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|In office |
April 12, 1945 – January 20, 1953
|Preceded by||F. D. Roosevelt presidency|
|Succeeded by||Eisenhower presidency|
|Seat||White House, Washington, D.C. (1945-1948, 1952-1953), Blair House, Washington, D.C. (1948-1952)|
The presidency of Harry S. Truman began on April 12, 1945, when Harry S. Truman became President of the United States upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ended on January 20, 1953. He had been Vice President of the United States for only 82 days when he succeeded to the presidency. A Democrat, he ran for and won a full four–year term in the 1948 election. His victory in that election, over Republican Thomas E. Dewey, was one of the greatest upsets in presidential electoral history. Following the 1952 election, Truman was succeeded in office by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Truman, the 33rd United States president, presided over the final defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II, the launching of the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of Western Europe, the undertaking of the Korean War, and the inception of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In domestic affairs, his liberal proposals were a continuation of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, but the Conservative Coalition-dominated Congress blocked most of them. He used presidential authority to mandate equal treatment for blacks in the military and put civil rights on the national political agenda.
Truman's presidency was a turning point in foreign affairs, as the United States engaged in an internationalist foreign policy and renounced isolationism. In mid-1945, Truman helped establish the United Nations as Roosevelt had planned it. When relations with the Soviet Union turned hostile in 1947, he issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to contain Communism; it is often used to mark the start of the Cold War. In 1948 he got the $13 billion Marshall Plan enacted to rebuild Western Europe. Fears of Soviet espionage led to a Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism. Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he sent U.S. troops and gained UN approval for seizing North Korea in the Korean War. After initial successes, however, American/UN forces were thrown back by Chinese intervention in late 1950. The bloody war was stalemated throughout the final years of Truman's presidency.
During his administration, the nation experienced an unexpected surge in prosperity as economic growth surged following many long years of depression and war. His political coalition was based on the white South, labor unions, farmers, ethnic groups, and traditional Democrats across the North. Truman rallied them to win election in his own right in 1948. His domestic agenda, known as the "Fair Deal," was largely defeated by a conservative Congress dominated by the Southern legislators. Despite wave after wave of strikes in 1946, he at times took a tough line against his labor union allies and successfully guided the American economy through the post-war economic challenges. He holds the record for vetoes at 180, and saw 12 overridden by Congress; Gerald Ford later tied that record. Truman put civil rights on the national agenda as a moral priority in 1948. He made it a campaign issue, appointed study groups, and issued Executive Orders to end racial discrimination in the military and federal agencies. Scholars typically rank Truman's presidency about #6 from the top. His reputation in textbooks was favorable from the 1950s onward. However revisionist historians in the 1960s attacked his foreign policy as too hostile to Communism, and his domestic policy as too favorable toward business. That revisionism largely faded after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Truman had been selected as Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Roosevelt had favored incumbent Vice President Henry A. Wallace or James F. Byrnes as his running mate in 1944, but Wallace was unpopular among conservatives in the party, while Byrnes was opposed by liberals and many Catholics. At the behest of party leaders, Roosevelt accepted Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, who was acceptable to all factions of the party. Truman had gained a national reputation during World War II for his leadership of the Truman Committee, which he created to fight wasteful practices in wartime production; it reflected Truman's demands for honest and efficient administration. Truman led the bipartisan committee "with extraordinary skill", choosing quiet but strong methods of correction rather than creating publicity and enmity. Roosevelt won the 1944 election, and Truman took office as vice president in January 1945. He played a minor role as Vice President and was not told about the atomic bomb until he became president.
On the night of April 12, 1945, Truman was urgently summoned to the White House. He was met by Eleanor Roosevelt, who informed him that President Roosevelt was dead. Shocked, Truman asked Mrs. Roosevelt, "Is there anything I can do for you?", to which she replied: "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now." Truman took the presidential oath of office shortly after learning of Roosevelt's death. The day after assuming office Truman spoke to reporters: "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me."
|The Truman Cabinet|
|President||Harry S. Truman||1945–1953|
|Alben W. Barkley||1949–1953|
|Secretary of State||Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.||1945|
|Dean G. Acheson||1949–1953|
|George C. Marshall||1947–1949|
|James F. Byrnes||1945–1947|
|Secretary of Treasury||Henry Morgenthau, Jr.||1945|
|John W. Snyder||1946–1953|
|Fred M. Vinson||1945–1946|
|Secretary of War||Henry L. Stimson||1945|
|Kenneth C. Royall||1947|
|Robert P. Patterson||1945–1947|
|Secretary of Defense||James V. Forrestal||1947–1949|
|Robert A. Lovett||1951–1953|
|George C. Marshall||1950–1951|
|Louis A. Johnson||1949–1950|
|Attorney General||Francis Biddle||1945|
|James P. McGranery||1952–1953|
|J. Howard McGrath||1949–1952|
|Tom C. Clark||1945–1949|
|Postmaster General||Frank C. Walker||1945|
|Jesse M. Donaldson||1947–1953|
|Robert E. Hannegan||1945–1947|
|Secretary of the Navy||James V. Forrestal||1945–1947|
|Secretary of the Interior||Harold L. Ickes||1945–1946|
|Oscar L. Chapman||1949–1953|
|Julius A. Krug||1946–1949|
|Secretary of Agriculture||Claude R. Wickard||1945|
|Charles F. Brannan||1948–1953|
|Clinton P. Anderson||1945–1948|
|Secretary of Commerce||Henry A. Wallace||1945–1946|
|Charles W. Sawyer||1948–1953|
|W. Averell Harriman||1946–1948|
|Secretary of Labor||Frances Perkins||1945|
|Maurice J. Tobin||1948–1953|
|Lewis B. Schwellenbach||1945–1948|
When he first took office, Truman asked all the members of Roosevelt's cabinet to remain in place for the time being, but by the end of 1946 only one Roosevelt appointee, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, remained. Fred M. Vinson succeeded Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. in July 1945; after Truman appointed Vinson to the Supreme Court the following year, John Wesley Snyder served as the Treasury Secretary. Truman also quickly replaced Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. with James F. Byrnes, who had been referred to as the "Assistant President" under Roosevelt. Byrnes lost Truman's trust with his conciliatory policy towards the Soviet Union in late 1945, and he was replaced by former General George Marshall in January 1947. Along with Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and a group of advisers known as the "Wise Men," Marshall emerged as one of the major architects of postwar foreign policy.
In 1947, Forrestal became the first Secretary of Defense, overseeing all branches of the United States Armed Forces. Illness sent Forrestal into retirement in 1949, and he was replaced successively by Louis A. Johnson, Marshall, and finally Robert A. Lovett. Acheson succeeded Marshall as Secretary of State in 1949 and served in that position until the end of Truman's term. Several of Truman's appointees were longtime personal friends, some of whom were appointed to positions that seemed well beyond their competence. These appointments included Vinson, Snyder, and military aide Harry H. Vaughan, who seemed to others like a huge joke. Outside of the cabinet, Clark Clifford and John R. Steelman emerged as particularly important advisers.
The office of vice president remained vacant during Truman's first (3 years, 253 days partial) term, as the Constitution then had no provision for filling it intra-term prior to the 1967 ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Until the passage of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Secretary of State was next in the presidential line of succession. After the passage of the act in July 1947, the Speaker of the House became the next-in-line. During different points of Truman's first term, Secretary of State Stettinius, Secretary of State Byrnes, Secretary of State Marshall, Speaker Joseph Martin, and Speaker Sam Rayburn would have succeeded to the presidency if Truman left office. Alben Barkley served as Truman's running mate in the 1948 election, and became Vice President during Truman's second term. Truman included him in Cabinet deliberations.
Truman made four appointments to the United States Supreme Court. After the resignation of Owen Roberts in 1945, Truman appointed Republican Senator Harold Hitz Burton of Ohio to the Supreme Court. Roberts was the lone remaining justice on the Supreme Court who had not been appointed or elevated to the position of chief justice by Roosevelt, and Truman believed it was important to nominate a Republican to succeed Roberts. Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone died in 1946, and Truman appointed Secretary of the Treasury Fred M. Vinson as Stone's successor. Two vacancies arose in 1949 due to deaths of Frank Murphy and Wiley Blount Rutledge. Truman appointed Attorney General Tom C. Clark to succeed Murphy and federal appellate judge Sherman Minton to succeed Rutledge. Vinson served for just seven years before his death in 1953, while Minton resigned from the Supreme Court in 1956. Burton served until 1958, often joining the conservative bloc led by Felix Frankfurter. Clark served until 1967, emerging as an important swing vote on the Vinson Court and the Warren Court. In addition to his Supreme Court appointments, Truman also appointed 27 judges to the courts of appeals and 101 judges to federal district courts.
