Harry Truman: Advancing the Revolution
[Excerpted from “Harry S. Truman: Advancing the Revolution,” in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom]
When Harry Truman left office in January 1953, he was intensely unpopular, even widely despised. Many of his most cherished schemes, from national health insurance (socialized medicine) to universal military training (UMT), had been soundly rejected by Congress and the public. Worst of all, the war in Korea, which he persisted in calling a “police action,” was dragging on with no end in sight.
Yet today, Republican no less than Democratic politicians vie in glorifying Truman. When historians are asked to rank American presidents, he is listed as a “near-great.” Naturally, historians, like everyone else, have their own personal views and values. Like other academics, they tend to be overwhelmingly left of center. As Robert Higgs writes, “Left-liberal historians worship political power, and idolize those who wield it most lavishly in the service of left-liberal causes.”1 So it is scarcely surprising that they should venerate men like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman and agitate to get a credulous public to do the same.
But for anyone friendlier to limited government than the ordinary run of history professors, the presidency of Harry Truman will appear in a very different light. Truman’s predecessor had vastly expanded federal power, especially the power of the president, in what amounted to a revolution in American government. Under Truman, that revolution was consolidated and advanced beyond what even Franklin Roosevelt had ever dared hope for.
The Onset of the Cold War—Scaring Hell out of the American People
Most pernicious of all, Truman’s presidency saw the genesis of a world-spanning American political and military empire.2 This was not simply the unintended consequence of some alleged Soviet threat, however. Even before the end of World War II, high officials in Washington were drawing up plans to project American military might across the globe. To start with, the United States would dominate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Western Hemisphere through a network of air and naval bases. Complementing this would be a system of air-transit rights and landing facilities from North Africa to Saigon and Manila. This planning continued through the early years of the Truman administration.3
But the planners had no guarantee that such a radical reversal of our traditional policy could be sold to Congress and the people. It was the confrontation with the Soviet Union and “international communism,” begun and defined by Truman and then prolonged for four decades, that furnished the opportunity and the rationale for realizing the globalist dreams.
That after World War II the Soviet Union would be predominant in Europe was inevitable, given the goals pursued by Roosevelt and Churchill: Germany’s unconditional surrender and its total annihilation as a factor in the balance of power.4 At Yalta, the two Western leaders acquiesced in the control over Eastern Europe that had been won by Stalin’s armies, while affecting to believe that the Red dictator would cheerfully assent to the establishment of democratic governments in that area. The trouble was that genuinely free elections east of the Elbe (except in Czechoslovakia) would inescapably produce bitterly anti-Communist regimes. Such a result was unacceptable to Stalin, whose position was well-known and much more realistic than the illusions of his erstwhile allies. As he stated in the spring of 1945, “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system [as far] as his army can reach.”5
When Truman became president in April 1945, he was at first prepared to continue the “Grand Alliance,” and in fact harbored sympathetic feelings toward Stalin.6 But differences soon arose. The raping and murdering rampage of Red Army troops as they rolled over Eastern Europe came as a disagreeable surprise to Americans who had swallowed the wartime propaganda, from Hollywood and elsewhere, on the Soviet “purity of arms.” Stalin’s apparent intention to communize Poland and include the other conquered territories within his sphere of influence was deeply resented by leaders in Washington, who at the same time had no qualms about maintaining their own sphere of influence throughout all of Latin America.7
Stalin’s predictable moves to extend his sway around the periphery of the USSR further alarmed Washington. Exploiting the presence of Soviet forces in northern Iran (a result of the wartime agreement of the Big Three to divide up control of that country), he pressed for oil concessions similar to those gained by the United States and Britain. After the Soviets withdrew in return for a promise of concessions by the Iranian parliament, Iran, supported by the United States, reneged on the deal. Turning to Turkey, Stalin revived traditional Russian claims dating from Czarist days pressuring Ankara to permit unimpeded transit for Soviet warships through the straits.
