[Excerpted from “Harry S. Truman: Advancing the Revolution,” in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom] Reprinted from Mises.org
When Harry Truman left office in January 1953, he was intensely unpopular, even widely despised. Many of his most cherished schemes, from national health insurance (socialized medicine) to universal military training (UMT), had been soundly rejected by Congress and the public. Worst of all, the war in Korea, which he persisted in calling a “police action,” was dragging on with no end in sight.
Yet today, Republican no less than Democratic politicians vie in glorifying Truman. When historians are asked to rank American presidents, he is listed as a “near-great.” Naturally, historians, like everyone else, have their own personal views and values. Like other academics, they tend to be overwhelmingly left of center. As Robert Higgs writes, “Left-liberal historians worship political power, and idolize those who wield it most lavishly in the service of left-liberal causes.”1 So it is scarcely surprising that they should venerate men like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman and agitate to get a credulous public to do the same.
But for anyone friendlier to limited government than the ordinary run of history professors, the presidency of Harry Truman will appear in a very different light. Truman’s predecessor had vastly expanded federal power, especially the power of the president, in what amounted to a revolution in American government. Under Truman, that revolution was consolidated and advanced beyond what even Franklin Roosevelt had ever dared hope for.
The Onset of the Cold War — Scaring Hell out of the American People
Most pernicious of all, Truman’s presidency saw the genesis of a world-spanning American political and military empire.2 This was not simply the unintended consequence of some alleged Soviet threat, however. Even before the end of World War II, high officials in Washington were drawing up plans to project American military might across the globe. To start with, the United States would dominate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Western Hemisphere through a network of air and naval bases. Complementing this would be a system of air-transit rights and landing facilities from North Africa to Saigon and Manila. This planning continued through the early years of the Truman administration.3
But the planners had no guarantee that such a radical reversal of our traditional policy could be sold to Congress and the people. It was the confrontation with the Soviet Union and “international communism,” begun and defined by Truman and then prolonged for four decades, that furnished the opportunity and the rationale for realizing the globalist dreams.
That after World War II the Soviet Union would be predominant in Europe was inevitable, given the goals pursued by Roosevelt and Churchill: Germany’s unconditional surrender and its total annihilation as a factor in the balance of power.4 At Yalta, the two Western leaders acquiesced in the control over Eastern Europe that had been won by Stalin’s armies, while affecting to believe that the Red dictator would cheerfully assent to the establishment of democratic governments in that area. The trouble was that genuinely free elections east of the Elbe (except in Czechoslovakia) would inescapably produce bitterly anti-Communist regimes. Such a result was unacceptable to Stalin, whose position was well-known and much more realistic than the illusions of his erstwhile allies. As he stated in the spring of 1945, “Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system [as far] as his army can reach.”5
When Truman became president in April 1945, he was at first prepared to continue the “Grand Alliance,” and in fact harbored sympathetic feelings toward Stalin.6 But differences soon arose. The raping and murdering rampage of Red Army troops as they rolled over Eastern Europe came as a disagreeable surprise to Americans who had swallowed the wartime propaganda, from Hollywood and elsewhere, on the Soviet “purity of arms.” Stalin’s apparent intention to communize Poland and include the other conquered territories within his sphere of influence was deeply resented by leaders in Washington, who at the same time had no qualms about maintaining their own sphere of influence throughout all of Latin America.7
Stalin’s predictable moves to extend his sway around the periphery of the USSR further alarmed Washington. Exploiting the presence of Soviet forces in northern Iran (a result of the wartime agreement of the Big Three to divide up control of that country), he pressed for oil concessions similar to those gained by the United States and Britain. After the Soviets withdrew in return for a promise of concessions by the Iranian parliament, Iran, supported by the United States, reneged on the deal. Turning to Turkey, Stalin revived traditional Russian claims dating from Czarist days pressuring Ankara to permit unimpeded transit for Soviet warships through the straits.
“Truman is glorified for his conduct of foreign affairs more than anything else.”
Most ominous, in Washington’s view, was the civil war in Greece, where royalist forces faced Red insurgents. Britain, bankrupted by the war, was compelled to abandon its support of the royalist cause. Would the United States take up the torch from the faltering hand of the great imperial power? Here, Truman told his cabinet, he “faced a decision more serious than ever confronted any president.”8 The hyperbole is inane, but one can appreciate Truman’s problem. The United States had never had the slightest interest in the eastern Mediterranean, nor was it possible to discern any threat to American security in whatever outcome the Greek civil war might yield. Moreover, Stalin had conceded Greece to Britain in his famous deal with Churchill in October 1944, whereby Russia was given control of most of the rest of the Balkans (a deal approved by Roosevelt). Accordingly, the Greek Communists did not enjoy Soviet backing; they were not permitted to join the Cominform, for instance, and their provisional government was not recognized by the Soviet Union or any other Communist state.9
Given all this, how would Truman be able to justify US involvement? Urged on by hardliners like Navy Secretary James Forrestal, who were emboldened by the (temporary) American monopoly of the atom bomb, he decided to frame the Communist uprising in Greece, as well as Soviet moves in Iran and Turkey, in apocalyptic terms. In countering them, he mused, “We might as well find out whether the Russians [are] bent on world conquest now as in five or ten years.”10 World conquest. Now, it seems, it was a Red Hitler who was on the march.11
Still, after the landslide Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1946, Truman had to deal with a potentially recalcitrant opposition. The Republicans had promised to return the country to some degree of normalcy after the statist binge of the war years. Sharp cuts in taxes, abolition of wartime controls, and a balanced budget were high priorities.