By April 1945, the Allied Powers, led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, were close to defeating Germany, but Japan remained a formidable adversary in the Pacific War. As vice president, Truman had been uninformed about major initiatives relating to the war, including the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world's first atomic bomb. Although Truman was told briefly on the afternoon of April 12 that the Allies had a new, highly destructive weapon, it was not until April 25 that Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him the details of the atomic bomb, which was almost ready. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, ending the war in Europe. Truman's attention turned to Japan, where he hoped to end the war as quickly, and with as little expense in lives or government funds, as possible.
With the end of the war drawing near, Truman flew to Berlin for the Potsdam Conference, to meet with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British leader Winston Churchill regarding the post-war order. Several major decisions were made at the Potsdam Conference: Germany would be divided into four occupation zones (among the three powers and France), Germany's border was to be shifted West to the Oder–Neisse line, a Soviet-backed group was recognized as the legitimate government of Poland, and Vietnam was to be partitioned at the 16th parallel. The Soviet Union also agreed to launch an invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria. While at the Potsdam Conference, Truman was informed that the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16 had been successful. He hinted to Stalin that the U.S. was about to use a new kind of weapon against the Japanese. Though this was the first time the Soviets had been officially given information about the atomic bomb, Stalin was already aware of the bomb project, having learned about it (through espionage) long before Truman did.
In August 1945, the Japanese government ignored surrender demands as specified in the Potsdam Declaration. With the support of most of his aides, Truman approved the schedule of the military's plans to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, and Nagasaki three days later, leaving approximately 135,000 dead; another 130,000 would die from radiation sickness and other bomb-related illnesses in the following five years. Japan agreed to surrender on August 10, on the condition that Emperor Hirohito would not forced to abdicate; after some internal debate, Truman accepted these terms of surrender.
The decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki provoked long-running debates. Supporters of the bombings argue that, given the tenacious Japanese defense of the outlying islands, the bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost invading mainland Japan. Truman also wanted to end the war before the Soviet Union could invade Japanese-held territories and set up Communist governments. Critics have argued that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary, given that conventional tactics such as firebombing and blockade might induce Japan's surrender without the need for such weapons. Truman strongly defended himself in his memoirs in 1955–1956, stating that many lives could have been lost had the U.S. invaded mainland Japan without the atomic bombs. In 1963, he reaffirmed this defense, telling a journalist that "it was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life."
When Truman took office, several international organizations that were designed to help prevent future wars and international economic crises were in the process of being established. Chief among those organizations was the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization similar to the League of Nations that would help ensure international cooperation. When Truman took office, delegates were about to meet at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. As a Wilsonian internationalist, Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and he signed United Nations Charter at that conference. Truman did not repeat Woodrow Wilson's partisan attempt to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Instead Truman won Senate ratification by cooperating closely with Republican leaders, especially Arthur H. Vandenberg. Construction of the United Nations headquarters in New York City was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and completed in 1952.
In 1934, Congress had passed the Reciprocal Tariff Act, giving the president an unprecedented amount of authority in setting tariff rates. The act allowed for the creation of reciprocal agreements in which the U.S. and other countries mutually agreed to lower tariff rates. Despite significant opposition from those who favored higher tariffs, Truman was able to win legislative extension of the reciprocity program, and his administration reached numerous agreements that lowered trade barriers. The Truman administration also sought to further lower global tariff rates by engaging in multilateral, rather than bilateral, trade negotiations, and the State Department proposed the establishment of the International Trade Organization (ITO). The ITO would be granted broad powers to regulate trade among the countries, and its charter was approved by the United Nations in 1948. However, the ITO's broad powers engendered opposition in Congress, and Truman declined to send the charter to the Senate for ratification. In the course of creating the ITO, the U.S. and 22 other countries signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a set of principles governing trade policy. Under the terms of the agreement, each country agreed to reduce overall tariff rates and to treat each co-signatory as a "most favoured nation," meaning that no non-signatory country could benefit from more advantageous tariff rates. Due to a combination of the Reciprocal Tariff Act, the GATT, and inflation, U.S. tariff rates fell dramatically between the passage of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act in 1930 and the end of the Truman administration in 1953.
In March 1946, at an optimistic moment for postwar cooperation, the administration released the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. It proposed that all nations voluntarily abstain from constructing nuclear weapons; as part of the proposal, the U.S. would dismantle its nuclear program once all other countries agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons. Fearing that Congress would reject the proposal, Truman turned to the well-connected Bernard Baruch to represent the U.S. position to the United Nations. The Baruch Plan, largely based on the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, was not adopted due to opposition from Congress and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would develop its own nuclear arsenal, testing a nuclear weapon for the first time in August 1949.
The United States Atomic Energy Commission, directed by David E. Lilienthal until 1950, was in charge of designing and building nuclear weapons. The policy was 100% civilian control. The U.S. had only 9 atomic bombs in 1946, but the stockpile grew to 650 by 1951. Lilienthal wanted to give high priority to peaceful uses, especially nuclear power plants, but coal was cheap and the power industry was not interested. Construction of the first nuclear plant would not begin until 1954. In early 1950, Truman authorized the development of thermonuclear weapons, a more powerful version of atomic bombs. Truman's decision to develop thermonuclear weapons faced opposition from many liberals and some government officials, but Truman believed that the Soviet Union would likely develop the weapons, and he was unwilling to allow the Soviets to have such an advantage. The first test of thermonuclear weaponry was conducted by the United States in 1952, and the Soviet Union performed its own thermonuclear test in August 1953.
A major project for the United Nations in the late 1940s was dealing with millions of refugees in Europe. Truman helped convince the United Nations to found the International Refugee Organization (IRO), a temporary organization that helped resettle . The United States helped fund temporary camps, and admitted large numbers as permanent residents. Truman obtained ample funding from Congress for the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed many of the displaced people of World War II to immigrate into the United States. Of the approximately one million people resettled by the IRO, more than 400,000 settled in the United States. The most contentious issue facing the IRO was the resettlement of European Jews, many of whom, with the support of Truman, were allowed to immigrate to British-controlled Mandatory Palestine.
The administration helped create a new category of refugee, the "escapee," at the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The American Escapee Program began in 1952 to help the flight and relocation of political refugees from communism in Eastern Europe. The motivation for the refugee and escapee programs was twofold: humanitarianism, and use as a political weapon against inhumane communism.
Facing new, global challenges, the Truman administration reorganized the military and intelligence establishment to provide for more centralized control and reduce rivalries. The National Security Act of 1947 combined and reorganized all military forces by merging the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense). The law also created the U.S. Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Council (NSC). The CIA and the NSC were designed to be non-military, advisory bodies that would increase U.S. preparation against foreign threats without assuming the domestic functions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The National Security Act institutionalized the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which had been established on a temporary basis during World War II. The Joint Chiefs of Staff took charge of all military action, and the Secretary of Defense became the chief advisor of military matters to the president. In 1952, Truman secretly consolidated and empowered the cryptologic elements of the United States by creating the National Security Agency (NSA). Truman also sought to require one year of military service for all young men physically capable of such service, but this proposal never won more than modest support among members of Congress.
Truman had hoped that the National Security Act would minimize interservice rivalries, but each branch retained considerable autonomy and battles over the military budgets and other issues continued. In 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced that he would cancel a so-called "supercarrier," which many in the navy saw as an important part of the service's future. The cancellation sparked a crisis known as the "Revolt of the Admirals", when a number of retired and active-duty admirals publicly disagreed with the Truman administration's emphasis on less expensive strategic atomic bombs delivered by the air force. Defense Secretary Forrestal had supported the navy's position and obtained funding for an aircraft carrier. During congressional hearings public opinion shifted strongly against the navy. In the end the navy got its carrier and also kept marine aviation, but the revolting admirals were punished and the navy lost control over strategic bombing. Military budgets following the hearings prioritized the development of air force heavy bomber designs, and the United States accumulated a combat ready force of over 1,000 long-range strategic bombers capable of supporting nuclear mission scenarios.
|Fiscal Year||% GNP|
Truman gave a low priority to defense budgets—it got whatever money was left over after domestic spending. From the beginning, he assumed that the American monopoly on the atomic bomb was adequate protection against any and all external threats. Military spending plunged from 39% of GNP in 1945 to only 5% in 1948. The number of military personnel fell from just over 3 million in 1946 to approximately 1.6 million in 1947, although the number of military personnel was still nearly five times larger than that of U.S. military in 1939. In 1949, Truman ordered a review of U.S. military policies in light of the Soviet Union's acquisition of nuclear weapons. The National Security Council drafted NSC 68, which called for a major expansion of the U.S. defense budget, increased aid to U.S. allies, and a more aggressive posture in the Cold War. Despite increasing Cold War tensions, Truman dismissed the document, as he was unwilling to commit to higher defense spending. The Korean War convinced Truman of the necessity for higher defense spending, and such spending soared between 1949 and 1953.