Most ominous, in Washington’s view, was the civil war in Greece, where royalist forces faced Red insurgents. Britain, bankrupted by the war, was compelled to abandon its support of the royalist cause. Would the United States take up the torch from the faltering hand of the great imperial power? Here, Truman told his cabinet, he “faced a decision more serious than ever confronted any president.”8 The hyperbole is inane, but one can appreciate Truman’s problem. The United States had never had the slightest interest in the eastern Mediterranean, nor was it possible to discern any threat to American security in whatever outcome the Greek civil war might yield. Moreover, Stalin had conceded Greece to Britain in his famous deal with Churchill in October 1944, whereby Russia was given control of most of the rest of the Balkans (a deal approved by Roosevelt). Accordingly, the Greek Communists did not enjoy Soviet backing; they were not permitted to join the Cominform, for instance, and their provisional government was not recognized by the Soviet Union or any other Communist state.9
Given all this, how would Truman be able to justify US involvement? Urged on by hardliners like Navy Secretary James Forrestal, who were emboldened by the (temporary) American monopoly of the atom bomb, he decided to frame the Communist uprising in Greece, as well as Soviet moves in Iran and Turkey, in apocalyptic terms. In countering them, he mused, “We might as well find out whether the Russians [are] bent on world conquest now as in five or ten years.”10 World conquest. Now, it seems, it was a Red Hitler who was on the march.11
Still, after the landslide Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1946, Truman had to deal with a potentially recalcitrant opposition. The Republicans had promised to return the country to some degree of normalcy after the statist binge of the war years. Sharp cuts in taxes, abolition of wartime controls, and a balanced budget were high priorities.
But Truman could count on allies in the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, most prominently Arthur Vandenberg, a former “isolationist” turned rabid globalist, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Truman revealed his new “doctrine” to Vandenberg, the Republican leader advised him that, in order to get such a program through, the president would have to “scare hell out of the American people.”12 That Truman proceeded to do.
On March 12, 1947, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Truman proclaimed a revolution in American foreign policy. More important than the proposed $300 million in aid for Greece and $100 million for Turkey was the vision he presented. Declaring that henceforth “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure,” Truman situated aid to Greece and Turkey within a world-encompassing, life-or-death struggle “between alternative ways of life.”13 As one historian has written, he “escalated the long, historic struggle between the Left and Right in Greece for political power, and the equally historic Russian urge for control of the Dardanelles [sic], into a universal conflict between freedom and slavery. It was a very broad jump indeed.”14
At first, Truman’s radical initiative provoked uneasiness, even within his administration. George Kennan, often credited with fathering the Cold War “containment” idea, strongly opposed military aid to Turkey, a nation that was under no military threat and that bordered the Soviet Union. Kennan also scoffed at the “grandiose” and “sweeping” character of the Truman Doctrine.15
In Congress, the response of Senator Robert Taft was to accuse the president of dividing the world into Communist and anti-Communist zones. He asked for evidence that our national security was involved in Greece, adding that he did not “want war with Russia.”16 But Taft turned out to be the last, often vacillating, leader of the Old Right, whose ranks were visibly weakening.17 Although he was called “Mr. Republican,” it was the internationalists who were now in charge of that party. In the Senate, Taft’s doubts were answered with calm, well-reasoned rebuttals. Vandenberg intoned, “If we desert the President of the United States at [this] moment we cease to have any influence in the world forever.” Henry Cabot Lodge averred that repudiating Truman would be like throwing the American flag on the ground and stomping on it.18 In May, Congress appropriated the funds the president requested.
