The late summer of 1945 marked the height of American power. The country that had suffered from dust bowls, economic depression, and a devastating attack on its Pacific naval fleet in the last decade-and-a-half emerged as the dominant global actor. American soldiers had decisively defeated the seemingly invincible German and Japanese militaries. Thanks to generous government investments and the immigration across the Atlantic of some of Europe’s best minds, American science and technology had advanced beyond all peers. The shocking atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved this point. Above all, the United States had developed the capability to produce more military and civilian goods (aircraft, cars, radios, and guns, among many other items) than the rest of the world combined. American farmers also benefited from mass production and distribution, selling enough food at war’s end to feed populations around the globe. For American citizens who saved and sacrificed in the 1930s and early 1940s, the next decade promised unprecedented security and abundance. Happy days, it seemed, were here again.
Happiness was evident in the street parades, the family reunions, and the new births (“the baby boom”) that filled American society immediately after the war. Happiness, however, was also a fleeting emotion. The Americans celebrating their victory with loved ones also looked ominously toward a dangerous, complex, and potentially violent postwar world. In August 1946, only a year after the end of the war, journalist John Hersey published a searing account of the horrific suffering created by the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Originally appearing in the New Yorker magazine and later published as a bestselling book, Hersey’s descriptions warned readers that the greatest achievements of modern science promised more death and destruction, if not carefully controlled. Americans began to worry about the consequences of other countries, especially Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, acquiring and possibly using this horrific new technology. A future war would be even worse than what citizens had just witnessed.
The end of the Second World War had indeed left a lot of unfinished business. Hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union—commonly called a “Cold War”—quickly emerged from the fears of future military conflict in devastated and vulnerable areas. Allied armies had divided Europe into Eastern and Western halves, held largely by Soviet and American forces respectively. The United States controlled postwar Japan, but the Korean peninsula remained divided between Soviet (North) and American (South) zones of occupation. American forces also remained deployed widely in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam), the Philippines, Indonesia, and other areas formerly held by the Japanese in war. These foreign commitments stretched American resources far, and they opened the country to many new conflicts.
Americans worried about postwar costs: How much would they have to pay to help rebuild allies, like Great Britain and France, and former enemies, especially Germany and Japan? Would these postwar projects undermine investments in the American economy at home? Americans also worried about new enemies: Would the Soviet Union and its communist allies in Europe and Asia take advantage of postwar weaknesses to spread their extremist ideology? Would Joseph Stalin establish a new empire in the territories formerly held by the Germans and the Japanese? The cold winter of 1945–1946 witnessed near-starvation conditions in the American-occupied parts of Western Germany and increased Communist aggression in Eastern Europe. The worst fears about postwar costs and conflicts had become a reality. There was no “peace dividend.”
President Harry Truman was an old-fashioned fiscal conservative. He supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal expansion of government programs during the Great Depression, but he also believed that the country could not continue to spend more money than it took in through taxes. Truman wanted to continue investments at home, control threats abroad, and limit spending on the military. He sought a “fair deal” for postwar Americans that included efforts to prevent any return of the twin evils of the 1930s: economic depression or the spread of fascism (including communist “red fascism”). For Truman this meant that American politics must be active and expansive, but also cautious and restrained. The United States had to hold the line on Communist expansion while bringing the troops home. The United States had to create new economic opportunities, especially for returning soldiers, while keeping budgets under control.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (also known as the “GI Bill”), signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, became the primary vehicle for federal aid to American war veterans. During Truman’s presidency, the broad application of its benefits provided a foundation for remarkable American growth. Eight million veterans received education assistance, more than two million of whom attended colleges and universities, paid directly by the government. More than two million veterans also bought new homes with discounted government loans provided by the GI Bill.
Higher education and home ownership became common routes for returning soldiers to move into the expanding American middle class. They were often the first people in their families to attain comfort and professional status on this scale. As part of the middle class, they read more, bought more, and saved more than their predecessors. They also paid more taxes, as a proportion of their annual income, than any previous generation of Americans. The GI Bill and the ethic of public service that carried forward from the Second World War made the years after 1945 a period of extraordinary growth in American national capabilities. Historians have looked back to this period as a peak in what they call “social capital” across the country.
This observation applies to women, African Americans, and other minorities. They continued to confront the ugly realities of racism, sexism, and ethnic prejudice in postwar America, but they also benefited from material opportunities unthinkable in earlier generations. Although the GI bill clearly favored white male veterans, it also contributed to higher levels of educational attainment and home ownership for other groups. President Truman furthered this process, pushing publicly for more fair and equal treatment of citizens. In December 1946 he appointed a new President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which in October 1947 published a landmark report: To Secure These Rights. The report condemned segregation and called on the Truman administration to do more to integrate different races in American society, especially in the US military.
Truman was reluctant to move fast on racial integration for fear of alienating white voters. He did, however, respond to the President’s Committee and the growing movement of organized African Americans demanding equal rights. Led by the venerable labor and civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph, numerous African American groups around the country came together to demand more access to the middle-class values promised by the GI Bill. African Americans and other minorities had served in combat during the Second World War, they had “proven” their patriotism, and they now had a strong argument for equal citizenship.
As the November 1948 presidential election approached, Truman recognized that he had to secure African American votes for his reelection. Despite opposition from many military leaders, on July 26, 1948, the President signed Executive Order 9881, requiring “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Truman also called for the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (first created by President Roosevelt in 1941), the elimination of poll taxes that denied voting rights, and the passage of new anti-lynching legislation. Although congressional Democrats from the South stalled most of these initiatives, Truman sent a strong message about the legitimacy of minority claims to equal treatment.
