Just hours after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Harry S. Truman assumed the role as the president of the United States. In the midst of the most destructive war the world had ever seen, Truman accepted the daunting challenges accompanied the presidency and at one point exclaimed that it was ‘the greatest thing in history.’1 After the war, he would be responsible for handling communism and how the U.S. would respond to its global uprising. However, little did Truman know that each decision he would make both during and after the war would shape the world after him. Through various controversial decisions in the middle of the twentieth century, such as the atomic bomb and the Truman Doctrine, Harry S. Truman brought the country closer to a global disaster, divided the United States, and forever tainted the perception of traditional American values.
Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the handling of the U.S.’ atomic arsenal, while ending one war, caused irreversible political tension. Though the U.S. and the Soviet Union had competing ideologies of communism and capitalism, the principle reason for their disputes was the atomic bomb. Their contrasting worldviews certainly had the potential to be problematic, but “the atomic bomb forced the United States and the Soviet Union more quickly to reckon with one another than if the bomb hadn’t existed.”2 This opinion portrays that the use of the bomb consequently brought the Soviet Union and the U.S. closer to conflict than if Truman had never used it in war, proof that part of future conflicts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were because of Truman’s actions. Though an ally of Truman in World War II, Stalin felt threatened by the U.S.’ new impactful bomb. Stalin was determined to “level the playing field,” and Soviet scientists were well on their way to developing similar bombs, thanks in part to atomic espionage.3 The potential of two competing countries having super powerful atomic resumes could have resulted in a global catastrophe, with two enemy nations destroying each other. This tension between the two nations likely would have been avoided had Truman better managed the use of the bomb and his relationship with the Soviet Union, but his poor handling of both would have long lasting effects. Truman’s relationship with Stalin, while decent when they first met, would weaken as World War II neared its end. Truman was hesitant to release any information about the bomb to Stalin – the only information he told him was that he had a powerful weapon – and was much more revealing to Winston Churchill.4 Out of fear, Truman kept much of the bomb’s history and planning a secret from Stalin and Soviet scientists. As the Soviets developed their bombs. Truman, frightened by another country having control over atomic weapons, presented the Baruch Plan in June of 1946, which would have made accessible to the U.S. any Soviet plans for atomic weaponry.5 Not surprisingly, the Soviets rejected this plan, fearing this move would subject them to the economic and scientific control of Western nations.6 The ways in which Truman handled the information about the bomb were a leading factor in the U.S. and the Soviets becoming so alienated after the war. Truman’s attempted policies were a significant reason why the Soviet Union even tried to build up their nuclear profile, evidence that Truman was at fault for creating political tension. Also, a significant outcome of the bomb was its devastating political effects on other nations: “It may be difficult to persuade the world that a nation which was capable of secretly preparing and suddenly releasing a weapon as indiscriminate as the [German] rocket bomb and a million times more destructive, is to be trusted in its proclaimed desire of having such weapons abolished by international agreement.”7 While the U.S. maintained their intentions were for world peace and not to build an atomic empire, this was a belief that many nations would find difficulty in believing. Trusting a country that had wiped out thousands of years of civilization in mere minutes would have been extremely ignorant to their own people, and could have in turn benefited the country that began the atomic mess, the U.S. Thus, the atomic bomb did not set an end to all global conflict because of its impact on World War II, but instead allowed for the possibility of nuclear disputes and arguments over control. Although since World War II there have been no atomic weapons used in war, the looming effects of the bomb extend far beyond its lone use in World War II.8 The shattered relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union intensified throughout the remainder of the twentieth century as a result of the bomb, specifically with the Cold War, and inched the world closer to a full-scale atomic war. The common factor among all of the nuclear disputes following World War II is that they were all made possible by Truman’s decision to bomb the Japanese. The enormous amount of nuclear possibilities and knowledge that Truman opened up to the world following the Manhattan Project is immeasurable and undoubtedly a turning point in the era of global politics, one headlined by nuclear threat and power. Although he hoped to end a war with the atomic bomb, Truman instead provoked an era of conflict and fear regarding nuclear weaponry.
