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Harry S. Truman: Setting the Course
On January 5, 1950, after a dinner aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg, Winston Churchill admitted that his first impression of Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 had not been favorable. "I must confess, sir," Churchill told Truman, "I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt." Churchill paused for what seemed a long time. "I misjudged you badly," he continued. "Since then, you, more than any other man, have saved Western Civilization."
To be sure, Truman's policies did not succeed in saving all of Western civilization. In the wake of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II, the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe andin violation of its pledges at the 1945 Yalta Conference to hold free electionsproceeded to establish Communist police states throughout the region, brutally suppressing anti-Communist forces. But it was thanks to Harry Truman that Soviet expansionism was contained. The historic initiatives taken during his presidencyGreek-Turkish aid, the European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan), the Berlin Airlift, and the creation of both NATO and the Federal Republic of Germanyenabled Western Europe to escape Soviet domination and laid the groundwork for the liberation of the occupied parts of Western civilization in that annus mirabilis, 1989.
Underlying Truman's policies was the conviction that Soviet totalitarianism was no different from Nazi totalitarianism. Both the Communistsand the Nazis violated the rights of man at home and sought to expand abroad. To secure a world in which democratic values might flourish, Truman believed, the U.S. had no choice but to contain Soviet expansionismthrough economic and military aid if possible, through force of arms if necessary. Over the long run, a successful policy of containment would cause Soviet leaders to lose their faith in the inevitability of a global Communist triumph. Only then could negotiations with Moscow contribute to a safer, more peaceful world.
Because the Truman Administration's policy of containment set the course for U.S. foreign policy over the next 35 years, it seems in retrospect to have been a natural, even inevitable response to Soviet aggressiveness. At the time, however, it was seen as nothing of the sort. Truman's predecessor as President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had pursued a very different policy toward Moscowan approach aimed at cementing an enduring Soviet-American friendshipand when Truman succeeded FDR, he was determined to follow in his footsteps, even if doing so meant going against his own instincts. How Harry Truman gradually worked his way out from under FDR's long shadow, placed his own stamp on U.S. foreign policy, and secured the survival of Western civilization is one of the great sagas of American history.
Early Years in Missouri
Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884. His father, John Truman, was a feisty, hardworking, moderately successful farmer and livestock trader. His mother, Martha Ellen Young, "had the iron will and sense of duty that went with her Baptist faith." Both sets of grandparents were pioneers, having migrated to the Missouri country from Kentucky in the 1840s.
When Harry was six years old, the family moved to Independence, Missouri, once the jumping-off point for the Oregon trail, a town "scarcely removed from frontier days," without paved streets, electric lighting, or a water system. "Adult men still commonly carried knives or guns; fistfights were commonplace. Harry Truman learned about the behavior expected of males in a setting that prized the manly virtues and the inner-directed personality."
But Harry was different. Because he had weak eyes (a doctor diagnosed "malformed eyeballs") young Harry was forced to wear thick, expensive, easily damaged glasses, which prevented him from engaging in the usual rough-and-tumble childhood activities. Instead, Harry took up the piano. "He displayed remarkable aptitude," writes biographer Alonzo Hamby, and in his early teens "seriously aspired to a career as a concert pianist, rising every day at 5:00 A.M. for two hours of practice on the family's Kimball upright before going off to school."
Harry's high school provided him with an education that was "old-fashioned, solid, and not terribly different from the education that Franklin D. Roosevelt was receiving at Groton at about the same time.... As a teenager, Harry read Cicero, Plutarch, Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, learning and never forgetting the vices and virtues of the ancients." Add to that his love of readingespecially American historyand his immersion since early childhood in the rhythms, cadences, and teachings of the Bible, and it is difficult not to conclude that Truman was "a truly educated man, short on vocational skills, perhaps, but well-grounded in the liberal arts."
After graduating from high school, Harry had hoped to attend West Point but was barred from doing so by his poor eyesight. John Truman's unexpected financial reverses prevented Harry from attending college, and after four years in Kansas City, the young man abandoned his promising career as a bank clerk and, acceding to his father's wish, returned home to help run the family farm. Although Truman did not enjoy his eight years of backbreaking farm labor, he never complained, and the experience eventually proved quite useful to the future politician. "A man who had sown a 160-acre wheatfield in Missouri with four mules, and who `could plow a straight furrow,' had a powerful appeal for a nation which had only recently become industrial."
