How Do Revisionists Evaluate the Administration of Harry Truman?

History Q & A

Mr. Offner is Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College and past president, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. His latest book is Another Such Victory (Stanford University Press).

At the start of the twenty-first century, President Harry S. Truman's reputation stands high. This is especially true regarding his stewardship of foreign policy although, ironically, he entered the Oval Office in 1945 untutored in world affairs. Moreover, during his last year in the White House the Republicans accused his administration of having surrendered fifteen countries and 500 million people to Communism and of having sent twenty thousand Americans to their"burial ground" in Korea. Near the end of his term. Truman's public"favorable" rating had plummeted to 23 percent.

Within a decade, however, historians rated Truman a"near great" president, crediting his administration with reconstructing Western Europe and Japan. resisting Soviet or Communist aggression from Greece to Korea. and forging collective security through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the 1970s the"plain speaking" Truman became a hero in popular culture. In 1986 Britain's Roy Jenkins hailed Truman as a"backwoods politician who became a world statesman." Recently, biographers have depicted him as the allegory of American life, an ordinary man whose extraordinary character led him to triumph over adversity from childhood d1rough the presidency. Some writers, such David McCullough have even posited a symbiotic relationship between"His Odyssey" from Independence to the White House and America's rise to triumphant superpower status. Melvyn Leffler, in his prize-winning A Preponderance of Power has judged Truman to have been neither a naif nor an idealist but a realist who understood the uses of power, and whose administration, despite serious, costly errors, prudently preserved America's national security against real or perceived Soviet threats. And for the last quarter of a century, nearly every Democratic or Republican candidate for president has claimed to be a latter-day Truman.

Collapse of the Soviet Union and Europe's other Communist states. whose archives have confirmed Truman's belief in 1945 that their regimes governed largely by" clubs, pistols and concentration camps," has further raised the former president's standing. This has encoumged John Lewis Gaddis and other historians to focus on Stalin's murderous domestic rule as the key determinant of Soviet foreign policy and the Cold War. As Gaddis has contended, Stalin"was heir to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, as well as to Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin. The Soviet leader was responsible for more state-sanctioned murders than Adolf Hitler and treated world politics as an extension of domestic politics: a zero-sum game in which his gaining security meant depriving all others of it. For Gaddis and others, that is basically the answer to the question of who caused the Cold War.

But as Walter LaFeber bas said. to dismiss Stalin's policies as the work of a paranoid is to greatly oversimplify the complex origins of the Cold War. Indeed, recent revelations from many sources --including Soviet, German, Eastern European, Chinese, and Korean archives, published government documents, memoirs, and oral histories -- have provided an extremely complex picture of relations between and among nations and the interplay between foreign and domestic policies and ideology and geopolitical issues during the formative Cold War years of 1945-1953. Recent scholarship has put forward new information, insights, and lines of argument, but as Leffler bas pointed out, the conclusions that have emerged are highly diverse and no"single master narrative" suffices to explain the Cold War."

Further, despite recent emphasis on Stalin as one who combined the worst traits of tsarist imperialism and Communist ideology, historians drawing on newly available materials seem to be of the preponderant view that the Soviet leader pursued a cautious but brutal realpolitik in world affairs. He aimed to restore Russia's 1941 boundaries, establish a sphere of influence in border states, provide security against a recovered Germany or Japan or hostile capitalist states, and gain compensation -- notably German reparations -- for the ravages of war. Stalin calculated forces, put Soviet state interests ahead of Marxist-Leninist ideology, recognized the superior industrial and military power of the United States, and pursued pragmatic or opportunistic policies in critical areas such as Germany, China. and Korea.

There is no evidence that Stalin intended to march his Red Army westward beyond its assigned European occupation zones. He did not intend to attack Iran or Turkey, and he afforded little support to Communist revolution in Greece and China. He also seriously miscalculated when he let Kim Il Sung persuade him that North Korea could win a swift victory over South Korea before the U.S. could or would intervene.

