This is the greatest thing in history.
-----Harry Truman, on receiving news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima
The war was almost over, Hitler and Mussolini gone, Japan in ruins, when Harry Truman gave the order to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upwards of 200,000 people were killed, a few eerily vaporized into the concrete on the Aioi Bridge (Hiroshima), thousands more hurled through the air like missiles, then buried under piles of fallen debris, countless others doomed to a slow, agonizing death from radiation poisoning. While Truman gloated, saner minds recoiled in shocked horror: cultural historian Lewis Mumford accused the U.S. government of having reverted to Bronze Age barbarism and “reversed the whole course of human history.”
That Japan was already putting out peace feelers through its emissary in Moscow did not induce Truman to call off the atomization of defenseless cities, nor did the awesome nuclear destruction itself bring an end to the slaughter. Five days after Nagasaki, General “Hap” Arnold staged a 1000-plane raid that bombarded what remained of Japanese cities, killing thousands as leaflets fluttered to the ground announcing the Japanese surrender. This is how Truman ended "the good war."
For the cocky new president, the end of one war was but the prelude to beginning another - the Cold War. He was not concerned with the crimes of the USSR, real or imagined, but with the apparent success of the Soviet model of development, which enjoyed wide appeal. There was also concern that the Soviets might be considering offering support to working people in the West, and for that matter, exploited and oppressed people wherever they might be. The failure of Eastern Europe to resume its customary role of supplying food and raw materials to the West, aggravated these worries. The problem was not Communist human rights abuses, but political independence and the appeal of its example.
So with the U.S. public tired of killing and eager for demobilization and disarmament, Truman whipped up an atmosphere of permanent crisis and hysteria against "Communism," sharply escalating the military budget and shaking his fist at the USSR, which had just suffered 20 million dead (roughly every third male was killed) defeating a German army that destroyed the Soviet economy and vast reaches of its territory for the second time in a generation. If the U.S. had suffered proportionate destruction, William Mandel points out, it would have been as if everything east of Chicago had been burned to the ground.
Given the amazingly favorable circumstances Truman inherited, there was no need for a revived Cold War. The U.S. had 75% of the world’s investment capital, two-thirds of its industrial capacity, and a GNP that had doubled while Europe, Japan, and the USSR were reduced to rubble. It exercised military control over both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and had twelve million soldiers under arms throughout the world, backed up by an atomic monopoly. Both economically and militarily the U.S. enjoyed a security unparalleled in modern history.
But rather than establish peace, Truman turned his attention to instituting an American national security state. Although Joseph McCarthy carries the stigma of the repressive era that bears his name, it is Truman who deserves more of the credit. For it was his demand for loyalty oaths that formed the basis of a nationwide attack on unions, working class culture, and independent thought that eliminated the prospects for post-war democracy and plunged the country into an anti-Communist hysteria that did not abate until the popular revolts of the 1960s, and was not eradicated even then.
The anti-Communist purge started with Truman’s signing of Executive Order 9835, which authorized the government to probe the beliefs and associations of all its federal employees and “ferret out any infiltration of disloyal persons.” The accused were denied the right to confront their accusers or even to know the charges against them, while Attorney General Howard McGrath was granted the power to deny jobs, passports, federal housing, and even tax exemptions to anyone displaying “sympathetic association” with any of hundreds of “subversive organizations." Thus were ideas converted into crimes and petition-signing into treason.
While trembling government workers attempted to recall dollar donations and any deviant publications they may have read, Seth Richardson, Truman's point man in the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, explained that "the government is entitled to discharge any employee for reasons which seem sufficient to the government, and without extending to such employee any hearing whatsoever." Truman assured federal workers that the loyalty police existed "to safeguard their rights," then announced that "subversive elements must be removed from the employ of government."
Referring to the scope of the problem, Attorney General McGrath warned in 1949 that “Communists . . . are everywhere---in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private businesses . . . each carry[ing] in himself the germ of death for society.” Millions of investigations were carried out using secret evidence, undercover and often paid informers, but without a judge or jury. In 1951, with the nation in the grip of utter panic, Truman expressed concern that civil liberties were being adversely affected, then amended his program for the worse, signing a new Executive Order altering the basis of dismissal from “reasonable grounds” of disloyalty to “reasonable doubt” of loyalty, thus shifting the burden of proof onto the accused. After years of traumatic upheaval, not a single case of espionage was ever uncovered.
