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President Harry Truman

HomeEssaysHistory and PoliticsPresident Harry Truman
03.09.2020
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The beginning of the postwar period in American history was connected with the presidency of Harry Truman. He took office unexpectedly for both himself and the whole American society. His administration faced the dramatic situation: the war in Europe was approaching its end, military actions in the Pacific Ocean were going on, and preparations for the San-Francisco and Potsdam conferences were underway. Moreover, the President had to solve one of the most difficult challenges of his life – the use of the atomic bomb. Additionally, associates and advisers of former president Franklin Roosevelt gradually began to withdraw from the government. In such severe conditions of the transition from the war to peace, rapid sophistication of the international situation, and the domestic power crisis, Truman had to make complicated decisions on strategic external and internal political issues. Although not always the President found the support of the legislative and judicial powers, he demonstrated decisiveness and a hard line in his domestic and foreign policy and followed this course throughout his presidency.

Truman’s political career started in his native Missouri with the work in a local judicial institution. Due to the support of Thomas Pendergast, the leader of the Democrats’ political machine in Missouri with the reputation of a scandalous politician, Truman won the election for the position of a judge to the Jackson County Court in 1922 (Truman). He was not a perfect candidate; in spite of that, he had many advantages: he was a follower of the Democrats, the most powerful party in the South, he was known in the electoral constituency, and his former military comrades supported him. Furthermore, in 1926 he was elected Presiding Judge of Jackson County (Truman). When it came to the end of his activity at the Jackson County Court, the United States were right in the center of the global economic crisis. However, due to many favorable circumstances he managed to run for the elections to the Congress in 1934 and to win it. Thus, at the age of fifty years Truman came to Washington as a senator from Missouri. Although previously he had had no experience in federal policy, as a former judge of the large county he knew what the federal government could do for those in need during the Great Depression.

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Despite the dubious reputation that he had at the beginning of his career because of his corrupt boss, Truman quickly gained credibility thanks to his responsible attitude to duties and friendly relationships with colleagues. With his active participation, for instance, two important legislations were adopted, including the State Transportation Act and the Civil Aeronautics Act (McCollough 264). However, he won the reelection to the Senate in 1940 with great difficulty, defeating the opponent with a slight preponderance of votes (Truman). In 1941, the special committee headed by Truman revealed numerous abuses in the armed forces and military production, thus saving billions of dollars for the nation. In his address to the Congress, Truman noticed that “The Committee investigated the National Defense Program as it found waste, inefficiency, mismanagement, and profiteering” (Truman). Consequently, this effort boosted his popularity among both the congressmen and the American society.

Furthermore, it played a significant role in his future political career. When Franklin Roosevelt was reelected for the fourth time as the US President, leaders of the party machine recommended him to replace his Vice President Henry Wallace, whom many of the most powerful Democrats considered to be an excessively liberal activist. They proposed Truman, suggesting that the popular senator from the Middle West could provide the administration with the sympathy and support of farmers and financiers. Roosevelt said that it would make no difference since the Vice President had almost no authority other than representative and ceremonial functions and he agreed. In such a way, 60-year-old Truman became an understudy of 62-year-old Roosevelt. Nevertheless, during 82 days of Truman’s vice presidency they met only twice and he was not engaged in resolving significant issues (McCullough 422).

Truman represented nothing outstanding as a politician: he was not a charismatic and persuasive speaker and he could hardly expect to succeed in politics. However, after the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, he became a leader of the powerful country. He took office, being completely unaware of the situation in the world, and he had to make decisions in the limited time frameworks. His unexpected appearance as the US President shocked the Americans no less than the death of their favorite Franklin Roosevelt. Popular historian David McCullough in his fundamental biography Truman described the mood of those days in the American society as follows: “‘Good God, Truman will be President,’ it was being said everywhere. ‘If Harry Truman can be President, so could my next-door neighbor’. People were fearful about the future of the country” (431). However, Truman turned out to be a hard-working and dedicated politician capable of resolving challenges, which made him a great president.