The Second World War dramatically upended the international system, as formerly-powerful nations like Germany, France, Japan, and even Britain had been devastated. At the end of the war, only the United States and the Soviet Union had the ability to exercise influence, and a bipolar international power structure replaced the multipolar structure of the Interwar period. On taking office, Truman privately viewed the Soviet Union as a "police government pure and simple," but he was initially reluctant to take a hard-line towards the Soviet Union, as he hoped to work with the Soviets in the aftermath of Second World War. Truman's suspicions deepened as the Soviets consolidated their control in Eastern Europe throughout 1945, and the February 1946 announcement of the Soviet five-year plan further strained relations as it called for the continuing build-up of the Soviet military. At the December 1945 Moscow Conference, Secretary of State Byrnes agreed to recognize the pro-Soviet governments in the Balkans, while the Soviet leadership accepted U.S. leadership in the occupation of Japan. U.S. concessions at the conference angered other members of the Truman administration, including Truman himself. By the beginning of 1946, it had become clear to Truman that Britain and the United States would have little influence in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.
Former Vice President Henry Wallace, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and many other prominent Americans continued to hope for cooperative relations with the Soviet Union. Some liberals, like Reinhold Niebuhr, distrusted the Soviet Union but believed that the United States should not try to counter Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, which the Soviets saw as their "strategic security belt." Truman was reluctant to fully break with the Soviet Union in early 1946, but he took an increasingly hard line towards the Soviet Union throughout the year. He personally approved of Winston Churchill's March 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech, which urged the United States to take the lead of an anti-Soviet alliance, but he did not publicly endorse it.
Post-war tensions arose in Iran, which the Soviets had occupied during World War II; pressure from the U.S. and the United Nations finally forced the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers. The Soviet Union and the United States clashed in Germany, which had been divided into four occupation zones. In the September 1946 Stuttgart speech, Secretary of State Byrnes announced that the United States would no longer seek reparations from Germany and would support the establishment of a democratic state. The United States, France, and Britain announced that they would combine their occupation zones, eventually forming West Germany. Turkey also emerged as a point of contention, as the Soviet Union demanded joint control over the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, key straits that controlled movement between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. forcefully opposed this proposed alteration to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which had granted Turkey sole control over the straits, and Truman dispatched a fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean to show his administration's commitment to the region. In East Asia, Truman denied the Soviet request to reunify Korea, and refused to allow the Soviets a role in the post-war occupation of Japan.
By September 1946, Truman was convinced that the Soviet Union sought world domination and that cooperation was futile. He adopted a policy of containment, based on a 1946 cable by diplomat George F. Kennan. Containment, a policy of preventing the further expansion of Soviet influence, represented a middle-ground position between friendly detente (as represented by Wallace), and aggressive rollback to regain territory already lost to Communism, as would be adopted in 1981 by Ronald Reagan. Kennan's doctrine was based on the notion that the Soviet Union was led by an uncompromising totalitarian regime, and that the Soviets were primarily responsible for escalating tensions. Wallace, who had been appointed Secretary of Commerce after the 1944 election, resigned from the cabinet in September 1946 due to Truman's hardening stance towards the Soviet Union.
In the first major step in implementing containment, Truman extended loans to Greece and Turkey to prevent the spread of Soviet-aligned governments. Prior to 1947, the U.S. had largely ignored Greece, which had an anti-communist government, because it was in the British sphere. Since 1944, the British had assisted the Greek government against a left-wing insurgency, but in early 1947 the British informed the United States that they could no longer afford to intervene in Greece. At the urging of Acheson, who warned that the fall of Greece could lead to the expansion of Soviet influence throughout Europe, Truman requested that Congress grant an unprecedented $400 million aid package to Greece and Turkey. In a March 1947 speech before a joint session of Congress, Truman articulated the Truman Doctrine, which called for the United States to support "free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Overcoming those who opposed U.S. involvement in Greek affairs, as well those who feared that the aid would weaken post-war cooperation, Truman won bipartisan approval of the aid package. The congressional vote represented a permanent break with the non-interventionism that had characterized U.S. foreign policy prior to World War II.
The United States became closely involved in the Greek Civil War, which ended with the defeat of the insurgency in 1949. Stalin and Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito both provided aid to the insurgents, but a dispute over the aid led to the start of a split in the Communist bloc. American military and economic aid to Turkey also proved effective. Turkey did not have a civil war and was heavily funded well into the 1950s. The Truman administration also provided aid to the Italian government in advance of the 1948 general election. The aid package, combined with a covert CIA operation, anti-Communist mobilization by the Catholic Church, and pressure from prominent Italian-Americans, helped to ensure a Communist defeat in the election. The initiatives of the Truman doctrine solidified the post-war division between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union responded by tightening its control over Eastern Europe. Countries aligned with the Soviet Union became known as the Eastern Bloc, while the U.S. and its allies became known as the Western Bloc.
The United States had terminated the war-time Lend-Lease program in August 1945, dashing the hopes of those who hoped it would continue as a post-war aid program, but the U.S. sent massive shipments of food to Europe in the years immediately following the end of the war. Despite this American aid, much of Europe continued to suffer from food and fuel shortages by 1947; as Churchill put it, Europe was "a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate." U.S. leaders feared that poor economic conditions could lead to the rise of Communism in states such as France and Italy. With the goal of stemming the spread of Communism and increasing trade between the U.S. and Europe, the Truman administration devised the Marshall Plan, which sought to rejuvenate the devastated economies of Western Europe. To fund the Marshall Plan, Truman asked Congress to approve an unprecedented, multi-year, $25 billion appropriation.
Congress, under the control of conservative Republicans, agreed to fund the program for multiple reasons. The 20-member conservative isolationist wing of the Republican Party, based in the rural Midwest, was led by Senator Kenneth S. Wherry. Wherry argued that it would be "a wasteful 'operation rat-hole'"; that it made no sense to oppose communism by supporting the socialist governments in Western Europe; and that American goods would reach Russia and increase its war potential. The opposition was outmaneuvered by the emerging internationalist wing, led by Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. With support from Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Vandenberg admitted there was no certainty that the plan would succeed, but said it would halt economic chaos, sustain Western civilization, and stop further Soviet expansion. Senator Robert A. Taft, a leading conservative Republican who was generally skeptical of American commitments in Europe, chose to focus on domestic issues and deferred to Vandenberg on foreign policy. Major newspapers were highly supportive, including conservative outlets like Time Magazine. Both houses of Congress approved of the initial appropriation, known as the Foreign Assistance Act, by large majorities, and Truman signed the act into law in April 1948. Congress would eventually allocate $12.4 billion in aid over the four years of the plan.
In addition to aid, the Marshall Plan also focused on efficiency along the lines of American industry and removing tariffs and trade barriers. Though the United States allowed each recipient to develop its own plan for the aid, it set several rules and guidelines on the use of the funding. Governments were required to exclude Communists, socialist policies were discouraged, and balanced budgets were favored. Additionally, the United States conditioned aid to the French and British on their acceptance of the reindustrialization of Germany and support for European integration. To avoid exacerbating tensions, the U.S. invited the Soviet Union to become a recipient in the program, but set terms that Stalin was likely to reject. The Soviet Union refused to consider joining the program and vetoed participation by its own satellites. The Soviets set up their own program for aid, the Molotov Plan, and the competing plans resulted in reduced trade between the Eastern bloc and the Western bloc.
The Marshall Plan helped European economies recover in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1952, industrial productivity had increased by 35 percent compared to 1938 levels. The Marshall Plan also provided critical psychological reassurance to many Europeans, restoring optimism to a war-torn continent. Though European countries did not adopt American economic structures and ideas to the degree hoped for by some Americans, they remained firmly rooted in mixed economic systems. The European integration process led to the creation of the European Economic Community, which eventually formed the basis of the European Union.
In reaction to Western moves aimed at reindustrializing their German occupation zones, Stalin ordered a blockade of the Western-held sectors of Berlin, which was deep in the Soviet occupation zone. Stalin hoped to prevent the creation of a western German state aligned with the U.S., or, failing that, to consolidate control over eastern Germany. The blockade began on June 24, 1948. The Allies had never negotiated a deal to guarantee supply of the sectors deep within the Soviet-occupied zone. The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, proposed sending a large armored column across the Soviet zone to West Berlin with instructions to defend itself if it were stopped or attacked. Truman believed this would entail an unacceptable risk of war. He instead approved Ernest Bevin's plan to supply the blockaded city by air. On June 25, the Allies initiated the Berlin Airlift, a campaign that delivered food and other supplies, such as coal, using military aircraft on a massive scale. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before, and no single nation had the capability, either logistically or materially, to accomplish it. The airlift worked; ground access was again granted on May 11, 1949. Nevertheless, the airlift continued for several months after that. The Berlin Airlift was one of Truman's great foreign policy successes, and it significantly aided his election campaign in 1948.
