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Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

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Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference of July-August, 1945, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin: ‘The Big Three’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

Now to the most famous ‘haberdasher’ in history, Harry S. Truman. The ‘S.’ in Truman’s name, by the way, did not actually stand for anything but was an attempt by his parents to please both of his grandfathers, Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. Anyway, Harry Truman was originally from a town called Independence, Missouri, but he opened his haberdashery (in the USA that means a gentlemen’s clothes shop) in Kansas City after he returned from the Great War in which he had served as a captain in the Field Artillery. It was not a hugely successful enterprise and it failed in the tough economic conditions of the early 1920s. Truman changed career and took advantage of some useful contacts to get elected as a county court judge, a post he held for eight years. Truman’s political career really took off during the 1930s. He was a Democrat and a strong supporter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDRs most trusted allies. Truman was elected Senator for Missouri in 1934 and he headed off to Washington to help drive through the radical ideas behind the New Deal. There is not really the space here to look at his relatively uninspired time as a senator so we will move on; this is what might be called a ‘convenient excuse’.

Truman was elected to the vice-presidency in 1944, the fourth election victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was seriously ill at this time and there was a widespread expectation that he would not survive the next four years so Truman has to have been considered at least a ‘safe pair of hands’ by the Democratic leadership, most of all FDR himself. His move into the White House probably came sooner than expected as Roosevelt died less than three months after being sworn into office; Truman was 60 years old at the time. Dismissed by many as a bland and uninspiring man of little conviction or courage, Truman proved to be a far tougher and more aggressive character than was expected. He was in office for nearly eight years and pulled off one of the most remarkable election victories in US history when returning to the White House in 1948. His time in the Oval Office were those crucial years in which the USA adopted its role as the superpower of the West and he played a pivotal in shaping the post-war world as tensions developed into the Cold War. It was his vision and values which were fundamental in providing the foundations of US foreign policy for much of the second half of the century, so shaping world affairs and international relations in the most profound way. Harry Truman may have been an ‘accidental’ President but he grew into the role and grabbed his opportunities with both hands. This is just a part of his story.

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Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the USA (Author: Frank Gatteri; Source: here)

In the first weeks after Harry Truman became vice-president he hardly saw the president as FDR was away at the Yalta Conference, that meeting of the ‘Big Three’ which stood out as the most positive of the wartime meetings of the Allied Powers. Despite the natural tensions and simple politics of the occasion, it was generally an optimistic meeting between FDR, Churchill and Stalin which benefited from the knowledge that the war against the Nazis was effectively won, the final stages simply being played out in Central Europe. FDR’s health was a cause for concern and he was clearly a very sick man in the early months of 1945. This was one of the factors which led to various ‘details’ of what should happen in the post-war world being left open for a future conference, which would eventually take place at Potsdam near Berlin. FDRs poor health also meant that Truman rarely spent time alone with the great man, and actually only had one-to-one meetings with him on two occasions. When FDR died on 12th April, the country was in mourning for one of its most important leaders and also rather concerned as to how the relatively unknown Truman would handle his promotion. With no great track record of political leadership and rather lacking in the experience of foreign affairs, there were many questions and concerns as Truman took the responsibility for guiding the USA through the end of World War II and, it was hoped, into the post-war world.

Despite his less than inspiring background and the accidental manner of his arrival in the White House, Truman grew into a job which to most observers seemed to be beyond him in 1945. Rather surprisingly, Truman turned into a president who is regularly voted as one of the ‘Top Ten Presidents’ of all time, not matching Washington, Lincoln and FDR, maybe, but certainly well ahead of, say, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and, of course, Warren Harding. So, what did Harry Truman do that makes it worth giving up a few minutes of your life to finding out about him? Here we will look at just a few things: his decision to drop the Atom Bombs on Japan; his relationship with Joseph Stalin; the Truman Doctrine and his commitment to the Marshall Plan.