In his free time, Truman began to court Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace, whom he had known since Sunday school days. Bess came from one of the wealthiest families in Independence, and her widowed mother looked down on the Trumans. Harry and Bess were married in 1919 after a nine-year courtship.
Gaining a "Sense of Command"
Shortly after his father's death in the fall of 1914, Harry left the family farm and set out to make his fortune as a small businessman. He invested all the capital he could raise in a lead and zinc mine, but the mine failed and Harry lost $5,000. Next, he invested in an oil and gas exploration partnership and barely broke even. By this time, the United States had shed its neutrality and was fighting alongside England, Russia, and France in World War I. Despite being past the draft age, Harry volunteered for service.
Between September and November 1918, Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment, commanded by Captain Truman, saw frequent combat in the Vosges mountains and Meuse-Argonne offensive. Truman became "a first-rate artillery officer, who figured shell trajectories, risked death, and above all led men under battlefield conditions." The experience "obliterated forever the gnawing sense of physical inadequacy that he had carried over from childhood" and "gave him a sense of command .... `My whole political career,' he was to say many years later, `is based upon my war service and war associates.'" (Shortly before America's entry into World War II, Truman, by now both a colonel in the Army reserves and a U.S. Senator, tried to enlist; he was turned down.)
In 1921, one of those war associates, Jim Pendergast, introduced Truman to his father Michael, whose brother, Thomas J. Pendergast, was the "big boss" of Kansas City's notoriously corrupt political machine. Truman's haberdashery business had failed in the postwar recession, and he was about $6,000 in debt. Nonetheless, in the 38-year-old Truman, with his pioneer roots and distinguished war record, the Pendergasts saw a potentially effective vote getter. Approached by Michael Pendergast to run for the eastern judgeship of Jackson Countyan administrative rather than a legal positionas a Pendergast ally, Truman readily agreed. On the brink of middle age, he had stumbled on his true vocation: professional politics.
Although Truman turned to politics only after his business ventures had collapsed, he discovered, as biographer Robert Ferrell has written, that "properly undertaken, [politics] was a noble careerevery bit as important as the work of any doctor, lawyer or teacher. He threw all his enormous energies into it, every waking hour.... And considering his extraordinary talents, the result was something to watch."
The paradox at the heart of Truman's political career was that, although personally honest and conscientious, he made his way, first as a county judge and then, after 1934, as junior Senator from Missouri, "thanks to a corrupt party machine whose parochiality would have made Jane Austen seem cosmopolitan." Truman's association with the Pendergast machine proved especially embarrassing after he arrived in the Senate. Widely regarded, in the words of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as "Ambassador in Washington of the defunct principality of Pendergastia," he was regularly snubbed by the White House even though he campaigned for the 1934 Democratic Senate nomination by claiming to be "heart and soul for Roosevelt" and, once in office, loyally toed the Democratic Party line. He did, however, strike up a friendship with Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. "The liberal Wheeler, who had run on the Progressive ticket with `Fighting Bob' LaFollette in 1924, had a profound influence on Truman, maturing and crystallizing the Missourian's instinctive but somewhat fuzzy liberalism."
Wheeler's friendship and the support of organized labor proved critically important to Truman in 1940, when he had to fend off a challenge to his Senate seat from Missouri governor Lloyd Stark. By this time, the Pendergast machine that had elected Truman to the Senate in 1934 was in ruins, and Truman lacked the funds to finance an effective political campaign. Widely expected to lose his reelection bid, Truman instead won a stunning upset victory (to be repeated in the 1948 presidential race) which finally established him as a political power in his own right and paved the way for an extremely successful second Senate term.
World War II made Harry Truman. As chairman of the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, Truman attracted national attention through a series of hard-hitting reports documenting the wasteful way in which war contracts were being awarded. By his own estimate, Truman saved the government $15 billion. No longer the "Senator from Pendergast," Truman was a respected figure. In 1943, he made the cover of Time magazine.
The favorable reputation Truman gained during World War II led FDR to choose him as his running mate in 1944. But FDR was amazingly inconsiderate in the way he did it. "The president never extended Truman the courtesy of a personal invitation to join the ticket," writes historian William E. Leuchtenburg.
