When Harry Truman took the oath of office that evening at 7:09 in the Cabinet Room, he was as astonished as were the American people. He knew that the president's health was deteriorating, but the moment was astonishing.
The next day he told a group of newspapermen that he felt as if "the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen upon him, and he asked them to pray for him. This remark, so expressive of his rural Baptist background, was widely quoted. (Privately, Truman doubted if they knew how to pray for him.)
From such remarks people concluded he was an ordinary individual who happened to become president. But he was hardly an ordinary man. Few, if any, leaders in Washington knew more about domestic American politics; the whole of his personal experience had made him a political master. Truman's only obvious lack of qualification for the presidency was his ignorance of international affairs, which were to occupy most of his time during his presidency.
It is a curious fact, not often noticed, that Truman's quickness in learning about foreign affairs—he made errors in foreign policy in his first year of the presidency, but not many—may have been attributable to his knowledge of domestic politics. Truman in retirement ruminated about the qualities he so desperately needed upon entering the presidency after virtually no preparation by the secretive and otherwise absentminded Roosevelt, who (as Truman's assistant Clark Clifford once said) thought he would live forever. The president of 1945–1953 concluded that if a politician knows American domestic politics he can learn quickly about foreign relations. It does stand to reason that if a president, out of long experience, senses what the American people want, he can advance those desires internationally by relying, as Truman did from the outset, upon the negotiating abilities of the Department of State.
The first issue of foreign policy that Truman confronted was the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. No decision of his presidency has drawn so much criticism as the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August). The question is whether he could have done anything else—that is, whether he could have delayed use of the bombs by opting for a demonstration of their immense power or refused to employ what General Dwight D. Eisenhower described many years after its employment as an inhuman weapon.
Truman knew about the bomb before he became president. When he was chairman of the investigating committee his investigators had reported on the huge expenditures at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Hanford, Washington, the two principal production sites for uranium-235 and plutonium. When he and Roosevelt lunched together under a magnolia on the White House lawn in August 1944, just before the vice presidential candidate went out to campaign, the president told him the secret. At that time the bomb had not been tested.
After he entered the presidency, everything moved rapidly. When, on 16 July 1945, scientists tested a plutonium device (only enough U-235 was available for a single bomb, so they could not test the uranium weapon), they expected a low yield, equal to 500–1,500 tons of TNT, and less effective explosive power because everything would be in a single war-head instead of many small bombs. At the very moment of testing, Truman and other high administration officials had just reached the Berlin suburb of Babelsberg in preparation for a Big Three conference that opened next day at Potsdam and lasted until 2 August; the president had no time to think much about a plutonium bomb that he now realized equaled 20,000 tons of TNT. At Potsdam the president spent two weeks in complicated discussion about Germany's occupation and the payment of reparations; the government and borders of Poland; the opening to all commerce of Europe's principal waterways; and a special declaration by the United States, Britain, and China (the Soviet Union did not take part because it had not yet entered the Far Eastern war) warning Japan in general terms to make peace with the Allies.
With the bomb available, and the president at Potsdam, it was necessary to make a decision, and Truman chose to use the new weapon. One reason for his decision was his feeling, and that of virtually all of his countrymen at the time, that the Japanese military—and behind it the Japanese government—did not know how to wage civilized war. The Japanese army not merely had fought well in its campaigns, whether in offense or defense, but it had fought in bestial fashion. The first evidence had appeared in the sack of Nanking in 1937, in which at least 100,000 Chinese, soldiers and civilians alike, were slaughtered. The attack on Pearl Harbor had infuriated the American people, and there had followed the Bataan death march, a terrible affair. The small-scale attack of American bombing planes on Tokyo and other cities in 1942 was followed by another bloodbath of 100,000 or so deaths in China of anyone and everyone suspected of harboring American fliers. The Japanese defense of Manila against the attacking U.S. Army in 1945 may well have added another 100,000 mainly civilian deaths. The same number of American and Allied prisoners were in the hands of the Japanese army and, as it turned out, would have been slaughtered if the United States had invaded the Japanese home islands. And then there was the likely cost of an invasion of the southernmost island of Kyushu scheduled for 1 November 1945, followed by an invasion of Honshu (including the Tokyo plain) on 1 March 1946. At Iwo Jima in 1945 the United States had lost 6,200 men dead, at Okinawa 13,000. Using Okinawa as a measure, the much larger invasion of Kyushu and Honshu would have cost 65,000 deaths, and casualties—missing, wounded, and dead—could have run much higher because of the nearness of bases for the kamikaze planes that might have made chance hits on packed troopships. There was every evidence that Japanese forces would exact frightful casualties, all the while themselves fighting to the death.