Nonetheless, Truman’s attempts to follow his hard line in the policy were often blocked by the legislative branch. The relationships between the President and the Congress were burdened with many factors. Although Truman was a Democrat, the majority in the US Congress belonged to the Republicans who adopted a series of legislations of the right-wing conservative direction. In his pursuit of the economic progress and social equality, Truman followed Roosevelt’s course: he aimed to provide full employment, public healthcare insurance, federal assistance to educational programs, and extension of civil rights to the Americans. The Republicans who controlled the Congress in 1947-49, on the contrary, tried to depart from Roosevelt’s New Deal (McCullough 689). Even though in 1949 the Democrats regained the majority in the Congress, it did not particularly influence the implementation of Truman’s policy. Fellow party members agreed with the necessity to extend the existing programs of the New Deal, but they were extremely opposed to establishing the government’s control in other spheres of the American life.

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Furthermore, the major issue that revealed disagreements between the President and the Congress was the regulation of labor relations. Making the transition to the civilian production, the government failed to prevent the economic crisis. After the war, public procurement declined and demand for human resources decreased, which caused a reduction of wages and increase of the unemployment level. It resulted in the wave of strikes, especially in 1946. Trying to meet entrepreneurs’ requirements, the Congress passed in 1947 the Labor Management Relations Act, which became known as the Taft-Hartley Act. It significantly limited possibilities of strikes and put trade union activities under the strict government control. Understanding that the Act threatened the old contacts between the Democrats and trade unions, Truman vetoed it (Truman 30). Nevertheless, after re-voting the Congress finally adopted the Act. In such a way, one of the most reactionary legislations in the history of the American trade unions was implemented.

Moreover, disputes between Truman and the Congress became more frequent during the second term of his presidency since the Republicans accused President of the failure in China. Another sticking point in their relationships was the communist activity in the United States. In 1950, the Congress passed the Internal Security Act known as the McCarran-Wood Act directed against the Communist Party (Truman 284). It warranted forming a special department for controlling subversive activities and identifying persons who might be members of communist or fascist organizations aiming to establish a total dictatorship in the United States. They were deprived of their fundamental civil rights. The legislation was very contrasting with the American traditions; therefore, Truman vetoed it. However, after re-voting the Congress adopted the Act. In this way, in 1952 the Congress passed another anti-communist legislation, the McCarran-Walter Act, about restrictions on political immigration. According to it, communists were forbidden to enter the United States (Truman 479).

Due to the growing internal political criticism, Truman announced his refusal to nominate himself for the next presidential election in spring of 1952. Before that time, the Congress had already passed the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that no person could be a president more than twice. By this means, the Congress tried to insure themselves and the entire country against the great F.D.R precedent. Truman, in turn, noticed in his Memoirs that being a president meant to be very lonely at the time of making great decisions (9).

Another authority whose standpoint the President had to consider while implementing his policy was the judiciary. During his presidency, Truman had the opportunity to make four appointments to the Supreme Court, which was a relatively large number. To gain the support of the judicial power, Truman nominated candidates from his close aides and palace guards. In 1945, he appointed the Republican senator Harold Burton to the Supreme Court who has been previously the member of Truman’s Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program and served with him in the Senate (Belknap 31). With this example of bipartisanship, the President intended to win the support of the Congress and the public. Besides, Truman personally respected Burton. The next appointment was made in 1946 when the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court died (Truman 43). For this position, Truman needed someone who would be able to end internal disputes and conflicts between judges and guide them towards consensus. From the close aides, his Secretary of Treasury Frederick Moore Vinson was the most appropriate candidate. Before that, he had served in the Senate where he befriended Harry Truman and had been working as a chief judge of the US Court of Appeals as well. Two last nominees, Sherman Minton and Tom Clark, were appointed by the President in 1949. Minton had served with him in the Senate, while Clark had been the Attorney General in Truman’s Cabinet (Belknap 32). Both of them were personal friends of the President. Hence, Truman expected that with such a court composition he would put the end to conflicts inside the Court and gain the favor of the judiciary on significant issues.