But Truman could count on allies in the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, most prominently Arthur Vandenberg, a former “isolationist” turned rabid globalist, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Truman revealed his new “doctrine” to Vandenberg, the Republican leader advised him that, in order to get such a program through, the president would have to “scare hell out of the American people.”12 That Truman proceeded to do.
On March 12, 1947, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Truman proclaimed a revolution in American foreign policy. More important than the proposed $300 million in aid for Greece and $100 million for Turkey was the vision he presented. Declaring that henceforth “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure,” Truman situated aid to Greece and Turkey within a world-encompassing, life-or-death struggle “between alternative ways of life.”13 As one historian has written, he “escalated the long, historic struggle between the Left and Right in Greece for political power, and the equally historic Russian urge for control of the Dardanelles [sic], into a universal conflict between freedom and slavery. It was a very broad jump indeed.”14
At first, Truman’s radical initiative provoked uneasiness, even within his administration. George Kennan, often credited with fathering the Cold War “containment” idea, strongly opposed military aid to Turkey, a nation that was under no military threat and that bordered the Soviet Union. Kennan also scoffed at the “grandiose” and “sweeping” character of the Truman Doctrine.15
In Congress, the response of Senator Robert Taft was to accuse the president of dividing the world into Communist and anti-Communist zones. He asked for evidence that our national security was involved in Greece, adding that he did not “want war with Russia.”16 But Taft turned out to be the last, often vacillating, leader of the Old Right, whose ranks were visibly weakening.17 Although he was called “Mr. Republican,” it was the internationalists who were now in charge of that party. In the Senate, Taft’s doubts were answered with calm, well-reasoned rebuttals. Vandenberg intoned, “If we desert the President of the United States at [this] moment we cease to have any influence in the world forever.” Henry Cabot Lodge averred that repudiating Truman would be like throwing the American flag on the ground and stomping on it.18 In May, Congress appropriated the funds the president requested.
Meanwhile, the organs of the national-security state were being put into place.19 The War and Navy Departments and the Army Air Corps were combined into what was named, in Orwellian fashion, the Defense Department. Other legislation established the National Security Council and upgraded intelligence operations into the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the following decades, the CIA was to play a sinister, extremely expensive, and often comically inept role — especially in its continually absurd overestimations of Soviet strength.20 In establishing the CIA, Congress had no intention of authorizing it to conduct secret military operations, but under Truman this is what it quickly began to do, including waging a secret war on the Chinese mainland even before the outbreak of the Korean War (with no appreciable results).21 In 1999, after it targeted the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for bombing — supposedly a mistake, even though American diplomats had dined at the embassy and its location was known to everyone in the city — CIA has come to stand, in the words of one British writer, for “Can’t Identify Anything.”22
In June 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced a wide-ranging scheme for economic aid to Europe. In December, the Marshall Plan was presented as an appropriations bill calling for grants of $17 billion over four years. The plan, it was claimed, would reconstruct Europe to the point at which the Europeans could defend themselves. Congress at first was cold to the idea. Taft grumbled that American taxpayers should not have to support an “international WPA,” arguing that the funds would subsidize the socialization programs under way in many of the recipient countries.23 The Marshall Plan led to intensified tensions with the Russians, who saw it as further proof that Washington aimed to undermine their rule over Eastern Europe. Stalin instructed his satellite states to refuse to take part.24
“World-Conquest” Red Alert
Nineteen forty-eight was a decisive year in the Cold War. There was great reluctance in the conservative Eightieth Congress to comply with Truman’s program, which included funding for the European Recovery Act (Marshall Plan), resumption of the draft, and Universal Military Training. To deal with this resistance, the administration concocted the war scare of 1948.
The first pretext came in February, with the so-called Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. But Czechoslovakia, for all intents and purposes, was already a Soviet satellite. Having led the Czechs in the “ethnic cleansing” of 3.5 million Sudeten Germans, the Communists enjoyed great popularity. In the general elections, they won 38 percent of the vote, constituting by far the largest single party. The American ambassador reported to Washington that Communist consolidation of power in early 1948 was the logical outgrowth of the Czech-Soviet military alliance dating back to 1943. George Marshall himself, in private, stated that “as far as international affairs are concerned,” the formal Communist assumption of power made no difference — it would merely “crystallize and confirm for the future previous Czech policy.”25 Still, the Communist “coup” was painted as a great leap forward in Stalin’s plan for “world conquest.”
