33 Harry S. Truman

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, his Vice-President was hastily sworn in.  The war in Europe was officially over, though much still had to be done to wrap it up.  The war in the Pacific was still raging though as the United States was getting closer and closer to Japan.  Truman was trust into the Presidency at this crucial moment.

Almost immediately after being informed that he was now President, Truman was told for the first time about a new, secret weapon America had developed during the war.  He would have to decide whether or not to use it.  The Manhattan Project was the code name for the top secret development of the atomic bomb.  By unleashing energy from a nuclear reaction, the weapon was more destructive than anything previously developed, obliterating an entire city. Roosevelt authorized its development under the direction of physicist Robert Oppenheimer at secret facilities around the country, the main one hidden in the New Mexico desert.

The problem with using the weapon was that it would kill a large amount of civilians, not military targets.  Nuclear fallout from the initial blast would also continue to harm people for years to come.  For this reason, Truman’s decision is still controversial today.  Given the cost-estimates of invading Japan (as high as 1 million American soldiers), Truman decided to use the two bombs—nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As a result, the Japanese surrendered and World War II was officially over.  And the atomic age had begun.

In the wake of World War II, Truman faced more important decisions.  The United Stateshelped lead an unprecedented step in holding war criminals accountable for their crimes in the Nuremberg Trials. Nazi leaders were tried and punished in front of international tribunals for “crimes against humanity,” among other charges.  Unfortunately, it would be one of the few examples of U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the post-war period.

As the war was wrapping up, tension between America’s war-time ally, the Soviet Union, began to build.  Relations between the two were non-existent before the war and they were only forced to work together due to a common interest to see the Nazi defeated.  With that mission accomplished, they could go back to fighting with each other.  At the base of this conflict were fundamentally different interest and world views.  The American economy is based on capitalism and free enterprise; the Soviet Union was on communism and government ownership of businesses.  Americans believe in individual rights and liberty; the Soviets believed in strict, government control and the good of the state over the rights of the individual.  This post-war tension evolved into the Cold War, a thirty year span of competition between the United Statesand theSoviet Unionthat dominated world politics.  While the two never went to war directly with each other, they fought indirectly many times during the period.

The fight began over the occupation of countries formally conquered by the Nazis.  The Soviets took over all of them on their way to Berlin and installed communist governments in each.  Although they appeared to be independent countries, theSoviet Union really controlled them, earning them the nickname of “satellite nations” because they revolved around theSoviet Union.  This was even true of East Germany.  The Soviets installed a communist dictatorship and refused to reunify the country as agreed upon at Yalta and Potsdam Conferences.

The other Allies kept the capital of their Zones of Occupation in Berlin, despite it being in the center of the Soviet zone.  This was because the idea was to have the governments of the four zones (American, French, British and Soviet) in the same place to put them back together before they all left Germany.  The other three Allies did combine their sectors of Berlin, which became known as West Berlinto differentiate it from the Soviet controlled part of the city (East Berlin).  The first major conflict of the Cold War happened when the Soviets attempted to take over West Berlin.  The Soviets cut off all supplies to that half of the city, hoping the Allies would just give in.  Instead, Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift, which supplied the city through around-the-clock shipments of food and supplies for almost a year.  The Soviets relented and the city remained divided until the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War.

At the same time, adding to the tension, the United States, in an attempt to prevent a future war, offered financial assistance to rebuild European countries after the war.  It was called the Marshall Plan, though the official name was the European Recovery Plan.  The U. S. lent out $13 billion.  TheSoviet Unionwasn’t happy about it because they thought theUnited Stateswas buying Allies. This is because at the same time, the U. S.helped establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which included the U. S.,Canadaand western European nations.  To counter the Marshall Plan and NATO, theSoviet Unionoffered countries in eastern Europe an aid and military alliance called the Warsaw Pact.  NATO and the Warsaw Pact, in effect, divided Europe into two camps: communist and non-communist.  And the dividing line became known as the Iron Curtain after a famous speech by Winston Churchill.

The conflict didn’t end there.  At the same time, theSoviet Unionwas supporting revolutionary groups inGreeceandTurkey.  In asking Congress to send support to the government of both countries to fight off the communist threat, Truman established the Truman Doctrine and the foreign policy of containment.  Instead of trying to fight communism head on, the doctrine of containment said that the United Stateswould support countries fighting communism in order to stop it from spreading.  This would be the justification for the United States getting involved in many conflicts around the world over the next thirty years.

Truman’s domestic policy suffered from the international crisis caused by the Cold War.  As a result, his popularity rating wasn’t very high, though he did have some accomplishments.  Chief among those was the desegregation of the armed forces and civil service.  In the period before World War II both the United States military and the government facilities in Washington, D.C., were segregated.  Truman ordered both to be desegregated.  Truman pulled off an unlikely victory in his re-election campaign.  Fear over how the Cold War was going made it seem as if he’d be defeated, but we narrowly escaped defeat for a second term in office, though it didn’t go very well.

One reason it didn’t go well is that despite this policy of containment, the China Communist Revolution was a major blow to the United Stateswar against communism.  Also during that term, theSoviet Union—through spies—developed their own atomic bomb, meaning that the United Statesno longer held the monopoly on the weapon.  Some scientists helped the Soviets develop it out of fear of how only one country having such an awesome weapon might be misused.  During this time another problem came from another “Red Scare” as Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee of Un-American Activities attempted to root out communists in the government and the media, adding to hysteria about communism’s growing influence in the world.  Fear of communism was so great that even to be accused of being a communist could end a person’s career and ruin their lives.

Then in 1950, the world was shocked when the Korean Conflict began.  After World War II, Korea was divided into two parts to appease the United States and the Soviet Union.  North Korea was communist, under Soviet influence.  South Korea was ruled by a dictator, but he wasn’t a communist, which made America happy.  In 1950, North Koreainvaded South Koreato try and reunify the country as one communist state.  The United Nations sent troops, led by the Americans, to push the North Koreans back.  The UN forces were successful, but General Douglas MacArthur went too far, pushing the North Korean forces all the way to the Chinese border.  He then said that he wanted to invade China, defeat the communist government there and then go after the Soviet Union.  MacArthur’s statements were too much for Truman to let go.  He had to fire him as the commander in order to stop a war with the Soviets, despite MacArthur’s immense popularity.  Chinese troops then jumped in to help the North Koreans pushing the UN forces back to the original boundary between the north and south (the 38th Parallel) and a stalemate ensued.

Finally, under Truman’s leadership, the United States got involved in a little conflict in the nation of Vietnam.  The French were fighting a war trying to retake their former colony there.  Truman chose to support the French and not the Vietnamese.  This set the United States on a path there that would lead to an unpopular and unsuccessful war.


BEFORE:  F. D. Roosevelt         *          AFTER:  Eisenhower


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