endorse the program on the condition that President Truman stress the severity of the crisis in an address to Congress and in a radio broadcast to the American people.
Addressing a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman asked for $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey and established a doctrine, aptly characterized as the Truman Doctrine, that would guide U.S. diplomacy for the next 40 years. President Truman declared, “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 sanction of aid to Greece and Turkey by a Republican Congress indicated the beginning of a long and enduring bipartisan Cold War foreign policy. We would see a successful outline of this doctrine immediately at the conclusion of World War II, before the doctrine was officially declared.
Europe was devastated by years of conflict during World War II. Millions of people had been killed or wounded. Industrial and residential centers in England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Belgium and elsewhere lay in ruins. Much of Europe was on the brink of famine as agricultural production had been disrupted by war. Transportation infrastructure was in shambles. The only major power in the world that was not significantly damaged was the United States.
From 1945 through 1947, the United States was assisting European economic recovery with direct financial aid. Military assistance to Greece and Turkey was also provided. The newly formed United Nations was providing humanitarian assistance. In January 1947, Truman appointed George Marshall, one of the architects of victory during World War II, to be Secretary of State.
In just a few months, State Department leadership under Marshall, with expertise provided by George Kennan, William Clayton and others, led to the crafting of the Marshall Plan concept, which George Marshall shared with the world in a speech on June 5, 1947, at Harvard. Officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP), the Marshall Plan was intended to rebuild the economies and spirits of western Europe primarily. Marshall was convinced the key to restoration of political stability lay in the revitalization of national economies. Furthermore, he saw political stability in Western Europe as a key to blunting the advances of communism in that region which was in line with the Truman Doctrine and its policy of containment.
Sixteen nations, including Germany, became part of the program and shaped the assistance they required, state by state, with administrative and technical assistance provided through the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) of the United States. European nations received nearly $13 billion in aid, which initially resulted in shipments of food, staples, fuel and machinery from the United States and later resulted in investment in industrial capacity in Europe. Marshall Plan funding ended in 1951.
Marshall Plan nations were assisted greatly in their economic recovery. From 1948 through 1952 European economies grew at an unprecedented rate. Trade relations led to the formation of the North Atlantic alliance. Economic prosperity led by coal and steel industries helped to shape what we know now as the European Union.
In 1940, the U.S. population was about 131 million, 12.6 million of which was African American, or about 10 percent of the total population. During World War II, the Army had become the nation’s largest minority employer. Of the 2.5 million African Americans males who registered for the draft through December 31, 1945, more than one million were inducted into the armed forces. African Americans, who constituted approximately 11 per cent of all registrants liable for service, furnished approximately this proportion of the inductees in all branches of the service except the Marine Corps. Along with thousands of black women, these inductees served in all branches of service and in all Theaters of Operations during World War II.
During World War II, President Roosevelt had responded to complaints about discrimination at home against African Americans by issuing Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, directing that blacks be accepted into job-training programs in defense plants, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors, and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
After the war, now-president Truman faced a multitude of problems and allowed Congress to terminate the FEPC. However, in December 1946, Truman appointed a distinguished panel to serve as the President’s Commission on Civil Rights, which recommended “more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States.” When the commission issued its report, “To Secure These Rights,” in October 1947, among its proposals were anti-lynching and anti-poll-tax laws, a permanent FEPC, and strengthening the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.
In February 1948, President Truman called on Congress to enact all of these recommendations. When Southern Senators immediately threatened a filibuster, Truman moved ahead on civil rights by using his executive powers. Among other things, Truman bolstered the civil rights division, appointed the first African American judge to the Federal bench, named several other African Americans to high-ranking administration positions, and most important, on July 26, 1948, he issued an executive order abolishing segregation in the armed forces and ordering full integration of all the services. Executive Order 9981 stated that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The order also established an advisory committee to examine the rules, practices and procedures of the armed services, and recommend ways to make desegregation a reality. There was considerable resistance to the executive order from the military, but by the end of the Korean conflict, almost all the military was integrated.