Then, on March 5, came the shocking letter from General Lucius Clay, US military governor in Germany, to General Stephen J. Chamberlin, head of Army Intelligence, in which Clay revealed his foreboding that war “may come with dramatic suddenness.” Years later, when Clay’s biographer asked him why, if he sensed an impending war, this was the only reference he ever made to it, he replied, “General Chamberlin … told me that the Army was having trouble getting the draft reinstituted and they needed a strong message from me that they could use in congressional testimony. So I wrote this cable.”26
On March 11, Marshall solemnly warned in a public address, “The world is in the midst of a great crisis.” Averell Harriman asserted, “There are aggressive forces in the world coming from the Soviet Union which are just as destructive as Hitler was, and I think are a greater menace than Hitler was.”27
And so Harriman laid down the Hitler card, which was to become the master trump in the globalist propaganda hand for the next half-century — and most likely for centuries to come.
Taft, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, was angered by the war hysteria drummed up by the administration:
I know of no indication of Russian intention to undertake military aggression beyond the sphere of influence that was originally assigned to them [at Yalta]. The situation in Czechoslovakia was indeed a tragic one, but Russian influence has predominated there since the end of the war.
Taft tried to introduce a note of sanity: “If President Truman and General Marshall have any private intelligence” regarding imminent war, “they ought to tell the American people about it.” Otherwise, we should proceed on “the basis of peace.”28
In reality, the administration had no such “private intelligence,” hence the need to stage-manage Clay’s letter. On the contrary, Colonel Robert B. Landry, Truman’s air aide, reported that in their zone in eastern Germany the Russians had dismantled hundreds of miles of railroad track and shipped it home — in other words, they had torn up the very railroads required for any Soviet attack on Western Europe.29 Field Marshal Montgomery, after a trip to Russia in 1947, wrote to General Eisenhower, “The Soviet Union is very, very tired. Devastation in Russia is appalling, and the country is in no fit state to go to war.”30 Today it would be very difficult to find any scholar willing to subscribe to Truman’s frenzied vision of a Soviet Union about to set off to conquer the world. As historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote,
Stalin is now seen as a cagey but insecure opportunist, taking advantage of such tactical opportunities as arose to expand Soviet influence, but without any long-term strategy for or even very much interest in promoting the spread of communism beyond the Soviet sphere.31
there was an element of overreaction, arrogance, and selfish pragmatism in the American response to Stalin’s plans. … The Soviet military machine was not a military juggernaut, western Europe was not under threat of a direct Soviet military assault, and the Sino-Soviet bloc lacked true cohesion…. American containment of Stalin’s Soviet Union may indeed have helped the dictatorship to mobilize people to the task of building a superpower from the ashes and ruins of the impoverished and devastated country. It may even have helped Stalin to trample on the seeds of liberalism and freedom in Soviet society.
Cf. Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives,” pp. 132, 134: “The new research clearly shows that American initiatives intensified Soviet distrust and reinforced Soviet insecurities … [recent research indicates] that American policies made it difficult for potential reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.”
The nonexistence of Soviet plans to launch an attack on Europe holds for the entire Cold War period. One scholar in the field concludes,
despite the fact that the Russian archives have yielded ample evidence of Soviet perfidy and egregious behavior in many other spheres, nothing has turned up to support the idea that the Soviet leadership at any time actually planned to start World War III and send the “Russian hordes” westward.32
So why the war scare in 1948? In a 1976 interview, looking back on this period, Air Force Brigadier General Robert C. Richardson, who served at NATO headquarters in the early 1950s, candidly admitted,
there was no question about it, that [the Soviet] threat that we were planning against was way overrated and intentionally overrated, because there was the problem of reorienting the [US] demobilization … [Washington] made this nine-foot-tall threat out there. And for years and years it stuck. I mean, it was almost immovable.33
for more than four decades, Western policy has been based on a grotesque exaggeration of what the USSR could do if it wanted, therefore what it might do, therefore what the West must be prepared to do in response. … Worst-case assumptions about Soviet intentions have fed, and fed upon, worst-case assumptions about Soviet capabilities.
John A. Thompson, “The Exaggeration of American Vulnerability: The Anatomy of a Tradition,” Diplomatic History 16, no. 1 (Winter 1992): pp. 23. Thompson’s article is highly instructive on how hysteria regarding impending attacks on the United States during the 20th century — a time when America grew ever stronger — has contributed to entanglement in foreign conflicts.
