Victor Davis Hanson: Truman and the Principles of U.S. Foreign Policy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Most recently he is the editor of "Makers of Ancient Strategy," forthcoming from Princeton University Press.]

Upon entering office, Barack Obama knew little about foreign policy. But then neither did Vice President Harry S. Truman when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945.

President Obama often invokes the supposed mess abroad—especially in Iraq and Afghanistan—left to him by George W. Bush. But Mr. Obama's inheritance is mild compared to the myriad crises that nearly overwhelmed the rookie President Truman.

All at once Truman had to finish the struggle against Hitler, occupy Europe, and deal with a nominally allied but increasingly bellicose and ascendant Soviet Union. Within months of taking office he had to make the awful decision to drop atomic bombs on Imperial Japan.

At war's end, Truman was faced with a global propaganda nightmare. Stalin's victorious Soviet Union—soon to be nuclear—cynically posed as the egalitarian leader for millions of war-impoverished and newly liberated colonial peoples. In contrast, America accepted the difficult responsibility and expense of rebuilding the destitute former European colonial powers and rehabilitating ex-Axis Japan and Germany.

Some of Truman's initial military decisions proved nearly disastrous. After the atomic bombs forced Japan's surrender, he was stubbornly convinced that a nuclear air force could ensure American security on the cheap.

The result was that between 1946 and 1949 Truman tried to emasculate the Marine Corps. He mothballed much of the Navy and slashed the Army. Only the Communist invasion of South Korea in the summer of 1950 finally woke him to the reality that there would still be plenty of limited conventional threats in the Cold War, and that he'd better rearm if the U.S. was going to protect its interests and allies.

But the public had already lost confidence in Truman's military leadership during the so-called Revolt of the Admirals in spring and summer 1949, when top Navy officials blasted the president's plans to reduce conventional maritime forces. In just four years (between 1947 and 1951), Truman went through four secretaries of defense...

comments powered by Disqus