So too have new sources and new assessments provided vital insights into the foreign policy of Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As historian Michael Hunt has shown, Mao was a Chinese populist and patriot bent on throwing off foreign domination and imperial control of his nation and restoring it -- the Middle Kingdom -- to its rightful place in Asia and the world. From the start of his revolution in the 1920s until the 1940s, he pursued pragmatic alliances at bome and abroad, and he was prepared to accept U.S. assistance consistent with his principles. He welcomed both the first official American visit, the"Dixie Mission," to his headquarters in 1944 and the mediating mission of General George C. Marshall in 1946. Mao felt betrayed by Marshall's failure to effect the coalition government to which the CCP bad agreed, and by U.S. military support for Jiang Jieshi's Guomindang (GMD) regime to wage civil war against the CCP.

Still, Mao was amenable in 1949 to relations with the U.S. provided it broke relations with the GMD and accepted the CCP revolution. But Truman refused to deal with the emergent People's Republic of China (PRC) and supported the GMD's counterrevolutionary war from its new base on Taiwan. This only hastened Mao's seeking an alliance with the USSR, but the Chinese leader proved far less subservient than Stalin expected and Truman presumed. In fact, the Sino-Soviet treaty of 1950 forced Stalin to divest his recently regained imperial port and railroad concessions in Manchuria, and limited the two nations' defensive agreement to matters of mutual interest, thus freeing the PRC from the need to take part in any American-Soviet conflict in Europe!

It is also evident from new documents that Mao would have preferred to focus on domestic reconstruction rather than enter the Korean War in 1950. But the U.S. decision to permit General Douglas MacArthur's forces to cross the 38th parallel and march unconstrained toward the PRC border posed too great a threat. Nonetheless, newly available Russian documents indicate that even as late as October 2, 1950, Mao, who faced strong Politburo opposition to China's entering the war, cabled Stalin that the PRC lacked the necessary troops and equipment to fight. But goaded by Stalin and fearful that opponents at home and abroad would be"swollen with arrogance" if enemy troops reached the Yalu, Mao committed the PRC to a war that, for many reasons, would have dire consequences for the Chinese, American, and Korean people. Stil1, it is clear that prior to October 1950 the CCP leadership bad never shown the intention to use military force to conspire with the Kremlin to upset the status quo in Asia or drive the U.S. from the area.

Thus the time seems propitious, given our increased knowledge of Soviet,European, Chinese, and Korean policies, to reconsIder President Truman's role in the Cold War. As Thomas G. Paterson has written, the president stands at the pinnacle of the diplomatic and military establishment, he has great capacity to set the foreign policy agenda and to mold public opinion, and his importance -- especially in Truman's case -- cannot be denied. Contrary to prevailing views, however, I believe that Truman's policy making was shaped by his parochial and nationalistic heritage. This was reflected in his uncritical belief in the superiority of American values and political-economic interests, his conviction that the Soviet Union and Communism were the root cause of international strife, and his inability to comprehend Asian politics and nationalism. Truman's parochialism also caused him to disregard contrary views, to engage in simplistic analogizing, to show little ability to comprehend the basis for other nations' policies, and to demonize those leaders or nations who would not bend to the will of the U.S. Consequently, his foreign policy leadership intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Europe, and brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars and a generation of Sino-American enmity.

In short, Truman lacked the qualities of the creative or great leader who, as James MacGregor Burns has written, must broaden the environment in which he and his citizenry operate and widen the channels in which choices are made and events flow. Truman, to the contrary, narrowed Americans' perception of the world political environment and the channels for policy choices, and created a rigid framework in which the United States waged a long-term, extremely costly global Cold War. Indeed, before we celebrate America's victory in this contest, we might recall that after King Pyrrhus' Greek forces defeated the Romans at the battle of Asculum in 280 B.C., he reflected that"another such victory, and we are undone."


This article is reprinted by permission from Arnold Offner. It appears as the preface to his new book, Another Such Victory.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Offner - 1/25/2002

I am delighted that my dear, old friend Jerry Sternstein has taken note of my book Another Such Victory. Had had I known this sooner, I would have raced home from a European vacation the past two weeks to engage with him, once again, as we did in the Vietnam era. But I confess disappoinment that the best Jerry can do to attack my work is invoke the tired Hitler-Stalin metaphor to suggest Stalin's goals were global revolution-conquest and that Truman was not fooled, and therefore Offner is wrong.