Meanwhile, the organs of the national-security state were being put into place.19 The War and Navy Departments and the Army Air Corps were combined into what was named, in Orwellian fashion, the Defense Department. Other legislation established the National Security Council and upgraded intelligence operations into the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the following decades, the CIA was to play a sinister, extremely expensive, and often comically inept role—especially in its continually absurd overestimations of Soviet strength.20 In establishing the CIA, Congress had no intention of authorizing it to conduct secret military operations, but under Truman this is what it quickly began to do, including waging a secret war on the Chinese mainland even before the outbreak of the Korean War (with no appreciable results).21 In 1999, after it targeted the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for bombing—supposedly a mistake, even though American diplomats had dined at the embassy and its location was known to everyone in the city—CIA has come to stand, in the words of one British writer, for “Can’t Identify Anything.”22
In June 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced a wide-ranging scheme for economic aid to Europe. In December, the Marshall Plan was presented as an appropriations bill calling for grants of $17 billion over four years. The plan, it was claimed, would reconstruct Europe to the point at which the Europeans could defend themselves. Congress at first was cold to the idea. Taft grumbled that American taxpayers should not have to support an “international WPA,” arguing that the funds would subsidize the socialization programs under way in many of the recipient countries.23 The Marshall Plan led to intensified tensions with the Russians, who saw it as further proof that Washington aimed to undermine their rule over Eastern Europe. Stalin instructed his satellite states to refuse to take part.24
“World-Conquest” Red Alert
Nineteen forty-eight was a decisive year in the Cold War. There was great reluctance in the conservative Eightieth Congress to comply with Truman’s program, which included funding for the European Recovery Act (Marshall Plan), resumption of the draft, and Universal Military Training. To deal with this resistance, the administration concocted the war scare of 1948.
The first pretext came in February, with the so-called Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. But Czechoslovakia, for all intents and purposes, was already a Soviet satellite. Having led the Czechs in the “ethnic cleansing” of 3.5 million Sudeten Germans, the Communists enjoyed great popularity. In the general elections, they won 38 percent of the vote, constituting by far the largest single party. The American ambassador reported to Washington that Communist consolidation of power in early 1948 was the logical outgrowth of the Czech-Soviet military alliance dating back to 1943. George Marshall himself, in private, stated that “as far as international affairs are concerned,” the formal Communist assumption of power made no difference—it would merely “crystallize and confirm for the future previous Czech policy.”25 Still, the Communist “coup” was painted as a great leap forward in Stalin’s plan for “world conquest.”
Then, on March 5, came the shocking letter from General Lucius Clay, US military governor in Germany, to General Stephen J. Chamberlin, head of Army Intelligence, in which Clay revealed his foreboding that war “may come with dramatic suddenness.” Years later, when Clay’s biographer asked him why, if he sensed an impending war, this was the only reference he ever made to it, he replied, “General Chamberlin…told me that the Army was having trouble getting the draft reinstituted and they needed a strong message from me that they could use in congressional testimony. So I wrote this cable.”26
On March 11, Marshall solemnly warned in a public address, “The world is in the midst of a great crisis.” Averell Harriman asserted, “There are aggressive forces in the world coming from the Soviet Union which are just as destructive as Hitler was, and I think are a greater menace than Hitler was.”27
And so Harriman laid down the Hitler card, which was to become the master trump in the globalist propaganda hand for the next half-century—and most likely for centuries to come.
Taft, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, was angered by the war hysteria drummed up by the administration:
I know of no indication of Russian intention to undertake military aggression beyond the sphere of influence that was originally assigned to them [at Yalta]. The situation in Czechoslovakia was indeed a tragic one, but Russian influence has predominated there since the end of the war.
