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Post WWII, 1945-1952

The United States not only did not withdraw into itself as it had done after the First World War it also used its power to reshape much of the world. Domestic politics thus became intertwined with foreign policy in ways rarely seen before in US history. However, US citizens were as parochial as they had been in the 1930s or, even, the 1830s. As with most people, they were concerned with their own personal lives not with international politics, much of which they did not understand. This disconnect created problems in the post-war period and were especially challenging to President Harry Truman.

Truman, who had come to power because Franklin D. Roosevelt had died soon after the beginning of his fourth term, had little experience in international affairs. He had served in the army during WWI but his life had been that of a small businessman (haberdashery), small town politics, a judgeship, involvement in the Pendergast political machine, and then a United States Senator from Missouri. Truman was honest and of modest means. Unlike many of his predecessors, he had never been to college, but, as he wrote in his autobiography, he read widely and deeply in history books. He was a man with the courage of his convictions, a man who could and would make decisions. As the sign on his desk said, "the buck stops here."

When he assumed the presidency in April, 1945, Western Europe was wrecked by the war; the USSR and the Western powers were contending over Germany; the old colonial order in the Far East was disappearing as well as the New Order the Japanese had created, and nationalists and Communists were fighting for power in China; the US, on the other hand, had seen its power and prosperity increase during World War II.

The USSR and the US had cooperated to some extent in the effort to beat Germany. Most of the fighting against the Germans on the European continent during WWII had been done by the Soviet Army and it had advanced deep into central Europe by early 1945.At the Yalta Conference (1945), the Allies had agreed that the USSR would get large areas of Poland but the Poles would be compensated with German territory. The Soviets, who had the troops on the ground, moved farther west than agreed and turned large areas of Germany over to Poland. Soviet troops occupied Poland and, thus controlled it. The US and Great Britain gave recognition to the pro-Communist government in July, 1945. Although the Soviets agreed to allow non-Communists to be part of the Polish government, they arrested them and sent them to prisons in the USSR. Nothing could be done unless the US and Great Britain went to war against the USSR, something they would not do.

Other countries that Soviet troops occupied followed the same pattern. A coalition government was formed. The non-Communists were purged and imprisoned. The Western powers protested. The USSR ignored the protests. A Soviet bloc—a series of buffer states—was formed.

The United States demobilized its troops and converted its industry to peaceful pursuits as fast as possible when the war ended. Soldiers and sailors wanted to go home and their spouses, children, parents, friends, and lovers did too. That meant that the main US weapon still available to Washington was the atomic bomb but it was a weapon that could not be used with ease. It was an all or nothing weapon. Thus, in 1945-47, policy makers in Washington tried to get along with the Soviet Union—and with some success. At the Potsdam, Germany conference in July, 1945, Stalin, Truman and Churchill and Atlee (was replaced Winston Churchill as British Prime Minister during the conference) agreed to demand the unconditional surrender of Japan and to govern post-war Germany by dividing it into four sectors—British, French, Soviet, and US—with the capital, Berlin, similarly divided. Subsequent details were to be handled by the foreign ministers. They agreed to hold war crime trials to prosecute leaders of Germany and Japan. The Nuremburg, Germany trials convicted and executed 12 Nazis; the Tokyo trials of 1946-48 convicted 7 members of the Tojo government.

The US did not trust the Soviets nor did it like what was happening in Soviet-occupied Germany. Although their was general agreement to reduce the Germans to the average European standard of living, the Soviets went much further, taking German factory equipment and even personnel to the Soviet Union. In 1946, the US decided to allow production increases in the zones it, the British, and French controlled and stated the goal of reunifying Germany. Further, the Western powers argued that the German-Polish border needed to be reexamined because it was not what had been agreed upon at Yalta. Since the Soviets feared a unified Germany with good reason (the Germans had invaded Russia twice in twenty years), the US agreed to guarantee German disarmament for twenty-five or even forth years. The Soviets did not believe it. In January, 1947, the British and the US decided to join their zones of Germany. Soviet fears of a strong and hostile Germany appeared well-founded.

The Soviets also rejected the Baruch Plan to control atomic energy. US agreed to destroy its nuclear bombs after an international inspection to insure that no other nation had any or would. Given the level of mistrust between the Soviet Union and the US, Stalin refused the offer.