Informed that Truman was balking at running for vice-president, he replied, in a telephone conversation designed for Truman to overhear, "Well, you tell him if he wants to break up the Democratic party in the middle of a war, that's his responsibility," then slammed down the phone. Shaken by this unceremonious invitation, Truman, though recognizing that he had no option save to say yes, asked, "Why the hell didn't he tell me in the first place?"
"Harry, the President Is Dead"
In January 1945, at the start of Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term, the President's doctors, alarmed by the seriousness of his heart condition, concluded that he would live only if he avoided tension. "Given the pressures of the presidency," writes Henry Kissinger, "that assessment was tantamount to a death sentence." Yet despite his precarious health, Roosevelt made no effort to prepare his new Vice President for the duties he almost certainly would inherit. As Truman later told his daughter, "He never did talk to me confidentially about the war, or about foreign affairs or what he had in mind for the peace after the war."
Given his almost total lack of contact with the President, it is hardly surprising that when Eleanor Roosevelt told him, on April 12, 1945, "Harry, the President is dead," a deeply shaken Truman felt "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." It is equally unsurprising that the new President immediately vowed to serve, in effect, as executor of Roosevelt's political estate, pointing frequently to FDR'S portrait and saying, "I'm trying to do what he would like."
In domestic affairs, FDR's legacy was clear, and doing what Roosevelt would have liked was not difficult. In foreign affairs, though, carrying out the President's wishes was more problematic, inasmuch as FDR had confided his long-term foreign policy objectives to virtually no one. As British historian Hugh Thomas has written, "Truman was in fact anxious to carry out Roosevelt's policy in international subjects, providing, that is, that he could discover exactly what it was."
In a different administration, the Secretary of State would have provided the new President with detailed briefings on his predecessor's views and goals. In the Roosevelt Administration, however, both of FDR's Secretaries of State, Edward Stettinius and Cordell Hull, were almost as much in the dark as Truman was. Roosevelt undercut his own State Department because he believed it was intellectually and bureaucratically ossified. "You should go through the experience of trying to get any changes in the thinking, policy and action of the career diplomats," he explained to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Marriner Eccles, "and then you'd know what a real problem was." Roosevelt especially distrusted the State Department's Soviet specialists, since most of them were strongly anti-Soviet, whereas he was trying to establish a new, amicable relationship with Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator.
In FDR's view of the postwar world, Soviet-American cooperation was crucial. Along with Great Britain and China, the Soviet Union and the United States would be responsible for maintaining global law and order. In Henry Kissinger's words, "Roosevelt envisioned a postwar order in which the three victors, along with China, would act as a board of directors of the world, enforcing the peace against any potential miscreant, which he thought would most likely be Germanya vision that became known as the `Four Policemen.'"
Roosevelt recognized that profound ideological disagreements divided the United States and the Soviet Union, but refused to believe that these differences would prevent the Soviet Union and the United States from maintaining their "Grand Alliance" once the Second World War ended. He thought that if only he and Stalin met, he could win the dictator's friendship and secure Soviet cooperation into the postwar era. In the words of George Kennan:
Until the final days of his life, Franklin Roosevelt seems to have clung to a concept of Stalin's personality, and of the ways in which the latter might be influenced, that was far below the general quality of the president's statesmanship and reflected poorly on the information he had been receiving about Soviet affairs. He seems to have seen in Stalin a man whose difficult qualitieshis aloofness, suspiciousness, wariness, and disinclination for collaboration with otherswere consequences of the way he had been personally treated by the leaders of the great European powers. FDR concluded that if Stalin could only be exposed to the warmth and persuasiveness of the president's personality, if, in other words, Stalin could be made to feel that he had been "admitted to the club" (as the phrase then went)admitted, that is, to the respectable company of the leaders of the other countries allied against Germanyhis edginess and suspiciousness could be overcome, and he could be induced to take a collaborative part in the creation of a new postwar Europe.
But Roosevelt's personal charm, however great, could not possibly have persuaded Stalin to set aside his deeply held anti-Western beliefs and cooperate with the United States. "Stalin's thinking about democratic capitalists remained rooted to the spot," writes John Lewis Gaddis. "He always suspected their motives...."
