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Stanford University Press
Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 / Edition 1

Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 / Edition 1

by Arnold A. offner


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This book is a provocative, forcefully argued, and thoroughly documented reassessment of President Truman’s profound influence on U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War. The author contends that throughout his presidency, Truman remained a parochial nationalist who lacked the vision and leadership to move the United States away from conflict and toward détente. Instead, he promoted an ideology and politics of Cold War confrontation that set the pattern for successor administrations.

This study sharply challenges the prevailing view of historians who have uncritically praised Truman for repulsing the Soviet Union. Based on exhaustive research and including many documents that have come to light since the end of the Cold War, the book demonstrates how Truman’s simplistic analogies, exaggerated beliefs in U.S. supremacy, and limited grasp of world affairs exacerbated conflicts with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. For example, Truman’s decision at the Potsdam Conference to engage in “atomic poker” and outmaneuver the Soviets in Europe and Asia led him to brush aside all proposals to forgo the use of atomic bombs on Japan.

Truman’s insecurity also reinforced his penchant to view conflict in black-and-white terms, to categorize all nations as either free or totalitarian, to demonize his opponents, and to ignore the complexities of historic national conflicts. Truman was unable to view China’s civil war apart from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Belittling critics of his support for the corrupt Guomindang government, he refused to negotiate with the emergent PRC. Though he did preserve South Korea’s independence after North Korea’s attack, he blamed the conflict solely on Soviet-inspired aggression, instead of a bitter dispute between two rival regimes. Truman’s decision to send troops across the 38th parallel to destroy the North Korean regime, combined with his disdain for PRC security concerns, brought about a tragic wider war.

In sum, despite Truman’s claim to have “knocked the socks off the communists,” he left the White House with his presidency in tatters, military spending at a record high, McCarthyism rampant, and the United States on Cold War footing at home and abroad.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804747745
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/25/2002
Series: Stanford Nuclear Age Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 656
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Arnold A. Offner is Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College. He is the author of American Appeasement: United States Foreign Policy and Germany, 1933-1938 and The Origins of the Second World War: American Foreign Policy and World Politics, 1917-1941 , and co-editor of Victory in Europe, 1945: From World War to Cold War.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Independence to Washington

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884—when Chester A. Arthur was president, having succeeded the assassinated James A. Garfield—in a five-room house without plumbing in Lamar, Missouri, a village of seven hundred inhabitants 120 miles south of Kansas City. Sixty-one years later, upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Vice President Truman became president. For nearly eight years he profoundly influenced American foreign policy in an era when the United States, more than ever before or after in its history, affected the course of world politics.

    Truman liked to say that he had learned early in his life that "it takes men to make history.... History does not make the man." Nonetheless, whereas Roosevelt aspired to the presidency from early manhood and fashioned his life accordingly, Truman entered the White House because of history, or fortuitous events rather than by plan or personality. Once there, however, he determined to leave his mark. Indeed, both admirers and critics have contended that his administration transformed U.S. foreign policy and significantly determined the course of world politics during the next half century. Admirers have credited Truman's administration with moving the U.S. onto a permanent new path of internationalism, reconstructing Western Europe and Japan, resisting Soviet or Communist aggression from Greece to Korea, and forging collective security through NATO. Critics have contended that Truman's uncritical belief in the supremacy of American values and political-economic interestsand his tendency to ascribe only dark motives to nations and leaders whose plans conflicted with U.S. policies—combined with his aggressive and occasionally "atomic" diplomacy—intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Germany and Europe, and brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars. In ways that have not been fully assessed, Truman's early life and career profoundly and significantly shaped his approach to the presidency and foreign policy.


Harry Truman's grandparents on both sides of his family were Kentucky pioneers who migrated to western Missouri in the 1840s. His parents, Martha Ellen Young and John Truman, married in 1881 and settled in Lamar. John Truman farmed and speculated in land, livestock, and grain futures without long-run success. Short of stature, occasionally truculent in demeanor, defensive and thin-skinned with regard to any criticism of his honor or family, he was also a Baptist, an ardent Democrat, and a dabbler in local politics. Martha Ellen came from comfortable circumstances and studied art, literature, and music at Baptist Female College in Lexington, Missouri. She was an ardent Democrat, and a devout Christian given to biblical strictures.

