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Truman, Harry S.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History
Martin H. Folly

Truman, Harry S. (1884–1972), 

thirty-third president of the United States, from 1945 to 1953. Born in Lamar, Missouri, Harry S. Truman was a Democratic senator for Missouri from 1935 to 1945, a nominee of the Pendergast political machine that controlled Kansas City, Missouri. Though he was a supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program in 1941, Truman was energetic in ferreting out waste. His diligence and party loyalty led to his being adopted as running mate for Roosevelt in the November 1944 election, in place of the more radical Henry Wallace. Roosevelt did not involve Truman in policy making, and he was unprepared when he became president upon Roosevelt's death on 12 April 1945.

The Truman Doctrine. 

Truman was overawed by suddenly finding himself president. His instinct was to continue Roosevelt's policies, but this was difficult, because those policies were complicated and contradictory. Truman was a much more straightforward man. Truman's approach to the Soviet Union was certainly more direct than Roosevelt's, and at their first meetings he criticized the foreign commissar Vyacheslav Molotov for Soviet failures to adhere to the Yalta agreements. However, he resisted pressure from the British prime minister Winston Churchill to advance Allied forces as far east as possible as a bargaining counter with the Soviet Union, and in June he sent the presidential aide Harry Hopkins to work out a compromise deal on Poland with Premier Joseph Stalin. During the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Truman informed Stalin of the successful test of an atomic bomb, without revealing the nature of the weapon, and generally acted at the meeting more forcefully than was Roosevelt's custom. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bombs on Japan. It is likely that in August 1945 he regarded the Soviet Union more as a bully to be treated firmly than as an absolute menace with which there could be no negotiation. It is a matter of continuing controversy whether the two atom bombs were dropped with relations with the Soviet Union primarily in mind. Most likely the main reason was to bring the war to an end quickly, and the advantages that such a show of strength would provide in relations with the Soviet Union were simply an added attraction. It was only gradually, in the following eighteen months, that Truman's policy actually hardened into the classic Cold War policy of containment of the Soviet Union.

Initially Truman attempted to continue cooperation with the Soviet Union, though the basis on which it was to be done had been subtly shifted. Whereas Roosevelt regarded this as a matter of maintaining a process of interaction, Truman tended to regard diplomacy as founded on firm agreements. Truman expected consistency and regarded Soviet obstructiveness and lack of cooperative spirit, of which there was plentiful evidence in the territories that the Soviets occupied in eastern Europe, as signs of tendencies in Soviet policy that needed to be restrained. The possibility of doing so seemed to be confirmed in early crises.

In early 1946 a number of events coincided to encourage Truman in his belief, endorsed by many in the U.S. foreign service, that the best way of achieving good relations with the Soviet Union was “firmness.” The Soviet Union delayed the withdrawal of its troops from northern Iran and attempted to bully the Tehran government into granting oil concessions and ceding territory, but a firm response saw Stalin back down. In March 1946, Truman sat on the platform at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, while Churchill used heightened rhetoric about Soviet actions in eastern Europe—actions that, he said, constituted the drawing of an “iron curtain.” Churchill proceeded to call for a renewal of the intimate wartime Anglo-American partnership. However, the U.S. press response was cool, and Truman distanced himself from Churchill, though possibly not displeased that he had said what he did. Truman probably wished to keep his options as open as possible and still hoped that by skillful management a full fissure with the Soviet Union could be avoided.

This position could not be held for long. The British announced to the administration on 21 February 1947 that they could no longer underwrite either the Greek government in its struggle against insurgents or the Turks in maintaining military strength in the face of Soviet diplomatic pressure. This forced the administration into the kind of firm commitment that it had been equivocating over for some time. In order to win over the Republican-dominated Congress, Truman on 12 March painted a dramatic picture of a world divided between free and unfree peoples and declared that it was vital for U.S. security that the United States aid free peoples who were defending themselves against internal or external aggression. Congress approved $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey, but of greater significance was the establishment of the principle—the Truman Doctrine—that U.S. security required intervention to prevent expansion of Communism, wherever in the world it occurred. If the overall concept owed more to the thinking of Dean Acheson, the undersecretary of state, than it did to Truman, it did reflect Truman's own approach to foreign affairs as it had evolved, which was that the United States needed to act positively and decisively to defend its interests, and that these interests extended well beyond the Western Hemisphere. Though he supported the internationalist approach inherent in the United Nations, Truman had come to the conclusion that the United States had to deploy its own resources in specific situations to protect its interests and that the Soviet Union would respect such a position more than one based on statements of ideals and friendship.