Toward the very end of his life, Roosevelt may have begun to suspect that he had badly misjudged Stalin. On March 23, 1945, after learning from his ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, that Stalin had violated his Yalta pledge to hold democratic elections in Poland, he became quite angry, banged his fists on the arms of his wheelchair, and said, "Averell is right. We can't do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta." (At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union reached an agreement on Poland, pledging that "the three governments will jointly" act to assure "free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people." Stalin also signed the "Declaration on Liberated Europe" at Yalta, committing the Soviet Union to respect "the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live.")
Whatever the nature of the calculations and reappraisals that took place in the mind of "one of America's subtlest and most devious presidents" during his final days, Harry Truman was privy to none of them. As far as the new President could tell, "doing what FDR would like" in foreign affairs meant winning the war against Germany and Japan, supporting the United Nations, and working closely with the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Four days after assuming office, President Truman declared that "Nothing is more essential to the future peace of the world than continued cooperation of the nations which had to muster the force necessary to defeat the conspiracy of the Axis powers to dominate the world." It would take Harry Truman nearly two years to change his mind.
"I Gave It to Him Straight"
Harry Truman was far more skeptical of the Soviet Union than FDR had been, viewing it as a totalitarian police state that had much in common with its Nazi foe. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Senator Truman told a reporter: "If we see that Germany is winning, we should help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances." A month after becoming President, Truman wrote a memo to himself underscoring his continued distrust of the Soviets:
I've no faith in any totalitarian state, be it Russian, German, Spanish, Argentinian, Dago, or Japanese. They all start with a wrong premisethat lies are justified and that the old, disproven Jesuit formula, the end justifies the means, is right and necessary to maintain the power of government. I don't agree, nor do I believe that either formula can help humanity to the long hoped for millennium. Honest Communism, as set out in the "Acts of the Apostles," would work. But Russian Godless Pervert Systems won't work.
Truman's distrust of the Soviet Union was reinforced by his Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, who on April 13, in his first conversation with the new President, informed him that the Soviets were "consistently sabotaging" the Yalta accords. These accords called for the establishment of a "Provisional Government of National Unity" in Poland, to be made up of both Communists and non-Communists and to be followed by free elections. Yet instead of promoting national unity, the Sovietswho now occupied Polandwere systematically hunting down anti-Communists while helping their Communist followers consolidate their power. Stettinius's anti-Soviet views were seconded by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, who told Truman on April 20 that what the Soviets were doing in Poland and the other newly occupied nations of Central and Eastern Europe amounted to "a barbarian invasion of Europe."
Truman shared these views. At a meeting of his principal foreign policy advisers on April 23, he declared that so far, Roosevelt's agreements with the Soviets "had been a one-way street." If the Russians refused to cooperate, "they could go to hell." Later that day, he told Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (who paid a courtesy call on Truman while en route to San Francisco to attend the founding meeting of the United Nations) that the United States was tired of waiting for the Soviet Union to carry out the agreements it had entered into freely at Yalta. When Molotov indignantly exclaimed, "I have never been talked to like that in my life," Truman curtly replied, "Carry out your agreements, and you won't get talked to like that." Charles Bohlen, a State Department Soviet specialist who served as Truman's translator, later said that Truman's remarks to Molotov "were probably the first sharp words uttered during the war by an American President to a high Soviet official."
In the two weeks following his April 23 meeting with Molotov, writes Thomas, "Truman seemed convinced that a `tough method' ... was the right one with Russia." Recounting his exchange with Molotov to his good friend Joseph E. Davies, Truman bragged, "I gave it to him straight. I let him have it. It was the straight one-two to the jaw.... The Soviets only understand the `tough method.'"
But instead of making the Soviets more tractable, the tough method seemed only to provoke them further. "After Truman's blunt talk with Molotov," writes Deborah Welch Larson, "relations with the Soviets deteriorated rapidly. The [April 28-June 23, 1945] San Francisco UN Conference, representing the world's hopes for an enduring peace, was disrupted by noisy, acrimonious squabbles between the United States and the Soviet Union." On June 11, Time reported that "last week the possibility of World War III was more and more in the horrified world's public eye. That there were those who looked upon war between the democratic, capitalist United States and authoritarian, Communist Russia as `inevitable' was no longer news."