    Harry Truman's brother, John Vivian, was born in 1886, and his sister, Mary Jane, in 1889. The Truman family moved twice in young Harry's life before settling in 1887 on his grandfather Solomon Young's 600-acre farm near Grandview, eighteen miles south of Kansas City. They moved again in 1890 to Independence—where Harry went to school—a small town east of Kansas City with a genteel Southern ambiance. John Truman lost all his money speculating in grain futures in 1901, and eventually he and his family returned to the Grandview property where he farmed and served as a township road overseer. In 1914 he strained himself while moving a boulder, underwent an operation, and soon died.

    Harry Truman later conjured images of a bucolic life on the farm and in Independence that included an extended, loving family and friends, Baptist religiosity, tasty foods, and time for chores and pranks. He once said it was the "happiest childhood that could ever be imagined." Reality was more complex. After his mother learned that he suffered from hyperopia (extreme farsightedness), from about age eight, Harry had to wear thick and expensive glasses, which precluded sports and roughhouse activities with other boys. He was further cut off from his peers by a diphtheria attack that caused months of paralysis of his arms and legs, and later by his self-consciousness about his "sissy" piano playing.

    Further, his feisty father appeared to favor the more robust Vivian, whom he gave a checkbook and incorporated into his business ventures. Although Truman recalled his father as an honorable man who did a day's work for a day's pay and whose guarantee of a horse in a trade was as "good as a bond," he also recalled that his father's scolding hurt more than his mother's spanking and that when Harry fell off a pony, his father made him walk home, crying all the way.

    Harry would emulate aspects of his father's way of life, including searching for money, keeping one's word, and venturing into politics. But disapproval from his father and distance from peers also fostered ambivalence toward powerful men. Thus Truman would eventually defer greatly to strong leaders, such as his political benefactor, "Boss" Thomas G. Pendergast, or secretaries of state George C. Marshall and Dean G. Acheson, whose manner and firm views he found reassuring. But he would denounce leaders whose styles or ways of thinking were unfamiliar. This included political "fakirs" [sic] such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, "professional liberals," and the State Department's "striped pants" boys, while Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, Ernest Bevin, and Douglas MacArthur were each, at one time or another, a "son of a bitch." Truman's need to demonstrate his authority would also underlie his upbraiding of officials such as Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1945.

    Martha Truman nurtured young Harry. She taught him his "letters" before he was five. The boy with thick glasses read many books, including the Bible (with its large print) three times through before he was twelve. Later he would admonish people and nations by referring to the "system of morals" taught by Moses in the twentieth chapter of Exodus—the Ten Commandments—and to the Sermon on the Mount as reported in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. But Truman seems to have derived less a code of behavior or religiosity from his biblical readings than belief that "punishment always followed transgression," a maxim that he would later apply to North Korea and the People's Republic of China.

    Truman also remembered that his mother and an aunt had left a church because of "liars and hypocrites," and that as a fourteen-year-old, he had seen his boss in a drugstore dispense whiskey from unmarked bottles stored under the prescription counter to "amen-corner-praying" churchmen and Anti-Saloon Leaguers who lacked courage to drink publicly. Later he was quick to apply the hypocrite label to critics of "Boss" Pendergast and of himself as president.

    Reading provided young Truman with a sense of history. When he was about ten his mother gave him Charles F. Horne's newly published (1894) Great Men and Famous Women, four massive tomes titled Soldiers and Sailors; Statesmen and Sages; Workmen and Heroes; Artists and Authors. Truman remembered mainly the soldiers and statesmen, his "great captains of history"; the others he largely forgot. His Memoirs relate that he "pored over" Plutarch's Lives and that he exhausted the Independence public library before he was thirteen.