Reelection Of 1948
Truman campaigned fiercely as he traveled some 30,000 miles criss-crossing the country and made some 271 speeches. His Republican opponent Thomas Dewey seemed to expect the presidency, due to Truman’s unpopularity, rather than campaign for it, making only 16 speeches. Truman would go on to win the popular and electoral votes, but he would also go on to unyielding misery in his 2nd term no doubt due in part to the relentless attacks by Joseph McCarthy, who accused Truman of being soft on communism. Support for McCarthyism started immediately in Truman’s second term due to several events.
Chinese Communist Revolution
The roots of the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party (led by Mao Zedong) and the Nationalist Party, Kuomintang or KMT (led by Chiang Kai-shek) go back to the late 1920s. Their basic differences were papered over by the formal 1937 agreement to cooperate in the war against Japan. In fact, the 8th Route Army fought the Japanese on its own, while the KMT waited for U.S. victory over Japan and used American aid mostly to build up strength for the war they planned to wage against the communists for control of China.
Chiang’s passive stance toward Japan was strongly criticized by the U.S. military adviser in Chungking, General Joseph W. Stilwell. His relations with Chiang soon developed into mutual hostility. However, the U.S. media had Chiang and the KMT as the embodiment of free China. Therefore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not believe it politically wise to abandon Chiang in favor of the more active communist army.
The President did, however, send Gen. Patrick Hurley to try and patch things up between Chiang and Mao. He also sanctioned the sending of a U.S. mission to Yenan. This was called “The U.S. Observer Mission.” In the U.S., it was informally known as “The Dixie Mission,” because it went into “rebel” territory. The mission was led by Colonel David Barrett and established itself in Yenan in July 1944, where it stayed until 1946. Its members were very favorably impressed by Mao and his movement. Indeed, if the war with Japan had not ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese troops had remained in mainland China, Truman might have given military aid to the communists because they represented a significant anti-Japanese fighting force there.
Chinese Civil War
Immediate Japanese surrender, forced by the devastating U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was surprising and created a conundrum for the American government. Which Chinese forces were to take over Manchuria and north China, and how could a civil war be prevented?
Truman sent Marshall as special ambassador to China in December 1945 with the task of mediating an agreement between the communists and the KMT. However, the U.S. government was, at the same time, helping Chiang by airlifting his troops to north China. Officially this was done because the Japanese were ordered to surrender only to the KMT or to American troops, but it obviously favored Chiang.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th and sent its troops into Manchuria, occupying it without encountering much resistance. The Soviets allowed Chinese communist troops to take over the region as well as the weapons of the defeated Japanese. At the same time, however, they looted the industrial equipment and sent it to Russia, just as they did in their occupation zone in Germany and in the former German territories allocated to Poland.
Stalin did not want a confrontation with the U.S. so he signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with Chiang on August 14, 1945. In accordance with this treaty, Chiang ceded Port Arthur and control of Dalian (in Russian, Dairen), in southern Manchuria to Russia, thus implementing promises Roosevelt made to Stalin at Yalta. The Russians agreed to give up some key cities to the KMT, but this did not happen until they pulled out in early May 1946. Meanwhile, Gen. Marshall managed to arrange a truce between the KMT and the communists, which was signed in Chungking on January 16, 1946. While neither side intended to observe it for long, the communists seemed more willing to abide by it than Chiang.
War broke out in summer 1946. Although on paper the KMT army was three times the size of the communist army, the men were demoralized and badly led. Above all, most of them were peasants, so they were naturally attracted to the CCP program of land reform, which was implemented in all regions that came under the control of The People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Remember, Mao distributed the land to poor and landless farmers, but also left some land to the landlords and rich farmers. He did not want to alienate them, but make them allies of the CCP. However, this did not apply to those perceived as “exploiters,” or others seen as enemies. Many of them were killed.
Chiang fought the communists in his old way, i.e., by garrisoning fortified places. However, they were soon surrounded by Mao’s troops. Masses of KMT peasant soldiers deserted to the PLA, perceiving they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The PLA captured their equipment and soon overpowered the KMT. Even the mainstay of the KMT, the merchants and civil servants, had become alienated from Chiang because of the terrible inflation that followed the end of the war with Japan. They looked all the more hopefully to Mao, because he carefully avoided proclaiming any radical measures, such as the abolition of private property.
