“Emperor” Truman

The fall of one empire, and the rise of another: Ending World War II—and beginning the Cold War

The only emperor we’ll be studying who actually held the title of emperor is Emperor Hirohito, nominal ruler of Japan during World War II (though the extent of his actual power over his military leaders has been debated). Both Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt originally entered into elected office in 1933, and both died in April of 1945, leaving a power vacuum in Germany and the United States alike. Though the Allied Powers had defeated the Axis in Europe in May 1945, a week or so after Hitler’s suicide, the war in the Pacific raged on into the summer, as American troops captured islands within close bombing distance of Japan itself. 

Harry Truman, a more moderate Democrat than his predecessor as VP, had been serving as FDR’s vice president for just over 80 days when Roosevelt died of a stroke. Like President Andrew Johnson (whom I will dub “Emperor Johnson I”) taking the place of Lincoln in April 1865, in April 1945 Truman both had to officially finish a war as well as set the pattern for the tense post-war relationship—in Johnson’s case, with a “Reconstructed” Confederacy, but with the Soviet Union in Truman’s case. Though the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) had lost a record 20 million people in the Second World War, it was the strongest, most aggressive ally of the United States and the competing “empire” after the war. Aggressive military leaders like General Patton were arguing that the U.S. military should stick around in Europe to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding any further—and maybe even take some territory “back” from the Soviets—in effect, keeping the Second World War going right into a Third. (This latter perspective was clearly an extremist and minority view.) While the U.S., Britain, and France had liberated Western Europe from Nazi occupation, the U.S.S.R. had “liberated” the eastern half of the continent—and, in doing so, had set up socialistic regimes throughout Eastern Europe. Germany itself, as well as its capital Berlin, was divided into west (“capitalistic,” modeled on the U.S. and Western Europe) and east (“socialistic,” modeled on the U.S.S.R.).

As the Soviet Union and the rest of the Allies divvied up control of Europe from the collapsed fascist empire there, the Soviets were prepared to offer their brand of “help” to the U.S. in finishing the war in the Pacific against Japan. In the waning days of the Pacific war, the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan and prepared for an amphibious landing, similar to D-Day, from its Pacific coast. As had happened with East Germany and West Germany, the former Japanese-held territory of Korea was divided into North Korea (occupied by the U.S.S.R.) and South Korea (occupied by the U.S.). Fear quickly arose that Japan itself would similarly be split up into a Soviet-controlled “North Japan” and American-controlled “South Japan.” Therefore, it was in the U.S.’s best interest to end the war quickly, not just to save lives but ideally to prevent an invasion and subsequent occupation of the Japanese Islands by the Soviet Union.

The Americans, however, had the biggest ace up their sleeves that the “game of warfare” had ever seen, the ace that would turn all these growing tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. into a “Cold War”—a war that never once in the next 46 years would feature active fighting between American and Soviet troops. Truman, the last president without a college education, was also not educated as vice president about the ace: the atomic bomb, developed in a top-secret initiative dubbed “The Manhattan Project.” Fearful that the Nazis were working on their own atomic bomb (they weren’t), the United States had invested in and expedited the development of three bombs in 1945. As president, Truman received word that a bomb was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, marking the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb on the planet. By splitting (and, later, fusing) nuclei of unstable radioactive elements, scientists were able to unleash the energy of the stars here on Earth, causing massive destruction and release of deadly levels of radiation in a wide radius. The bomb ended not just World War II, but also the possibility of a World War III. If both countries fighting had nuclear weapons—as would be the case with the United States and the Soviet Union—a declaration of war would mean the end of cities, of millions of lives and, eventually, the end of all life on the planet for a few thousand years (at least).

The remaining two bombs were shipped to the Pacific. President Truman’s job, as he saw it, was to finish the war decisively and quickly, showing the Japanese—and the world—just what superpowers the new superpower/“empire” had. After delivering a vaguely-worded ultimatum to the Japanese emperor to surrender without condition immediately or face “fire raining from the skies,” Japan was slow to respond.

The next two moves proved to be the most controversial in judging “Emperor” Truman’s legacy. Could there have been a better way to show the bomb’s destructiveness than by targeting two populated Japanese cities? Would the Japanese surrender after seeing the bomb detonate over a nearby patch of the Pacific Ocean or an uninhabited island? We can only speculate on the course that the war—and the subsequent Cold War—would have taken.

As it was, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and—still with no word from the Japanese government—the second was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. No invasion of Japan—either American or Soviet—was necessary. The Emperor of Japan announced the government’s surrender in mid-August, and the surrender papers were signed on September 2nd on an aircraft carrier under General Douglas MacArthur’s command. Even then, the U.S. did not get what it wanted: the surrender was conditional, as the Japanese government demanded that Emperor Hirohito remained the nominal “emperor,” though merely a figurehead without any real power. Both bombs killed a little less than a quarter of a million people—soldiers in uniform and civilians alike—through the immediate force of the blasts as well as the after-effects of radiation exposure over the years. (To put this in perspective, about 400,000 U.S. troops died in combat during the entirety of the war.) From the concentration camps to the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo to the nuclear bombs that ended it with two big bangs, the Second World War was the most destructive conflict to ever occur on Planet Earth… at least, we hope.

Attempting to continue FDR’s legacy on the home front

Potentially the largest effect of the returning soldiers from Europe and the Pacific was the “baby boom,” the rapid rise in population. The generation that fought the war, dubbed “Greatest Generation,” literally produced the Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, the largest demographic in the country. We will see in future chapters how the Boomers shaped the youth culture of the 1960s, the sense of “malaise” in the 1970s as they approached middle age, and the conservative revival of the ‘80s (through today) as they age further.

