Many Americans think of Harry S. Truman as the Missouri farmer who became president, defied convention by speaking his mind, and retired to a life of quiet gentility in his hometown of Independence, Missouri. Truman and his presidency, however, were much more complex. He led America through a difficult postwar transition. He faced Joseph Stalin in the first battles of the Cold War. He assembled the machinery of the national security state. He was the first president to insist that African Americans deserved equal treatment under the law. And he introduced the world to the horror of nuclear war.
When Truman took office in April 1945, he faced a unique and terrible decision -- whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Scientists promised that the yet untried weapon would be more destructive than any the world had ever known. In an attempt, he would later claim, to shorten the war and minimize the loss of American soldiers, Truman approved the use of the bomb. He would spend a lifetime trying to justify his decision. Truman had let the most horrible genie imaginable out of the bottle, and the world would forever live in fear that someone might employ that genie again.
The atomic bomb made America the most powerful nation in the world. But the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin began to challenge American supremacy, locking Eastern Europe behind an "iron curtain" and seeking to expand its influence in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.
At first, Truman misjudged Stalin as a personable, malleable party boss, but Stalin's belligerent behavior taught Truman an unforgettable lesson. During the year he took office, Truman adopted a hard-line approach to the communist threat. With public speeches and political and military action, he engaged America in an all-consuming Cold War against communism. The war would last nearly 50 years.
In early 1947, in an address to Congress clearly aimed at Stalin and the Soviets, Truman laid out the foreign policy position that became known as the Truman Doctrine. Truman said, "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." He then quickly moved to back up his words.
Truman and his advisors created a tripartite agency responsible for prosecuting the war against communism. The National Military Establishment, later known as the Department of Defense, coordinated the actions of all branches of the armed services. The Central Intelligence Agency gathered intelligence on America's enemies. And the National Security Council coordinated military and diplomatic policy. Later, this "national security state" would be condemned for its covert activities at home and abroad.
Harry . He funded the rebuilding of war-ravaged Europe with his $13 billion Marshall Plan. When the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in an effort to draw that German city behind the iron curtain, Truman organized a massive airlift and kept it going for a year until the Soviets backed down. He joined democratic European nations in NATO, the first international alliance against communism.
When Communist China allied with the Soviet Union in early 1950, Truman added the Chinese to his enemies' list. He led a United Nations force, made up of mostly Americans, into a bloody war against North Korea in which U.S. and Chinese troops fought face-to-face. When General Douglas MacArthur advised attacking mainland China with nuclear weapons, Truman refused. The president's action probably prevented a nuclear war. Later, the U.N. force finally saved South Korea from Communist domination. The world that took shape under Truman, starkly divided into hostile, nuclear-armed camps, would largely hold its shape for more than four decades.
If Truman's domestic policy can be seen as mostly ineffective, it did not utterly fail. The economy faltered, and jobs, money, and consumer goods ran short. Frustrated Americans gave Truman some of the lowest popularity ratings of any president. But the nation held together and soon found prosperity again.
Truman made determined efforts to move forward on civil rights. He desegregated the armed services. He was the first president to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the first president to ask Congress for comprehensive civil rights legislation. Although Congress and a majority of Americans resoundingly rejected his civil rights platform, Truman nonetheless battered down a significant barricade. African Americans deserved equal rights, and the President of the United States -- a man from the former slave state of Missouri -- publicly and forcefully said so.
When Harry Truman retired to Independence in 1953, the world was a much different place than it had been when he took office. It was a politically polarized world, a world in which nuclear holocaust could be months -- or minutes -- away. But Truman had beaten back communist advances in Europe and Asia. He had held America together, however shakily, through tough domestic times. And he had laid out a plan for civil rights reform that would one day revolutionize American democracy. He would be remembered as a plain-speaking farmer from Missouri, but he had dramatically changed the world.
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?