Russian documents show that in January 1949, after Chiang asked for great power mediation, Stalin advised Mao to accept — but Mao refused. It is clear from the Russian record that Stalin was anxious to avoid a clash between the United States and Mao in China, which might involve the USSR. Mao, however, pursued his own policy.
The PLA crossed the Yangtze river in April and reached Guangzhou (Canton) in October 1948. Chiang resigned as President of the Republic of China on January 21, 1949, although he kept power in his own hands. On October 1, 1949, the The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed in Beijing (Peking), the old capital of China. The remnants of the KMT fled to Formosa, i.e., Taiwan, where they set up the government of “Free China.”
The communist victory in China was a great shock to the U.S. Wartime propaganda had portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as the heroic leader of China. The imposition of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, the Greek civil war and the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949) marked the beginning of the Cold War. Therefore, it was natural for U.S. opinion to see the establishment of communism in China as directed from Moscow, and to seek an explanation for the defeat of America’s ally, Chiang, in some kind of communist “plot.”
This perception was so widespread that it allowed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy to launch his campaign against “spies” in the U.S. State Department in 1950, and to expand it into a general witch hunt against American communists and sympathizers. McCarthyism had so much support among millions of Americans that President Truman and, for a certain time, President Eisenhower, did not dare oppose him, even in defense of the State Department’s China experts, who were fired. It was not until McCarthy attacked the Army — by which time U.S. opinion was becoming disgusted with his methods — that Eisenhower put his foot down and the McCarthy era came to an end.
During World War II, the future of the Japanese empire was decided at Allied summit meetings. In the short term, pending the return of Korean independence, Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, was to be occupied north of the 38th parallel by Soviet Russia. To the south, a United States military administration under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur would control the area from its headquarters in Tokyo.
In the North, the Soviets backed a Stalinist regime under their client, Kim Il-sung, and created the North Korean Peoples’ Army, equipped with Russian tanks and artillery. In the South, the chaotic political situation resulted in an American-backed administration under the presidency of Syngman Rhee, whose openly-declared aim was the imposition of national unity by force. As a result of this stance, the American-trained South Korean army was limited to a lightly armed gendarmerie, lacking tanks, combat aircraft and all but a small amount of field artillery.
The Korean War began in the predawn darkness of June 25, 1950, as Kim Il Sung’s heavily armed and well-trained North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel — the border between the two Koreas at the end of World War II. By the night of June 28, Seoul had fallen and the South Korean forces were in disarray. The United Nations had just passed a resolution recommending that “the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security to the area.” On July 30, President Truman announced that he had “authorized the United States Air Force to conduct missions on specific military targets in northern Korea [and] a naval blockade of the entire Korean coast,” adding almost as an afterthought, “General MacArthur has been authorized to use certain supporting ground units.” Army Secretary Frank Pace’s assessment was more realistic: “We were into Korea deep.”
July 5 saw the first battle between American and North Korean troops, and the Americans did not fare as well as they expected. Unable to slow the enemy advance below Suwon, the Americans and South Koreans fought desperate delaying operations, buying time with blood as more American units were rushed to Korea. By the end of July, the North Koreans had pushed the U.N. forces to the southeast corner of the peninsula, where they dug in around the port of Pusan. On July 27, a “grim-faced and business-like” MacArthur visited Eighth Army commander Walton Walker. A witness said that MacArthur told Walker, “There will be no Dunkirk in this command. To retire to Pusan will be unacceptable.” Gen. Walker gave the “stand or die” order, and over the next six weeks a desperate, bloody struggle ensued as the North Koreans threw everything they had at American and ROK (South Korean) forces in an effort to gain complete control over Korea.
