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Truman Defends
the Free World
Presidential Terms
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S Truman
After a complete victory over Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II,
Americans wanted to get back to normal life. The sacrifices made by citizens
were enormous. But now the universal sentiment was to “bring the boys
home.” There were clearly still threats in the world, but as Bennett points
out, leaders in a democracy cannot resist such pressures to demobilize. These
years immediately following the war would forever change America’s role in
the world. Before World War II, Americans considered themselves isolated
from global events. After the war, circumstances demanded that the United
States assume a leadership role on the world stage. This chapter will afford
ample opportunities for classes to discuss the present role of America in
world affairs. That present role was born during this period.
An immediate cause for concern was the Soviet Union. America’s alliance
with that communist dictatorship during the war had been uneasy from
the outset. Stalin had made vague assurances about free elections in
Eastern Europe at the great wartime conferences. Now it became clear
that his vision of “free elections” was very different than the American
vision. With American troops rapidly demobilizing and returning from
Europe, Truman had little leverage. Even the possession of the atomic
bomb did not intimidate Stalin. It was, after all, relatively useless against
the massive and still mobilized Soviet army. Stalin was willing to go to
any length to have friendly governments to his west. His nation had been
attacked twice from that direction in less than twenty-five years and had
suffered over twenty million deaths in the recent war. He was determined
to see that such an attack never happen again. Thus he used raw power to
create compliant, “satellite” governments in Eastern Europe. That meant
communism and a totalitarian nightmare to the millions living in those
nations. Winston Churchill warned of this perilous situation in his 1946
“Iron Curtain” speech. He urged the “Free World” to band together to stop
the further spread of communism. George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” from
the U.S. embassy in Moscow advised a policy of “containment” as the most
appropriate American response.
But growing tension did not preclude the U.S. and the Soviet Union from
historic cooperation in the postwar period. They worked together to form
the United Nations in the hope that a new international organization
could maintain world peace. They also worked with other wartime allies
to conduct the Nuremberg Trials. These trials set a precedent for how the
world can deal with crimes against humanity, as seen in the Holocaust. As
Bennett notes, the judges did not accept “following orders” as an excuse for
mass murder. Students can be challenged to think about this deeply. How
far down the chain of command should this go? To the commanders of
death camps? To the common soldiers herding victims onto trains? What
about accountability for the civilian populations who knew what was
happening but did nothing? These are difficult issues that deserve serious
Harry Truman’s honeymoon with the American people did not last long.
Postwar inflation and labor troubles as the nation transitioned to a peacetime
economy led to the Republicans taking control of Congress in 1946. It was
critical that Truman be able to find political opponents willing to cooperate
with him as America faced severe challenges abroad. A key person he turned
to was Arthur Vandenberg, Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. Without the help of Republicans like Vandenberg the president
would have never persuaded Congress to pass the Truman Doctrine and
the Marshall Plan. These were the keystones of American foreign policy
in the postwar period. Teachers and students can discuss whether such
bipartisanship exists today and if not, why not.
The key phrase of Truman’s speech establishing the Truman Doctrine was,
“I believe that 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.” Teachers should help students see the profound shift
this represented from America’s past. What does it mean in the present?
The Marshall plan was also a dramatic commitment for the United States.
Bennett calls it the “second most unsordid act in history” (referencing
Churchill’s quote about Lend-Lease). Teachers need to help students
see both the humanitarian and the strategic purposes in the Marshall
Plan. Hungry, desperate people are more susceptible to the promises of
communism. What about calls for new Marshall Plans today? Where do
students think such plans would be successful? Is such foreign aid still an
important role for the United States? During this period, America’s help
in rebuilding the war torn world included massive aid to its recent enemies,
Germany, Italy, and Japan. The world had never seen such an approach.
Students should discuss the long-term impact. What is the status of U.S.
relations with those nations today?
On the domestic front, Truman pushed for the “Fair Deal.” The Republican
Congress defeated most of his goals, including national health care. That
elusive goal remains a hotly debated political issue to this day. The G.I.
Bill did pass and offered tremendous benefits to veterans of the war.
Government help in attending college, starting a business or buying a home
was more of a “hand up” than a “hand out.” These efforts stimulated the
economy and transformed the nation. Millions of men who had never
dreamed of college could go. New careers opened up to them and as they
succeeded their incomes rose, pouring more tax money into federal coffers
and thus paying for the original costs. Some have argued that today’s
G.I. Bill is not nearly so generous and efforts are underway to address that
concern. Students might research this and compare the way our nation
treated veterans of World War II with the benefits afforded to veterans of our
present war.
Another domestic issue Truman faced was labor turmoil and a record
number of strikes and work stoppages. Republicans in Congress sought a
solution with the Taft-Hartley Act, a measure Truman deemed too strong
in its anti-union provisions. He vetoed the bill, but Congress successfully
overrode his veto. Unions were a dominant force in the late 1940s. Bennett
points out that Taft-Hartley put a permanent check on their growth.
Students should know the details of the bill and also the status of unions
today. Are they still an important part of our new post-industrial economy?
What roles do they still serve?
Struggles with communists were not confined to overseas. Many Americans
had been drawn to communism in the depths of the Great Depression when
it seemed clear that capitalism was broken beyond repair. Communists
sought control of several unions after World War II and Bennett credits
major union leaders with preventing this from happening. He uses the story
of Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, to illustrate this
point. The story also marks Reagan’s first political battles and his rise as an
American leader.