The National Security State. 

Concurrently with these developments, Truman addressed other fundamental security issues. During World War II, an enlarged concept of national security had gained adherents in the Washington bureaucracy. No longer did it seem tenable to hold that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans guaranteed U.S. invulnerability. Old assumptions about the time available for mobilization of the armed forces, industry, and the general population now seemed obsolete. National security advocates argued that the distinction between peace and war had disappeared. A nation had to be fully mobilized in peace, so as to be ready for war if it came. This was a significant break with America's traditions of small armed forces in peacetime and low levels of appropriation for military needs.

Truman's position on this was typically ambiguous. He was alive to the implications of the new world situation for U.S. security. However, he cherished a number of the traditions that national security advocates now held to be obsolete, and he also did not wish to divert expenditure from liberal social reforms. His first initiatives regarding national security, therefore, were aimed at economy, not at expansion. Against the wishes of many in the intelligence community, Truman moved swiftly at the end of the war to abolish the Office of Strategic Services. The United States, he believed, had never had need of a peacetime intelligence agency and did not now. Moreover, he pressed for the reduction of the armed forces—not just in rapid demobilization, but also, and more radically, in unification. In a fierce debate over this issue that developed between the army and the navy, Truman supported army ideas for integration of forces and removal of duplication.

The outcome of the unification debate was an unsatisfactory compromise in the 1947 National Security Act. The so-called National Military Establishment was set up, under a secretary of defense. However, the services remained separate—indeed, there was now a third, with the creation of the U.S. Air Force—and able to manage their own procurement, and each continued to be represented in the cabinet by its own secretary, leaving the position of the defense secretary an anomalous one. This matter had to be corrected in a subsequent act in 1949. By creating the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council, the 1947 act also established mechanisms for joint planning and policy making at the highest level. By creating the Central Intelligence Agency, the act also, at least in theory, resolved the issue of lack of coordination of military intelligence and lack of connection of that intelligence to policy making. The act established the bureaucratic structure with which the United States was to wage the Cold War, but Truman himself remained resistant to expanded demands for a national security state, both on grounds of economy and also because of his fears that it would make the United States a “warfare state.” Being not entirely consistent, he did advocate universal military training, which was resisted by Congress. His foreign policy convinced him of the need for strength and preparedness, while other political and moral instincts caused him, at least until the Korean War, to view with misgivings the decisions that he did feel impelled to make.


Over the eighteen months following the Truman Doctrine speech, Truman's attitude coalesced in the face of Soviet responses, which were all now read in Washington to show that the Soviet Union was driven by limitless ambitions to dominate the globe but would use subversion and other indirect methods in preference to open military action. There was no negotiating with such a power: the only language that it understood was strength. The policy was to be one of containment of this expansive tendency, in the hope of ultimately bringing internal collapse of the Soviet system without a costly war. At first this was done through economic measures.

It is easy to see the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery as following directly from the Truman Doctrine. There is no evidence that Truman had such a policy in mind when he made the speech, but the speech gave Acheson, Marshall, and William Clayton, the progenitors of the initiative, the foundation for it. Truman's principal role was to press Congress to take action speedily in response to the statement of requirements made by the sixteen western European states in the fall of 1947: he called a special session of Congress and acted with skill to construct bipartisan support. Concerned not to alienate vital voters by raising taxes, Truman preferred to place a ceiling of $13 billion on the defense budget—the Defense Department wanted $23 billion for 1949—in order to pay for Marshall Plan aid. In the short term this produced the desired result, but Truman paid the price later, when critics in 1949–1950 attacked his fiscal conservatism as having weakened U.S. defenses.

In retrospect this was probably Truman's most effective period as president. At home he was faced with a Republican Congress and predictions that he stood no chance of reelection in 1948, and overseas he was faced with the Soviet challenge to Marshall Plan aid and the final breakdown of the Council of Foreign Ministers in December 1947—yet the situation brought out the best in Truman. He positioned himself as a middle-of-the-roader, while challenging conservatives to support his stance against Communism in Europe. In January, concerns about the election did lead him to a cautious response to British pressure to give a security guarantee to western Europe. The Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in late February strengthened his hand. Truman allowed secret discussions on a North Atlantic security pact to take place in April at the Pentagon. Once again the administration was careful to follow a bipartisan line, so it recruited Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan, to the cause of such a pact. The Senate's Vandenberg Resolution in June paved the way for serious negotiations. Truman's strong but proportionate response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin—he decided to supply the city by airlift—again reflected his accurate perception of both the public mood and the needs of the international situation. This culminated in his narrow victory in the 1948 election. Truman had successfully cemented the support of two significant groups, African Americans and Jewish Americans, by coming out in favor of the desegregation of the armed forces and by giving immediate recognition to the state of Israel in May 1948.