The Potsdam Declaration by the United States, Great Britain, and China called upon Japan to surrender, although of course it did not mention the new weapon that might force such a result, as Congress itself, despite having paid the bill, did not know of the nuclear program. The Japanese government, in control of the military, contemptuously refused. The two bombs cost 110,000 lives and gave the military the excuse they needed to consider surrender. But even then the decision to surrender was forced by the emperor, who twice broke a tie vote among his highest advisers. A rebellion by the Tokyo division guarding the imperial palace that was fomented as a protest to the emperor's decision was put down only after the murder of its commander.
Truman's second major decision in foreign relations was to change the American stance in international affairs from abstention to participation, a decision that reversed the long-standing policy advocated by George Washington. This reversal, this change, established Truman's reputation as one of the nation's greatest presidents. His announcement of the change through the Truman Doctrine (12 March 1947), which promised United States support to countries threatened by Communism; the Marshall Plan (5 June 1947), which placed an economic. foundation under the struggling nations of Western Europe; and the North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949), which assured military assistance, resolved the economic and political near-chaos of Europe after World War II. These measures would, he believed, preserve democracy in Western Europe and thereby help preserve the freedom of the United States. The Truman Doctrine applied to Greece and Turkey. The Marshall Plan included most of the nations of Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. (Switzerland signed the convention creating an organization for the plan, but refused to accept funds.) Congress included China in Marshall Plan appropriations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) comprised the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Britain, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland; Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.
At the time, the logic of Truman's measures may not have been evident to all Americans; many were confused because of proposed policy changes coming so close to the end of World War II, others saw politics in the president's international stance, and still others, having thought little in the past about international affairs, seemed determined to remain in ignorance. The leading figures of the administration, perhaps even the president, were not always sure where they were going; sometimes they were feeling their way. They all had many duties, and the crises came up quickly; they may even have lurched from crisis to crisis.
Confusion often reigned. In the midst of the administration's several measures, the Soviets began the land blockade of the western sectors of Berlin and an airlift became necessary from June 1948 until September 1949. In the Middle East the British government chose the date of 15 May 1948 to give up its mandate over Palestine, resulting not merely in the announcement on midnight of the preceding day, 14 May, of the birth of the State of Israel but in an almost immediate convergence of Arab armies upon the new state, hoping to stifle it at birth. Hostilities lasted until an armistice was worked out the next year. Truman extended almost immediate recognition to Israel, eleven minutes after the state's founding, but the United States remained neutral during the first of the Arab-Israeli wars.
Critics have maintained that Europe could have righted itself without Truman's measures, which, they have said, ensured a permanent cold war. Signs of Soviet weakness, economic and military, were visible at the time and often remarked upon. John Foster Dulles, then a member of an American delegation to a conference in Moscow in 1947, drove from the airport of the Russian capital through the streets to the Kremlin and beheld mile after mile of slums, rundown houses, and aging apartment buildings, the people in tatters. He easily concluded that the Soviet Union had a long way to go before it could match the economic might of the United States. Students of Soviet affairs later concluded that Premier Joseph Stalin in 1947–1949 needed a foreign enemy because the Soviet economy could not produce both peacetime and military goods and he sought to maintain control by threat of war. World War II revealed large groups of the populace, such as the Ukrainians, susceptible to Western—in this case, German—influence. The Soviet Union defeated the German army, so the argument went, largely by masses of troops thrown against German forces and by primitive weapons similarly expended, but was not able to take its crude military might far beyond its borders.
These alarms and contentions could have no effect on President Truman and his assistants, who could act only on the need to do something to save Western Europe—and also, to be sure, on the basis of what they saw, which was Soviet intransigence: vehement protest over peace talks held early in 1945 with German army representatives in Switzerland shortly before surrender of German troops in Italy; looting of territories traversed by the Red Army; indifference to the plight of captured Allied soldiers whose camps Soviet troops overran; demands for huge reparations from Western-occupied zones of Germany; and ruthless domination of the countries of Eastern Europe, despite promises of individual rights and liberties set out in the Yalta Declaration on Liberated Europe, to which the Soviets had promised support. When British, American, and French forces entered their allotted sectors of Berlin in July, they beheld evidences of Russian outrages against the city's population on every side. In ensuing months the Soviets turned the Council of Foreign Ministers, created by the Potsdam Conference to help restore order to Europe, into a debating group, Soviets versus Western Allies.
Then there was the immediate crisis of the spring of 1947. In 1946 it had become obvious that Western Europe's economies could not by themselves recover from the war. The harsh winter of 1946–1947 froze wheat in the ground, threatening dire food shortages. Coal supplies failed to reach cities, where inhabitants were without heat and frequently without electricity.