In 1946-47, the Soviets demanded changes in the Middle East, including oil concessions from Iran and border changes and joint control of Black Sea Straits from Turkey. The US and its allies would not tolerate expansion into the Middle East, so Truman responded vigorously and the USSR withdrew its troops from its neighbor, Iran, in 1946. Soviet pressure continued sporadically on Turkey while the conservative Greek government, backed by the British which had been powerful there for over a century, was attacked by Greek Communist guerillas. In February, 1947, the British informed Washington that it could not afford to continue aid to Greece. In response to these events in Turkey and Greece, the US announced the Truman doctrine—aid to any country resisting Communist aggression.

The Containment Policy

The containment policy was described by George Kennan, a professor and Soviet expert, in an issue of Foreign Affairs written under the pseudonym Mr X.. Kennan said that Soviet policy was dominated by the belief in the inevitable victory of Communism and the US and its allies should contain the Soviet Union, thus forcing it to deal with the inaccuracies and contradictions of that belief. In other words, the Soviet Union would eventually implode if its expansionism was blocked. This containment policy worked eventually as every president, Truman through Reagan, followed it. The Cold War, as this struggle was known, was the longest "war" in US History.

In 1947, it was not clear that it would work. The Truman Doctrine, announced in March, 1947, worked. Thus encouraged, the US would apply it elsewhere. In June of that year, the US proposed the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies of Europe. The assumption was that desperate peoples might choose extreme solutions to their problems such as Communism. Additionally, Truman's advisors pointed out that US business, industry, and agriculture would benefit enormously if Europeans could buy US products. Thus, the Marshall Plan was clever self-interest. The Soviet Union and its satellites refused help; the USSR could not afford to admit that it had problems. The Plan probably saved France and Italy from voting themselves Communists. It succeeded even though the Soviets tried to cause its failure of Marshall Plan. In addition, Soviet control of eastern Europe was tightened to prevent defection to the West and Czechoslovakia became a Soviet puppet state following the February, 1948 coup.

In the summer of 1948, the USSR decided to attempt to get greater control over Germany, especially it capital, Berlin. It said that the division of Germany ended all reason for the occupation of the country. It argued that its troops were there because they had been invited but the Western troops were an occupying force. The West refused to be budged. Then Soviet forces cut all surface communications between West Germany and Berlin. This Berlin Blockade was eventually broken by massive airlifts which kept the Western-controlled sectors of the city supplied. In May, 1949, Russia withdrew the blockade. In September, West Germany was proclaimed an independent republic; the Soviets retaliated by declaring East Germany one also. Alarmed by the Berlin threat and encouraged by economic revival, the western European countries moved towards cooperation. Under US leadership, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in April, 1949. Greece and Turkey joined later.

The US began rebuilding its war machinery. The 1947 National Security Act created the Department of Defense (from the beginning of the Republic, it had been the Department of War but Cold War propaganda did not want to suggest that the US was warlike ), the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. In June, 1948, the Selective Service system (military conscription) was reintroduced. Bomber groups, capable of dropping the atomic bomb, were sent to Britain in order to be closer to Soviet targets and to intimidate the USSR.

Despite these steps, the US had only began to build forces sufficient for a worldwide struggle for Congress did not want to make very large military appropriations. Truman wanted to cut the budget further, for conventional wisdom was that the federal government should be small and that only a wartime emergency, now gone, justified large budgets. Up to 1950, defense expenditures were limited to $15 billion and the armed forces were a little over one million people. The US relied upon the threat of using the atomic bomb but its monopoly ended in September, 1949, when the Soviets Russian a bomb of their own. In the winter of 1949-50, the US began a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb.

Domestic Issues, 1945-1949

Between December, 1945 and December, 1947, prices rose about one-third as people bid up prices for the scarce available consumer goods. People had savings because they were not able to spend all they made during the war because of rationing and the production of war goods precluded. Prices had been held in check through price controls but Congress, over Truman's objections , ended them in the summer and fall of 1946. Whereas people assumed that there would be a post-war depression, there was a post-war boom. Organized labor wanted to protect its wartime gains and defend wages against inflation. In several rounds of strikes beginning in 1946, unions won some of what they wanted. Conservatives, however, feared the potential power of labor unions to bring the economy to a standstill. Truman , although friendly to labor, also feared its power. In 1946, he seized coal mines to keep production going in the face of an approaching winter and threatened to use the army to run the railroads if workers called strikes.,