Setbacks and Challenges. 

In the new year, with Dean Acheson now secretary of state, this successful period for Truman was capped by the final negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty: on 4 April 1949 the United States entered its first formal peacetime alliance. In May the Federal Republic of Germany was established in Bonn, and the Soviets conceded defeat over the Berlin blockade. This, however, was to be the highpoint of the Truman presidency. From then on were to be setbacks and challenges. They began in August when Truman announced that the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic device, well ahead of estimates. In October, the Communists in China completed their victory and proclaimed the People's Republic of China.

These setbacks prompted Truman to approve the development of a thermonuclear device in January 1950, as well as to order a study of the global strategic position that now confronted the United States. The resulting report, National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68), was given to the president in April. It came at a time when domestic tensions were building: in February, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had begun making his demagogic attacks on the loyalty of administration officials. NSC 68 drew an alarming picture of Soviet advance and American weakness; to sustain a policy of global containment, it recommended a massive rearmament of the United States and its allies. It implied that the Soviet Union was behind all unwelcome change in the world and that, by a preponderance of power, the United States was capable of stopping it. The purpose of this massive military expenditure was to avoid open military conflict and achieve ultimate victory through containment. Truman balked at the expense involved, and he feared that it would lead to wholesale transformations in American economic and social life. He shelved the report until the North Korean invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 appeared to confirm NSC 68's gloomiest prognostications.

As was typical of him, Truman acted decisively when confronted by an immediate and clear-cut crisis. He pledged U.S. support for South Korea and obtained UN sanction for a U.S.-led “police action.” His popularity soared with this action, though it was to decline again when the Chinese intervened and the war settled down into a bloody stalemate. The North Korean action, however, appeared to confirm that Soviet-backed Communism was pressing forward, and it was feared that a move might be imminent in Germany. U.S. reinforcements, including atomic-capable bombers, were deployed to western Europe. The military budget, as well as military aid to allies, was expanded rapidly, with the willing approval of Congress: by the end of 1950, U.S. military spending had tripled, to $50 billion. Truman sought to follow a difficult line for the rest of his presidency: preserve a non-Communist South Korea and not widen the war. He succeeded, but at the cost of his own popularity.


Truman's inability to resolve the stalemate in Korea, combined with accusations of corruption in his administration, greatly harmed his standing, and he chose not to run for reelection in 1952. He left office with a low approval rating, but subsequently his reputation has climbed. Traditionalist and neo-orthodox scholars of the Cold War have generally viewed Truman positively. Revisionists tend to echo the criticisms that Wallace made at the time, and some have pinned the full blame for the Cold War on the transition from Roosevelt to Truman. To them, Truman was far from the honest, restrained, and moderate president of the traditionalist view. Instead, in the words of Arnold Offner, he was a parochial nationalist whose narrow-minded attitudes led to an exaggeration of the Soviet threat and a failure to understand Soviet security needs. Opportunities to resolve problems and avoid the Cold War were lost as a consequence. Though some revisionists saw the Cold War more as the consequence of long-term U.S. policies, particularly the concern for access to overseas markets, Truman's universalistic rhetoric in the Truman Doctrine speech and his role in encouraging hunts for domestic Communists have been sharply criticized for leading to the more damaging aspects of the Cold War so far as the United States was concerned: McCarthyism, uncritical support of foreign anti-Communists, and hostility to all forces of change—which, they argue, led to the disaster of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Revived traditionalist perspectives see Truman as having acted proportionately—to some, too cautiously—and having advanced an enlightened internationalist agenda, with the Truman Doctrine a limited, flexible response to the problems facing the administration in 1947. There has also been appreciation of the larger forces at work at the time: the growth of a focus on national security in both the United States and the Soviet Union that led to an obsession with what Melvyn Leffler has dubbed the “preponderance of power” (the title of his 1992 book), as well as the nexus of interests in the political establishment, business, commerce, the military, and the media that all combined together, as Michael Hogan (1987) has argued, to produce the Cold War consensus. U.S. political and economic interests were seen to be vital in every part of Asia and Europe, and the conclusion was firmly in place by 1950 that these interests should be maintained by strength and toughness rather than by compromise or negotiation. In these interpretations, Truman is less an initiator of policies than one of a number of participants in larger events whose nature was only dimly comprehended. These interpretations exist alongside, but have not superseded, accounts of the presidency that assign considerable autonomy to Truman himself.