Taft tried to introduce a note of sanity: “If President Truman and General Marshall have any private intelligence” regarding imminent war, “they ought to tell the American people about it.” Otherwise, we should proceed on “the basis of peace.”28
In reality, the administration had no such “private intelligence,” hence the need to stage-manage Clay’s letter. On the contrary, Colonel Robert B. Landry, Truman’s air aide, reported that in their zone in eastern Germany the Russians had dismantled hundreds of miles of railroad track and shipped it home—in other words, they had torn up the very railroads required for any Soviet attack on Western Europe.29 Field Marshal Montgomery, after a trip to Russia in 1947, wrote to General Eisenhower, “The Soviet Union is very, very tired. Devastation in Russia is appalling, and the country is in no fit state to go to war.”30 Today it would be very difficult to find any scholar willing to subscribe to Truman’s frenzied vision of a Soviet Union about to set off to conquer the world. As historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote,
Stalin is now seen as a cagey but insecure opportunist, taking advantage of such tactical opportunities as arose to expand Soviet influence, but without any long-term strategy for or even very much interest in promoting the spread of communism beyond the Soviet sphere.31
there was an element of overreaction, arrogance, and selfish pragmatism in the American response to Stalin’s plans.…The Soviet military machine was not a military juggernaut, western Europe was not under threat of a direct Soviet military assault, and the Sino-Soviet bloc lacked true cohesion…. American containment of Stalin’s Soviet Union may indeed have helped the dictatorship to mobilize people to the task of building a superpower from the ashes and ruins of the impoverished and devastated country. It may even have helped Stalin to trample on the seeds of liberalism and freedom in Soviet society.
Cf. Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives,” pp. 132, 134: “The new research clearly shows that American initiatives intensified Soviet distrust and reinforced Soviet insecurities…
no images were foundthat American policies made it difficult for potential reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.”
The nonexistence of Soviet plans to launch an attack on Europe holds for the entire Cold War period. One scholar in the field concludes,
despite the fact that the Russian archives have yielded ample evidence of Soviet perfidy and egregious behavior in many other spheres, nothing has turned up to support the idea that the Soviet leadership at any time actually planned to start World War III and send the “Russian hordes” westward.32
So why the war scare in 1948? In a 1976 interview, looking back on this period, Air Force Brigadier General Robert C. Richardson, who served at NATO headquarters in the early 1950s, candidly admitted,
there was no question about it, that [the Soviet] threat that we were planning against was way overrated and intentionally overrated, because there was the problem of reorienting the [US] demobilization…[Washington] made this nine-foot-tall threat out there. And for years and years it stuck. I mean, it was almost immovable.33
for more than four decades, Western policy has been based on a grotesque exaggeration of what the USSR could do if it wanted, therefore what it might do, therefore what the West must be prepared to do in response.…Worst-case assumptions about Soviet intentions have fed, and fed upon, worst-case assumptions about Soviet capabilities.
John A. Thompson, “The Exaggeration of American Vulnerability: The Anatomy of a Tradition,” Diplomatic History 16, no. 1 (Winter 1992): pp. 23. Thompson’s article is highly instructive on how hysteria regarding impending attacks on the United States during the 20th century—a time when America grew ever stronger—has contributed to entanglement in foreign conflicts.
Yet, anyone who doubted the wisdom of the administration’s militaristic policy was targeted for venomous smears. According to Truman, Republicans who opposed his universal crusade were “Kremlin assets,” the sort of traitors who would shoot “our soldiers in the back in a hot war,” a good example of Truman’s acclaimed “plain speaking.”35
There is considerable political advantage to the administration in its battle with the Kremlin. The worse matters get up to a fairly certain point—real danger of imminent war—the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president. (Kofsky, Truman, p. 92)
35 Averell Harriman charged that Taft was simply helping Stalin carry out his aims. The New York Times and the rest of the establishment press echoed the slanders. Amusingly, Republican critics of the war hysteria were labeled pro-Soviet even by journals like the New Republic and the Nation, which had functioned as apologists for Stalin’s terror regime for years.36
Truman’s campaign could not have succeeded without the enthusiastic cooperation of the American media. Led by the Times, the Herald Tribune, and Henry Luce’s magazines, the press acted as volunteer propagandists for the interventionist agenda, with all its calculated deceptions. (The principal exceptions were the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald, in the days of Colonel McCormick and Cissy Paterson.)37 In time, such subservience in foreign affairs became routine for the “fourth estate,” culminating during and after the 1999 Yugoslav war in reporting by the press corps that was as biased as the Serbian Ministry
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