Rising tensions with the Soviets, along with the Soviet veto of numerous United Nations Resolutions, convinced Truman, Senator Vandenberg, and other American leaders of the necessity of creating a defensive alliance devoted to collective security. In 1949, the United States, Canada, and several European countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating a trans-Atlantic military alliance and committing the United States to its first permanent alliance since the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. The treaty establishing NATO was widely popular and easily passed the Senate in 1949. NATO's goals were to contain Soviet expansion in Europe and to send a clear message to communist leaders that the world's democracies were willing and able to build new security structures in support of democratic ideals. The treaty also re-assured France that the United States would come to its defense, paving the way for continuing French cooperation in the re-establishment of an independent German state. The U.S., Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Iceland, and Canada were the original treaty signatories. Shortly after the creation of NATO, Truman convinced Congress to pass the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, which created a military aid program for European allies.
Cold War tensions heightened following Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons and the beginning of the Korean War. The U.S. increased its commitment to NATO and invited Greece and Turkey to join the alliance. It launched a second major foreign aid program following the passage of the Mutual Security Act. Truman permanently stationed 180,000 in Europe, while European defense spending grew from 5 percent to 12 percent of gross national product. NATO established a unified command structure, and Truman appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the first Supreme Commander of NATO. West Germany fell under the aegis of NATO, and it would eventually be incorporated into NATO in 1955.
Cold War tensions and competition reached across the globe, affecting Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, and Africa. The United States had historically focused its foreign policy on upholding the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere, but new commitments in Europe and Asia diminished U.S. focus on Latin America. Partially in reaction to fears of expanding Soviet influence, the U.S. led efforts to create collective security pact in the Western Hemisphere. In 1947, the United States and most Latin American nations joined the Rio Pact, a defensive military alliance. The following year, the independent states of the Americas formed the Organization of American States (OAS), an intergovernmental organization designed to foster regional unity. Many Latin American nations, seeking favor with the United States, cut off relations with the Soviet Union. Latin American countries also requested aid and investment similar to the Marshall Plan, but Truman believed that most U.S. foreign aid was best directed to Europe and other areas that could potentially fall under the influence of Communism.
Truman had long taken an interest in the history of the Middle East, and was sympathetic to Jews who sought a homeland in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine. In 1943, he had called for a homeland for those Jews who survived the Nazi regime. However, State Department officials were reluctant to offend the Arabs, who were opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in the region. Secretary of Defense Forrestal warned Truman of the importance of Saudi Arabian oil in another war; Truman replied that he would decide his policy on the basis of justice, not oil. American diplomats with experience in the region were opposed, but Truman told them he had few Arabs among his constituents. Regarding policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Palestine was secondary to the goal of protecting the "Northern Tier" of Greece, Turkey, and Iran from communism.
In 1947, the United Nations approved the partition of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The British announced that they would withdraw from Palestine in May 1948, and Jewish leaders began to organize a provisional government. In the months leading up to the British withdrawal, the Truman administration debated whether or not to recognize the fledgling state of Israel. Overcoming initial objections from Marshall, Clark Clifford convinced Truman that non-recognition would lead Israel to tilt towards the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Truman recognized the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, eleven minutes after it declared itself a nation. Israel would secure its independence with a victory in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, but the Arab–Israeli conflict remains unresolved.
Following the defeat of the Japanese Empire, China descended into a civil war. The civil war baffled Washington, as both the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong had American advocates. Truman sent George Marshall to China in early 1946 to broker a compromise featuring a coalition government. The mission failed, as both sides felt the issue would be decided on the battlefield, not at a conference table. Marshall returned to Washington in December 1946, blaming extremist elements on both sides. He said the Communists were "irreconcilable” and the Nationalists were "reactionary." In mid-1947, Truman sent General Albert Coady Wedemeyer to China to try again, but no progress was made.
Though the Nationalists held a numerical advantage in the aftermath of the war, the Communists gained the upper hand in the civil war after 1947. Corruption, poor economic conditions, and poor military leadership eroded popular support for the Nationalist government, and the Communists won many peasants to their side. As the Nationalists collapsed in 1948, the Truman administration faced the question of whether to intervene on the side of the Nationalists or seek good relations with Mao. Chiang's strong support among sections of the American public, along with desire to assure other allies that the U.S. was committed to containment, convinced Truman to increase economic and military aid to the Nationalists. However, Truman held out little hope for a Nationalist victory, and he refused to send U.S. soldiers.
In 1949 Mao Zedong and his Communists took control of the mainland of China, driving the Nationalists to Taiwan. The United States had a new enemy in Asia, and Truman came under fire from conservatives for "losing" China. Along with the Soviet detonation of a nuclear weapon, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War played a major role in escalating Cold War tensions and U.S. militarization during 1949. Truman would have been willing to maintain some relationship between the U.S. and the Communist government, but Mao was unwilling. Chiang established the Republic of China on Taiwan, which retained China's seat on the UN Security Council until 1971.[a] In June 1950, after the outbreak of fighting in Korea, Truman ordered the Navy's Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent further conflict between the communist government and the Republic of China.
Under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. occupied Japan after the latter's surrender in August 1945. MacArthur presided over extensive reforms of the Japanese government and society, implementing a new constitution that established a parliamentary democracy and granted women the right to vote. He also reformed the Japanese educational system and oversaw major economic changes, although Japanese business leaders were able to resist the reforms to some degree. As the Cold War intensified in 1947, the Truman administration took greater control over the occupation, ending Japanese reparations to the Allied Powers and prioritizing economic growth over long-term reform. The Japanese suffered from poor economic conditions until the beginning of the Korean War, when U.S. purchases stimulated growth. In 1951, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which restored Japanese sovereignty but allowed the United States to maintain bases in Japan. Over the opposition of the Soviet Union and some other adversaries of Japan in World War II, the peace treaty did not contain punitive measures such as reparations, though Japan did lose control of the Kuril Islands and other pre-war possessions.
With the end of World War II, the United States fulfilled the commitment made by the 1934 Tydings–McDuffie Act and granted independence to the Philippines. The U.S. had encouraged decolonization throughout World War II, but the start of the Cold War changed priorities. The U.S. used the Marshall Plan to pressure the Dutch to grant independence to Indonesia under the leadership of the anti-Communist Sukarno, and the Dutch recognized Indonesia's independence in 1949. However, in French Indochina, the Truman administration recognized the French client state led by Emperor Bảo Đại. The U.S. feared alienating the French, who occupied a crucial position on the continent, and feared that the withdrawal of the French would allow the Communist faction of Ho Chi Minh to assume power. Despite initial reluctance to become involved in Indochina, by 1952, the United States was heavily subsidizing the French suppression of Ho's Việt Minh in the First Indochina War. The U.S. also established alliances in the region through the creation of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and the ANZUS pact with Australia and New Zealand.
Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union occupied Korea, which had been a colony of the Japanese Empire. The Soviet Union, which occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel, established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 1948, while the United States established the Republic of Korea (South Korea) that same year. The 38th parallel was chosen since it was approximately halfway between Korea's northernmost and southernmost regions, and was always intended to mark a temporary separation before the eventual reunification of Korea. Hoping to avoid a long-term military commitment in the region, Truman withdrew U.S. soldiers from the Korean Peninsula in 1949. The Soviet Union also withdrew their soldiers from Korea in 1949, but continued to supply North Korea with military aid.
On June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung's Korean People's Army invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. In the early weeks of the war, the North Koreans easily pushed back their southern counterparts. The Soviet Union was not directly involved, though Kim did win Stalin's approval before launching the invasion. Truman, meanwhile, did not view Korea itself as a vital region in the Cold War, but he believed that allowing a Western-aligned country to fall would embolden Communists around the world and damage his own standing at home. The top officials of the Truman administration were heavily influenced by a desire to not repeat the "appeasement" of the 1930s; Truman stated to an aide, "there's no telling what they'll do, if we don't put up a fight right now." Truman turned to the United Nations to condemn the invasion. With the Soviet Union boycotting the United Nations Security Council due to the UN's refusal to recognize the People's Republic of China, Truman won approval of Resolution 84. The resolution denounced North Korea's actions and empowered other nations to defend South Korea.
North Korean forces experienced early successes, capturing the city of Seoul on June 28. Fearing the fall of the entire peninsula, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in Asia, won Truman's approval to land U.S. troops on the peninsula. Rather than asking Congress for a declaration of war, Truman argued that the UN Resolution provided the presidency the constitutional power to deploy soldiers as a "police action" under the aegis of the UN. The intervention in Korea was widely popular in the United States at the time, and Truman's July 1950 request for $10 billion was approved almost unanimously. By August 1950, U.S. troops pouring into South Korea, along with American air strikes, stabilized the front around the Pusan Perimeter. Responding to criticism over unreadiness, Truman fired Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and replaced him with the George Marshall. With UN approval, Truman decided on a "rollback" policy—conquest of North Korea. UN forces launched a counterattack, scoring a stunning surprise victory with an amphibious landing at the Battle of Inchon that trapped most of the invaders. UN forces marched north, toward the Yalu River boundary with China, with the goal of reuniting Korea under UN auspices.