Truman's presidency continues to divide opinion. The better approach is to see him as mirroring both the complex international situation and the mood in America at the time. Truman was ambiguous and conflicted. He could be both overconfident and paranoid, like many Americans at the time. He could be openhanded or vindictive. He could be both visionary and narrow-mindedly nationalist. He often ended up improvising, but those improvisations became established as doctrines that his successors, struggling with similarly complex problems, were only too glad to turn to as guiding principles. Whether he should therefore be blamed for such consequences as the nuclear arms race and U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam remains, as with much in the Truman presidency, a subject of debate. One thing is certain: Truman's belief that the United States had to assume a global role and exercise leadership has remained a constant ever since.

[See also Acheson, Dean; Anti-Communism; Berlin Blockade and Airlift; Bush, George W.; Cold War (1945–1991); Containment; Defense, U.S. Department of; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Atomic Bombing of; Hopkins, Harry; Korean War (1950–1953); Marshall Plan; National Security; National Security Act of 1947; National Security Council Document 68; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Nuclear Weapons and Strategy; Point Four Program; Potsdam Conference; Presidential Decision Making and Foreign Policy; Presidents, Foreign-Policy Legacies of; and Race and the Military.]


Primary Works

Ferrell, Robert H., ed. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. A useful collection of letters, memoranda, and diary entries.Find this resource:

    Ferrell, Robert H., ed. Truman in the White House: The Diary of Eben A. Ayers. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991. Interesting insider insights from Truman's assistant press secretary.Find this resource:

      Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Has many scans of original documents, as well as details of the extensive holdings of the library.

      Merrill, Dennis K, ed. Documentary History of the Truman Presidency. Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1995–2002. 35 vols. Divided by topic, an extensive collection of original papers from the Truman Library's archive. Also accessible online at the Truman library, this resource:

        Truman, Harry S. Memoirs. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955–1956. Truman's own detailed account: like the man, direct and unapologetic.Find this resource:

          University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Foreign Relations of the United States. An essential source for Truman foreign policy: includes not only State Department papers but also extensive White House material.

          Secondary Works

          Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. A forcefully argued statement of the “atomic diplomacy” thesis: the atomic bombs were dropped not to defeat Japan but to give the U.S. leverage in relations with the Soviet Union. Overstated, but raises key questions that continue to be debated.Find this resource:

            Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Offers a fierce defense of Truman and a refutation of the “atomic diplomacy” argument and other revisionist critiques of Truman.Find this resource:

              Hamby, Alonzo. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A generally admiring biography.Find this resource:

                Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An extensive study of the debate between national security advocates and those who feared a “garrison state.” Sees Truman as occupying a position midway between the two extremes.Find this resource:

                  Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947–1952. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987. The definitive study of the European Recovery Program by one of the major protagonists of the “corporatist” thesis.Find this resource:

                    Jones, Howard. “A New Kind of War”: America's Global Strategy and the Truman Doctrine in Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Finds the Truman Doctrine to have been measured, restrained, and proportionate.Find this resource:

                      Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. An exhaustively researched landmark study that attempts, largely successfully, to refocus assessment of the early Cold War around concepts of security.Find this resource:

                        McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. A best-selling popular biography that presents a positive view of Truman.Find this resource:

                          Miscamble, Wilson. From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Argues against revisionist accounts that blame the transition to Truman for the outbreak of the Cold War, as well as against the “atomic diplomacy” thesis.Find this resource:

                            Offner, Arnold. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. A strongly critical account of Truman's presidency, finding him to be narrow-minded and often petty.Find this resource:

                              Spalding, Elizabeth Edwards. The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Argues that Truman was a convinced internationalist and sees consistency and vision in his foreign policy.Find this resource:

                                Woods, Randall B., and Howard Jones. Dawning of the Cold War: The United States’ Quest for Order. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991. A well-written overview of U.S. policy in the early years of the Cold War; sees the United States reacting to the Soviet quest for security by attempting to establish its own design for international order.Find this resource:

                                  Martin H. Folly

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