May is always the month when A-level classes shift focus to revision in preparation of the exams. After picking up the module The American Dream (American history in the period 1945-1980) for the second year’s teaching I was faced with delving into the domestic and economic policies of various presidents; something that I have not fully enjoyed. However, the one area where I get much more satisfaction is with foreign policy, which links to the History foundation degree module The Reluctant Handover. I enjoy the themes and the over-arching political concepts and fears, such as that of the Cold War and what this meant for the relationships of the countries of the world.

So, one of my first directed revision sessions on the module focussed on foreign policy, starting with Harry S. Truman’s time in the hot-seat from 1945 to 1952. It makes sense to start at the beginning due to Truman’s high influence in establishing the tone of foreign policy throughout the post-war period until the fall of communism in Russia. Therefore, how about a whistle-stop tour through some of the key concepts and precedents established in the 1940s.

Truman’s character is of interest: he has been called a ‘plain speaking Southerner’, and is a rarity amongst presidents in that he came to occupy the main seat in the White House after the death of a president. Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) had won an impressive and unprecedented four election victories (the limit on two terms was officially imposed after the war), however, his health was in decline. Roosevelt was the vital cog in the maintenance of the war-time alliance with the USSR and Britain, and after his death Truman took a tougher line on the Communists. This led to a distancing with Stalin and a greater reliance on the advice of Churchill (ever the anti-Communist) and Dean Acheson. The thinking changed from the need to preserve the alliance to win the war to become more focussed on how to achieve balance of power in the aftermath of peace.

Potsdam Conference: Attlee, Truman, Stalin

The 1945 conferences (Yalta in February and Potsdam in July-August) show this change of direction. Although positive goals had been established in these meetings (notably the creation of the United Nations) by Potsdam Truman was aware that the new atomic bomb had been tested and was ready for use against Japan (the last remaining enemy after the fall of Germany). The use of two of atomic bombs against Japan has been a hot topic of historical debate: were they dropped in order to speed up the conclusion of the war and to avoid the possible deaths of hundreds of thousands of American troops, or was it dropped as a show of strength to Stalin and the Communists? The bombs did lead to Japan’s surrender and the end of the world war, but clear friction had been established between the two remaining superpowers.

This growing mistrust can be clearly evidenced in the second half of the 1940s. George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ of February 1945 stated that the USSR was ‘highly sensitive to the logic force’, therefore suggesting a stronger line against Stalin. This was followed with Churchill’s famous speech in 1946 when he outlined the danger of the ‘Iron Curtain’ forming in Europe. Stalin’s involvement in post-war Greece provided the official stimulus for Truman to become more active in contesting the spread of communism; in March 1947 he obtained $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey to push back Stalin’s gaze. This led to the establishment of the Truman Doctrine: a cornerstone of American policy was to ‘support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ American strategists became convinced by the notion of the Domino Theory: if one country fell, then all others could come tumbling down. Cynics might view this as the continuation of former doctrines (Monroe’s of 1823 and the later Roosevelt Corollary) with the ever arching theme being the growth of American power and influence. Whatever our interpretation, Truman’s steps established the narrative of the Cold War in the post-war period: America would step in to thwart communist expansion.

The Domino Theory

In this light, we can understand the meaning behind National Security Council Report 68 (issued in 1950); a top secret document that suggested an increase in defence spending from $13 billion a year to $50 billion. It also helps us understand the motives behind the Marshall Plan when billions were pumped into Europe to help rebuild the war-torn economies and societies. Clearly Truman and the Americans decided that the best way to prevent communist spread was to stabilise the western democracies and the capitalist structures. With Czechoslovakia already lost to Stalin’s orbit (in 1948), Truman was able to bring the rest of western Europe into America’s sphere of influence. This economic protection was coupled with a military protection: the establishment of NATO meant that any threat against a member state would mean the involvement of American force.

The Cold War developed and during Truman’s presidency there were two contested zones: Europe (centring on Germany) and Asia. The war-time conferences had established that Germany was to divided into four zones, to be divided to the four bigger powers (USA ,USSR, Britain, and France). However, the western democracies began pooling their resources together to create Bizonia and the Trizonia; the creation of a new currency – the Deutchsmark – was seen as a threatening move by Stalin. Essentially, Germany was now split into a two-way divide: West Germany (capitalist and democratic) and East Germany (communist and under USSR’s direction). The whole picture was further muddled with Berlin: like the whole of Germany, it too had been divided into four zones, later forming into two blocks. Stalin decided to strangle western Berlin in order to absorb it; this took the form of a blockading the city to prevent any supplies reaching the western half by land. Truman had a decision to make at this point, and his proactive approach ended up saving Berlin: he ordered a continuous airlift into the city over 324 days in which 2.5 million people were serviced with 1.5 million tons of supplies over 275,000 flights. It was a test of brinksmanship: if Stalin responded by attacking the planes he risked starting a brand new war. Ultimately, Stalin ended the blockade and the Americans won a valuable victory, thereby entrenching the Truman Doctrine. However, this gamble and test of brinksmanship was followed by later presidents; even though Kennedy himself enjoyed a victory in 1962, many historians question just how close the world came to nuclear war.

Berlin Blockade: 1949

The Asian picture created further complex for Truman. The occupation of Japan (1945-52) helped transform the country from enemy to key ally. Similar to Europe, money and expertise was pumped into Japan to help rebuild it and tie it into America’s economic sphere of influence. Its importance grew after the revolution in China which confirmed a new communist state; America would need a firm Asian ally to help prevent further spread of communism. Elsewhere, Truman ordered money to be pumped into Indo-China to help maintain a French presence; this would later prove disastrous when the French left the region leaving America to pick up the pieces. The escalation of American troops in the form of the Vietnam War would be one of America’s devastating legacies of the Cold War.

Truman’s presidency was later dominated by the Korean War: in 1950 the communist North Koreans invaded the South. A United Nations mandate brought forth American troops to help push back the invaders, all before both North and South re-agreed on a clear line by 1953. In many ways, this war was a success for Truman: it highlighted the strength of the Truman Doctrine, and the president prevented further escalation by removing MacArthur after hearing his suggestion of using atomic bombs in the region. However, the war was costly: by 1953 there were 138,000 American dead or injured, all of which hit Truman’s approval rating.


All in all, Truman experienced clear successes: he established a balance of power in Europe, prevented communist spread in key regions, and helped create key post-war institutions (the United Nations, NATO, and the Marshall Plan). However, his presidency also established later problems: he set the tone for an aggressive foreign policy, as well as for the American presence in Vietnam. It would not be until Nixon when an American president would establish a more harmonious relationship with both the USSR and China. But, on the whole, his presidency must be congratulated for steadying the ship with FDR’s death and for establishing the basis of American superiority in the post-war period.