Yet, anyone who doubted the wisdom of the administration’s militaristic policy was targeted for venomous smears. According to Truman, Republicans who opposed his universal crusade were “Kremlin assets,” the sort of traitors who would shoot “our soldiers in the back in a hot war,” a good example of Truman’s acclaimed “plain speaking.”35
There is considerable political advantage to the administration in its battle with the Kremlin. The worse matters get up to a fairly certain point — real danger of imminent war — the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president. (Kofsky, Truman, p. 92)
35 Averell Harriman charged that Taft was simply helping Stalin carry out his aims. The New York Times and the rest of the establishment press echoed the slanders. Amusingly, Republican critics of the war hysteria were labeled pro-Soviet even by journals like the New Republic and the Nation, which had functioned as apologists for Stalin’s terror regime for years.36
Truman’s campaign could not have succeeded without the enthusiastic cooperation of the American media. Led by the Times, the Herald Tribune, and Henry Luce’s magazines, the press acted as volunteer propagandists for the interventionist agenda, with all its calculated deceptions. (The principal exceptions were the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald, in the days of Colonel McCormick and Cissy Paterson.)37 In time, such subservience in foreign affairs became routine for the “fourth estate,” culminating during and after the 1999 Yugoslav war in reporting by the press corps that was as biased as the Serbian Ministry of Information.
Overwhelmed by the propaganda blitz from the administration and the press, a Republican majority in Congress heeded the secretary of state’s high-minded call to keep foreign policy “above politics” and voted full funding for the Marshall Plan.38
The next major step was the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The true significance of the NATO treaty was hidden, as new Secretary of State Dean Acheson assured Congress that it would not be followed by other regional pacts, that no “substantial” numbers of American troops would be stationed in Europe, and that the Germans would under no circumstances be rearmed. Congress was likewise promised that the United States was under no obligation to extend military aid to its new allies, nor would an arms race with the Soviet Union ensue.39 Events came to the aid of the globalists. In September 1949, the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb. Congress approved the military appropriation for NATO that Truman had requested, which, in the nature of things, was followed by a further Soviet buildup. This escalating back and forth became the pattern for the Cold War arms race for the next 50 years, much to the delight of US armaments contractors and the generals and admirals on both sides.
The Korean War
In June 1950, the National Security Council adopted a major strategic document, NSC-68, which declared, implausibly enough, that “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” The United States should no longer attempt to “distinguish between national and global security.” Instead, it must stand at the “political and material center with other free nations in variable orbits around it.” NSC-68, which was not declassified until 1975, called for an immediate three- or fourfold increase in military spending, which would serve also to prime the pump of economic prosperity — thus formalizing military Keynesianism as a permanent fixture of American life. Moreover, public opinion was to be conditioned to accept the “large measure of sacrifice and discipline” needed to meet the protean Communist challenge for the indefinite future.40
Even Truman was dubious on the prospects for such a quantum leap in globalism in a time of peace. But again, events — and Truman’s shrewd exploitation of them — came to the aid of the internationalist planners. As one of Truman’s advisers later expressed it, in June 1950 “we were sweating over it,” and then, “thank God Korea came along.”41
“It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples.”
For years, skirmishes and even major engagements had occurred across the 38th parallel, which divided North Korea from South Korea. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson described the American defensive perimeter as extending from the Aleutians to Japan to the Philippines. South Korea (as well as Taiwan) was conspicuously placed outside this perimeter. One reason was that it was not considered to be of any military value. Another was that Washington did not trust South Korean strong man Syngman Rhee, who repeatedly threatened to reunite the country by force. Rhee was advocating a march north to American officials as late as mid-June 1950.42
On June 25, it was North Korea that attacked.43 The next day, Truman instructed US air and naval forces to destroy Communist supply lines. When bombing failed to prevent the headlong retreat of the South Korean army, Truman sent American troops stationed in Japan to join the battle. General Douglas MacArthur was able to hold the redoubt around Pusan, then, in an amphibious invasion at Inchon, to begin the destruction of the North Korean position.
After the North Koreans retreated behind the 38th parallel, Truman decided against ending the war on the basis of the status quo ante. Instead, he ordered MacArthur to move north. Pyongyang was to be the first Communist capital liberated and the whole peninsula to be unified under the rule of Syngman Rhee. As UN forces (mainly US and South Korean) swept north, the Chinese issued warnings against approaching their border at the Yalu River. These were ignored by an administration somehow unable to comprehend why China might fear massive US forces stationed on its frontier. Chinese troops entered the war, prolonging it by another three years, during which most of the American casualties were sustained.44 MacArthur, who proposed bombing China itself, was dismissed by Truman, who at least spared the nation an even wider war possibly involving Russia as well.