Thus did Truman subordinate U.S. democracy to the needs of a world empire. As WWII approached its savage conclusion, he and his advisors planned a “Grand Area,” - a region “strategically necessary for world control” - to be subordinated to the needs of U.S. capital and administered by Wall Street financiers and Washington power brokers. The area modestly included the Western hemisphere, the former British domains, the Far East, the Pacific, and the richer half of Europe. The Communist world was regretfully considered out of reach, but only temporarily. Hopes were high that it could be obtained later through conquest or collapse. Such vast U.S. control was necessary, future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas said, “as part of our obligation to the security of the world.”
With Europe and much of Asia in ruins, Truman’s main goal became dissuading desperate peoples from forging an accommodation with the Soviets that would leave important sectors of the world independent of U.S. control. To head off this threat his administration backed fascist collaborators and traditional right-wing business interests in putting down popular formations that had been instrumental to winning the war, but threatened the terms of capitalist peace. In Greece, Truman backed the fascist-riddled Tsaldaris regime and denounced anti-fascist guerrillas challenging monarchists and Axis collaborators as an example of “outside forces” attacking “free peoples.” In France, the U.S. withheld desperately needed food aid to insure popular obedience while paying gangsters to organize goon squads and crush labor agitation. In Italy, the American military government rekindled friendly relations with fascism, banned politics, imposed censorship, and crushed a thriving labor movement that had achieved alarming levels of self-government and direct democracy before American troops arrived to “liberate” it.
Elsewhere the pattern was much the same, with methods often considerably more brutal. In China, the Truman administration backed Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody dictatorship until the bitter end, then declared his Formosa regime the “real” China against 400 million Communist impostors on the mainland. In Korea, the U.S. blasted and napalmed the country into a vast, barren graveyard to preserve Japan’s pre-war dictatorship. In Japan, General MacArthur beat back a surging labor movement, prohibiting a general strike and restoring authority to the militarists and ultranationalists. In the Phillipines, U.S. forces rounded up and shot Huk guerrillas who had helped Washington expel the Japanese, then burned their villages to the ground. In Vietnam, Truman ignored France’s deliberate policy of starvation, which Ho Chi Minh claimed had killed two million people, and never responded to his letters reminding the U.S. president of the self-determination commitments of the Atlantic Charter. In Latin America, the Truman administration insisted the region not entertain “excessive industrial development,” and opposed policies “designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, the U.S. shut down the operations of anti-fascist worker councils that had taken over hundreds of German companies, returned Nazis to power, and forced the division of the country by insisting that “West” Germany join an anti-Soviet military alliance (NATO). The Truman administration supported the Atlantic alliance, not to deter Soviet aggression against Western Europe, but to integrate Germany in a capitalist bloc permanently hostile to the USSR. In the early postwar years a neutralist movement in Europe was considered intolerable. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson warned in 1952 that the Soviets might be disposed to exploit Third World political conflicts in an effort to “force the maximum number of non-Communist countries to pursue a neutral policy and to deny their resources to the principal Western powers,” which meant, of course, to deny them on the preferential terms the capitalist powers insisted on. Preparing for the meeting that established NATO in April 1949, U.S. policymakers became convinced that the Soviets might actually be interested in negotiating a deal that would unify Germany and end the division of Europe. This was regarded not as a welcome opportunity to end the Cold War, but as a threat to the primary national security goal of harnessing Germany’s economic and military potential to the anti-Communist Atlantic Community while blocking the “suicide of neutralism.” “The trend of our thinking,” George Kennan, a leading State Department dove wrote, “means . . . that we do not really want to see Germany reunified at this time, and that there are no conditions on which we would really find such a solution satisfactory.” Therefore, the U.S. occupation of Germany would continue, even if the Soviets proposed a mutual withdrawal. Germany was to be integrated as a subisidiary part of the anti-Communist West headed by the U.S. The Soviets would have no significant say in the outcome, would not receive reparations, and would not influence German industrial development. This, after having absorbed 80% of the casualties in defeating the Nazi war machine.
Encouraged by Senator Vandenberg to “scare hell out of the American people” to extract financing for its fledgling world empire, Truman falsely presented permanent war as a defensive reaction to Communism’s alleged drive for world domination and called for a Holy War against the Godless Red Hordes. But the idea that the U.S. was required by the Cold War to project force beyond its borders ignores the fact that it was independent nationalism, not Bolshevism, that U.S. planners really feared, while dismissing the abundant evidence that U.S. imperialism long pre-dated Communism. In truth, Truman’s invoking of the Red Menace was simply a convenient pretext to justify U.S. interventions taken for quite other reasons, typically greed for cheap labor, strategic resources, profits, markets, and a secure overall system of U.S. global power. These motives were paramount in the Truman administration’s post-war Pax Americana, as the U.S. repeatedly intervened abroad to destroy incipient independence movements and make the world safe for U.S. domination.