First, as Jerry knows, my two earlier books on U..S diplomacy (American Appeasement {Harvard Press) and The Origins of the Second World War (Praeger)made the case for firmer Western resistance to Hitler, who was quite ready to go to war (over Czech. and Poland...and USSR of course) when his diplomatic demands were refused.

Stalin was another case--and despite Gaddis' claim that he killed more people (esp. civilians) than Hitler, most Sovietologists--see esp. David Holloway, but even Zubok/Pleshakov--recognize that he was a (brutal) realist who backed off war, and sought above all to control his secruity zone, not the world beyond. Hence no intent to march to the Atlantic...and note here Norman Naimark's study of The Russians in Germany that says Stalin was far less prepared to deal w Germany in 1945 than the U.S. and did NOT know what he wanted to do and did NOT aim to take the western sectors!!!! And his policy in Iran, Turkey and Greece was FAR more bluster than preparation for war/conquest, as the latest translated CWIHP documents (and moographic works)clearly show.

But Another Such Victory is about far more than Truman/Stalin--and if Jerry reads the long chapters on China and the Korean War, he will discover how badly the Truman admin. bungled matters there, how they hadn't the faintest notion of what Mao and Asian revolution were about, and how they could have averted a larger war in Korea and 25 years of enmity w PRC if they had taken the advice even of numerous officials in the field who warned against an intensely nationalist policy that sought to destroy N. KOrea and paid no heed to PRC concerns. At the end, it was hardly discernible from MacArthur's (except the General wd. have risked WW III).

Anyway, I welcome renewed debate with my old friend Jerry, and he always knows that when he gets to Massachusetts, where I live and we used to dine, dinner and debate at Chez Offner await him...

Cheers to you Jerry,

Jerome L. Sternstein - 1/16/2002

In 1946, Maxim Litvinov, former foreign minister under Stalin and former Soviet ambassador to the US, gave a remarkable interview to Richard C. Hottelet, CBS's Moscow correspondent. He was asked by Hottelet, what would happen if the West -- Truman's administration -- should immediately grant Stalin everything he wanted territorially. Litvinov replied: "It would lead to the West's being faced, after a more or less short time, with the next series of demands." According to Litvinov, the root cause of the growing tension between the US and the Soviet Union was "the ideological conception prevailing here (ie. in the Kremlin) that conflict between Communist and capitalist worlds is inevitable." Nowhere, is should be noted, did Litvinov blame the West for the growing conflict. On the contrary, he argued in the Hottelet interview and in other private conversations that many Americans were blind to the realities of Stalin's ambitions.

Similarly, the late Gen. Dmitri Volkoganov, who as far as I know is the only historian who has had access to the Kremlin's private papers, also came to the same conclusion in his biography of Stalin as that reached by Litvinov: that had the West acquiesced to Stalin's demands, it would have been faced with more and more demands.

As John Lewis Gaddis has brilliantly written -- and as Arnie Offner has failed -- in this essay, at least -- to consider, Stalin alone "saw war and revolution as acceptable means with which to pursue ultimate ends: no Western leader associated violence with progress to the extent that he did." What were those ultimate ends? Well, what were Hitler's ultimate ends? Don't some British revisionists argue that Hitler's were limited to sharing world power with Great Britain, that he was also a "realist" anxious only to dominate Germany's "natural" sphere of interest? Thankfully, neither Churchill or Truman bought into this ultimately silly thesis. And neither should we.

Cheers Arnie,

Jerry Sternstein

Arnold Offner - 1/9/2002

I am sorry Pierre Troublion, but to say that Stalin and Mao killed millions and therefore we cannot criticize HST et al for HIroshima and Nagasaki seems illogical to me. Two or three "wrongs" do not make a right, so far as I know.