Korea afforded unprecedented opportunities for advancing the globalist program. Truman assigned the US Seventh Fleet to patrol the strait between Taiwan and the mainland. Four more US divisions were sent to Europe, to add to the two already there, and another $4 billion was allocated for the rearmament of our European allies. Some months before the start of the Korean War, Truman had already initiated America’s fateful involvement in Indochina, supporting the French and their puppet ruler Bao Dai against the nationalist and Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. Korea furnished welcome cover for stepping up aid to the French, which soon amounted to a half-billion dollars a year. The United States was thus providing the great bulk of the material resources for France’s colonialist war. The State Department defended this commitment, rather ridiculously, by citing Indochina’s production of “much-needed rice, rubber, and tin.” More to the point was the fear expressed that the “loss” of Indochina, including Vietnam, would represent a defeat in the struggle against what was portrayed as a unified and coordinated Communist push to take over the world.45
At the same time, the degradation of political language went into high gear, where it remained for the rest of the Cold War and probably permanently. To the authoritarian regimes in Greece and Turkey were now added, as components of the “free world” that Americans were obligated to defend, Rhee’s autocratic Republic of Korea, Chiang’s dictatorship in Taiwan, and even colonialist French Indochina.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, the Republicans’ capitulation to globalism was practically complete.46 As is standard procedure in American politics, foreign policy was a nonissue in the 1948 presidential campaign. Thomas E. Dewey, a creature of the eastern establishment centered in Wall Street, was as much of an overseas meddler as Truman. Now, in the struggle against “international Communism,” even erstwhile “isolationists” showed themselves to be archinterventionists when it came to Asia, going so far as to make a hero of MacArthur for demanding an expansion of the war and the “unleashing” of Chiang’s army on the mainland. Taft supported sending troops to fight in Korea, while entering one major objection. Characteristically, it was on the constitutional question.
The President as War-Maker at Will
When North Korea invaded the South, Truman and Acheson claimed unlimited presidential authority to engage the United States in the war, which they kept referring to as a “police action.” Truman stated, “The president, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, has full control over the use thereof.”47 This flies in the face of Article 1, section 8, of the US Constitution, where the power to declare war is vested in Congress. The deliberations at the Constitutional Convention and other statements of the Founding Fathers are unequivocal in this respect. While the president, as commander-in-chief, is given authority to deploy American forces in wartime, it is Congress that decides on war or peace. Wouldn’t it be surpassingly strange if the Founders, so concerned to limit, divide, and balance power, had left the decision to engage the country in war to the will of a single individual?48
So well-established was this principle that even Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, no minimizers of executive prerogatives, bowed to it and went to Congress for their declarations of war. It was Truman who dared what even his predecessor had not. As two constitutional scholars, Francis D. Wormuth and Edwin B. Firmage, have written, “The Constitution is not ambiguous. … The early presidents, and indeed everyone in the country until the year 1950, denied that the president possessed [the power to initiate war]. There is no sustained body of usage to support such a claim.”49
At the time, college history professors rushed to blazon the allegedly countless occasions when presidents sent US forces into war or warlike situations without congressional approval. Lists of such occasions were afterward compiled by other apologists for executive power in foreign affairs — in 1971, for instance, by the revered conservative Barry Goldwater. These incidents have been carefully examined by Wormuth and Firmage, who conclude,
One cannot be sure, but the number of cases in which presidents have personally made the decision [in contrast, for instance, to overzealous military and naval officers], unconstitutionally to engage in war or in acts of war probably lies between one and two dozen. And in all those cases the presidents have made false claims of authorization, either by statute or by treaty or by international law. They have not relied on their powers as commander in chief or as chief executive.50
At all events, as Chief Justice Earl Warren held in 1969, articulating a well-known constitutional principle on behalf of seven other justices, “That an unconstitutional action has been taken before surely does not render that action any less unconstitutional at a later date.”51
“In 1950, the National Security Council called for an immediate three- or fourfold increase in military spending, which would serve also to prime the pump of economic prosperity — thus formalizing military Keynesianism as a permanent fixture of American life.”
The administration sometimes alluded to the vote of the UN Security Council approving military action in Korea as furnishing the necessary authority. This was nothing but a smokescreen. First, because according to the UN Charter any Security Council commitment of members’ troops must be consistent with the members’ “respective constitutional processes.” The United Nations Participation Act of 1945 also required congressional ratification for the use of American forces. In any case, Truman stated that he would send troops to Korea whether or not authorized by the Security Council. His position really was that a president may plunge the country into war simply on his own say-so.52
Today presidents assert the right to bomb at will countries that, like North Korea in 1950, never attacked us and with which we are not at war — Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, massively, Yugoslavia. They are eagerly seconded in this by “conservative” politicians and publicists, nor does the American public demur. Back in 1948, Charles Beard already noted the dismal ignorance among our people of the principles of our republican government:
American education from the universities down to the grade schools is permeated with, if not dominated by, the theory of presidential supremacy in foreign affairs. Coupled with the flagrant neglect of instruction in constitutional government, this propaganda … has deeply implanted in the minds of rising generations the doctrine that the power of the president over international relations is, for all practical purposes, illimitable.53
Needless to say, the situation has in no way improved, as the public schools grind out tens of millions of future voters to whom the notion, say, that James Madison had something to do with the Constitution of the United States would come as an uninteresting revelation.
