President Harry Truman presided over the end of World War II, ushered in the Fair Deal, took decisive action in the face of union unrest, and won a great upset victory in the 1948 Presidential Election. Despite these accomplishments, Truman’s greatest achievement occurred in foreign policy. His administration adopted the containment strategy, which eventually won the Cold War.
The Soviets refused to leave Eastern Europe following World War II. Stalin’s forces conquered the east and threatened the west. The dictator refused to honor his promise of free elections in the occupied territories. Instead, he planned to incorporate Eastern Europe into a broader security zone creating an empire. At the same time, Stalin planned to disrupt and undermine Western Europe in the hopes of turning it communist.
World War II decimated Europe. The entire continent became a war zone destroying the continent’s economy and infrastructure. Civilians suffered great depravations and accounted for nearly 60% of all war deaths. On top of this, the holocaust wiped out almost 70% of European Jews. The holocaust also included POWs, Slavs, the disabled, Gypsies, and political opponents. Communist ideology never let a good crisis go to waste and Stalin made inroads in destabilizing an already unstable Western Europe.
The Soviets openly supported leftists in the Greek Civil War. At the same time, they threatened the Turks over the Black Sea and other strategic points. The Truman Administration debated over how to react to Soviet aggression. In 1946, George Kennan wrote “the Long Telegram” which put forth a possible response. Kennan advocated “containing” communism to areas it already existed. This way, the disease did not spread and eventually ethnic diversity within the Soviet Union would tear it apart. Containment provided a long term strategy as opposed to a quick fix. For containment to succeed, America needed to draw a line in the sand and dare the Soviets to cross it. At the same time, it required an unprecedented large American military and political consensus. Republicans and Democrats both had to agree to continue the policy as the years wore on.
Truman liked Kennan’s theory and adopted it. The Truman Doctrine codified Kennan’s Long Telegram into policy. The American government planned to work to contain communist expansion. Truman appointed popular General George Marshall as secretary of state and decided to infuse Europe with American capital. He dubbed the program “the Marshall Plan” for public relations. It would be easier to pass a large government program under Marshall’s name. In 1948, the Marshall Plan provided $13 billion in aid to Europe. By the early fifties, Western Europe’s economy had recovered and the specter of a communist takeover subsided.
The same year Truman moved to save Europe, Stalin blocked access to West Berlin. The Allies partitioned the city into occupation zones following its fall in 1945. Stalin hoped to starve the Allied half into submission and believed the west had no way to supply the people with food or basic necessities. Some planners wanted to send in a convoy and dare the Soviets to attack it. Truman feared this might trigger World War III and decided on an alternate strategy. Under the president’s direction, the allies began an unprecedented airlift of food, coal, and basic necessities. If they could not use rail or roads to help West Berlin, then the west would use the skies. The airlift ran for nearly a year before Stalin admitted defeat and opened the roads into the city.
As a result of Soviet aggression, the west created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual defense. The U.S., Canada, and many Western European nations entered into the organization hoping it would dissuade Soviet misbehavior. NATO’s main goal was Soviet containment and intimidation. As NATO came into existence, President Truman abandoned his original policy of disarmament in favor of tripling the defense budget. The Soviet threat proved too great to revert to a second class military.
Events in Europe took precedence for the administration. As a result, when China fell to the communists in 1949, Republicans hammered the Democrats fell for “losing” China. A year later, North Korea attacked its Southern counterpart. Truman acted decisively and used the military to blunt the invasion. The Korean War ended in a military stalemate, but South Korea remained independent. The war sapped the president’s popularity, which fell to 22% in the Gallup Poll. It took decades, but history redeemed Truman’s reputation. For the most part, his successors followed the policy he instituted and the Soviet Union eventually crumbled under the pressures of economic and military competition with the U.S. as well as ethnic differences that boiled over.
President Truman adopted George Kennan’s containment policy. Under his direction, the U.S. thwarted Soviet designs in Western Europe, Greece, Turkey, West Berlin, and Korea. The policy required abandonment of America’s traditional demobilization and aversion to a large military. Containment worked as it helped avoid World War III, rescued several nations from totalitarianism, and led to the Soviet Union’s demise.