In addition, if you read my chapter on Potsdam and the use of the atomic bombs, you will see that I put this in full context...and quite compassionate in judgment, in my view....But still, one must point out what were the political as well as military issues that led to use of the bombs (plural).

Cheers, Arnie Offner

Arnold Offner - 1/9/2002

I agree with Hans Vought FDR definitely should have briefed HST, and FDR is to blame for carrying US foreign policy, incl critical info re the atomic bomb, too much in his head...

But I question whether one can say prosperity in the 1990's and use of force in Afghanistan in 2001-02 shows that one cannot be really be critical of US policy--and at the same time also question whether the Cold War should have happened....In fact, my point is that some Cold War was likely but the virulent shape and form and long-term costs were not necessary, or could have been mitigated...and that rather than doing that, HST and his Admin made it all more costly than necessary...and left a long-term lecgacy that had us waging global Cold War for the 40 years after HST left office.

Finally, it's a little unfair to criticize historians on the basis of saying they have 20-20 hindsight. Does that mean we should stop writing because we can see (better) what others missed at the time? Criticism--with compassion--is certainly a legitimate form of intellectual enterprise...

Cheers, Arnie Offner

Arnold Offner - 1/9/2002

I made a typo in my reply re U.S> dealing with PRC; I meant 1949-1950)not 1940-50. IN short, if we had at least give de facto recog...esp. since HST had won the 1948 election and had decent standing in summer-fall 1949, then the costly collision in 1950-51 might have been avoided.

Arnie Offner

Arnold Offner - 1/9/2002

The President and State Dept made the decision to go north despite the protests and warnings of some officials incl. Kennan.
U.N> approval was given for purposes of military operations altho it is clear destruction of NK govt was the real purpose.

Fact is, HST, ACheson and others never expected PRC intervention, and were deaf to all the warnings. They also did not sufficiently constrain Macarthur, who repeatedly violated orders by sending U.S. forces toward the Yalu etc...and attacked in the north (and over the border) in a most aggressive way.
HST himself later admitted he should have fired Mac A in the fall, but the political cost seemed too high then (to his credit, he knew it would be very costly in April '51 but did it, after consdierable vacillation.

My point about the parochialism is how little the US understood about China (esp MAO and the PRC); if they had been dealing with the PRC in 1940-1950, perhaps the debacle of fall 1950-winter 1951 might have been avoided...

CHeers, Arnie Offner

Truman B. Brown - 1/8/2002

Was the authorization for MacArthur-lead forces to cross the 38th parallel--going North--granted by the U.S.[Congress? I guess!]or by the United Nations? If by the latter (my view), charges of "parochialism" leveled at the President seem overblown.

The State Department's policy-planning staffers, including Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, Boland, etc. which served Truman, were not parochial in their thinking. The buck stopped with them.

Hans P. Vought - 1/7/2002

The revisionists' argument that the United States' victory in the Cold War came at too great a cost, resulting in a fatally weakened economy and a form of "imperial overstretch," made some degree of sense during the recession ten years ago. But the decade of prosperity that followed, and the obvious continued ability to use American military forces swiftly and with devastating effect, should have made it clear that the United States' triumph in the Cold War was hardly a Pyrhhic victory.
Whether the Cold War should ever have happened is another matter, of course, and there is no denying that the United States, and President Truman, bear some of the blame for misunderstanding events. But we would do well to remember that a historian's hindsight is 20-20. All leaders are fallible, and guilty of grave mistakes that alter the course of history. The assumption that things would've been better if FDR had lived is counterfactual, and cannot be proven. But it's hard to believe that such might have been the case. FDR was naive enough to think that he shared some special rapport with Stalin, and he bears much of the blame for Truman's unpreparedness, since FDR refused to brief the vice president even when it was obvious he didn't have long to live.

Pierre Troublion - 1/3/2002

Residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have grounds for complaint against Harry Truman. Nevertheless, even his worst misjudgements pale in comparision to the deliberate slaughter by Mao and Stalin of millions of their own subjects.
Revisionism is one thing, ignoring basic facts in order to blame totalitarian hostilities on those who resist them is quite another.