With what is widely considered the crowning example of his military genius, MacArthur completely changed the course of the war overnight by ordering — over nearly unanimous objections — an amphibious invasion at the port of Incheon, near Seoul. Evidence has indicated that the Chinese Communists, having studied MacArthur’s tactics in World War II, warned the North Koreans to expect such an attack. Still, they were not prepared. The Americans quickly gained control of Incheon, recaptured Seoul within days, and cut the North Korean supply lines. American and ROK forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and chased the retreating enemy north. On September 27, after Washington had consulted with its allies regarding war aims, MacArthur received permission to pursue the enemy into North Korea. ROK forces crossed the 38th parallel on October 1, opening a fateful new chapter in the conflict.
Despite warnings from the Communist Chinese through an Indian diplomat that “American intrusion into North Korea would encounter Chinese resistance,” MacArthur’s forces continued to push north. In their meeting at Wake Island on October 15, both Truman and MacArthur took comfort in the General’s assertion that “We are no longer fearful of their intervention … if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang there would be the greatest slaughter.”
On October 25, however, things turned ominous. The Chinese army, which had been massing north of the Yalu River after secretly slipping into North Korea, struck with considerable force. After suffering setbacks, the U.N. forces stabilized their lines by November 5, only to watch the Chinese withdraw northward as quickly as they had struck. MacArthur was now worried enough to press Washington for greater latitude in taking the fight into China. He nevertheless launched a great offensive toward the end of November, which he optimistically hoped would end the war in Korea and “get the boys home by Christmas.” It proved a terrible miscalculation.
MacArthur’s “all-out offensive” to the Yalu had barely begun when the Chinese struck with awesome force on the night of November 25. Roughly 180,000 Chinese troops shattered the right flank of Walker’s Eighth Army in the west, while 120,000 others threatened to destroy the X Corps near the Chosin Reservoir. On November 28, a shaken MacArthur informed the Joint Chiefs, “We face an entirely new war.”
MacArthur’s men fought courageously and skillfully just to avoid annihilation as they were pushed back down the peninsula. Seoul changed hands yet again on January 5. But under the able and energetic leadership of General Matthew Ridgway, who took over the Eighth Army after the death of Walker, the U.N. retreat ended about 70 miles below Seoul.
Beginning January 15, Ridgway led the U.N. in a slow advance northward, in what his troops began to call the “meatgrinder.” Inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese and North Koreans, the U.N. re-recaptured Seoul (the fourth and final time it changed hands!) on March 15, and had patrols crossing the 38th parallel on March 31. In the meantime, General MacArthur had been steadily pushing Washington to remove the restrictions on his forces. Not only did Truman decline for fear of widening the war, but he fired MacArthur, who had been publicly challenging him for months, for insubordination on April 11.
Although MacArthur’s dismissal ignited a political firestorm, most historians have agreed that Truman had little choice but to uphold the doctrine of civilian control of the military. But on military grounds, the picture is less clear. Whether or not his proposals would have ended the war — or started World War III — they probably would have avoided the stalemate, which lasted for another two years. Not until nearly two million more had died did the Korean War end, when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Ho Chi Minh, founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the communist north asked Truman for help against French colonialists in Vietnam. The French asked Truman for help fighting against communists in Hanoi. It was a priority of Truman and the U.S. to prevent the French from being defeated by communist forces in southeast Asia, marking the beginning of our involvement in what would become the Vietnam War.
The loss of wartime ally China to communism, and the stalemate that was the Korean War led Americans into mass fear and hysteria of communism by the time Truman’s presidency ended in 1953 as it appeared the containment policy was unsuccessful, aided by corruption in the executive branch. Truman’s popularity sank to an all-time low. It would not be until decades later that people would appreciate the adept conclusion to the second World War, the overwhelming success of the Marshall Plan and the bold steps he took on civil rights.
Because Truman did not have a distinguished academic background, nor much success in the private sector, they assumed that Truman could not possibly be an effective president. Furthermore, events overseas which often had little to no effect on American domestic policy dominated American domestic politics, leading to a distrust of government and all things foreign. This opened the door for populist political candidates to foment hate, fear and anxiety over the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presented by foreign enemies.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt preceded him
Dwight Eisenhower would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.