In addition to the handling of the atomic bomb, Harry Truman’s decisions regarding communism weakened the U.S.’ international relationships, the Soviet Union most notably. The actions Truman took pushed the two countries from former allies to “Cold War adversaries” more rapidly than if he had acted in a more cautious manner.9 Hitler’s triumphs worried Truman, with concerns about the potential of an enemy dominating Western Europe – the leading economic center besides America.10 Truman feared that “if that happened the Western hemisphere might be forced into economic isolation and their security eventually eroded by enemy control of Europe’s industrial resources.”11 Already, Truman had fears that he would eventually act on in controversial manners. His worries became a key component of why he made certain decisions, and ultimately they would harm the U.S. more than if he had acted based on intellect. Because of his concerns, Truman implemented many new policies and ideas in an attempt to limit the Soviet Union’s power as a communist regime. He felt that as the leader of a democratic nation it was his duty to “fashion a world order rooted in both a traditional balance of power and a set of forward-looking civilizational values.”12 The Soviet Union, he believed, did not meet this criteria and took action to ensure they did not manifest an empire in Europe. As a result, Truman issued his most impactful decision regarding communism, and one which was accompanied by conflicts and criticism: the Truman Doctrine. Convinced that Turkey and Greece faced communist aggression, Truman said: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”13 Truman’s decision to issue aid changed many worldviews about America, as people came to see America as overprotective and invasive. One thing became clear throughout Truman’s presidency: the America of the past, one isolated from foreign affairs, was now forever intertwined with pressing and controversial global issues. Truman acted out of fear of what could have happened, and irrationally attempted means to silence those fears. Of all possible actions Truman could have taken, one historian points to his decision and claims it was the worst action possible. “The best route for America at the time would have been to negotiate a quid pro quo with the Soviets, one which would have recognized their power in Eastern Europe, and which would have asserted the power of the United States and their allies in the Western world.”14 But, Truman allowed the Soviet Union to exercise their hegemony in Eastern Europe and simultaneously failed to establish the security interests of America.15 In turn, this was the marking of the beginning of post-war conflicts between the Soviet Union and America.16 While Truman had great intent for the U.S., his worries about the Soviet Union constructing an empire dominated his decision making. By acting out of fear, Truman indecisively allowed a communist regime capable of ruling much of Europe to rise to power- one responsible for up to fifteen million deaths related to implemented communist policies.17 As the Soviet Union expanded, Truman hoped to redeem himself: he attempted to persuade the Soviet Union to sponsor democratic elections in Eastern Europe.18 Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union did not pay any attention to this seemingly absurd request.19 This provoked sharp criticism and confusion among Americans: “Why did [the United States] assume that the Russians could be made to extend such an act of forgiveness that legitimate democratic systems could be established in this part of the world – a region whose history of authoritarianism was undeniable?”20 Undoubtedly, Truman was losing the trust and preference of many Americans. His policies and handling of international relations were consistently challenged and often they proved to be costly and very ineffective. Truly, Truman’s decisions regarding postwar Soviet-American relations did little to bridge the two nations, but rather isolated the two further. Truman’s vision of the world was very ethnocentric and based out of emotions – one concerned only with what was right for American interests – and would consequently have long lasting effects until the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, the decisions and policies that Truman was responsible for during his presidency did little to heal and rebuild relationships that were fractured during World War II; rather, his decisions furthered the divide between the U.S. and the new sphere of postwar politics.