Men in uniform returned to the factories, in many cases replacing women who had worked in manufacturing throughout the war, and many young veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to return or continue their college educations, free of charge.

Americans were ecstatic about the end of the war, but the return to peacetime life did not resolve many lingering domestic issues that had been brewing since the Great Depression. President Truman planned to ride the “liberating wave” of the war by expanding freedoms for American citizens, including keeping wartime price controls for controlling inflation, plans for national health insurance throughout the late 1940s, and expanding civil rights protections for minorities and unions. These plans were repeatedly shot down by both Republicans and Democrats (especially those from the South) in Congress, and the resulting post-war inflation led to strikes. Republican victories in the 1946 congressional elections led to the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited union control and power. The Congress was powerless to veto President Truman’s most radical move in civil rights, however, as he used his power as Commander-in-Chief to fully integrate the entirety of the armed forces, including army bases all over the country, in 1948. (World War II, therefore, was the last war to feature segregated fighting forces.)

Given the failure of Truman’s extension of FDR’s domestic reforms, Republicans were so confident that their candidate, Thomas Dewey, would win the 1948 Election that the campaign was notedly muted and reserved. President Truman, meanwhile, toured the nation by rail, delivering fiery speeches and ultimately securing victory even as newspapers printed hasty predictions of his defeat.

Nonetheless, Truman’s popularity would sag as he launched the United States, five years out of war, into another—this time, a war attempting to contain “Communist aggression” around the world.

“Containing Communism”: the Second Red Scare, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean War

Throughout the Second World War, wartime propaganda had supported the Soviet Union as a strong ally and the key to victory. After the war, the Soviet Union became the unseen but powerful enemy, seen as puppet-master of a worldwide conspiracy to “turn the world Communist.” As with the post-World-War-I “First Red Scare,” the “Second Red Scare” after World War II denounced those with liberal associations, especially after it was exposed that the secrets of the nuclear bomb were indeed smuggled out of the U.S. by Soviet agents—giving the Soviet Union the same superpower that makes the U.S. a modern-day “empire.”

The resulting paranoia inspired the House of Unamerican Activities Committee (and its later off-shoot in the Senate, which would come into more prominence during the Eisenhower era). The HUAC initially investigated those with fascist ties during the Second World War but, after the war, turned its critical gaze on those who had associated with socialism, communism, and/or unions during the Great Depression years. In public “hearings,” the HUAC would call forth individuals and attempt to expose them through intense grilling. Those who refused to “name names” of others with similar connections could face “blacklisting,” the loss of their jobs in their respective industries. In addition to targeting federal branches, the HUAC targeted Hollywood, accusing screenwriters with leftist leanings of “disseminating Communist propaganda.”

With Truman’s progressive leanings well evidenced by his domestic initiatives, Truman was targeted with “going soft on Communism.” While domestic witch hunts continued, the Truman Administration’s foreign policy was containment: to contain the Soviet Union and its allies in Europe and around the globe by offering incentives, especially economic aid, to countries still “on the side” of the U.S. The fighting ground for such economic aid, influence and, in the end, covert military support, was the “Third World”—countries unclaimed by the “First World” (the U.S. and “the free world”) or the “Second World” (the Soviet Union and “communist control”).

The containment policy—and the massive cost and military presence that such a policy requires—was tested first around the time of the 1948 Election and, perhaps, this timing is what inspired such a dramatic response from Truman. A little geography first: Berlin, the capital of Germany, is located in the eastern half of the country. As such, West Berlin was an “island” in the middle of Soviet-created East Germany. The Soviet Union insisted that all currency in East Germany be the same, including in West Berlin. However, the western democracies continued to require the Deutschmark as West Berlin’s official currency. As a result, in the summer of 1948, the Soviets cut off all railroads, streets, and canals going into or out of West Berlin, hoping to get what they wanted through this blockade.

As opposed to using warfare as a response—which would result in a nuclear war, given that the Soviet Union was on the cusp of developing its own nuclear weapon arsenal during this time—Truman and the western allies decided to use military planes to supply the people of West Berlin with everything they needed, therefore avoiding the land and water blockades. This ambitious project cost millions of dollars and a steady number of flights between West Germany and West Berlin for fifteen months, the total mileage of which turned out to be nearly the distance between the Earth and the Sun. By September 1949, the Soviets reversed their requirement. (Nonetheless, the Soviets took more extreme measures to prevent traffic between East and West Berlin by the early 1960s, building the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the “Iron Curtain” divide between eastern and western Europe.)

Though he had shown the Soviet Union his determination with the Berlin Airlift, Harry Truman’s downfall was to prove his conservative critics wrong and, instead of going soft, “go hard on Communism.” With the Soviet Union’s support, North Korea militarized at a rapid pace and, after China’s revolution in 1949, felt confident enough to invade South Korea in 1950. Though nominally at the lead of the “U.N. forces,” the Korean War became a proving ground for the U.S. in defending its interests overseas with direct military action. General Douglas MacArthur was pleased to return to action, leading U.S. and South Korean troops, among others, in defending the “free world” from such “Communist aggression.” In fact, MacArthur was, if anything, too successful: he led a counter-invasion which repelled North Korean troops nearly to the Yalu River, the border with China. China, fearing its own national security, responded by sending military aid to the North Koreans. MacArthur then made public statements indicating that it was not enough to “contain” Communism, but that the United States should be on the offensive, taking the war fully into China, if necessary—and, as this was post-WWII, with the threat of nuclear strikes. This was too much for Truman, and he stripped MacArthur of his command.

The Republican response to the disaster in Korea, in effect, pushed Truman not just out of office, but out of the running for the 1952 election. MacArthur’s name was briefly considered as the Republican nominee but, as it would turn out, another general—one who outranked MacArthur in World War II—would take it.

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