Seeking to avert “economic, social and political” chaos, prevent the collapse of American exports, achieve “multilateralism” and dissipate the growing strength of indigenous communist parties throughout Europe, Truman unveiled the Marshall Plan, dangling economic assistance before war-ravaged Europe with powerful effect. In the absence of massive aid, his administration feared, the devastated continent might forsake capitalism for “experiments with socialist enterprise and government controls,” which could “jeopardize private enterprise,” even in the U.S. A major anxiety was the “dollar gap,” which kept Europe from being a market for U.S. manufactures, threatening to produce a glut of unbought goods that could drag the U.S. into economic chaos. Habitually presented as confirmation of the Robin Hood nature of U.S. foreign policy, the Marshall Plan in fact advanced U.S. strategic designs to subordinate Europe to American corporations, narrowing the European political spectrum, coercing choices, limiting welfare and wages, and paving the way for “large amounts of private U.S. direct investment in Europe,” in the words of President Reagan’s Commerce Department. A non-negotiable element of the plan called for the exclusion of “Communists” from power, a broadly defined demon class that included major elements of the wartime anti-fascist resistance and trade union movements. Through 1948, Truman’s Secretary of State George Marshall made it clear that U.S. aid would cease should the wrong candidates be voted into office, a blackmail policy that carried considerable force given European conditions at the time.
In addition to his disastrous anti-Communism, Truman was also responsible for succumbing to Zionist lobbying pressure to recognize the new state of Israel. On the afternoon of May 14, 1948 a group of Jewish leaders met in a museum in Tel Aviv, Palestine to decide the future of their “homeland” on the edge of Western Asia. As midnight struck, the British Mandate over Palestine expired, and the Jewish leaders declared a Jewish state “in the name of the Jewish people,” making no mention of borders or the indigenous Arab majority. Minutes later, President Truman extended official recognition to the state, whose citizens were not the inhabitants of the land, but the Jewish people wherever in the world they happened to be. Whereas a Jew from Brooklyn belonged, a fortieth generation Palestinian from Haifa did not. Under the circumstances, war was inevitable.
According to U.S. historian Walter LaFeber Truman’s recognition of Israel was “astonishing” in that the Arab nations, who were on good terms with the U.S. and whose oil was a strategic resource of fantastic value to Washington’s national security state, were violently opposed to a Jewish state and had been for decades. Nevertheless, Truman ignored bitter opposition from Secretary of State George Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal, opting instead to win the Jewish vote in the fall elections that year. While he got out the Jewish vote, Israel kicked out the Arabs, ethnically cleansing Palestine of hundreds of thousands of them in bloody massacres that have continued in one form or another for sixty-one years.
Truman liked to declare that "The Buck Stops Here." But in this case the buck was passed to transnational Jewry, with permanently disastrous results for the Palestinians and the world.
Few policies seem quite so difficult to forgive.
Michael Hogan, "The Marshall Plan," (Cambridge, 1987)
Noam Chomsky, "Year 501 - The Conquest Continues," (South End, 1993)
Noam Chomsky, "What Uncle Sam Really Wants," (Odonian, 1993)
Cedric Belfrage, "The American Inquisition," (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973)
Lewis Mumford, "My Works and Days," (Harcourt, 1979)
Griffin Fariello, "Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition," (Avon, 1995)
Lawrence S. Wittner, "Cold War America: From Hiroshima to Watergate," (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978)
Alfred M. Lilienthal, "The Zionist Connection," (Dodd, Mead, 1978)
Carolyn Eisenberg, "Drawing The Line - The American Decision To Divide Germany, 1944-1949," (Cambridge, 1996)
Laurence Shoup and William Mintner, "The Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy," (Monthly Review, 1977)
Howard Zinn, "A People's History of the United States," (Harper, 1995)
Peter Wyden, "Day One," (Simon and Schuster, 1984)
Richard D. Walton, "Henry Wallace, Harry Truman and the Cold War," (Viking, 1976)
Walter LaFeber, "The American Age," (Norton, 1989)
William Mandel, "Saying No To Power - Autobiography of a 20th Century Activist and Thinker," (Creative Arts, 1999)
Howard Wachtel, "The Money Mandarins," (M. E. Sharpe, 1990)