Argument and Connections
Historiographically, Truman's reputation has soared since he left office with one of the all-time low approval ratings. McCullough compared the symbolism of his rise to the White House with America's rise to superpower status. Melvyn Leffler (A Preponderance of Power) dismissed characterization of Truman as a naif and idealist, instead arguing he was a realist who understood the uses of power, and that while his administration mad mistakes it preserved national security against real or perceived Soviet Threats.
On the other side, historians, led by John Lewis Gaddis, have focused on the murderous dictator Stalin as the key factor in the rise of the Cold War. He treated world politics as an extension of domestic politics, and sought security at the expense of others.
Offner (though by no means rejecting Truman's quality outright) disputes all of these claims. Truman's perception was parochial and nationalist at the very moment that required a nuanced understanding of the world. And Stalin, in fact, was more pragmatic (Offner calls him "cautious but brutal") with regards to foreign affairs than he was domestically (as newly available materials reveal).
Key Quote - Final sentence
Truman "promoted an ideology and politics of Cold War confrontation that became the modus operandi of successive administrations and the U.S. for the next two generations." 470
Nitty Gritty on Truman
- Strove to live up to responsibilities that he had not been properly prepped for
- favored UN
- fostered foreign aid (despite antagonistic Congress), pushing European cooperation
- Retained civilian control over nuclear weapons and genuinely wished to avert a third world war
- Recognized his overreach in Korea and ultimately chose containment over rollback
- Surrounded by ultraconservatives (Forrestal, Harriaman, Lovett) who had been placed there by FDR
- Penchant to view in black-and-white (free v totalitarian) was wrong perspective, and was only fed by his professional insecurities. Instead, attributed every crisis or civil war to Soviet machinations for world conquest
- Bomb heightened his sense of righteous power (ie Potsdam, hampering negotiations with Soviets). Also, the second bomb was not militarily necessary and was partly dropped out of prospect of political gain in Europe and Asia (supported by Sec State James Byrnes). They failed (along with Stalin) to perceive the potential of an arms race that would threaten the human race
- Before Kennan's "Long Telegram" in mid-1946 and Churchill's Iron Curtain speech, Truman had already criticized Byrnes for the Yalta-style accords reached in Moscow, Dec 45. Truman said that the Russians only understood an "iron fist."
- Truman ignored Wallace's proposal to promote economic ties with Russia.
- Accepted special aide Clark Clifford's "Russian Report" and the accompanying "Last Will of Peter the Great" (which was a forgery). The report said Soviets aimed at world domination.
- Even the Marshall Plan, for all its humanitarian successes, only further signaled to Stalin th US's desire to dominate Europe.
- Refused to compromise with the Soviets in order to achieve a unified Germany, or even accept any Russian terms even if they met most US requirements. Instead, the US made western Germany a key part of the European Recovery Plan (Marshall Plan), thus solidifying the split. This stubbornness would lead to the Berlin blockaded.
- Could not perceive China's civil war apart from the Cold War.
- Opposed dealing with communists under any circumstances.
- Perhaps lost a chance to begin a rapprochement with the CCP in 1949, although he would have come under fire from the China bloc and he would have had to recognize the PRC BUT NATO allies would have welcomed this approach, and his 1949 administration could have handled the domestic outcry.
- Agreed with the state dept (under Acheson) White Paper which charged the CCP with foreswearing its Chinese heritage, had no legitimacy to govern, and was under a Russian "yoke." This incensed Mao and pushed him further towards Moscow. Truman's Taiwan intervention (putting a fleet in the straits to defend the island) only made relations worse.
- Set a dangerous precedent by not pausing to gain Congress' approval to intervene in S. Korea in June 1950, whee he committed two divisions.
- Allowed the US to cross the 38th parallel to vanquish North Korea.
- Ignored warnings that the PRC would perceive the rollback as a threat, and didn't consider PRC intervention enough in his Wake Island discussions with MacArthur.
- After the PRC attacks, he considered nuclear strikes. He sent nuclear-configured bombers to England and Guam in July 1950, although the nuclear option was ruled out because they were seen as ineffective, damaging to relations with NATO allies and Asian nations, and could incur Soviet retaliation.
- Refused to compromise in Korea negotiations with the PRC: no negotiations without a cease-fire, no recognition of the PRC or UN seat, no halt of aid to the GMD.
- To keep JCS support after MacArthur's firing, Truman sent bombers and nuclear weapons to Guam and approved a directive for retaliation against air strikes, telling Ridgway he had qualified authority for atomic strikes in the event of a major PRC attack.
- Overrode standard military practice and the Geneva convention by rejecting all for all exchange of POWs, which wouldn't take place until after Ike took office and the fighting finally ceased in Truman's absence
- Beneath the facade of calm crisis management in 1952, Truman fantasized about giving Russia and China ten days to quite Korea or face all out war. He may not have intended atomic war, but he approached a dangerous situation.
Nitty Gritty on Stalin (what Truman should have done better at perceiving)
- Stalin never intended to invade further west.
- Greece: while U.S.'s interest played a role in keeping him out, he was disinterested.
- China: Didn't support Mao in the beginning, and the alliance between the two was always strained. Mao would have, in fact, favored the U.S. if America had not been duplicitous in calling for co-rule between the CCP and the GMD while continuing military support for the GMD. Further, Mao was a populist who wanted to throw off foreign domination, certainly never a puppet of the USSR, as Truman should have noticed by the fact the Soviets had to make concessions to the Chinese for their alliance.
- Stalin didn't intend to attack Iran or Turkey
- Stalin wanted: sphere of influence on his border, security against a recovered Germany or Japan or hostile capitalist states, compensation for the war (German reparations). Stalin repeatedly put state interests over Marxist-Leninist ideology.
- Stalin seriously miscalculated when he let Kim Il Sung (as did Mao) convince him victory over S. Korea could be achieved before the US intervened.