As the UN forces approached the Yalu River, the CIA and General MacArthur both expected that the Chinese would remain out of the war. Defying those prediction, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River in November 1950 and forced the overstretched UN soldiers to retreat. Fearing that the escalation of the war could spark a global conflict with the Soviet Union, Truman refused MacArthur's request to bomb Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu River. UN forces were pushed below the 38th parallel before the end of 1950. Under the leadership of General Matthew Ridgway, the UN launched another counterattack, pushing Chinese forces back up to the 38th parallel.
MacArthur made several public demands for an escalation of the war, leading to a break with Truman in late 1950 and early 1951. On April 5, House Minority Leader Joseph Martin made public a letter from MacArthur that strongly criticized Truman's handling of the Korean War and called for an expansion of the conflict against China. Truman believed that MacArthur's recommendations were wrong, but more importantly, he believed that MacArthur had overstepped his bounds in trying to make foreign and military policy, potentially endangering the civilian control of the military. After consulting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress, Truman decided to relieve MacArthur of his command. The dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur ignited a firestorm of outrage against Truman and support for MacArthur. Fierce criticism from virtually all quarters accused Truman of refusing to shoulder the blame for a war gone sour and blaming his generals instead. Others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, supported and applauded Truman's decision. MacArthur meanwhile returned to the U.S. to a hero's welcome, and addressed a joint session of Congress. In part due to the dismissal of MacArthur, Truman's approval mark in February 1952 stood at 22% according to Gallup polls, which was, until George W. Bush in 2008, the all-time lowest approval mark for an active American president. Though the public generally favored MacArthur over Truman immediately after MacArthur's dismissal, congressional hearings and newspaper editorials helped turn public opinion against MacArthur's advocacy for escalation.
The war remained a frustrating stalemate for two years. UN and Chinese forces fought inconclusive conflicts like the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, but neither side was able to advance far past the 38th parallel. Throughout late 1951, Truman sought a cease fire, but disputes over prisoner exchanges led to the collapse of negotiations. Of the 116,000 Chinese and Korean prisoners-of-war held by the United States, only 83,000 were willing to return to their home countries, and Truman was unwilling to forcibly return the prisoners. The Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953 after Truman left office; the armistice divided North and South Korea along a border close to the 38th parallel. Over 30,000 Americans and approximately 3 million Koreans died in the conflict. The United States maintained a permanent military presence in South Korea after the war.
Truman made five international trips during his presidency: His only trans-Atlantic trip was to participate in the 1945 Potsdam Conference with British Prime Ministers Churchill and Attlee and Soviet Premier Stalin. He also visited neighboring Bermuda, Canada and Mexico, plus Brazil in South America. Truman only left the continental United States on two other occasions (to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, February 20-March 5, 1948; and to Wake Island, October 11–18, 1950) during his nearly eight years in office.
|1||July 16 – August 2, 1945||Germany||Potsdam||Attended Potsdam Conference with British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.|
|August 2, 1945||United Kingdom||Plymouth||Informal meeting with King George VI.|
|2||August 23–30, 1946||Bermuda||Hamilton||Informal visit. Met with Governor General Ralph Leatham and inspected U.S. military facilities.|
|3||March 3–6, 1947||Mexico||Mexico, D.F.||State visit. Met with President Miguel Alemán Valdés.|
|4||June 10–12, 1947||Canada||Ottawa||Official visit. Met with Governor General Harold Alexander and Prime Minister Mackenzie King and addressed Parliament.|
|5||September 1–7, 1947||Brazil||Rio de Janeiro||State visit. Addressed Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Continental Peace and Security and the Brazilian Congress.|
|GDP||Debt as a %|
Although foreign affairs dominated much of Truman's time in office, economic reconversion became his administration's central focus in late 1945. Truman faced several major challenges in presiding over the transition to a post-war economy, including a large national debt and persistent inflation. The United States had emerged from the Great Depression in part due to the war production that accompanied World War II, and many Americans feared that the nation would sink into another depression with the end of the war. While the country had been unified in winning the war, there was no consensus on the best methods of economic reconversion after the war, or the level of involvement that the federal government should have in economic affairs. Truman faced a Congress that was dominated by the conservative coalition, an informal alliance of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. This group, which had generally dominated Congress since Roosevelt's second term, opposed many of Truman's policies and did not welcome strong presidential leadership. Truman asked Congress for a host of measures, including a bill that would make the Fair Employment Practice Committee a permanent institution, but his focus on foreign affairs during this period prevented him from effectively advocating for his programs with members of Congress.
Truman was particularly concerned about keeping unemployment levels low; nearly 2 million people lost jobs within days of the Japanese surrender, and he feared that even more would lose their jobs in the following months. Liberal New Dealers pushed for an explicit federal commitment to ensuring "full employment," but Congress instead passed the Employment Act of 1946. The act created the Council of Economic Advisers and mandated the federal government to:
The United States had instituted price controls and wage controls during the war in order to avoid large-scale inflation or deflation. Within the Truman administration, some advocated lifting these controls immediately in order to allow private industries to hire new workers, while others feared that immediately lifting the controls would lead to runaway inflation. Truman sought to find a middle course between the two camps; price controls on many nonessential items were lifted by the end of September 1945, but others remained in place by the end of 1945. Increasingly concerned about inflation, Truman reimposed some price controls in December 1945, but the unpopularity of those controls led the administration to seek other ways to curb inflation, including cuts to federal spending. In July 1946, after average prices rose at the unprecedented rate of 5.5 percent, Truman won passage of a bill that extended his authority to institute price controls on some items. Though unemployment remained low, labor unrest, inflation, and other issues badly damaged Truman's popularity, which in turn contributed to a poor Democratic showing in the November 1946 mid-term elections. After the Republican victory in those elections, Truman announced the end of all federal wage and price controls, with the exception of rent controls.
Conflict between management and labor presented one of the biggest challenges to the conversion of the economy to peacetime production. Organized labor had adhered to its pledge to refrain from striking during the war, but labor leaders were eager to share in the gains from a postwar economic resurgence. After several labor disputes broke out in September and October 1945, Truman convened a national conference between leaders of business and organized labor in November, at which he advocated collective bargaining in order to avoid labor-related economic disruptions. The conference failed to have a major impact; an unprecedented wave of major strikes affected the United States, and by February 1946 nearly 2 million workers were engaged in strikes or other labor disputes. Many of the strikes were led by John L. Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), who Truman despised.
When a national rail strike threatened in May 1946, Truman seized the railroads. Two key railway unions struck anyway and the entire national railroad system was shut down—24,000 freight trains and 175,000 passenger trains a day stopped moving. For two days public anger mounted; no one was angrier than Truman himself. He drafted a message to Congress that called on veterans to form a lynch mob and destroy the union leaders. His staff was stunned, and top aide Clark Clifford rewrote and toned down the speech. Truman did go to Congress and he called for a new law to draft all the railroad strikers into the Army. As he was concluding his speech he read a message just handed to him that the strike was settled on presidential terms. Truman nevertheless finished the speech, and a few hours later the House voted to draft the strikers. Taft killed the bill in the Senate. Truman's speech marked the end of the strike wave, as business and labor leaders both generally avoided actions that would provoke a strong response from the administration. The strikes damaged the political standing of unions, and the real wages of blue collar workers fell by over 12 percent in the year after the surrender of Japan. Additionally, "Operation Dixie", the CIO's efforts to expand massively into the South, failed.
Historians generally agree that the G.I. Bill was one of the most important and successful government programs of the late 1940s. The G.I. Bill had been passed in 1944 by a conservative coalition that wanted to restrict benefits to "deserving" wartime veterans, as opposed to the Roosevelt administration, which favored a new welfare program that would reach both veterans and non-veterans. In addition to education and housing benefits, the bill included aid to veterans who wanted to start a small business or farm, as well one year of unemployment compensation. The GI benefits were not legally restricted by gender or race, but in practice white men were by far the most active users of the program.
The most famous component of the G.I. Bill provided free collegiate, vocational, and high school education for veterans – not only free tuition, but also full housing and subsistence allowances for the veterans and their families. There was a remarkable transformation of higher education, as 2.2 million veterans crowded into hastily built classrooms, showing a fierce determination to make up for lost time by maximizing their career opportunities. Due in large part to the G.I. Bill, the number of college degrees awarded rose from just over 200,000 in 1940 to nearly 500,000 in 1950.
