Truman, the surprise choice for the vice presidential candidate on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's successful 1944 reelection ticket, had no international experience when he assumed the presidency upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945. Truman closely guarded his authority and took actions that were decisive and at times impulsive. This was especially true in foreign affairs, where he immediately faced the challenge of emerging discord with the Soviet Union. As a senator, Truman had favored wartime aid to the Soviets but suggested shifting U.S. support to the Nazis once communist forces had the advantage. Only days into his presidency, he sharply rebuked Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav I. Molotov, sternly lecturing him about trying to dominate Poland. This contretemps was a harbinger of Truman's hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union.
In July 1945, Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin met at the Potsdam Conference but did not reach agreement on any major issues. While there, the president received word that the test explosion of an atomic bomb had succeeded, although he only made an ambiguous reference about this to Stalin. Truman subsequently ordered atomic attacks on two Japanese cities in August. His justification was to save lives, but he may have also used Hiroshima and Nagasaki to intimidate the Soviets and keep them out of the Pacific war. Just before Japan surrendered, the Soviets entered the war in the Pacific, resulting in Korea's division into two zones of occupation. Truman rejected Stalin's request for a similar arrangement in Japan, appointing General Douglas MacArthur to implement sweeping reforms there under complete U.S. control. After 1947, a reverse course in U.S. policy transformed Japan into an anticommunist bulwark in Asia and a security partner of the United States in the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Truman struggled to end the civil war in China between the Guomindang (GMD, Nationalists) and the CCP led by Mao Zedong. Late in 1945, Truman sent General George C. Marshall to negotiate a cease-fire and a political settlement, which never took hold. Marshall returned home in early 1947, became secretary of state, and advised Truman to disengage from China. By then, Truman had decided to implement the containment policy against the Soviet Union.
Truman's application of pressure at the United Nations (UN) had forced Soviet withdrawal from Iran in 1946. His Truman Doctrine speech in March 1947 called for U.S. aid to any nation resisting communist domination. Congress then approved Truman's request for $400 million for Greece (to suppress a communist insurgency) and Turkey (to check Soviet advances). A proposal in June 1947 to help Europe avert economic collapse and keep communism at bay led to the Marshall Plan, an ambitious and successful endeavor that helped reconstruct wartorn economies.
Stalin's reaction to Truman's successes greatly intensified the Cold War, beginning early in 1948 with the communist coup in Czechoslovakia. The Soviets then blockaded West Berlin to force U.S. and British abandonment of the city, but Truman ordered an airlift of food and supplies that compelled Stalin to restore access one year later. Countering the Soviet threat led to the 1949 creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a U.S. commitment of military defense for Western Europe. Truman sent U.S. troops and huge amounts of military assistance across the Atlantic, but he refused to replicate this policy in China, resisting Republican pressure to expand support for Jiang Jieshi's Nationalist regime. This led to charges that Truman had allowed disloyal American diplomats to undermine the Nationalists and lose China after the communists triumphed in October 1949. The Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb that September only increased popular anxiety in the United States. As fears of internal subversion grew, Truman appeared to be soft on communism when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, an obscure Wisconsin Republican, charged that 205 communists worked in the State Department.
Early in 1950, Truman approved development of a hydrogen bomb but initially refused to implement National Security Council Report NSC-68, which called for massive rearmament. He would not approve NSC-68 until September of that year. When the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) attacked the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) in June, Truman committed troops because he believed that Stalin had ordered the invasion and that inaction would encourage more expansionist acts. He then ordered military protection for Jiang's regime on Taiwan and greater support for the anticommunist efforts of the British in Malaya and the French in Indochina. Even before MacArthur, whom he had named UN commander, had halted the invasion, Truman approved an offensive into North Korea that provoked Chinese intervention. Truman's courageous decision to recall MacArthur in April 1951 for trying to widen the war was highly unpopular but won acclaim from most military observers and European allies. Armistice talks began in July 1951 but deadlocked after Truman refused to force repatriation of communist prisoners. Unable to end the Korean War, he had made the Cold War more dangerous and intense with the implementation of NSC-68, military strengthening of NATO, and the rearming of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany).
Truman left office in January 1953 and returned to Independence, Missouri, to write his memoirs. He died on 26 December 1972 in Kansas City, Missouri.
James I. Matray
Donovan, Robert J. Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949–1953. New York: Norton, 1982.; Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.; McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.