Harry Truman & the Origins of the Cold War
After the defeat of Nazism, the United States was left the undeniable superpower in the world. The most powerful military, most robust economy, and the most advanced technology were all firm American claims. And while Harry Truman was born out of small-town, isolationist rural-America, his sudden emergence as a world leader would require not only savvy diplomacy but also unyielding vision.
When he was immediately confronted with the Soviet question, he was faced with divergent policy options. On the one hand, he could seek for a long lasting diplomatic peace – a peace where agreements would be honored and faith in the other side could be genuine. The world had just witnessed the consequences of painful retribution, and to antagonize or even directly confront his enemies might lead Truman down a path of world annihilation.
On the other, he was facing an atheist pariah-nation where morals seemed non-existent and aggression for domination’s sake was the only guiding principle. Naturally, therefore, Truman needed to project an affirmative program of strength in order to first contain the Soviet Union and then to subjugate it from within. Based on Truman’s public and private boastings of American world leadership, his inherent nationalism and the predominant American view of moral superiority, Truman chose to portray strength by actively aiding 3rd party nations and ratcheting up the Cold War.
The ultimate weapon of the Cold War was perception. While bombs, fighter jets and missiles were the most visible pawns of the two nations, they were but one card in the deck of information and perception that formed the true arsenals. It truly was a clash of ideas – a war of ideologies – underscored by both Soviet and American dicta. “Every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” Truman declared to Congress in the spring of 1948. “The choice is too often not a free one.”
By juxtaposing American freedom and democracy with Soviet tyranny and its goal of world conquest, he was echoing, ironically, the very same view held by Soviet leaders. Accusing the US of “opposing democratic construction” in Europe, Ambassador Nikolai Novikov attacks the “imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital.” Each side accused the other of similar evils, yet the motivation was different in each case. The Soviet Union was compelled to extend its borders to spread Marxist ideology, while America instead extended its political and economic influence in order to restrict Soviet growth.
But pragmatism did not disappear; clearly, neither nation wanted war. Stalin himself claimed multiple times that he did “not wish to begin the Third World War”, even if it was simply out of deference to America’s military might. Yet from the Soviet economic paradigm, Stalin felt it necessary to dominate far outside his own borders, conquering other nations to impose socialism – a direct and imminent threat to American hegemony and national security. Therefore, first on Truman’s agenda as President was displaying the awesome power of the nuclear age.
He uses his “dynamite” very strategically, by leveraging the atomic bomb to get concessions from the Soviets in Germany and to take the psychological upper hand as the more advanced nation. (Truman Diary July, 1945) From that point onward, Truman resolves to maintain that advantage. This was accomplished primarily through two means: engaging in an aggressive technological arms race and taking political and economic action to restrict the spread of communism.
The Long Telegram lays out the US governments basic thinking on how to deal with a “political force committed fanatically to the belief that” American society and authority must crumble “if Soviet power is to be secure.” Its author George Kennan makes it very clear that the Soviets had transformed socialism from a backwards ideology into a “more dangerous and insidious” threat than ever before. However, the Soviets were realistic and inherently weak, and would therefore acquiesce “when strong resistance is encountered at any point”. In combination with NSC-68, which urged vast military expansion, this appears to be the basis for Truman’s mindset in acting on the recommendations of the Long Telegram.
Specifically, the containment strategy was implemented as a way of demonstrating strength and power to the Soviets so that the USSR would retreat to avoid direct conflict. However, Truman was not isolated from alternative viewpoints. Former vice president Henry Wallace (who preceded Truman as FDR’s Vice President, and served under Truman as Secretary of Commerce) implored Truman to recognize that the world would take aggressive containment to mean the US is either preparing for an inevitable war or is trying to intimidate mankind. “Our actions,” he wrote to Truman, “carry with them the ultimate danger of a third world war.”
President Truman does not heed Wallace’s warnings; in fact, he fires him for publicly challenging him. Truman instead frames containment as the duty of the United States. Postulating that stable democracies are essential to world peace, Truman tells Congress that if nations are “to work out a way of life free from coercion” (i.e. Soviet rule), they will need assistance. The US was “the only country able to provide that help.” Additionally, the Marshall Plan was crucial for rebuilding Europe in a friendly image.
Truman argues that isolationism is not neutrality, but simply an early forfeit. His advisers proposed, and Truman implemented, plans for “fomenting and supporting unrest and revolt in selected satellite countries.” Adamant that America’s moral obligation compels him to aid targeted nations, Truman declared, “totalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples…undermine the foundations of international peace and the security of the United States. [I]t must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by…outside pressures.”
The second, yet equally important, prong in Truman’s arsenal was a plan to “frustrate the Kremlin design” with a “rapid and concerted build-up of the actual strength of…the United States.” (NSC-68) The United States needed to demonstrate its ability to outpace the Soviets in any arms race by always staying a step ahead militarily. Ideally, this would cause the centralized Soviet system to buckle and crumble if it attempted to keep up.
From today’s perspective, Truman must be given much credit since the continuation and amplification of his policies ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s victory in the Cold War. Pearl Harbor dictated – as 9/11 reminded us – that isolationism must die; America was permanently entangled in the affairs of the world. Agitators would always be there to threaten America’s safety and challenge her values. Truman was wise to recognize that (military) preparedness and containment was the best hope for avoidance. Initiating policies which President Reagan would ultimately bring to fruition, Truman did not seek an empire but rather he aimed to ensure that every nation would be strong and stable enough to resist Soviet influence.
While often criticized for antagonizing or instigating the Soviets into the Cold War, Truman’s genuine ideology and aggressive decision making made it possible for America to maintain its lasting preeminence.
Note: this essay by Cliff Satell on President Truman and the origins of Cold War containment was originally written for “Modern America” a Duke course taught by Prof. Michael Alsep in the fall of 2007. It has been updated slightly.