The Korean War lasted three years and cost 36,916 American deaths and more than 100,000 other casualties. Additionally, there were millions of Korean dead and devastation of the peninsula, especially in the North, where the US Air Force pulverized the civilian infrastructure — with much “collateral damage” — in what has since become its emblematic method of waging war.54 Today, nearly a half-century after the end of the conflict, the United States continues to station troops as a “tripwire” in yet another of its imperial outposts.55
The indirect consequences of Truman’s “police action” have been equally grim. Hans Morgenthau wrote,
The misinterpretation of the North Korean aggression as part of a grand design at world conquest originating in and controlled by Moscow resulted in a drastic militarization of the cold war in the form of a conventional and nuclear armaments race, the frantic search for alliances, and the establishment of military bases.56
Truman is glorified for his conduct of foreign affairs more than anything else. Whether one concurs in this judgment depends mainly on the kind of country one wishes America to be. Stephen Ambrose has summed up the results of the foreign policy of Harry Truman:
When Truman became president he led a nation anxious to return to traditional civil-military relations and the historic American foreign policy of noninvolvement. When he left the White House his legacy was an American presence on every continent of the world and an enormously expanded armament industry. Yet so successfully had he scared hell out of the American people, the only critics to receive any attention in the mass media were those who thought Truman had not gone far enough in standing up to the communists. For all his troubles, Truman had triumphed.57
- 1.Robert Higgs, “No More ‘Great Presidents,'” The Free Market (February 1997): p. 2.
- 2.Even such a defender of US policy as John Lewis Gaddis, in “The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War,’ Diplomatic History 7, no. 3 (Summer 1983): pp. 171–93, states that part of the “post-revisionist” consensus among diplomatic historians is that an American empire did indeed come into being. But this American empire, according to Gaddis, is a “defensive” one. Why this should be a particularly telling point is unclear, considering that for American leaders “defense” has entailed effectively controlling the world.
- 3.Melvyn P. Leffler, “The American Conception of National Security and the Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945–1948,” American Historical Review 89, no. 2 (April 1984): pp. 346–81. See also the comments by John Lewis Gaddis and Bruce Kuniholm, and Leffler’s reply, pp. 382–400.
- 4.See Ralph Raico, “Rethinking Churchill,” in The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, John V. Denson, ed., 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999).
- 5.Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1990, 6th rev. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p. 13. Cf. Stalin’s comment at Yalta: “A freely elected government in any of these countries would be anti-Soviet, and that we cannot allow.” Hans J. Morgenthau, “The Origins of the Cold War,” in Lloyd C. Gardner, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hans J. Morgenthau, The Origins of the Cold War (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn, 1970), pp. 87–88.
- 6.Melvyn R. Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 1996): pp. 134–35.
- 7.At the State Department, Henry Stimson and John J. McCloy agreed in May 1945 that (in McCloy’s words) “we ought to have our cake and eat it too,” that is, control South America and “at the same time intervene promptly in Europe; we oughtn’t to give away either asset [sic].” Stephen E. Ambrose, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 103.
- 8.Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 391.
- 9.Frank Kofsky, Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948: A Successful Campaign to Deceive the Nation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), pp. 244–45.
- 10.Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p. 117.
- 11.In their attacks on Patrick Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1999) for his insistence that Nazi Germany posed no threat to the United States after 1940, Buchanan’s critics have generally resorted to fatuous smears. This is understandable, since they are wedded to a fantasy of Hitlerian power that, ironically, is itself a reflection of Hitlerian propaganda. The fact is that Nazi Germany never conquered any militarily important nation but France. The danger of 80 million Germans “conquering the world” is a scarecrow that has, obviously, served the globalists well.
- 12.Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, pp. 132–33.
- 13.Ronald E. Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917–1991 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 72.
- 14.Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p. 133. That self-interest played a role in the exaggeration of the “crisis” is the conclusion of Ronald Steel, “The End of the Beginning,” Diplomatic History 16, no. 2 (Spring 1992): pp. 297, who writes that universalizing the struggle would “enable the United States greatly to expand its military and political reach,” which “enhanced its appeal to American foreign policy elites eager to embrace the nation’s new opportunities.”
- 15.LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, pp. 53–54.
- 16.Ronald Radosh, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 155–56.
- 17.See Ted Galen Carpenter’s informative The Dissenters: American Isolationists and Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1980). On the same topic, but concentrating on the intellectual leaders of the Old Right, see Joseph R. Stromberg’s perceptive analysis, The Cold War and the Transformation of the American Right: The Decline of Right-Wing Liberalism (M.A. thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 1971).
- 18.Melvyn P Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 146.
- 19.See Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
- 20.Cf. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 195–99 and passim. In 1997, former President Gerald Ford recalled his days as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Committee, when spokesmen for the CIA would warn over and over again of the imminent danger of the Soviet Union’s surpassing the United States “in military capability, in economic growth, in the strength of our economies. It was a scary presentation.”
- 21.Truman later maintained that he never intended the CIA to involve itself in “peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations.” This, however, was a lie. See John Prados, Presidents’ Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II through the Persian Gulf War, rev. ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), pp. 20–21, 28–29, 65–67; also Peter Grose, Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), which discusses George Kennan’s 1948 plan, approved by the Truman administration, to carry out paramilitary actions behind the Iron Curtain, including guerrilla attacks and sabotage.
