Harry S. Truman was the most influential figure in early Cold War politics. His policies on Soviet expansion and cooperation with western bloc countries set the stage for how other Cold War-era presidents would act. It is through his handling of the Korean conflict and the issue of communism, both domestic and abroad, he can be considered the father of Cold War politics.
The beginnings of communist distrust in America may be found in the Red Scare of 1919. The Red Scare of 1919 began out of a growing distrust of Bolshevism and a strong desire by many groups to preserve America’s status quo and throw out the foreign influences that might subvert it (1). People only became more outraged by such frivolous comments by Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenis that “it is necessary to break eggs to make an omelet”(2).
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Under mounting public pressure the attorney general, Mitchell A. Palmer conducted anti-alien raids across America. It was not until the arrest and deportation of hundreds of aliens that the national hysteria began to die down as a result of growing public disapproval. Despite the end of the first Red Scare a feeling of Bolshevik distrust continued to pervade America throughout the 20’s, 30’s, and ’40s.
At the end of the Second World War America had emerged as the world’s most powerful nation. While most of the world lay in shambles, America served as a sort of economic crutch, providing trade and industry to war-stricken nations that could no long do so themselves. With programs such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), European Recovery Program (ERP), and the Truman Doctrine the United States was clearly making a concerted effort to re-establish trade with and re-stabilize the countries of Europe.
The Marshal Plan, which later evolved into the European Recovery Act, was especially important not only from an American economic standpoint but from a political one as well. By raising living standards and increasing productivity in Western Europe, the Marshall Plan curbed Communism, stimulated trade and economic growth, helped preserve political stability, and made possible a vigorous and enduring North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Given its objectives, it was the most successful foreign aid program in American history (3).
With the dissolution of the Russian, British, and American alliance, Americans once again resumed their suspicion of the Soviet Union. The Reds were gobbling up many of the Eastern European countries and to Westerners, it seemed that it seemed that there was very little to stop them from taking over the rest of Europe as well. To make the Red Menace even more of a threat, cases of Soviet espionage in the United States were becoming more common.
Amid the false accusations, there were actually several genuine spy-rings delivering American secrets to the Soviet Union. Rings such as the Burgess, Maclean, and Philby who got away with their crimes represented a real national security threat. Also, the Rosenbergs whose ordinary appearance seemed to confirm in many Americans that Russian spies could be any one (4).
Perhaps the most spectacular and politically charged spy case of this time was the trial of Alger Hiss. A former State Department official, Hiss, was charged by Whitaker Chambers an editor at Time magazine with being a fellow Communist. Although being a communist was,s not a crime itself, its implications were enough to ruin the careers of anyone smeared with such an accusation at that time. Eventually, the charge moved to espionage, but since the statute of limitations on espionage had run out he was only charged with perjury.
Truman, a Democrat, felt that the affair was an excuse for the Republican party to keep from doing what it ought to do, which was dealing with serious foreign and domestic problems rather than attacking innocent people. As Hiss was later convicted of perjury the administration looked foolish for its support of an apparent traitor (5). Not soon afterwards the conviction of Hiss, some republicans like McCarthy, Jenner, Mundt, Nixon, and Taft saw pay dirt in the communist issue and proceeded to ride it to power (6).
As Truman’s policy on domestic communism was uncertain, he definitely knew what America’s policy regarding the spread of Communism across its existing borders was. The United States was not going to allow Communism to spread beyond its existing borders, even if it meant military conflict. In Truman’s address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, President Truman laid out what was to become the “Truman Doctrine”.
The Truman Doctrine was no abrupt departure in US policy, but for the first time explicitly stated that communist gains were a threat to world peace and pledged the United State’s power to check such developments (7). In his speech, Truman asked congress not to send GIs to Greece and Turkey to help combat the communist threat but money and weapons. Truman believed in a sort of domino theory, that “if Greece should fall …disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East”(8). Along with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan containment plans, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 in response to Soviet aggression throughout Europe, namely the blockade of Germany and the communist coup in Czechoslovakia.
By excluding Korea as one of the nations in which the United States would make a unilateral commitment to the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had appeared to open the door for a communist invasion of South Korea. When Communist North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea President Truman, holding to his policy on communist containment, took his decision to take military action to the United Nations’ Security Council.
With the approval of NATO and the UN, but oddly enough not Congress, President Truman assigned General Douglas MacArthur to command the United Nations’ military forces in Korea. Among the reasons America had entered the conflict was that the Soviet Union had put pressure on communist China to support the North Koreans in their attack on South Korea. The Truman administration believed that the Russians had allowed the North Koreans to attack in order to draw American attention away from Western Europe so that a more powerful and organized Russian attack on NATO would be possible (9).
