On April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman became President of the United States and immediately stepped into a foreign policy maelstrom. The Soviet Union had begun an ominous push for control of eastern Europe and across the world, war raged on in Japan. To complicate matters even further, this former Missouri farmer would soon control the most terrible weapon the world had ever known.
Truman learned about the atomic bomb soon after becoming president. Now, he agonized over whether to use the weapon against the Japanese. To do so might end the war quickly and minimize American casualties, but thousands of Japanese civilians would die. In June, a committee appointed by the president recommended using the bomb. Truman concurred.
As scientists worked frantically to perfect the new weapon, Truman met in Potsdam with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to discuss the state of postwar Europe. Under Stalin, the Soviets had militarily imposed communist regimes in several eastern European states. An optimistic Truman believed that he could persuade Stalin to do the right thing, if only they could meet face to face.
Truman's assessment of the Russian leader proved inaccurate. Even after Truman hinted about the atomic bomb, Stalin refused to budge. America's president did not know that the Soviets were developing an atomic weapon of their own.
After Japan refused a demand for unconditional surrender Truman went forward with his plan. On August 6, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a Japanese industrial center, completely destroying the city and killing an estimated 70,000 people. Three days later, the U. S. dropped a second bomb, destroying the city of Nagasaki and killing another 39,000 Japanese citizens. Finally, on August 14, Japan surrendered.
Circumstances, however, allowed Truman little time for celebration. Communists controlled Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and East Germany and the President's advisors made it clear that the Soviets would keep expanding their influence -- by force, if necessary.
In early 1946, tensions over the Soviet presence in Iran neared the boiling point. Truman, convinced that the Soviets planned to use oil-rich Iran as the staging area for an expansion into the Mediterranean, asked the newly formed United Nations to intervene.
"Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making," Truman wrote. "I'm tired [of] babying the Soviets." He sent the U. S. S. Missouri to the eastern Mediterranean, delivering a clear message that he would oppose Soviet aggression in the region. Still, the Soviets lingered.
On March 12, 1947, Truman addressed Congress to request $400 million in emergency aid for Turkey and Greece, which faced internal and external communist threats. In his speech, the president stated "I believe 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." Congress agreed with the president and overwhelmingly approved the aid. The policy came to be known as the Truman Doctrine.
Now, Truman turned to Western Europe. Two years after the war's end, Europe's democracies lay in ruins. Mass starvation -- and the potential for a Soviet-led communist revolution -- threatened. In June 1947, using his new secretary of state, George C. Marshall, as pitchman, Truman proposed that the United States and Western Europe cooperate in creating the a $13 billion U. S. aid package that would help democracy rebuild.
Hungary's shift to communism in May boosted the plan's fortunes, as did the idea that the Europeans would spend most of the money on goods made in America. Congress approved interim aid to Europe in December, and signed off on the Marshall Plan the following spring. But by then, communists were in control of Czechoslovakia.
Truman and his advisors restructured America's military bureaucracy to meet the world's changing conditions. In September 1947, The National Security Act created three new defense-related agencies. The National Military Establishment (later replaced by the Department of Defense) would coordinate the actions of all branches of the armed services. The Central Intelligence Agency would coordinate intelligence gathering on America's enemies. The National Security Agency would coordinate military and diplomatic policy.
As he worked to build a defense against communism, Truman faced a crisis of conscience in the Middle East. Jews who had fled to Palestine to escape the Holocaust now demanded a Jewish state. Truman sympathized, but he knew that the formation of Israel would result in an immediate attack by Arab states that could threaten much of the world's oil supply. Jewish Americans lobbied Truman to create a safe haven in the Middle East -- the president's former business partner, Edward Jacobson, petitioned Truman in person. When Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948, Truman recognized it immediately.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Stalin tried a risky gamble. On June 18, 1948, communist forces responded to economic help to West Germany by cutting off land access to West Berlin, isolating the democratic city within communist East Germany. Truman responded quickly with a massive airlift of supplies to the beleaguered Germans. The Berlin airlift lasted nearly a year, and the Soviets eventually backed down.
In July 1949, Truman further solidified Europe by joining Western nations in a mutual defense pact known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. But the move was offset by two shocking developments later that year -- the communist victory in China, and the successful testing of a Soviet atomic bomb.
The Russians and the Chinese formed a mutual defense alliance in early 1950. In mid-June of that year, war broke out in Korea. Since the end of World War II, Korea had been divided into two nations, Soviet-backed North Korea and American-backed South Korea. On June 24, 1950, North Korea attacked its southern neighbor in an attempt to unify Korea under communism.
Truman rose to the challenge, immediately sending weapons to South Korea and ordering American planes to bomb the North. When it appeared that South Korea would crumble, Truman asked the United Nations to form a U. S. - led intervention force.
Fearful that the conflict would precipitate atomic holocaust, Truman hoped for a rapid victory. It did not come. The combat-hardened North Koreans overwhelmed the inexperienced U. S. troops, and by the end of July, 4,000 Americans were dead.
Truman then approved a bold invasion plan prepared by General Douglas MacArthur. The invasion succeeded. North Korea retreated above the 38th parallel, and it seemed the war was won. But at that point, Harry Truman made one of the most costly foreign policy decisions of his presidency. Communist China had promised it would enter the war if UN troops pushed beyond the 38th parallel. But a confident Truman nevertheless allowed MacArthur to move above the 38th parallel and towards China's border.
In November, 250,000 Chinese soldiers crossed the North Korean border, and overwhelmed the U.N. force.
MacArthur requested permission to use nuclear weapons and to attack the Chinese mainland. Truman refused, and the Chinese advance continued. The president's popularity nose-dived, especially after he fired MacArthur. Americans had grown tired of war. But soon, the tide began to turn. By March 1951, the Americans had pushed the Chinese and the North Koreans back to areas above the 38th parallel. Peace talks began in July. When a weary Harry Truman left office in January 1953, peace had still not been achieved.
From the time he entered the White House until the time he left it, Harry S. Truman was engaged in a constant war. He fought diplomatically, financially, and militarily. When he left the presidency, the lines of the Cold War were firmly drawn, and the apparatus for fighting that war, atomic weapons, international spy agencies, and growing defense budgets, were well established.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?