First of all, then, let’s look at the impact made by the development of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, a technological event whose importance is rather difficult to over-state. Its use on two occasions in August, 1945, brought a swift end to World War II, killing tens of thousands but probably saving the lives of millions. It brought a dramatic shift in the balance of power in international relations. Its use marked the beginning of the ‘nuclear age’, an age in which the threat of total destruction hung over the world. Nuclear weapons cast the longest, broadest and darkest of shadows over the lives of people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn led to the rise of a new form of political activism in the form of pressure groups like CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, creating a culture which has transformed the political landscape. There was a real sense of fear and impending doom in the back of people’s minds as they feared the ‘mushroom clouds’ that would come with the threatened nuclear attacks. And, also to the delight of many politicians and others, the new technology heralded the arrival of nuclear power and transformed the nature of war, giving a huge boost to ‘defence’ spending as research and development went into over-drive during the Cold War period. In the process, this impacted on the nature of political funding in the US as campaigns were increasingly supported by the defence industry. The fear factor in the Nuclear Age was an extraordinarily powerful driver of policy.

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A scene from ‘Duck and Cover’, a US Civil Defense Film from 1951. It’s hero was the Bert the Turtle who helped children with his advice on how to survive a nuclear attack.

If you want a sense of the tension and fear of this time, get onto ‘YouTube’ or buy the DVD called ‘Nuclear Scare Stories’, especially ‘Duck and Cover’, which is a classic. I won’t spoil it for you but people really were taught that putting a table cloth over your head would do wonders when it came to saving your life in the face of such an attack. After that, you might read the splendid but frightening, ‘When the wind blows’, by Raymond Briggs.

But the main issue in all this was, of course, Truman’s use of the atom bomb itself. Technological and industrial developments had already transformed war in the Twentieth Century. No more would there be soldiers in colourful uniforms, marching steadily in formation towards the enemy lines, and never again would cavalry and swords be seen on the battlefield. The atom bomb was just one more dramatic step in the transformation of conflict, a step on from the artillery, planes, machine guns and tanks which had slaughtered people in numbers beyond counting in the two world wars and other conflicts of the first half of the century. This was different, though, as complex science came to the fore and took the destructive capability to a whole new level and put astonishing potential in the hands of politicians and generals.

The atom bomb was finally developed by Robert Oppenheimer and his team who ran the ‘Manhattan Project’, which was based at three sites in the USA, most famously Los Alamos in New Mexico. It ran between 1942 and 1946, building on the theories of Albert Einstein and the research of other great scientists like Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University. There were many other brilliant if lesser known scientists involved on various projects in Germany, Denmark, Britain and the USA, such as  Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann. Although the ‘Manhattan Project’ turned out to be the ‘winner’ in the race for the bomb which could harness atomic power, there was no certainty that this would be the case despite the US funding and the brilliance of Oppenheimer’s team. The Nazi regime had been seeking such a development itself during the war and there were major concerns for the Allies when Germany invaded Denmark in October 1943, so closing in on Niels Bohr, a leading atomic researcher. The British managed to move Bohr to Sweden and also disrupted some factories and supplies in the Nazi nuclear programme but this all reflected how tight things were at the time. This may well be seen as a decisive moment in the war as keeping Bohr safe gave a vital advantage to the Allies and helped the ‘Manhattan Project’ them to develop the atom bomb first. By 16th July, 1945, Oppenheimer had three bombs ready to test at the top secret Los Alamos base in New Mexico.

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J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967): leader of the ‘Manhattan Project’. (Author: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs ; Source: here)

When the tests on the bombs were completed, some of those involved in the project were astonished and horrified by the power they had unleashed. Oppenheimer himself declared, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds’, based on a quote from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a sacred Hindu book. Oppenheimer and many others feared what might happen as these new weapons were unleashed on the world. But for President Truman, the bombs were a necessary evil, a weapon that gave the US an unprecedented advantage in a war which had no clear end in sight, at least in the Pacific. The Atom Bomb had been developed at huge cost and Truman knew that they might be developed by the enemy who could use them against the US and her Allies. Being under huge pressure to justify the costs and to act quickly to end the war, Truman decided to use the atom bombs. Originally the plan had been to use them against the Nazi forces in Europe but Germany but  had surrendered on 8th May, 1945, and so it was that Japan was to face attack the atomic bombs in August, 1945. Whether or not Truman made the right call is hotly debated to this day.