Truman did not quite sense the crisis until, in February 1947, the British government gave up support of Greece and Turkey, two weakened states on Europe's periphery, one afflicted by years of German occupation and the other threatened by invasion across the long Turkish-Soviet border. The resultant Truman Doctrine, backed by an appropriation of $400 million, inaugurated years of support that mounted to billions of dollars. The European Recovery Plan, announced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at the Harvard commencement in June 1947, had an initial installment of $5.6 billion (passed by Congress in March 1948) and eventually totaled $13 billion. (In his inaugural address in 1949 the president proposed economic aid to developing countries, and this fourth point in the address—known as Point Four—received modest congressional appropriations for a few years, mostly in the form of pilot projects of a technical nature, such as water systems or plans for increasing crop yields.) The Truman administration could not sign the North Atlantic Treaty until April 1949—that is, until after the president had fought the "whistle stop" campaign of 1948 and become president in his own right. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not become an effective military organization until after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. General Dwight D. Eisenhower went to Europe as supreme commander of NATO in January 1951, a clear signal of United States commitment.
The Truman administration perhaps erred in making the Truman Doctrine of 1947 so all-inclusive: the president's enunciation of the doctrine, produced in the State Department, was hard-line and included any threatened country in the world. Administration opponents in Congress immediately raised the question of China, where Communists were fighting Nationalists. Representative Walter H. Judd of Minnesota inquired why the United States sought to protect Greece against Communism when its policy in China, set out clearly in the unsuccessful mission of General Marshall in 1946, was to bring the warring factions together. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson explained that China's size and population were immensely larger than those of Greece. Actually Acheson had asked a department speech-writer, Joseph M. Jones, to use expansive phrases in the Truman Doctrine speech so as to ensure congressional approval. When the United States in the 1960s involved itself in Vietnam, the phrases came to seem singularly inappropriate. It appeared that the Truman Doctrine had been intended to oppose Communism everywhere, including the Far East—a notion that never entered the minds of Truman and Acheson.
Fortune, as well as statesmanship, may have ensured success of the Marshall Plan, as the plan became known, for $13 billion merely primed Western Europe's economic pump. It was American orders for European goods during the so-called Korean War boom that ensured the revival of the European economies, allowing them to take off into the patterns of consumer consumption that had characterized the American economy since the 1920s.
NATO forces, galvanized by Eisenhower, never numbered much beyond the equivalent of twenty-five divisions, not enough to have prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, although enough to prove that any attack was a serious matter, not a probing effort or an accident. The cost of American forces placed the United States at a disadvantage in trade with allies who did not pay for protecting themselves. And the second largest national contingent of NATO came from West Germany. Inclusion of Germans in NATO occurred only after years of contention with the French government that soured relations between Paris and Washington.
President Truman nonetheless pushed through the three major parts of his program—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO—to effect the permanent alignment of the United States with Western Europe. For a man who achieved the presidency through the death of his predecessor and whose political experience lay almost entirely in domestic issues, it was an extraordinary personal, as well as public, triumph.
The last leading issue of foreign affairs during Truman's presidency, the Korean War, also displayed his resolution, but its domestic political consequences obscured the essential achievement. Not until nearly half a century later, in the 1990s, when the Korean War had passed into history, was Truman's judgment vindicated.
On 24 June 1950 the president was visiting in Independence when he received the news from Secretary of State Acheson that 135,000 North Korean troops had begun crossing the thirty-eighth parallel into South Korea, equipped with Russian tanks and planes—weapons the South Korean forces did not possess—and that tanks were rumbling toward Seoul. The next afternoon, the president returned to Washington and, in his limousine en route to Blair House, where he was living during reconstruction of the White House, told Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, "By God, I'm going to let them have it!" At Blair House that evening his assistants worked out a strategy whereby American naval, air, and, eventually, ground forces entered the fighting in the next few days. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council voted to support South Korea. (The Soviet Union was then boycotting its meetings because the Chinese Nationalist representative occupied China's permanent seat, rather than a representative from Beijing, and thus there was no veto.)
In retrospect, it is clear that at the outset of the Korean War, Truman should have asked Congress for a declaration of war. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advised Truman that, as commander in chief of American armed forces and president of a United Nations member state, he had the right to help defend South Korean independence. He also said that the president might run into a long debate with Congress that could tie the chief executive's hands. Truman therefore described Korea as a "police action." A declaration in June 1950 would have been easily obtained, for Congress almost unanimously supported the war at its outset. Unfortunately, later, when the war became unpopular, the idea of a police action gave Truman's domestic political opponents an easy point of criticism, because the war had far outgrown the designation. Moreover, Truman unwittingly provided a precedent for the Vietnam War years later.