As a result of Truman’s controversial and bold decisions, perceptions about American values greatly changed, both within and outside of the U.S. Writing in his diary after the bomb was successfully tested, Truman wrote: “It is certainly a good thing that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to me the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”21 Truman acknowledged the evident danger and barbarism of a bomb of such magnitude, but still would decide to exploit its power when he used it against the Japanese. This would be a point of criticism and discomfort for many around the globe, and significantly transformed the popular opinion of American values. The American government was accused of being racist, with critics saying the bomb would have never been used against another predominantly white country.22 Most pointed to the state of Japan’s military at the end of the war, stating they were already entering the beginnings of surrender and the bomb was absolutely unecessary.23 As the president of a democratic country, one built on values of liberty and freedom, exploiting a powerful weapon for military and political advantages was very contradictory and provoked many scholars to attack Truman. Historian John Rowls outlined the role of a democratic nation in a war: “In the conduct of war, a democratic society must carefully distinguish three groups: the state’s leaders and officials, its soldiers, and its civilian population… the [the civilian population] can never be attacked except in times of extreme crisis.”24 Truman’s decision to use two bombs on Japan unquestionably violated the final sector: the civilians. Estimations predict that over 200,000 Japanese civilians were killed as a result of the two bombs, with later deaths due to illnesses related to the bombs effects accounting for even more casualties.25 The staggering amount of civilian deaths led to the negative perceptions of American values, and would prove costly once America stepped into the realm of communism and what the “right way” to effectively govern was. Understandably, many were not eager to embrace the U.S’ idea of democracy after their bombings of Japan. The weakened state of the Japanese military suggested that the United States was not in a state of crisis, and led many to denounce the dropping of the bomb and label it anti-democratic. The view of America became stained with the image of the atomic bomb: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the culmination of that process, became the symbols of a new American barbarism, reinforcing charges, with dramatic circumstantial evidence, that the policies of the United States contributed to the origins of the Cold War.”26 The bomb’s impact beyond the immediate deaths was unmistakable. The two cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not just victims of American aggression, but symbols of a democratic nation violating its founding principles. Not only did the American image become tainted with the horror of the bomb, but the image was wounded even more when the same bomb would be a leading reason as to why the Cold War occurred shortly after. As well as the citizen’s opinions of the United States’ actions, other nations were hesitant to negotiate with the U.S. after their use of the bomb, especially concerning nuclear control. The Soviet Union was reluctant to allow the U.S. to oversee their nuclear information and practices, given that they had just decimated two of Japan’s cities.27 Because of Truman’s policies, the trust between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was diminished. The Soviets wanted no part in sharing any of their nuclear knowledge with the U.S. What once was a wartime ally was now seeking to isolate itself from the U.S., reflective of how Truman’s actions changed other nation’s opinions of the U.S. Also, American congressmen criticized Truman’s role in post-war politics, claiming he acted like an international policeman. Republican Congressman Robert Taft attacked Truman’s attempted control of the world and said it exhausted the government’s resources and imposed higher taxes on the average American.28 Even members of Truman’s own democratic party were torn on his policies. Senator Claude Pepper of Florida denounced Truman for including military aid in the containment efforts, its emotional roots, and its failure to involve the United Nations.29 Truman’s decisions had deeply conflicted the political sphere of American politics, proof that his tactics were divisive for the country. As a result of this barbarism, the citizens of the U.S. and Japan became significantly more distant from each other. According to PEW Research Center, in 1945, 85% of Americans felt the use of the bomb was justified, however, only 29% of the Japanese population felt the same way.30 Truman’s decisions split international perception of the justification of the bomb, and forever stained American democracy with the image of nuclear weapons. Still, in 2015, the Japanese greatly resented the bomb: only 14% of the population felt the use of it justified, proof that Truman’s actions were not just barbaric in the mid-1900s, but continue to wound the image of America as time passes.31 The views of a democratic America were shattered not just for an era where the atrocity of the atomic bomb and the containment policies loomed, but well into the twenty-first century, as the image of the bomb grew even worse than it did in 1945. Despite Truman’s beliefs about how he could reap the benefits of such a powerful bomb, the effects of the bomb weakened international relations, as countries lost their trust in the U.S., and stained the views of a democratic America.
Collectively, Truman’s actions would intensify international relations and negatively impact the world’s opinion on America. The U.S. would become known for its attacks against Japan and seen as barbaric and, to some, racists. Truman became president in an incredibly complex period of history, but his decisions did little to help the U.S., and instead brought more chaos and confusion to the postwar era of politics.
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