The Man Who Saved Western Civilization
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
By July 1, 1990, the Berlin Wall had tumbled down, its component parts being sold off as souvenirs. Germany was united for the first time since 1945, and the containment policy of President Harry S Truman was vindicated.
Sir Winston Churchill told President Truman that he, more than any other person, had saved western civilization, and Senator Barry Goldwater once called him the foremost president of the last hundred years. He was a cultured man with a deep sense of history and a love of Shakespeare. He yearned to be a concert pianist. His rise was astronomic, from small farmer and failed haberdasher to Missouri county judge, then United States Senator, Vice-President, and finally, completely unprepared, President of the United States.
Harry Truman stepped onto the stage at a crucial point in world history. World War II still raged on two fronts, and an expansionist USSR simmered under the iron heel of Joseph Stalin. In China, the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek were retreating before Mao Tse-tung’s Communist armies, and long smoldering liberation movements were beginning to broil to the surface around the world. He would make more world altering decisions than any other president.
He had met with President Franklin Roosevelt only twice before ascending to the office himself, and he was kept in the dark with regard to such vital strategic items as the Manhattan Project to produce the world’s first atomic bomb. On the morning after President Roosevelt’s death, he told reporters he felt as though the sun, the moon and the stars had fallen upon him. And yet, he was a man secure in himself, never faltering in the face of a challenge.
He is remembered most for his painful decision to use the world’s first atomic bombs to force a Japanese unconditional surrender. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had estimated that a conventional invasion of the home islands would cost the US 1,000,000 casualties.
As Truman reflected years later, if he had permitted such terrible loss of life and it was discovered that all the while he had possessed a weapon to prevent it, he would have gone down as one of the worst traitors in history. Within days of the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered. World War II was over.
Truman’s domestic policy was an extension of FDR’s New Deal but with more emphasis upon protecting civil rights for minorities. On July 26, 1948, he issued executive orders for the fair employment of African-Americans and desegregation of the armed forces. His dedication to equal rights had begun with his opposition to the KKK in Missouri years earlier. He had once insulted Klan members by telling them their organization had been founded by a Jew, because no one else could sell them white sheets at such inflated prices.
Tensions between the US and its Soviet ally had been fermenting throughout the course of the war. With the fighting over, they broiled to the surface. In violation of firm agreements, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin refused to withdraw from Poland and other occupied nations of Eastern Europe. Matters went from bad to worse, culminating in the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Czech president conveniently committed “suicide,” leaping from an upstairs window.
The crux came when Stalin attempted to starve the allies out of West Berlin by blocking transportation into the city, 110 miles inside the Soviet occupation zone. Truman responded with the Berlin Airlift, preventing a Soviet takeover of the city. From June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949, American and British planes flew 200,000 flights, ferrying 4700 tons of food and fuel a day, until Stalin lifted the blockade.
The Truman Doctrine prevented further Soviet expansion without resorting to full-scale nuclear war. The program included the Marshall Plan, under which the US provided $13,000,000,000 in financial aid over four years to rebuild Europe, modernize industry, remove trade barriers, and bring prosperity to the war ravaged continent. At the same time, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed, providing for mutual defense in response to an enemy attack on any member nation. NATO now has 28 members. Its members came to the defense of the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Truman ran for reelection in 1948, his party split into three factions, seemingly guaranteeing a victory to his opponent New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Former Vice President Henry Wallace ran on the Progressive Party ticket, advocating accommodation with the Soviets, while the racist Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led the States Rights or Dixiecrat Party, storming out of the Democratic convention after it adopted an anti-lynching clause insisted upon by the young mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey. Thurmond and his followers, it seems, regarded lynching as a constitutional right.
“Give ‘em Hell” Harry Truman crisscrossed the country, waging a whistle stop campaign from the back of the presidential train, lambasting the, “Do nothing 80th Congress.” The strategy worked. Harry Truman carried my home state of Ohio by a mere 7,100 votes and was elected to a second term as President.
The Cold War became a hot war when Soviet dominated North Korea invaded its southern neighbor in 1949, causing Truman make his most difficult decision, to come to the defense of South Korea. The US suffered 33, 000 casualties in the course of that conflict, many occurring after thousands of Chinese “volunteers” streamed across the Yalu River to assist the hard-pressed North Koreans. The war was unpopular. Truman was unpopular. The opposition hammered him, continually referring to the “mess in Washington” and parroting phrases like, “To err is Truman.”
In the middle of it all, Truman removed from command the popular but egotistical General Douglas MacArthur, whom he found guilty of gross insubordination. I was in the second grade in our small Midwestern town of Ashland, Ohio, and we were dismissed from school to listen to MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress. No one dismissed us to listen to the President’s justifications for firing him. In the end, the Korean War was a success, preserving the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea in the south.
A wave of paranoia swept the country in the aftermath of World War II similar to the Big Red Scare after World War I. There were those in the Republican Party who, whipped to a frenzy by the bloviations of Joseph McCarthy, the alcoholic junior senator from Wisconsin, demanded unconstitutional restrictions on civil liberties. Truman vetoed the McCarren Internal Security Bill, which, among other things, provided for the interment of “subversives” during times of emergency, arguing that the proposal was an infringement upon free speech.
During a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy brandished what he claimed was a list of 205 Communists secreted within the state department. Afterward, he was never able to produce the list. We were, nevertheless, assured that a Communist lurked behind every suburban bush and under every bed, much as some elements would now have us believe that Muslims are concealed down there among the dust bunnies, that the President of the United States is a closet Muslim, or that the government is concealing the truth about extraterrestrials. The conviction of the inconsequential spy Alger Hiss added fuel to the fire.
Vilified, ridiculed, scorned by the radical right of his day, Harry Truman successfully navigated a straight but precarious line, fending off the forces of darkness within our society, all the while containing the overseas expansion of totalitarianism. He is now widely regarded as one of our wisest, most effective leaders.
His term over, reporters asked what he had done first when he returned home to Independence, Missouri. “Took the suitcases up to the attic,” answered the uncommon common man.