The US had grown even richer. The Gross National Product (the value of all goods and services) in 1929 had been a little over $100 billion, fell to $70 billion in the depression but had risen above $174 billion in 1948. Prosperity was stimulated by pent-up demand and by massive federal spending. In 1945, the US government had spent $98 billion dollars as opposed to the normal $3 billion in the 1920s. Although the budget was cut to $33 billion by 1948, the explosion in consumer spending more than made up the slack. New Deal and wartime policies of high taxes and high wages had redistributed incomes, giving the average person the wherewithal to buy. Although farm income was decreasing because of increased efficiency and overproduction, wages rose. All businesses had grown, contrary to the dire predictions of conservatives that the New Deal would destroy business. Competition was very much alive.

Probably because of the economic boom, national and ethnic minorities did not suffer attacks as they had after World War I. There were fewer foreigners to attack. African Americans began to make some gains. Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948 and called for civil rights measures to increase democracy and civil liberties in the nation. The GI Bill, which aided veterans to gain job training and education, was color blind. However, not everyone rode the wave if this new prosperity. Small farmers could not compete against large farmers. Some people were displaced by technological advances. The elderly suffered from fixed incomes in the face of inflation. Most African Americans saw their opportunities and incomes lag behind whites.

Truman called for reforms, for a Fair Deal, in September, 1945. He wanted a higher minimum wage, social security coverage extended to new groups, public housing built and slum clearance, more TVA-like regional development type programs, federal aid to education, and mandated health care for all. He demanded an end to racial discrimination in employment. The Fair Deal was blocked by the Southern Democrat-Republican coalition. Nevertheless, the 1946 Employment Act marked official acceptance of federal responsibility for maintaining full employment.

Tired of Democrats and reform programs, the country put the Republican Party in charge of both houses of Congress in the 1946 elections. But few New Deal laws were repealed. The anti-labor sentiment of conservatives was compromised in the Taft-Hartley Act, which liberals opposed because it sought to curtail union power. The Republicans appeared to be on a roll and pundits and others predicted that its candidate, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, would easily defeat Truman for President in 1948. The Democratic Party split as Southern Democrats bolted to the Dixiecrat party of Strom Thurmond because the Democratic Party platform had adopted a civil rights plank suggested by Hubert Humphrey. Thurmond was virulently anti-African American. Leftists in the Democratic Party supported the candidacy of Henry Wallace, who objected to Truman's policy towards Russia because he thought it too hostile. Truman won, however, because he campaigned throughout the nation and attacked the "Do-Nothing Congress. " as he called it. The Democrats also got control of Congress; the New Deal was more popular than conservatives had realized.

Emboldened by these victories, Truman expanded the Fair Deal calling for a new farm program, new civil rights measures, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. In foreign affairs, he called for US technical assistance to underdeveloped nations to ward off Communism. Some of this Point Four program was passed as well as a few other Fair Deal proposals.

The Korean War

In 1949-50, Asia became a problem not Europe on which the US had focused. Japan had been remade along democratic and pacifist lines but the Communists, under Mao Tse-dung, were beating the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. The USSR , which had occupied Manchuria during war, recognized Chiang, including Manchuria. It gave limited aid to Mao but turned over Manchurian cities to Chiang. Secretary of State General George C. Marshall went to China to try to get the two sides to cooperate but decided by December, 1946, that the situation was hopeless. The US gave limited aid to Chiang but, in 1949, the Nationalists armies disintegrated and Mao's forces captured city after city. In December, Chiang fled to Formosa. Very few Americans, at the time, demanded massive aid to Chiang. Within a few years, however, bitter after the fact charges would be leveled at the Truman administration. Truman and Secretary of State Acheson blamed the Nationalists. In January, 1950, Acheson, in a speech, defined a broad American defense perimeter in Pacific and did not include Formosa or Korea.