The G.I. Bill also guaranteed low cost loans for veterans, with very low down payments and low interest rates. In 1947 alone, 540,000 veterans bought a house at the average price of $7,300. Developers purchased empty land just outside the city, installed tract houses based on a handful of designs, and provided streets and utilities. Local public officials raced to build schools to meet the public's need. The most famous development was Levittown in Long Island. It offered a new house for $1000 down, and $70 a month; houses featured three bedrooms, a fireplace, a gas range and gas furnace, and a landscaped lot of 75 by 100 feet, all for a total price of $10,000. Veterans could get one with a much lower down payment. 15 million housing units were built between 1945 and 1955, and the home-ownership rate grew from 50 percent in 1945 to 60 percent in 1960. Together with the growth of the automobile industry, the G.I. Bill's housing benefits helped provide for a major expansion of suburbs in the United States.
The 1946 mid-term election left Republicans in control of Congress for the first time since the early 1930s. Truman initially hoped to work Republican leaders in Congress, focusing on the passage of housing programs and other potential areas of common ground. Truman and the 80th Congress were able to agree on a balanced budget, albeit one that spent less on defense and some other programs that Truman favored. Congress also assented to the creation of the Hoover Commission, which proposed a series of reorganizations to the executive branch. However, the 80th Congress proved strongly resistant to Truman's policies. One of its first major acts was to approve what would become the Twenty-second Amendment, which created presidential term limits. The amendment was designed by Republican leaders as an implicit rebuke to Franklin Roosevelt, the only president who had ever served more than two terms. The Twenty-second Amendment was ratified by the requisite 36 states on February 27, 1951. A major area of contention was Truman's attempts to use price and wage controls to restrain inflation. Congress also passed bills designed to cut taxes, weaken the Interstate Commerce Commission, reduce the number of employees covered by Social Security, and amend the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act); all of these bills, except for the revisions to the Wagner Act, were vetoed by Truman in 1947. Upon returning to session in 1948, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1948, another major tax cut; Truman again vetoed the bill, but this time his veto was overridden by Congress.
The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft–Hartley Act, was passed in response to the labor unrest seen in 1945 and 1946. Truman denounced the act as a "slave-labor bill" in his veto, but he used its emergency provisions a number of times to halt strikes and lockouts. Repeated union efforts to repeal or modify it always failed, and it remains in effect today. The Taft-Hartley Act added a list of prohibited union actions to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act), which had defined several types of employer actions as unfair labor practices. Taft-Hartley prohibited jurisdictional strikes, in which a union strikes in order to pressure an employer to assign particular work to the employees that union represents, and secondary boycotts and "common situs" picketing, in which unions picket, strike, or refuse to handle the goods of a business with which they have no primary dispute but which is associated with a targeted business.[d] The act outlawed closed shops, which were contractual agreements that required an employer to hire only union members. Union shops, in which new recruits must join the union within a certain amount of time, were permitted under Taft-Hartley, but only as part of a collective bargaining agreement and only if the contract allows the worker at least thirty days after the date of hire or the effective date of the contract to join the union. The Taft–Hartley Act also granted states power to pass "right-to-work laws," which ban union shops. All union officials were required to sign an affidavit that they were not Communists or else the union would lose its federal bargaining powers guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Board.
Historian James T. Patterson concludes that:
In his first major address to Congress, Truman articulated a liberal domestic program, but his first-term domestic policy was dominated by post-war reconversion. As he readied for the 1948 election, Truman made clear his identity as a Democrat in the New Deal tradition, advocating national health care, repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act, federal aid to education, expanded public housing programs, a higher minimum wage, more public power projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a more progressive tax structure. The administration also put forth the Brannan Plan, which would have removed the government's production controls and price supports in agriculture in favor of direct payments to farmers. Taken together, Truman's proposals constituted a broad legislative agenda that came to be called the "Fair Deal." A major difference between the New Deal and the Fair Deal was that the latter included an aggressive civil rights program, which Truman termed a moral priority. Truman's proposals were not well received by Congress, even with renewed Democratic majorities in Congress after 1948. The conservative coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats played a key role in blocking passage of the Fair Deal, but the inability of liberal to agree on the details of many programs also contributed to legislative gridlock.
Only one of the major Fair Deal bills, the Housing Act of 1949, was ever enacted. Truman did win other victories in the 81st Congress, as the minimum wage was raised from forty cents an hour to seventy-five cents an hour, and Social Security benefits for the retired were doubled. Congress also passed the Celler–Kefauver Act, which closed loopholes in the Sherman Antitrust Act. The 1950 mid-term elections bolstered Republicans and conservative Democrats, ending any chance of passing further Fair Deal programs. Despite Truman's inability to pass the Fair Deal, the major New Deal programs still in operation were not repealed, and there were minor improvements and extensions in many of them. The Fair Deal would also serve as an inspiration for many of the Great Society programs passed during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Truman sought to reduce discrimination against African-Americans, but due to the power of Southern congressmen, he was unable to advance any significant civil rights legislation through Congress and eventually turned to executive actions. A 1947 report by the President's Committee on Civil Rights titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the runup to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: "My forebears were Confederates ... but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." At the start of the 81st Congress, an effort to reform the Senate's filibuster rules so that a filibuster could be defeated by a simple majority vote was defeated. The failure to reform the filibuster rules ensured that civil rights would not emerge as an important legislative issue until the late 1950s.
Tales of the abuse, violence, and persecution suffered by many African American veterans upon their return from World War II infuriated Truman, and were a major factor in his decision to issue Executive Order 9981, in July 1948, requiring equal opportunity in the Armed Forces. After several years of planning, recommendations and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity, and the various branches of the military, military units started to be racially integrated in the early 1950s. The 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to serve in the peacetime military. Another executive order, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. A third, in 1951, established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC), which sought to prevent defense contractors from discriminating because of race.
Truman also appointed non-whites to unprecedented positions of power in the executive and judicial branches. Among his appointments was William Henry Hastie, the first African American to serve as a federal appellate judge. In civil rights cases like Sweatt v. Painter, the Justice Department issued amicus curiae briefs that supported ending segregation. In December 1952, the Truman administration filed an amicus curiae brief for the case of Brown v. Board of Education; two years later, the Supreme Court's holding in that case would effectively overturn the "separate but equal" doctrine that allowed for racial segregation in public education.
Historians Donald R. McCoy and Richard T. Ruetten argue that even if Truman:
National health insurance had been on the table for decades but never gained much traction. Starting in the late 1930s hospitals promoted private insurance plans such as Blue Cross. Between 1940 and 1950, the percentage of Americans with health insurance rose from 9 percent to above 50 percent, as hospitals and doctors increasingly offered more healthcare services. Truman proposed a national health insurance plan in November 1945 that had the support of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) support. Truman's plan was defeated by conservatives led by Senator Taft, as well as the American Medical Association, which rallied the medical community against the bill. The business community also overwhelmingly opposed national plans. Even labor unions discovered they could negotiate with business to obtain even better health benefits for their own members, so they focused increasingly on that goal. The failure of Truman's healthcare plan solidified the status of private employers as the primary sponsors of health insurance in the United States.
Organized crime in major cities, most of which were Democratic Party strongholds, was a favorite attack theme of Republican politicians and the media. Petty crime rates went up after 1945, now that far more young men were back on the streets, and much more money was in circulation. Far more serious was organized crime run by professional criminal gangs. The Justice Department in 1947 organized a 'racket squad' to build evidence for grand jury investigations in several major cities. The income tax returns of gambling entrepreneurs and racketeers were audited. However, federal officials were reluctant to share their new information with local law enforcement. Truman and his Attorney General J. Howard McGrath in February 1950, told local officials that they had to bear the chief burden in defeating organized crime. Senator Estes Kefauver, a liberal Democrat from Tennessee, launched a major Senate investigation in 1950 as chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Kefauver, although only a freshman in the Senate, received large-scale national coverage and became a presidential contender.
Truman's long record of association with the Pendergast machine in Kansas City proved increasingly embarrassing, even though Pendergast himself had died a few months before Truman became president. The various scandals of organized crime did not directly touch Truman, but they highlighted and exacerbated his problems with scandals inside his administration, such as influence peddling. The Kefauver committee exposed numerous charges of corruption among senior administration officials, some of whom received expensive fur coats and deep freezers in exchange for favors. Senator J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, reported that officials of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were illegally coordinating their work with the Democratic National Committee. Kefauver found that over 160 Internal Revenue Service officials took bribes, use their offices to run private businesses, tolerated this behavior by their subordinates, or embezzled federal funds. When Attorney McGrath fired the special prosecutor in early 1952 for being too zealous, Truman fired McGrath.[e] In the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower made "corruption" one of his three main attack points in the 1952 election, along with Korea and communism.