The Truman years will always be remembered for decisions, momentous
decisions. In the pivotal year 1948, Truman decided the United States
would be the first country to recognize Israel as an independent, Jewish
nation. This despite strong objections from the man he respected most,
Secretary of State George Marshall, who feared resulting chaos in the
Mideast. Truman listened to both his heart and to his Jewish friend Eddie
Jacobson and came to the conclusion that in the wake of the Holocaust, the
Jewish people needed a homeland. Chaos did indeed come, and the region
still struggles with the fate of the Arab people who were displaced by the
creation of Israel – the Palestinians. Teachers should help students see the
connection between this era and events seen daily in today’s news sources.
Truman made another critical decision that year to launch the Berlin Airlift
and provide food, clothing and fuel for the millions of residents of West
Berlin. This containment measure took the U.S. to the brink of war and
kept the city out of the Soviet orbit. Students will need to see an appropriate
map to visualize the German occupation zones and how Berlin was situated
deep within the Soviet Zone.
Low approval ratings in polls did not stop Truman from seeking election
on his own in 1948. Few people gave him a chance at success. Prospects
looked even worse after Truman took strong stands on behalf of civil
rights. He named a Civil Rights Commission, supported strong civil rights
planks in the Democratic Party platform, and most dramatically, issued
Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. This led southern
Democrats to bolt the party and support their own “Dixiecrat” candidate,
Strom Thurmond. When Henry Wallace led other Democrats to support
his candidacy with the liberal Progressive Party, the Roosevelt Coalition
was split three ways, making it seemingly impossible for Truman to defeat
the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. In one of the most stunning
political upsets in American political history, Truman prevailed by taking
the campaign directly to the American people in his “whistle stop” tour.
This was the last presidential campaign before television came to play a
dominant role. Classes can discuss whether such an upset would be possible
today. They can also discuss how television has transformed politics. Has
the impact been positive or negative? Could a Harry Truman get elected in
the present era?
Once in office on his own right, Truman still faced Cold War tensions. The
U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 not only reflected
back on the horrors people faced in World War II, but also pointed to the
totalitarian governments enslaving people behind the Iron Curtain or in
newly communist China. In light of this, in 1949 America signed its first
mutual defense treaty since the American Revolution – NATO. NATO is
still a key U.S. connection with the world and is important in several present
conflicts. Students can research where American troops still cooperate with
NATO forces.
Americans found much to worry about by the late 1940s. After being totally
victorious in World War II and seemingly on the brink of an “American
Century,” things seemed to be falling apart. The Soviets dominated Eastern
Europe, and in 1949 they detonated their own atomic bomb. Then China
fell to the communist leadership of Mao Zedong. How could these things
happen? Some Americans began to wonder if enemies within were betraying
the nation. Thus, the Red Scare came to America. The term “Red Scare”
implies that there was no real threat – only unreasonable panic. As Bennett
points out, the U.S.S.R. was attempting to subvert American institutions
and there were Soviet spies. He refers to the Venona decrypts. These texts of
secret messages from Moscow to spies in the West have only become known
since the fall of the Soviet Union. Students who research them further
will find them fascinating. However, it is true that Congressmen such as
Richard Nixon (and the House Un-American Activities Committee) and
Senators such as Joseph McCarthy fanned the flames of anti-communism
for political advantage and in the process smeared the names of many
innocent Americans. Students might look for contemporary charges of
“McCarthyism” and connect those to the man whose tactics created a new
word in the English language.
Ironically, out of the fear bred by the Cold War came steps forward for
America in the arena of civil rights. Before and during World War II,
comparisons between discrimination faced by African-Americans here and
laws directed at Jews in Nazi Germany made many Americans take note of
their own Jim Crow society. The same was true during the Cold War. How
could the United States criticize communist denials of freedom on the world
stage when American society itself fell far short of its own constitutional
ideals? Organizations such as the NAACP pointed this out and Americans
began to take steps toward justice. Jackie Robinson’s presence on the 1947
Brooklyn Dodgers riveted the nation and showed that integration in all
aspects of American life was possible. Students researching the story of
Robinson’s journey to the major leagues will find it to be one of the great
stories of courage in our national memory.
Bennett’s account of the Korean War answers many questions about a
conflict some Americans call the “forgotten war.” Students might research
how Korea came to be divided by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. after World
War II. North Korea’s invasion of the South was the first major military
test of Truman’s containment policy. General MacArthur’s dramatic
Inchon landing prevented a major loss and soon turned the tide into what
appeared to be an American victory and a unification of Korea into one
nation. That was prevented when the communist Chinese sent hundreds
of thousands of “volunteers” into the fray. What resulted was a bitter
stalemate across the original dividing line – the 38th parallel. The situation
remains little changed to this day with opposing armies still lined up
along that line. Classes can have fruitful discussions over topics related to
this war. Was Truman correct in firing Douglas MacArthur, a genuine
American hero? What would have been the result of following MacArthur’s
recommendations? What were the constitutional implications of Truman’s
action? When is it ever wise to fight a “limited war?” What about Truman’s
decision not to ask Congress for a declaration of war? How does that square
with Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution? What has been the
historical result of that decision?
Harry Truman left office with the Korean War still raging. He returned
to Independence, Missouri happy to leave what he called “the Great White
Jail.” He became a private citizen, and walked the streets of his hometown
every day. He left office as the least popular president in American history.
Yet today, polls of historians consistently rank Truman as one of America’s
great presidents. This is something students can explore to better understand
the nature of historical judgment, as opposed to contemporary opinion.
What factors over the last decades account for Truman’s growth in historical
Teachers will notice that throughout the book, people are mentioned who
will become major figures later. Teachers might ask if students recognize
such names and even see if they can connect how experiences during this
period helped shape their character. Included in this chapter are John F.
Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, and
Colin Powell.