Believing that the US would not defend Korea, the North Korean army invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Truman responded by sending supplies to South Korean troops and sent the Seventh Fleet into the straits between Formosa: and China. Truman took the issue to the Security Council of the United Nations. The Soviets were boycotted for a different reason and so were not there to veto the Council resolution ordering the withdrawal of North Korea and urging assistance to South Korea. Truman sent US air and sea forces and then ground troops under general Douglas MacArthur. Fifteen other nations sent small contingents. The North Koreans pushed the US army southward. In September around Pusan, the US began its counteroffensive. The brilliant Inchon landing encircled some North Korean troops. The UN General Assembly resolved to create a democratic, unified, and independent Korea. MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel separating the two Koreas and drove towards Chinese border, the Yalu River. Truman and others warned of the possible intervention of Chinese but MacArthur asserted that they would not. He was deadly wrong. In November, Chinese troops poured into Korea. Pushing UN forces southward. MacArthur called this a new war and demanded the means to win it including attacks on China. Rebuffed by Truman, MacArthur went against military discipline and, some say, the Constitution by disobeying his commanding officer and taking protests to the press interviews. Truman relieved him of command. Although there was a hue and cry at this treatment of a war hero, most people came to understand that civilians had to be supreme over the military. The North and South forces stabilized near old boundary. Peace negotiations began in July 1, 1951.

The US defense budget quadrupled in 1950-51 (not all of this was because if the Korean war) and the armed forces were increased to 3.5 million. Western Europe was rearmed and discussions began about rearming Germany. In September, 1951, the US signed a peace treaty with Japan, officially ending the war.

The End of the Truman Era

A nasty debate over foreign policy erupted. Some extremists argued that the whole diplomacy of FDR and Truman was part of a gigantic plot by Communists. More moderate critics asserted that it was a mistake for the US to make commitments on the Europe and Asian continents, an isolationist position. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and others wanted to rely upon air power so as to avoid using an army or the navy. Liberals argued that the mistake was reliance upon and support of corrupt and reactionary regimes or reliance upon military rather than economic measures to defend against Communism.

The problem was that it was not clear what the extent of US commitments were, so they argued that the problem was "Communists in government." Between 1941 and 1945 when Communists throughout the world were supporting the anti-Hitler alliance, some Communists had found jobs in Washington, usually low-echelon jobs. A few had been used by the USSR for espionage. There were some Communist Party members among intellectuals and labor leaders but they were, in fact, insignificant. had gained some inroads in a few intellectual and labor circles. News of this, exposed and greatly exaggerated at the moment Americans were dying in a frustrating war with Communists in Korea produced an explosion. Truman established a government loyalty program in March, 1947 in response to a few early exposures. The FBI conducted investigations and "security risks" were fired. In 1948, the federal government prosecuted people under the Smith Act of 1940. Still unsatisfied, the House of Representatives created the Committee on Un-American Activities, thus asserting that it, and it alone, could define what was and was not "American." Its most famous case of the time was that of Alger Hiss who was accused by an ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers, of having been a Communist and of having been engaged in espionage. In1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury but not of espionage. Richard Milhous Nixon was a hero of HUAC. He then won a California US Senate s by accusing his Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagen Douglas, of being " soft on Communism" and engaging in dirty tricks. Liberals detested him while the Republican right-wing saw him as a hero. About the same time, it was discovered that the Rosenbergs and David Greenglass had been selling atomic secrets to the USSR. Congress passed the McCarran Act in 1950 which required the registration of Communist organizations and gave President the power to inter subversives during wartime. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Bill severely increased immigration restrictions.

In 1950, when fear of communism reached peak, the anti-Communist crusade found its champion Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin. McCarthy charged that Communists, the numbered varied, were employed in State Department; attacked General Marshall and Acheson as traitors; and scared large numbers of people into thinking that there was imminent damage from Communism. It was not a question of proof; smear tactics rarely are. It worked well in the 1950 elections. McCarthy got reelected and gained fame and power. Groups took up the crusade; libraries were purged; teachers were fired; books and magazines were destroyed; and television and movie stars and writers were blacklisted.

The 1952 election campaign began while McCarthy was at his peak. In April, a threatened steel strike seemed to threaten paralysis so Truman seized the steel plants, an act declared unconstitutional by the courts in June. Some of his administration were caught in scandals. The Republicans did not nominate an extreme right wing hero like McCarthy or a conservative like Taft but Eisenhower (Ike). Ike identified with the FDR and Truman foreign policy. He did support Republican candidates and John Foster Dulles promised to sweep back the "tide of Communism" of the republicans won. Before the campaign ended, Ike promised to go to Korea to end the war. The liberal governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, was badly beaten by Eisenhower. It was personal popularity because the Democrats kept control of Congress.

Donald J. Mabry