    Truman's self-tutelage in history enhanced his vision of the globe but provided little sense of ambiguity or complexity, and instilled exaggerated belief that history was cyclical, that the "true facts" could resolve any dispute, and that current events had exact analogues that provided the key to contemporary policy. As president, Truman would uncritically apply analogues and "lessons of history" about appeasement of Nazi Germany and Japan in the 1930s to diplomacy with the Soviet Union and crises over Iran, Greece, Turkey, and Korea.

    During his senior year in high school, Harry helped to found the school's magazine, The Gleam, after Tennyson's "Merlin and the Gleam." From then on he carried in his wallet a copy of that poet's poem "Locksley Hall," which envisioned a "Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World." After graduation in 1901, Truman sought to enter West Point, but an army recruiter persuaded him that poor eyesight precluded passing the physical examination. He enrolled in a commercial college in Kansas City, but his family's financial reverses forced him to withdraw.

    Truman held several jobs in the next years: timekeeper for a contractor laying track for the Santa Fe Railroad; mail clerk for the Kansas City Star; then bookkeeper for the National Bank of Commerce and the Union National Bank in Kansas City. By 1905 he was earning a "magnificent" salary by Kansas City standards—one hundred dollars monthly—and enjoying its theater and musical advantages. He also joined the newly formed Battery B of the Missouri National Guard, which drilled weekly and went on summer maneuvers. But since his uncle Harrison was retiring from farming, Truman quit his job in 1906 and returned to Grandview to help his father, who had gone there after a recent business failure.

    For the next eleven years, Harry Truman tilled the soil and raised livestock, including purebred cattle. He helped to found, and became president of, the Jackson County Farm Bureau; joined the Belton Lodge of the Masons; and started the Grandview Lodge of the Masons, later becoming state grand master. He took over his father's road overseer job after his death but lost the position, he said, because the presiding judge (administrator) of the county court concluded that "I gave the county too much for the money." He also managed to become Grandview postmaster, but gave his salary of fifty dollars per month to an assistant, a widow with children.

    Truman later insisted that farming, along with financial and military experience, was essential preparation for the presidency. But during his farm years he wrote repeatedly that life was tedious and tiring, and he dreamed that a miracle would turn the farmer into a political leader, "like Cincinnatus," his Roman hero. He also said that if "debts give a man energy—I ought to be a shining example of that quality." He had to sell his prize cattle to pay his father's funeral costs. Moreover, when Louisa Young, his maternal grandmother, died in 1909 and left her farm to Martha Ellen and Harrison—Truman's mother and uncle—five other siblings contested the will. Only after years of litigation was Martha Truman able to buy them out by assuming a mortgage, which Harry could never reduce. The farm remained a burden, and Harry shared brother Vivian's sentiment about the settlement: "The lawyers got most of it. All we got was debts."

    Truman's Missouri heritage also included parochial nationalism and racism, albeit of relatively benign character. Preparing for a trip to South Dakota in 1911, he jested that there were more "bohunks" and "Rooshans" up there than white men. He believed that the United States should have halted the flow of immigrants before the arrival of Asians and Eastern Europeans, allowing "good Americans" to preserve their land and virtuous agrarian society rather than become an industrial nation plagued by "large cities" and "classes." Truman's casual language included "nigger," "coon," "Chink doctor" (to whom he faithfully took his sick father), "Dago," "Jew clerk," and "Kike town." He insisted that each race belonged on a separate continent. Experience would help him to outdistance his admitted "hate" and "race prejudice," but his private comments included an occasional ethnic slur. His cultural perspective remained nationalist and parochial.