Nonetheless, it did not provide the President with the support of the judicial power in controversial questions. The major collision between Truman and the Supreme Court occurred in 1952 during the Korean War. The US steel mills had been closed because of strikes, which resulted in the decrease of production of weapons and other military items. In turn, Harry Truman ordered to seize the mills in the government ownership. However, the Supreme Court announced the President’s decision unconstitutional (Truman 470). Truman’s seizure of the steel mills was disputed based on the constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court delivered a judgment not in favor of the President by six votes against three. The significant matter was that out of four court members appointed by Truman two of them, Clark and Burton, voted against him. Thus, Truman’s expectations of the judiciary support during a clash with the Congress were not fulfilled.

Despite internal political clashes between the branches of power, Truman demonstrated a hard line and decisiveness in his foreign policy under the conditions of the Cold War and struggle against the communist threat. The important feature of the US postwar international policy was the practice of economic diplomacy for achieving political goals. The latter were declared in the Truman Doctrine, which the President publicly announced on March 12, 1947 (Truman 105). The basis of this doctrine consisted of the containment policy of the Soviet Union’s expansion in the whole world and Europe in particular. It aimed to justify the US intervention in internal affairs of other countries, unleash the Cold War, and escalate international tensions. Despite the preparatory work, the Truman Doctrine met strong opposition in the Congress. The debate lasted for two months. Many congressmen realized what the President’s policy meant. Some politicians characterized this doctrine as an absurd step toward the war, which would cause the crisis in international relations (McCullough 642). Finally, the Congress approved it.

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In addition to the new US political doctrine, Truman’s Cabinet offered a program of the economic recovery of postwar Europe. It became known as the Marshall Plan named after its initiator, i.e. the Secretary of State George Marshall. It envisioned economic means for achieving political goals. However, in the US Congress the Plan faced stronger opposition than the Truman Doctrine since it suggested more assignations. Nevertheless, in April 1948 when the Congress adopted the Economic Cooperation Act, which included a four-year program of economic assistance to Europe, the Plan was launched (Truman 119). As a precondition for granting aid, the Americans demanded to withdraw communists from governments of those countries that signed the plan. As a result, by 1948 none of the Western European governments included communists. According to the Marshall Plan, in the years 1948-1951 the US provided Western European countries with financial assistance amounting to approximately 17 billion dollars, which contributed to their post-war reconstruction (Truman 118). At the same time, implementation of the Marshall Plan strengthened the position of the American capital in Europe and provided US companies with large markets. Only many years later, the Senate acknowledged publicly that the Marshall Plan created the foundation for the NATO. Thus, together with some economic tasks it had the political purpose. However, it was decided officially then to present the Plan exclusively as the economic and even philanthropic measure.

The Korean War, which began in June of 1950, noticeably undermined the reputation of Truman. In contrast to Western Europe, the US strategists did not consider distant Korea as a vital area of American interests. Therefore, the majority encouraged Truman to think about neutrality in the conflict. Nevertheless, the President was steadfast in his decision. According to his doctrine, he could not allow communists to seize power in another country (Truman 333). However, intervention in the Korean War met opposition from the population since people were dying again for unjustified reasons. It caused a significant decline in Truman’s political rating.

In summary, having served less than a half-year as the Vice President, Truman became the head of the most powerful capitalist state. Although he took office at the age of 61, he was not a significant political figure at the time. Nevertheless, due to his dedication, purposefulness, and wisdom Harry Truman turned to be one of the greatest American presidents. He had to develop a political strategy of the country within a relatively narrow time framework. Moreover, he faced internal problems, in particular in his relations with Congress and the judiciary branch that did not always support his domestic and foreign policy. However, none of the US presidents influenced development of the whole world and Europe in particular after World War II so strongly as Truman. His key bet against the communist threat was the economic power and a promise of advantages of economic democracy over the amorphous state economy with its blinkered planning. The US economic policy was the means that suspended communism, first of all, in Europe. As a result of the Marshall Plan, the mechanism of the American-European relations became extremely simplified. “Marshallized” countries began turning on to US customers. At the same time, the Cold War started by Truman caused the collapse of his political career. The North Korean attack on South Korea became a crucial point for him. Intervening in the war between the two Koreas, he did not envision that American troops would suffer severe losses. Consequently, voters did not forgive him such a great failure.

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