- 22.Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in the Times Literary Supplement (July 16, 1999): p. 9. For an excellent analysis of the United States’ and NATO’s successive lies on the bombing of the Chinese embassy, and the American media’s endorsement and propagation of the lies, see Jared Israel, “The Arrogance of Rome,” April 18, 2000.
- 23.Radosh, Prophets on the Right, pp. 159–61. The Marshall Plan and its supposed successes are now enveloped by what Walter A. McDougall, in Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 180, rightly calls a “mythology.” The basic cause of Europe’s recovery was the relatively free-market principles put into practice (in West Germany, for instance), and, more than anything else, the character of the European peoples, sometimes called “human capital.” What the Marshall Plan and the billions in US military aid largely accomplished was to allow the European regimes to construct their welfare states, and, in the case of France, for one, to continue trying to suppress colonial uprisings, as in Vietnam. Cf. George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950–1976 (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 8: “substantial American funds under the Marshall Plan enabled France to use its own resources to prosecute the war in Indochina.” See also Tyler Cowen, “The Marshall Plan: Myths and Realities,” in US Aid to the Developing World: A Free Market Agenda, Doug Bandow, ed. (Washington, B.C.: Heritage, 1985), pp. 61–74; and Alan S. Milward, “Was the Marshall Plan Necessary?” Diplomatic History 13 (Spring 1989): pp. 231–53, who emphasizes the pressures placed on European governments by the plan’s administrators to adopt Keynesian policies.
- 24.Vladislav Zubok, “Stalin’s Plans and Russian Archives,” Diplomatic History 21, no. 2 (Spring 1997): pp. 299. The Soviet documents show that Stalin and Molotov were “convinced that the US aid was designed to lure the Kremlin’s East European neighbors out of its orbit and to rebuild German strength.” See also Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives,” p. 133.
- 25.Kofsky, Truman, p. 99.
- 26.Ibid., p. 106.
- 27.Ronald E. Powaski, Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism, and Europe, 1901–1950 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1991), pp. 201–02.
- 28.Harry W. Berger, “Senator Robert A. Taft Dissents from Military Escalation,” in Cold War Critics: Alternatives to American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years, Thomas G. Paterson, ed. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), pp. 181–82; and Kofsky, Truman, p. 130.
- 29.Ibid., pp. 294–95.
- 30.Michael Parenti, The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989), p. 147.
- 31.Gaddis, “The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis,” p. 181. Morgenthau, “The Origins of the Cold War,” p. 95, anticipated this conclusion: “The limits of Stalin’s territorial ambition were the traditional limits of Russian expansionism.” Even Vladislav Zubok, who believes that the now-available Soviet documents show the US leaders in a much better light than many had thought, nonetheless concedes, “Stalin’s Plans,” p. 305:
- 32.Matthew Evangelista, “The ‘Soviet Threat’: Intentions, Capabilities, and Context,” Diplomatic History 22, no. 3 (Summer 1998): pp. 445–46. On how information from recently opened Soviet archives has undermined the old cold war account, see also the account by Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives,” pp. 120–35. Leffler, hardly a “New Left” (or libertarian) historian, concludes, ‘Americans should reexamine their complacent belief in the wisdom of their country’s cold war policies.” The fact that Stalin was the worst tyrant and greatest mass-murderer in 20th-century European history has by now been established beyond a doubt. However, here one should heed Murray Rothbard’s admonition against doing “a priori history,” that is, assuming that in a given international conflict it is always the relatively liberal state that is in the right as against the relatively illiberal state, which must always be the aggressor. Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, rev. ed. (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1978), pp. 289–91.
- 33.Evangelista, “The Soviet Threat,” p. 447. See also Steel, “The End of the Beginning,” “Unquestionably, the Soviet Union was far weaker ideologically, politically, structurally, and, of course, economically, than was generally assumed.” An astonishing admission that the whole cold war was fueled, on the American side, by wild overestimations of Soviet strength was made in 1990 by Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state:
- 35.a. b. Justus D. Doenecke, Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1979), p. 216. Truman’s slanders were particularly vile, since his own motivation in generating the war-scare was at least in part self-aggrandizement. As his trusted political adviser Clark Clifford noted in a memo to the president,
- 36.Doenecke, Not to the Swift, pp. 200, 216.
- 37.Ted Galen Carpenter, The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1995), pp. 45–52. Carpenter’s excellent study covers the whole period of the Cold War.
- 38.The commotion over Soviet plans to “conquer the world” intensified in June 1948 with the blockade of West Berlin. The United States and its allies had unilaterally decided to jettison four-power control of Germany, and instead to integrate their occupation zones and proceed to create a west-German state. Stalin’s clumsy response was to exploit the absence of any formal agreement permitting the Western powers access to Berlin, and institute the blockade.