    In 1914 Harry Truman purchased a used Stafford touring car. This lessened the isolation of farm life and made it easier to court Elizabeth Virginia Wallace. "Bess," daughter of David Willock Wallace and Madge Gates Wallace, came from two prominent Independence families, with her maternal grandfather a founder of the Waggoner-Gates Milling Company. Truman first saw Bess as a five-year-old in Sunday school, later alleged that it took him five years to muster courage to speak to her, and at middle age wrote that from the moment they met "I thought (and still think) she was the most beautiful girl I ever saw." They attended high school together, and sometimes studied at the house of his cousins Ethel and Nellie Noland, who lived across the street from Bess' house at 219 North Delaware. After high school, Harry went to work and Bess went to Barstow's School for Girls in Kansas City. Her father, an alcoholic, and despondent about his health and finances, committed suicide in 1903. Thereafter Bess lived under the watchful eye of her mother, who judged no suitor worthy of her daughter.

    Truman renewed his friendship with Bess in 1910, proposed marriage the next year, and seemed relieved when she said no to this farmer of scant means. He persisted, however, and a few years later may have considered them to be engaged. He also felt inspired to raise his financial status. He borrowed money from his mother, and then had her cosign a bank note, to invest first in a lead and zinc mine in Oklahoma and then in a company that drilled for oil and sold rights to wildcatters on leased lands in the Southwest. The mine venture foundered, and his company discovered no oil. The coming of the World War led Truman and his partners to sell their oil rights to another company, which later struck the immense Teter oil pool in Kansas. If he had stayed home to run his company, he would have become a millionaire, Truman later wrote, "but I always did let ethics beat me out of my money and I suppose I always will."

    President Woodrow Wilson's message urging American entry into the World War in April 1917 led the thirty-three-year-old farmer to enlist. He was moved by patriotism, desire for adventure, and hope that Bess would marry him, although he dared not ask. "I'll never forget how my love cried on my shoulder when I told her I was going," he wrote. "I was a Galahad after the Grail."

    Military life provided surprising success. Truman hoped to become a sergeant, but the enlisted men elected him a first lieutenant. The guardsmen then became the 129th Field Artillery of the 135th Division and moved to Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Truman was given charge of the regimental canteen. He chose for his assistant Sergeant Edward Jacobson, a friend from National Bank of Commerce days before "Eddie," son of a Jewish shoemaker, left to work in a clothing shop. The partners raised twenty-two hundred dollars from the troops to stock the canteen, bought a cash register, and in six months made a profit of fifteen thousand dollars by clever marketing.

    Shrewdness accounted for Truman's canteen success; grit helped him in other endeavors. He recalled that high-ranking officers made a "mystery" out of artillery firing by emphasizing higher mathematics. He struggled, until Colonel (later Brigadier General) Robert M. Danford, an authority on firing and a demanding but excellent leader, reminded the troops that the goal was to hit the target, which these "good old squirrel rifle shots" rapidly learned to do. Truman claimed that he learned more about commanding men and artillery in six weeks from Danford than in six months of school and drills, and he emulated Danford when he became an artillery instructor. Danford also recommended him for promotion to captain in February 1918. Truman had to stand outside in zero-degree temperature for an hour and a half before facing a panel of senior officers, including a general who liked to berate young officers. He came away convinced that he would not be promoted. He sailed to France in March 1919, in advance of the 129th Field Artillery, for special training in firing of French artillery and learned of his captain's commission from a newspaper report.

    Captain Truman said he was too smart to earn a Croix de Guerre by "stopping bullets," but the front provided opportunity for leadership. He was "badly frightened" when given command of the 129th's raucous Battery D, composed largely of Irish and German Catholics from Rockhurst Academy in Kansas City. His troops promptly tested his limits, but he warned the corporals and sergeants that they had to maintain discipline or they would be busted. "We hit it off," he wrote. Shortly Captain Harry, as he became known, took his men into the Vosges Mountains in Alsace. In late August they fired their first shots at the Germans, whose devastating return of shells caused a sergeant to sound a frantic retreat. Truman unleashed mule-skinner's language to turn panic into regrouping and earned his reputation for bravery under fire at the "Battle of Who Run." He also recommended transfer, rather than court-martial, for the sergeant.


Excerpted from ANOTHER SUCH VICTORY by Arnold A. Offner. Copyright © 2002 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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