The left wing of the Democratic Party was in turmoil over foreign policy issues, especially the role of the Soviet Union and domestic communism. The powerful labor unions played a central role, including the strongly anti-communist American Federation of Labor. The more liberal Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), under the leadership of Walter Reuther, purged the communist element that held powerful positions in numerous unions. If they could not be purged, unions were expelled from the CIO. The conservative big-city machines, likewise, expelled or minimized left-wing forces. Expelled leftists coalesced around Henry Wallace, who ran an independent campaign for president in 1948. To Wallace's dismay, however, his own campaign was increasingly controlled by communist elements and he was left bitterly frustrated. An anti-Commmunist liberal group, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), was established to provide a counterweight to Wallace's supporters. Though often critical of the far-right's unrestrained attacks on alleged Communists, members of the ADA attacked left-wing activists who, they feared, took orders from Communist leaders in the Soviet Union.
Truman established the Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty in November 1946 to create employee loyalty standards designed to weed out communist sympathizers from the federal workforce. In March 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which ordered purges of left-wingers who refused to disavow communism. It removed about 300 federal employees who currently were members of or associated with any organization identified by the Attorney General as communist, fascist, or totalitarian. Anti-communist liberals by 1947–48 thus played a central role in the Democratic Party, and enthusiastically supported Truman's anti-communist foreign policy.
In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former spy for the Soviets and a senior editor at Time magazine, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He said that an underground communist network had been working within the U.S. government since the 1930s, of which Chambers had been a member, along with Alger Hiss, until recently a senior State Department official. Although Hiss denied the allegations, he was convicted in January 1950 for perjury for his denials under oath. The Soviet Union's success in exploding an atomic weapon in 1949 and the fall of the nationalist Chinese the same year led many Americans to conclude that subversion by Soviet spies was responsible, and to demand that communists be rooted out from the government and other places of influence. However, Truman did not fully share such opinions, and throughout his tenure he would balance a desire to maintain internal security against the fear that a red scare could hurt innocents and impede government operations. He famously called the Hiss trial a "red herring," and the Justice Department was moving to indict Chambers instead of Hiss for perjury. Yet Truman also presided over the prosecution of numerous Communist leaders under the terms of the Smith Act.
Following Hiss' conviction, Secretary of State Acheson announced that he stood by him. This and other events, such as the revelation that British atomic bomb scientist Klaus Fuchs was a spy, led current and former members of HUAC to decry the Truman administration, especially the State Department, as soft on communism. Republican Congressmen Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota and Richard Nixon of California emerged as particularly vocal and prominent critics on HUAC. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy used a speech in West Virginia to accuse the State Department of harboring communists, and rode the controversy to political fame. In the following years, Republicans used Hiss' conviction to castigate the Democrats for harboring communists in government. Truman responded by arguing that McCarthy's efforts would undermine the bipartisan foreign policy that had prevailed since the end of World War II and thereby give a political gift to the Soviet Union, but few Republicans spoke out against McCarthy during Truman's tenure in office. Democratic Senator William Benton sponsored a motion to expel McCarthy from Congress, but the motion was defeated and Benton lost his 1952 re-election campaign; McCarthy, meanwhile, was re-elected. McCarthy's anti-Communist campaigns, part of a larger Red Scare, played a major role in shaping a more confrontational Cold War foreign policy. It also affected members of Congress and other political leaders, who now worried that the embrace of left-wing policies would leave themselves vulnerable to accusations of being "soft" on Communism.
The outbreak of the Korean War led to renewed interest in such an internal security bill, which had previously been debated during the 80th Congress. Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada put forward a bill that would require Communist organizations to register with the government, and allowed the president to indefinitely detain those who were suspected of having engaged in espionage. The bill received little opposition from members of Congress, who feared being labeled as pro-Communist, and it passed both the House and the Senate as the McCarran Internal Security Act. Truman vetoed the bill in September 1950, arguing that it infringed on personal liberties and would be ineffective at protecting against subversion. Congress overrode Truman's veto, and the McCarran Internal Security Act passed into law.
Immigration had been at a low level in the Great Depression and war years. It surged as the war ended, with the arrival of refugees and family members of citizens. The issue was not a high priority for the Truman administration, but there was great interest in Congress and among ethnic groups. In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed foreign-born wives of U.S. citizens who had served in the U.S. Armed Forces to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, the law was extended to include the fiancés of American soldiers. In 1946, the Luce-Celler Act extended the right to become naturalized citizens to form the newly independent nation of the Philippines and to Asian Indians. The immigration quota was set at 100 people per year.
In 1952, the McCarran Walter Immigration Act passed over Truman's veto. It kept the old 1924 quota system but added many new opportunities for immigration from Europe and elsewhere. In practice two-thirds of the new arrivals entered outside the old quota system. Immigration law was effectively controlled by Congressman Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who wanted to minimize immigration.
Labor disruptions continued to affect the country after 1946, though they did not reach the severity of strike wave of 1945–1946. When a steel strike loomed in April 1952, Truman instructed Secretary of Commerce Charles W. Sawyer to seize and continue operations of the nation's steel mills. Truman cited his authority as Commander in Chief and the need to maintain an uninterrupted supply of steel for munitions to be used in the war in Korea. The Supreme Court found the seizure unconstitutional, and reversed the order in a major separation-of-powers decision, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The 6–3 decision, which held that Truman's assertion of authority was too vague and was not rooted in any legislative action by Congress, was delivered by a Court composed entirely of Justices appointed by either Truman or Roosevelt. The high court's reversal of Truman's order was his most notable legal defeat. The Supreme Court decision left the country with the possibility of a critical steel shortage, but Truman was able to convince the steel managers and organized labor to reach a settlement in July 1952.
Truman sought to grant greater rights to the territories and dependencies of the United States. He unsuccessfully pushed for the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states in order to solidify their status as integral parts of the United States, but Congress did not act on this proposal. Truman was more successful in pushing Organic legislation for Guam, Samoa, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the latter of which had been acquired from Japan after World War II. This legislation, passed in 1950 and 1951, transferred the territories from military to civilian administration, though the Navy continued to exercise considerable influence. In 1952, Congress passed a bill to recognize Puerto Rico's newly-written constitution.
In the 1946 mid-term elections, Truman's Democrats suffered losses in both houses of Congress. Republicans, who had not controlled a chamber of Congress since the 1932 elections, took control of both the House and the Senate. Truman's party was hurt by a disappointing postwar economy. The election was a major blow to Truman's hopes of passing his domestic policies. However, Dallek points to the 1946 elections as the moment when Truman became more sure of himself as president, and stopped trying to appease all factions of the public. Truman would strongly criticize the subsequent 80th United States Congress as a "Do Nothing Congress."
Labor unions suffered heavy losses in the election, and responded afterwards by taking strong actions. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) systematically purged communists and far-left sympathizers from leadership roles in its unions. The CIO expelled some unions that resisted the purge, notably its third-largest affiliate the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), and set up a new rival union to take away the UE membership.
Meanwhile, the AFL set up its first explicitly political unit, Labor's League for Political Education. The AFL increasingly abandoned its historic tradition of nonpartisanship, since neutrality between the major parties was impossible. By 1952, the AFL had given up on decentralization, local autonomy, and non-partisanship, and had developed instead a new political approach marked by the same style of centralization, national coordination, and partisan alliances that characterized the CIO. After these moves, the CIO and AFL were in a good position to fight off Henry Wallace in 1948 and work enthusiastically for Truman's reelection. The CIO and AFL no longer had major points of conflict, so they merged in amicably 1955 as the AFL–CIO.
The 1948 presidential election is famous for Truman's stunning come-from-behind victory. In the spring of 1948, Truman's public approval rating stood at 36%, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning reelection. The "New Deal" loyalists within the party—including FDR's son James—tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a highly popular figure whose political views and party affiliation were totally unknown. Other liberals favored Associate Justice William O. Douglas, but both Eisenhower and Douglas refused to enter the race, and the "Stop Truman" movement failed to unite around any other candidate.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Truman attempted to unify the Northern delegations with a vague civil rights plank in the party platform. He was upstaged by liberals. A sharp address given by Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis—as well as the local political interests of a number of urban bosses—convinced the Convention to adopt a stronger civil rights plank, which Truman accepted. All of Alabama's delegates, and a portion of Mississippi's, walked out of the convention in protest. Unfazed, Truman delivered an aggressive acceptance speech attacking the 80th Congress, which Truman called the "Do Nothing Congress," and called it back into session to demonstrate its continuing failures. For his running mate, Truman accepted Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley, though he really wanted Justice William O. Douglas, who turned down the nomination.