American fortunes in the Korean War wavered erratically, but Truman did his best, much to the confusion of the American people, who often failed to understand either tactics or strategy. The United States Army was so weak in June 1950 that it barely stopped the North Korean advance around the tip of the peninsula near the port of Pusan. The Inchon landing high upon the peninsula's west coast, near Seoul, righted matters, but movement into North Korea brought Chinese intervention in November and December, another retreat, and finally establishment of a line approximately at the thirty-eighth parallel. After seemingly interminable parleys, a truce was worked out in July 1953, after Truman had left the presidency.
In the course of the war, General Douglas MacArthur quarreled publicly with the president over strategy and sought to undercut him, and so Truman dismissed him from his Far Eastern commands in April 1951. The general did not merely contend to the president that he believed the Far East a much more important theater of Russian concern and possible aggression than Western Europe; he also talked to newspaper reporters about his strategic opinions and wrote letters voicing them. He also disagreed with the administration on tactics, for when the Chinese intervened, he wanted to use nuclear weapons against them. This, too, became public knowledge. And he made virtually diplomatic points in public, admonishing the North Koreans and Chinese or in other ways undercutting the State Department. The president issued a directive to subordinates, military and diplomatic, to clear their statements with each other, but MacArthur ignored it. When the two men met for a short conference at Wake Island on 15 October, it seemed that they were in agreement, but MacArthur's subsequent pronouncements made their disagreements obvious. America's allies began to doubt that Truman had the general under control; the British government was especially concerned. When Truman at last dismissed MacArthur, he replaced him with General Matthew B. Ridgway.
Truman's task during the long agony of Korea became one of explanation, and the task proved impossible. Few Americans knew much about Korea. It seemed a strangely unimportant peninsula in which to contain Communism. The timing also appeared wrong—mainland China had fallen to the Communists in October 1949. The strategic contentions of MacArthur, with their easy solutions—bombing mainland China, perhaps with nuclear weapons, and sowing a belt of radioactive cobalt across the thirty-eighth parallel with a half-life of sixty-two years (a notion disclosed only after MacArthur's death)—required a return to the prenuclear age. ("There is no substitute for victory," he wrote the Republican minority leader of the House of Representatives, Joseph W. Martin, Jr.) Republican leaders in Congress espied an opportunity for a "great debate" in which they could refuse the bipartisanship so successful in Western Europe; Republican presidential nominees had failed in every election since 1928, and an irresistible opportunity arose for victory in 1952.
Truman's problems—the public's confusion and ignorance, the cries of military and political opponents, and spiraling inflation caused by war orders—were compounded by American casualties of 33,237 men dead, 103,376 wounded, and 410 missing. The American people, Truman often said, understood issues when they were explained to them. That was true of domestic political issues, as the president knew from his whistle-stop explanations, but the international issues in Korea did not lend themselves to explanation from the rear platform of a train.
The trouble with the Korean conflict was that the American people did not yet understand the requirements of statesmanship by a great power in a nuclear age. What really needed to be said—and the administration sought vainly to say it—was that the invention of nuclear weapons had made all-out war in the style of the two world wars impossible and that the differences of the United States and the Soviet Union were likely to flare into limited war in insecure places like Korea and become tests of their resolution. Truman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Acheson, and Secretary of Defense Marshall, who had replaced Johnson, knew that only force, coupled with negotiation, would hold the line, but they were unable to convince many.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the purposes of the Soviets in Korea were altogether unclear. The administration was therefore uncertain about what it itself was attempting to do—to prevent the Soviets from taking Korea through use of North Korean or Chinese troops; to save Japan by preserving the Korean buffer; or to convince the Soviets that the United States would fight anywhere, even in East Asia, and thereby prevent the Soviets from overrunning Western Europe before the United States could organize NATO. The memoirs of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, published years later, undisguisedly admitted Soviet involvement and offered a presumption that weaknesses of the South Korean regime of President Syngman Rhee, together with such American testimony as Secretary Acheson's speech of January 1950 in which he failed to mention South Korea as within the United States' "defense perimeter" in Asia, encouraged the Soviets to explore American resolution. The Kremlin may also have desired to involve the Communist Chinese against the United States, in the hope that the Beijing regime might busy itself in a peripheral area of Asia, away from Soviet borders. Years later, in 1993, an American researcher in the former Soviet archives was given a document proving that Stalin had started the Korean War—by giving the green light to the head of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and arranging the date of attack. The purpose was to see how far Kim could go.