Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, assistant professor of government and director of the Washington program at Claremont McKenna College calls Harry Truman the First Cold Warrior. She recently took questions from NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about her book, The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, And the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why isn’t FDR the first Cold Warrior?
Elizabeth Edwards Spalding: FDR thought he could keep the Soviet Union satisfied through spheres of influence and his personal style of diplomacy. So FDR was willing to legitimate the Kremlin in a way that Truman never allowed. Even before he became president, Truman understood that the combination of the Soviet communist regime and its totalitarian practices was a global threat.
Lopez: You argue that Harry Truman was the father of containment, not George Kennan. How could so many get it wrong?
Spalding: Many people just look at the word containment, which George Kennan was the first to use in a Cold War context. Kennan wrote the “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 and the “X” article in 1947, and points from both papers contributed to the strategy of containment. Some scholars prefer Kennan’s ideas, others have overestimated his influence. The effect was to diminish (or ignore) Truman’s role as the architect of U.S. strategy in the Cold War.
Lopez: You point to Asia policy as Truman’s weak point. Could that have been reasonably remedied?
Spalding: Different tactical decisions could have been made in the Korean War, for sure, but Truman made the right decision in 1950 to defend South Korea. Truman’s weakest point was China. His instincts were good in 1942, when he wrote to his wife Bess that the United States would have to deal with the problems of Russia and China after World War II. But China was a country in a region that Truman knew less about than Europe or the Middle East. As president, he initially listened to George Marshall, when the general led the U.S. mission to China after World War II and when he was secretary of state. With Marshall out of the administration in early 1949, Truman’s instincts recovered. By mid November 1949 — too late to change things for China in the short run — Truman said that America would settle matters in China, “and not as a Communist State.” Although he always showed more patience with respect to China than the Soviet Union, Truman was staunchly opposed to recognition of the PRC.
Lopez: Churchill hated Truman at first. What changed his mind?
Spalding: Although Churchill was disappointed at first, hate is the wrong word. Churchill soon realized that Truman had character in terms of his statesmanship and good judgment when it came to the Cold War. The time they spent together traveling by train to Fulton, Missouri, for Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in March 1946, let them get to know each other in a way that limited interactions under difficult circumstances at the Potsdam conference in July 1945 had not. Toward the end of Truman’s presidency, Churchill told him that “I misjudged you badly” at first and that, since that time, “you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.”
Lopez: How is George W. Bush like Harry Truman?
Spalding: Like Harry Truman, George W. Bush loves his mother and respects his father. Also like Truman, Bush has an independent disposition. They both married strong, genteel women, although Laura Bush is much more publicly vocal, especially in the second Bush administration, than Mrs. Truman was at any time in her husband’s career. Both were the fathers of girls; both were always protective of their daughters’ privacy and public reputations. Both became strong Christians — Baptist in Truman’s case and Methodist in Bush’s case — and their faiths influenced their foreign policies. Neither man is considered eloquent by the modern presidential standards of FDR, JFK, Reagan, or Clinton. Truman came to the presidency unconventionally, moving to the Oval Office after less than three months as FDR’s vice president. Bush also came to the presidency unconventionally, after winning the electoral vote but losing the popular vote in 2000 and after significant legal disputes. Both experienced deep unpopularity during their presidencies. Outside of Jimmy Carter, Truman holds the distinction in the modern era of the lowest approval rating when leaving office. The Korean War and several scandals in his administration took their toll on Truman, while Afghanistan, Iraq, and several scandals in his administration have hit Bush’s ratings. Nevertheless, they both refused to give up.
Lopez: And just to clarify, you’d not call Bush Wilsonian in the least?
Spalding: Wilsonian means embracing the progressive view of government and world affairs, believing that one man at a given time is destined to steer events along an inevitably unfolding path of history, transforming sovereignty, and vesting legitimacy and authority in the community of nations. It means collective security, rather than collective defense. Having ideals doesn’t make you Wilsonian; expressing and acting on those ideals doesn’t make you Wilsonian. Like Truman and Reagan, Bush expresses and acts on his ideals. Also like them, he is not Wilsonian.
Lopez: What can the Democratic party, in particular, learn from Harry Truman in the early days of the Cold War, as they approach the war on terror?
Spalding: Truman acted from permanent principles, and he understood the character of the regime — its government, constitution, and principles — as central to foreign policy. He was no relativist (like realists, whether liberal or conservative), nor was he a wishful idealist (aiming to replay Wilsonianism after World War II). Truman was a liberal internationalist — not an inflexible multilateralist. Like Bush, Truman was pro-international institutions when it came to trade. He was focused on key bilateral and regional relationships and created perhaps the most successful regional alliance: NATO, which was grounded, in a revolutionary way, in collective defense, rather than collective security. This sets Truman apart from Wilson, and it’s what many Democrats today fail to see.
Lopez: What would Truman make of the United Nations today?
Spalding: Truman would still want the United Nations to succeed, and he would continue to support an international organization that encourages the nations of the world to discuss issues in a public, diplomatic forum. But I think he would not allow U.S. national security to be subject to a U.N. veto. He would have strong words for Kofi Annan and against the corruption that is rampant in the United Nations. During his presidency, Truman lamented that international Communism had undermined the United Nations. Similarly, he would now deplore that tyrannical governments are in a position to make moral and political judgments about free governments, especially on human rights, and he would want Israel to be treated justly in the current conflict with Hezbollah.
Lopez: Are there lessons in Truman history for us dealing with Iran now?
Spalding: Truman understood the Middle East as the gateway between East and West. This explains his firmness when it came to combating Communism in Iran in 1946 and Greece and Turkey in 1947. In addition to religious reasons, it helps explain his recognition of the state of Israel in 1948. Truman always saw the potential for better governments in these countries, and knew that first and foremost they should be kept from going Communist. So the lesson for now would be to keep the Middle East from being dominated by radical Islam, while knowing that more open, freer governments are extremely difficult to build and grow. Truman gave thought to what policies should obtain after diplomacy and the use of military power, and that is a lesson needed today. As for Iran specifically, Truman would favor strong diplomacy and working with allies — as long as that was working. He would also be looking for technological ways to thwart Iran. When he made the decision to proceed with the hydrogen bomb, he reasoned that we had to go ahead if the Soviets would be able to do it, too. Truman had faith that man would make great strides in technology, even as he expressed pessimism about the ways in which man had used technological developments for destructive purposes. Notwithstanding the majority view of his party, I think he would be arguing for a strategic missile-defense program.
Lopez: What’s your favorite not-well-known fact about Truman?
Spalding: Truman met Bess Wallace in Sunday school, when he was five and she was four. They overcame social, class, and religious differences in order to be together. But it was not an early marriage. Truman had many practical and legal duties to his family and their farm, and, as many know, he achieved mixed results in his own business endeavors. Bess had troubles, too, after her father committed suicide, and she was left to care for her mother, who had chronic health problems. Any marriage would have had to accommodate Bess’ mother. Then came World War I. Past draft age and despite his poor eye sight, Truman finagled his way out of several exams in order to serve in the military. Truman and Bess were best friends and soul mates, and they were finally married in June 1919 — less than two months after a 35-year-old Truman came home from the war.