Within two weeks of the convention, Truman issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in the armed services. as well as Executive Order 9980 to integrate federal agencies. Truman took a political risk in backing civil rights, and many seasoned Democrats were concerned that the loss of Dixiecrat support might destroy the Democratic Party in the South. South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, a segregationist, declared his candidacy for the presidency on a Dixiecrat ticket and led a full-scale revolt of Southern "states' rights" proponents. This rebellion on the right was matched by one on the left, led by Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Immediately after its first post-FDR convention, the Democratic Party seemed to be disintegrating. Victory in November seemed unlikely as the party was not simply split but divided three ways. The Republicans, meanwhile, nominated New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who had been the party's 1944 presidential nominee.
The campaign was a 21,928-mile (35,290 km) presidential odyssey. In a personal appeal to the nation, Truman crisscrossed the U.S. by train; his "whistle stop" speeches from the rear platform of the observation car, Ferdinand Magellan, came to represent his campaign. His combative appearances, such as those at the town square of Harrisburg, Illinois, captured the popular imagination and drew huge crowds. Six stops in Michigan drew a combined half-million people; a full million turned out for a New York City ticker-tape parade. The large, mostly spontaneous gatherings at Truman's whistle stop events were an important sign of a change in momentum in the campaign, but this shift went virtually unnoticed by the national press corps. It continued reporting Republican leads in polls that were increasingly out of date. Pollsters assumed few people changed their minds late in a campaign and did spot what was happening. The three major polling organizations stopped polling well before the November 2 election date—Roper in September, and Crossley and Gallup in October—thus failing to measure the period when Truman appears to have surged past Dewey. Truman's surge was aided by the mistakes of his opponents. Dewey waged a low-risk campaign and issued vague generalities on his plans once in office, while Thurmond found less support in the South than many had expected, as most white Southerners believed him to be too extreme. Wallace was unable to galvanize support behind his domestic policies, and his conciliatory attitude towards the Soviet Union alienated many potential supporters.
In the end, Truman held his progressive Midwestern base, won most of the Southern states despite the civil rights plank, and squeaked through with narrow victories in a few critical states, notably Ohio, California, and Illinois. He won over 50 percent of the popular vote and secured 303 electoral votes. Dewey received only 189 electoral votes; Thurmond garnered 39, and Henry Wallace none. Dewey carried several Northeastern states that had generally voted for Roosevelt, and the 1948 election was the closest presidential election since the 1916 election. In the concurrent congressional elections, the Democrats re-took control of the House and the Senate. The defining image of the campaign was a photograph snapped in the early morning hours of the day after the election, when an ecstatic Truman held aloft the erroneous front page of the Chicago Tribune with a huge headline proclaiming "Dewey Defeats Truman."
In Truman's second mid-term election, Republicans again picked up seats in both houses of Congress. However, unlike the 1946 elections, Democrats retained control of Congress. Republicans ran against Truman's proposed domestic policies and his handling of the Korean War. Truman was particularly upset by the apparent success of those who campaigned on McCarthyism.
At the time of the 1952 New Hampshire primary, Truman had not stated whether he would seek re-election, and no other candidate had won Truman's backing. Although a Constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms had been ratified in 1951, Truman could run for another term due to a grandfather clause in the amendment. Truman's first choice to succeed him, Chief Justice Vinson, had declined to run, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had also turned Truman down, Vice President Barkley was considered too old, and Truman disliked Senator Kefauver. Accordingly, Truman let his name be entered in the New Hampshire primary by supporters. The highly unpopular Truman was handily defeated by Kefauver; 18 days later the president announced he would not seek a second full term. Truman was eventually able to persuade Stevenson to run, and the governor gained the nomination at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.
Eisenhower's public stature, along with his unknown views on domestic issues, had made him appealing as a potential candidate for both parties in the 1948 election. Though he had generally supported Truman's foreign policy, Eisenhower privately held conservative views on most domestic issues and never seriously considered running for office as a Democrat. Beginning in 1951, eastern, internationalist Republicans, led by Thomas Dewey and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., coordinated a draft movement designed to help Eisenhower win the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. Eisenhower initially resisted these efforts, but in March 1952 he agreed to allow his name to be entered into the New Hampshire primary. He was motivated in part by his desire to defeat Robert Taft, the other major contender for the Republican nomination. The 1952 Republican primaries became a battle between Dewey's internationalist wing of the party and Taft's conservative, isolationist wing. Eisenhower narrowly prevailed over Taft at the 1952 Republican National Convention; with the approval of Eisenhower, the convention nominated Richard Nixon for vice president.
The once good Truman-Eisenhower relationship soured during the campaign. Truman was appalled when Eisenhower appeared on the same platform with Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin, and failed to defend General George C. Marshall, who McCarthy had recently denounced as part of a Communist conspiracy. Similarly, Eisenhower was outraged when Truman, who made a whistle-stop tour in support of Stevenson, accused the former general of disregarding "sinister forces ... Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-foreignism" within the Republican Party.
Harry S. Truman's speech on leaving office, and returning home to Independence, Missouri. (January 15, 1953)
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Though Stevenson's public service and issue-oriented campaign appealed to many liberals, he was unable to rally support among blacks, ethnic whites, and the working class. Eisenhower campaigned against what he denounced as Truman's failures: "Korea, Communism and Corruption." Polls consistently indicated that Eisenhower would win the race, and Nixon deftly handled a potentially dangerous controversy over his finances with his Checkers speech, delivered live on national television. In part due to the Checkers speech, television emerged as an important medium in the race; the number of households with televisions had grown from under 200,000 in 1948 to over 15 million in 1952. On election day, as widely expected, Eisenhower defeated Stevenson by a wide margin. Eisenhower took 55.4 percent of the popular vote and won 442 electoral votes, taking almost every state outside of the South. Though Eisenhower ran ahead of most congressional Republicans, his party nonetheless took control of both the House and Senate, giving the Republican Party unified control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since the 1930 elections.
Scholars have on average ranked Truman in the top ten American presidents, most often at #7. In 1962, a poll of 75 historians conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ranked Truman among the "near great" presidents. Truman's ranking in polls of political scientists and historians, never fallen lower than ninth, and ranking as high as fifth in a C-SPAN poll in 2009. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Truman as the seventh best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Truman as the sixth best president.
When he left office in 1953, the American public saw Truman as one of the most unpopular chief executives in history. His job approval rating of 22% in the Gallup Poll of February 1952 was lower than Richard Nixon's 24% in August 1974, the month that Nixon resigned. Truman famously boasted "the buck stops here"—he took final responsibility for his administration.
Journalist Samuel Lubell challenged the claim. Citing continuing divisions within the Democratic Party, the ongoing Cold War, and the boom and bust cycle, Lubell in 1952 stated that "after seven years of Truman's hectic, even furious, activity the nation seemed to be about on the same general spot as when he first came to office ... Nowhere in the whole Truman record can one point to a single, decisive break-through ... All his skills and energies—and he was among our hardest-working Presidents—were directed to standing still".
Truman's image in university textbooks was quite favorable in the 1950s. During the years of campus unrest in the 1960s and 1970s revisionist historians on the left attacked his foreign policy as too hostile to Communism, and his domestic policy as too favorable toward business. That revisionism was not accepted by more established scholars. The harsh perspective faded with the decline in Communism's appeal after 1980, leading to a more balanced view.
American public feeling towards Truman grew steadily warmer with the passing years. Truman died when the nation was consumed with crises in Vietnam and Watergate, and his death brought a new wave of attention to his political career. During this period, Truman captured the popular imagination, emerging as a kind of political folk hero, a president who was thought to exemplify an integrity and accountability many observers felt was lacking in the Nixon White House. This public reassessment of Truman was aided by the popularity of a book of reminiscences which Truman had told to journalist Merle Miller beginning in 1961, with the agreement that they would not be published until after Truman's death. Scholars who have compared the audio tapes with the published transcripts have concluded the Miller often distorted what Truman said or fabricated statements Truman never said. Nevertheless, Truman continued to receive criticism. After a review of information available to Truman about the presence of espionage activities in the U.S. government, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that Truman was "almost willfully obtuse" concerning the danger of American communism. In 2002, historian Alonzo Hamby concluded that "Harry Truman remains a controversial president."
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused Truman advocates to claim vindication for Truman's decisions in the postwar period. According to Truman biographer Robert Dallek, "His contribution to victory in the cold war without a devastating nuclear conflict elevated him to the stature of a great or near-great president." The 1992 publication of David McCullough's favorable biography of Truman further cemented the view of Truman as a highly regarded Chief Executive. According to historian Daniel R. McCoy in his book on the Truman presidency,
Harry Truman himself gave a strong and far-from-incorrect impression of being a tough, concerned and direct leader. He was occasionally vulgar, often partisan, and usually nationalistic ... On his own terms, Truman can be seen as having prevented the coming of a third world war and having preserved from Communist oppression much of what he called the free world. Yet clearly he largely failed to achieve his Wilsonian aim of securing perpetual peace, making the world safe for democracy, and advancing opportunities for individual development internationally.