During the Korean conflict, General Douglas MacArthur began to disagree with some of the policies in Washington. MacArthur felt that he knew how to fight a war in Korea better than did the bureaucrats in Washington. MacArthur and other Republicans felt “if we are not in Korea to win, then the Truman administration should be indicted for the murder of thousands of American boys” as stated by House Leader Joseph W. Martin (10). Ideas like this coupled with MacArthur’s repeated rejection of Truman’s policies such as openly threatening to attack Manchuria which would readily draw the United States into a war with both the Soviet Union and Maoist China-led Truman to “remove” MacArthur from command in North Korea. MacArthur’s removal was met with great disapproval:
There were bushel baskets of telegrams, overwhelmingly against the President. I remember picking up a bunch of those telegrams and just holding them up, not saying what was in them, and the President said, “see that fireplace over there, Roger? Go put them in there and set a match to them. The American people will come to understand that what I did had to be done. Now, what’s next on the agenda? (11)
Despite this initial disapproval of Truman’s actions a month after MacArthur’s recall the number of letters entering the White House eventually dwindles to a trickle, and the percentage of letters opposing MacArthur’s removal was down to fifty-five percent (12).
In the early 1950s a report was drafted to persuade the Truman Administration that the “fundamental design of those who control the Soviet Union and the international communist movement is . . . the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the . . . countries of the non-Soviet world.”(13). This report recommended to the President that military spending should be increased and that less money should be spent on social programs. These funds were to pay for the expenses of the hydrogen bomb research, expansion of conventional forces, and intensification of covert operations. “The whole success of the proposed program,” NSC says, “hangs ultimately on the recognition by this Government, the American people, and all people that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake”(14). Upon the implementation of NSC-68, the military spending in the United States grew exponentially.
Many of Truman’s policies shaped the Cold War for years to come. The Truman containment policy was one of the most influential doctrines of the Cold War. It dominated Soviet-US relations until the end of the Cold War in 1989. From US involvement in Korea and Vietnam to Reagan’s involvement in Latin America, the American policy of containing the spread of communism was an important issue in deciding America’s involvement in other country’s affairs.
A result of Truman’s handling of the Korean War was the beginnings of “limited engagement”, the limitation of targets and areas designated by politicians for use by the military, often associated with the war in Vietnam. NSC-68 also made its mark on the Cold War, diverting money from social programs to defence programs. NSC-68 created the increased military funds that were common throughout the Cold War, especially with President Ronald Reagan.
By taking a hardliner’s approach to Soviet interests at the start of the Cold War Harry S. Truman had forever severed relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. His inflexibility to communist pressures kept the United States on a course straight for Soviet opposition. Whether the policies of President Truman were for the betterment of America remains open to discussion but it is for these same crucial policies that Truman is the architect of Cold War politics.
1.David M. Oshinsky A Conspiracy so Immense (New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1983) p. 85-89
2. Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (Boston Little Brown and Company, 1983) p.134
3. Friends of George C Marshall. The Plan. <http://www.lcsys.net/fayette/history/plan.htm>
4. Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (Boston Little Brown and Company, 1983) p.138
5. Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Modern American Presidency (Boston Little Brown and Company, 1983) p.136-137
6. Ken Hechler Working with Truman (Toronto, Canada: General Publishing Co., 1982) p184
7. Mike Reese. The Cold War and Washington Red Scare. University of Washington <http://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/curcan/main.html>
8. Barton J. Bersnstien, Policies and Politics of the Truman Administration (Quadrale Books Inc., 1970) p. 53-56
9. David M. Oshinsky A Conspiracy so Immense (New York, New York: Macmillan, 1983) p. 109-132
10. Ken Hechler Working with Truman (Toronto, Canada: General Publishing Co.,
11. Ken Hechler Working with Truman (Toronto, Canada: General Publishing Co., 1982) p181
12.Ken Hechler Working with Truman (Toronto, Canada: General Publishing Co., 1982) p181
13. Mike Reese. The Cold War and Washington Red Scare. University of Washington <http://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/curcan/main.html>
14. Robert J. Donovan Tumultuous Years (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982)
1. Bernstein, Barton J. Politics & Policies of the Truman Administration. Quadrale Books Inc, 1970
2. Donovan, Robert J. The Presidency of Harry S Truman, 1945-1948: Conflict and Crisis. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1977
3. Donovan, Robert J. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949-1953: Tumultuous Years. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1982
4. Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S Truman and the Modern American Presidency. Little Brown and Company, 1983
5. Friends of George C Marshall. The Plan. <http://www.lcsys.net/fayette/history/plan.htm>
6. Hartmann, Susan M. Truman and the 80th Congress. University of Missouri Press, 1971
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