- 39.LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, pp. 83–84. Some award for Orwellian newspeak is due the Democratic foreign affairs leader in the Senate, Tom Connally, who stated that NATO “is but the logical extension of the principle of the Monroe Doctrine.”
- 40.See especially Jerry W. Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment (Boston: South End Press, 1983); also Gabriel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflict, and Society Since 1914 (New York: New Press, 1994), pp. 397–98; and Powaski, Cold War, pp. 85–86.
- 41.Michael Schaller, The United States and China in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 131–32.
- 42.Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 257–58. Japan was unable to act as a counterweight to Communist regimes in east Asia because, like Germany, it had been annulled as a power. In addition, the constitution imposed on Japan by the American occupiers forced it to renounce war-making as a sovereign right.
- 43.The attack was authorized by Stalin, “in expectation that the United States might eventually turn [South Korea] into a beachhead for a return to the Asian mainland in alliance with a resurgent Japan” (Zubok, “Stalin’s Plans,” p. 301).
- 44.Eric A. Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 168–69.
- 45.Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, pp. 107–08; see also Herring, America’s Longest War, pp. 6–23. France’s war against the Viet Minh began in 1946 with a typical colonialist atrocity, when a French cruiser bombarded Haiphong, killing 6,000 civilians; ibid., p. 5. Acts of brutality such as this were on the minds of the “isolationist” Republicans like Taft, George Bender, and Howard Buffet when they inveighed against American support of Western imperialism in terms that would be considered “leftist” today.
- 46.On the shift of conservatives from “isolationism” to internationalism, see Murray N. Rothbard, “The Transformation of the American Right,” Continuum (Summer 1964): pp. 220–31.
- 47.John Hart Ely, War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and Its Aftermath (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 10–11.
- 48.See, for example, James Wilson’s statement: “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.” Ibid., p. 3. Illustrative of the present-day decay of constitutional thinking is the statement of the noted conservative advocate of the doctrine of “original intent. “‘ Robert Bork (ibid., p. 5): “The need for presidents to have that power [to use military force abroad without Congressional approval], particularly in the modern age, should be obvious to almost anyone.”
- 49.Francis D. Wormuth and Edwin B. Firmage, To Chain the Dog of War: The War Power of Congress in History and Law, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 151.
- 50.Wormuth and Firmage, To Chain the Dog of War, p. 151.
- 51.Ibid., p. 135.
- 52.Ely, War and Responsibility, pp. 151–52, n. 60. A year earlier the North Atlantic Treaty had been submitted to the Senate for approval. Article 5 specifically ensured that “US response to aggression in the area covered by the alliance would be governed by ‘constitutional processes’ thereby requiring congressional approval.” Ponawski, Toward Entangling Alliance, pp. 208–09. On the origins of unlimited presidential war-making powers, see Robert Shogan, Hard Bargain: How FDR Twisted Churchill’s Arm, Evaded the Law, and Changed the Role of the American Presidency, paperback edition (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999), preface to the paperback edition, “Paving the Way to Kosovo.”
- 53.Charles A. Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 590. Beard listed as among the major purveyors of this doctrine “powerful private agencies engaged nominally in propaganda for ‘peace,'” which look to the president to advance their ideas for “ordering and reordering the world.”
- 54.Kolko, Century of War, pp. 403–08. General Curtis LeMay boasted of the devastation wreaked by the Air Force: “We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both … we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes.” Callum A. MacDonald, Korea: The War Before Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1986), p. 235. I am grateful to Joseph R. Stromberg for drawing my attention to this quotation. It gives one pause to realize that the savagery of the US air war was such as to lead even Winston Churchill to condemn it. Ibid., pp. 234–35. In Fall 1999, it was finally disclosed that “early in the Korean War, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge in the South Korean countryside,” allegedly in order to thwart the infiltration of North Korean troops. Former US soldiers “described other refugee killings as well in the war’s first weeks, when US commanders ordered their troops to shoot civilians of an allied nation, as a defense against disguised enemy soldiers, according to once-classified documents found in US military archives” (Washington Post, September 30, 1999). A few months later, other declassified US military documents revealed that the South Korean government executed without trial more than 2,000 leftists as its forces retreated in the first stages of the war; the occurrence of such executions was known to the American military authorities at the time (New York Times, April 21, 2000). In addition, there is evidence that the United States may, in fact, have experimented with bacteriological warfare in Korea, as charged by China and North Korea. See Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
- 55.Doug Bandow, Tripwire: Korea and US Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1996).
- 56.Morgenthau, “Origins of the Cold War,” p. 98.
- 57.Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, p. 185. On the ultimate price paid by the nation for Truman’s “triumph,” see the important article by Robert Higgs, “The Cold War Economy: Opportunity Costs, Ideology, and the Politics of Crisis,” Explorations in Economic History 31 (1994): 283–312. Editor’s note: Higgs’s article is reprinted in his book, Depression, War, and Cold War.