The actual desegregation of the armed forces took more than five years to complete. It created a model for fair employment and access to middle-class status for minorities in the United States. It was the first major piece of successful civil rights law after the Second World War, and it empowered a new coalition of African American citizens demanding a voice in the nation’s politics, particularly within the Democratic Party. Truman’s narrow victory over his Republican opponent in 1948, Thomas Dewey, probably would not have been possible without the support of African American voters. Strom Thurmond, the Democratic governor of South Carolina, broke from Truman over the President’s support for early civil rights, creating the short-lived “Dixiecrat” Party.
Truman’s expansive vision of opportunity in American society went hand-in-hand with strong intolerance toward radicalism. The President sold his “fair deal” as a liberal alternative to the violence of fascism and Jim Crow on the political right, and the fanaticism of communism and socialism on the political left. Liberalism was about the proper middle way that protected individual rights, security, and prosperity from efforts by extremists to deny these values in the name of what many at the time called “false Gods.” The late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed what historians have called a “religious awakening” in American society, as figures like Truman, and his successor Dwight Eisenhower, emphasized the religious roots of their programs for expanded economic opportunity at home, and strict efforts to prevent the spread of godless communism.
Truman and his supporters labeled the President’s other opponent in 1948, former Vice President Henry Wallace, as a dangerous collaborator with communists. Wallace had strong New Deal credentials, dating back to his pioneering work as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture during the darkest days of the Depression. Wallace criticized the anti-radicalism inherent in Truman’s liberalism. He called for stronger action on civil rights and more open efforts to work with, not against, communist actors at home and abroad. Wallace’s vision echoed “social democracy” in Italy and France, where communists and socialists were part of multifaceted ruling coalitions, not the American tradition of two-party government.
Truman used his victory over Wallace in 1948 to solidify the anti-communist elements of his liberal agenda. In 1947 the President had already instituted a loyalty oath for all government employees, requiring them to condemn any efforts at radicalism or subversion. This program accompanied the announcement of what became known as the “Truman Doctrine” on March 12, 1947, when the President proclaimed that the United States would support anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey, as well as other parts of the world. The United States would use economic and military aid to contain Soviet advances abroad, and it would use police power at home to isolate Soviet sympathizers. “Cold War liberalism,” as historians later called it, meant support for individual rights, national security, and broad prosperity through the expansion of a national middle class. Cold War liberalism opposed collectivism, atheism, and any other radical ideas that challenged assumptions about American progress within inherited constitutional institutions.
The paradox was that Truman’s efforts to reinforce constitutional institutions changed them in enduring ways. The politics of the late 1940s created a truly new form of American government. If the New Deal greatly expanded the role of federal agencies in managing the economy, Truman’s Cold War liberalism extended presidential power into many other areas. The most conspicuous example of this constitutional transformation is the National Security Act of 1947. This large and cumbersome piece of legislation, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Truman on July 26, 1947, reorganized military and foreign policy authority in the United States, giving much more control to the president and his immediate advisors. The National Security Act created a unified Department of Defense, merging the War and Navy Departments that were separated in the Constitution, a design the Founding Fathers had included to ensure checks and balances and prevent concentrating too much power in a unified military. The Act also created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a permanent international spying agency, and the National Security Council, a permanent body to coordinate foreign-policy decision-making in the White House. These institutions marked the beginnings of what scholars would later call the “imperial presidency,” where issues of security and war-fighting were dominated by the White House. The Congress, and the public as a whole, became much more passive actors.
When the North Korean army attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950—a shock to everyone in Washington—the politics of the first five postwar years reached a natural climax. The United States was indeed richer and more powerful than any other country in the world. It had begun an extraordinary process of reconstructing Western Europe and Japan, its former adversaries, as democratic allies. Many trends appeared to favor the United States.
Other trends looked different. The Soviet Union had scored an apparent victory in October 1949 with the successful Communist revolution in China. A Communist-led coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 and Soviet efforts to blockade Western access to West Berlin between June 1948 and May 1949 reinforced fears that Stalin and his allies were pushing for a more dominant global position. By the end of the 1940s Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated foreign policy and domestic politics.
Less than a year later, the Communists launched a bold attack on their non-Communist neighbors in South Korea, and they appeared poised to extend their empire even further. For all its wealth and power, the United States and its allies were incredibly vulnerable. President Truman reacted, predictably, by sending American forces to East Asia to fight a new war against North Korea and, by the end of 1950, Chinese soldiers. At home, many prominent Americans became obsessed with alleged new signs of subversion—part of a self-destructive debate about “who lost China” to the Communists, and the beginnings of a period of public witch-hunts later dubbed “McCarthyism” for Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious role.
Through this all, President Truman remained steadfast about protecting American power and wealth. He sought to expand opportunity for citizens at home, as he sought to defeat enemies abroad and at home. He increased the power of the presidency over foreign policy, military affairs, and the economy for the purpose of empowering individual rights. Truman deployed new financial and technological resources in strategic ways to stimulate growth and contain threats. His Cold War liberalism and his violent anti-communism became ideological cornerstones, supporting the next forty years of American politics. Truman’s successor in the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower, placed renewed emphasis on Communist containment, continuing many of the basic policies established in the late 1940s and early 1950s. American Cold War politics acquired lines of continuity that lasted for more than three decades.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Global Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of five major books on contemporary politics and foreign policy, including American Foreign Relations since 1898 (2010) and Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama (2011).
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