President Truman was shocked by the apparent deterioration in Soviet-American relations. So too were other influential voices in the Truman Administration and the Democratic Party, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, and Mrs. Roosevelt. In his distress, Truman turned to Davies"the self-deceiving but underestimated lawyer"who told him that "I have found that, when approached with generosity and friendliness, the Soviets respond with even greater generosity. The `tough' approach induces a quick and sharp rejoinder that `out-toughs' anyone they consider hostile."
Drawing on his presumably vast experience as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1936-1938, during the height of the Great Terror (in reality, Davies was appallingly ignorant of Soviet conditions, and his memoir, Mission to Moscow, was so abject an apology for Stalin and all his works that Soviet specialists at the State Department dubbed it Submission to Moscow), Davies proceeded to let an ill-informed and insecure Truman in on the "inside story" of Soviet-American relations. "In recounting the history of the Grand Alliance, Davies tried to show how the Soviets could have received the impression that Britain and the United States were in collusion to `bleed Russia white.'" At the 1943 Teheran Conference, FDR had managed to allay Soviet suspicions, but now, Davies claimed, "recent U.S. actions in San Francisco" had rekindled them.
The new President paid close attention to the ex-ambassador's presentation. "What can be done?" he inquired anxiously. Davies suggested a meeting between Truman and Stalin in Moscow. "What if Stalin won't come?" asked Truman. "It is no wonder that I am concerned over the matter. It is a terrible responsibility and I am the last man fitted to handle it.... But I shall do my best." The President wound up repudiating his initial tough line:
On May 16, Truman conceded to Roosevelt's daughter that the "get tough" policy had been a mistake. He excused himself by claiming that all his advisers had urged him to "get tough" with Russia. Two days later, Truman told Wallace that he had no confidence in the State Department whatsoever, and planned to get new leadership as soon as possible.
At the close of the San Francisco Conference, Stettinius was replaced as Secretary of State by FDR's "assistant president," the wily James F. Byrnes.
Truman now dispatched two outspoken friends of the Soviet UnionJoseph E. Davies and FDR's closest aide, Harry Hopkinsto London and Moscow, respectively. Believing, with Davies, that the Soviets were being uncooperative because they thought the United States and Britain were "ganging up" on them, he assigned Davies the unenviable task of persuading Churchill to step aside and give Truman and Stalin the opportunity to meet alone before the forthcoming Anglo-American-Soviet summit. Meanwhile, the ailing Hopkins was told to inform Stalin that for the sake of peace (as Truman put it in a note to himself), "Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugo-Slavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, et al [sic] make no difference to U.S. interests"and that a free election in Poland could be as free as Boss Hague or Tom Pendergast might stage it. For his part, Truman assured the American Society of Newspaper Editors that he harbored no anti-Communist sentiments. "I don't give a damn what kind of government the Russians have if they are satisfied," he declared, "and they seem to be, or some 30 million ... wouldn't have died for them."
Davies proved unable to win Churchill's acquiescence to a separate Soviet-American meeting, but Hopkins' meetings with Stalin were more successful. They quickly resolved the thorny Polish problem through American concessions that undermined the London-based Polish government-in-exile, thereby clearing the way for Stalin's agreement to meet with Truman and Churchill in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, in mid-July. News of this deal elated Truman. "I just put across all by myself the most wonderful thing without any help from Stettinius," he crowed to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. "I just finished talking with Harry Hopkins, and I am the happiest man in the world over what I have been able to accomplish."
Truman believed he had learned a valuable lesson from his diplomatic triumph: "If you could sit down with Stalin and get him to focus on the problem, Stalin would take a reasonable attitude, whereas if the problem never got around to Stalin ... it might be handled by the Molotov clique." In fact, there was no such thing as a "Molotov clique." The Soviet foreign minister was never anything more than Stalin's obedient tool, but to deceive gullible Westerners, Stalin and Molotov occasionally resorted to the diplomatic equivalent of "good cop, bad cop." Remarkably, this charade often proved effective.
"I'm not afraid of Russia," Truman confided to his diary on June 7. "They've always been our friends and I can't see any reason why they shouldn't always be." He would soon abandon this rather desperate faith in the constancy of Soviet friendship; but when he set out for Potsdam in the summer of 1945, Truman had convinced himself that Stalin wanted a friendly Soviet-American relationship just as earnestly as he did.