The full details of the dropping of the atom bombs are obviously available through many websites and books. Some of the key facts are here, though. At 8.15 am on Monday, 6th August, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was devastated when the first atom bomb, codenamed ‘Little Boy’, was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber, called ‘Enola Gay’ in honour of the mother of Paul Tibbets, the pilot. The city had a population of about 340 000 and was an important military supply centre in the south of Honshu, Japan’s main island. It was an acceptable target for the bomb because of its use by the military but also because it had suffered no significant damage during the war up to that point which allowed a clear analysis of the power of the bomb. Even though ‘Little Boy’ only exploded with about 2% of its full potential, apparently, the explosion destroyed 70% of the city, killing 70 000-80 000 people almost instantly, many of them being vapourised in the process. Some of the dead included a small group of US prisoners of war. On Thursday, 9th August, a second bomb, ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu from a B-29 called ‘Bockscar’. Here there were fewer immediate deaths than in Hiroshima with about 50 000 – 70 000 killed but the bomb, which had a plutonium core as opposed to the uranium used in ‘Little Boy’, was a more powerful blast. The fewer deaths were partly down to the fact that Nagasaki was more hilly than Hiroshima. In both cities, the devastation was astonishing and the deaths from injuries and illness continued long after, mainly from the effect of burns and radiation sickness.  So far, these two incidents represent the only use of nuclear weapons although there were many near misses from accidents in the subsequent decades and on two particular occasions, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and during a NATO Training exercise in 1983, the world stood on the brink of full nuclear war. But back in 1945, Harry Truman was comfortable with his decisions and happy with the outcome, despite the deaths of so many civilians. A war against a fierce opponent who had never before surrendered in any war was brought to an end just a week afterwards with the announcement of the Japanese surrender. The actual statement had come the day before when Emperor Hirohito of Japan made his first ever radio broadcast and, to the shock and shame of many people, announced the surrender following the “use of a new and cruel bomb” which meant that continued fighting could bring the destruction of the nation and endanger the whole of humanity. The atom bomb clearly achieved its goal for President Truman who had shown a ruthless streak in his decision making.

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On 2nd September, 1945, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signed the official surrender on behalf of his government. It took place on board the USS ‘Missouri’, a ship named after Harry Truman’s home state. (Author: Army Signal Corps; Source: here)

The question, “Was Truman right to use the atom bombs against Japan?” has been debated many times. No simple or clear solution is evident but the logic of Truman’s arguments always show that he has a case to support his actions despite the horrific number of casualties, especially those of innocent civilians – although some people argue that in war-time, very few people are completely ‘innocent’. On the ‘pro-Truman’ side of the argument are some rather important factors, especially for a politician. It meant that the USA and its Allies won. It meant a quicker end to the war against an enemy with a fierce reputation and no willingness to surrender. It meant far fewer casualties for the USA, which was a huge factor based on the experience of the fighting in the Pacific Islands. It saved money and enabled the USA to get on with other matters, such as addressing the crisis facing Europe which had seen so much death and destruction; ‘Marshall Aid’ and the recovery of Europe happened partly because of the Atom Bombs. For a former vice-president looking to prove himself as President, it showed Truman as a strong leader who could make tough decisions. It showed Stalin and the USSR just how powerful the Atom Bomb was and that the USA was willing to use it, giving a powerful message about future conflicts. By dropping two different types of bomb, scientists had a clear understanding of which one was more powerful  which allowed further developments in future; despite the lower level of destruction and fewer casualties, the ‘better’ bomb was ‘Fat Man’, the one dropped on Nagasaki and the plutonium method was the one developed. The development and use of the atom bombs marked the USA’s pre-eminent position on the world stage, a massive development from its days of isolationism and firmly established it as the Western ‘Superpower’.

One particular example of war in the Pacific may be of use here to explain the pressure Truman came under to use the atom bomb. Many will have heard the story of the ‘Battle of Iwo Jima’, either from history books, novels, photos or films. The battle took place over five weeks in February-March, 1945, some months before the atom bombs were dropped. Iwo Jima is a tiny island just south of Japan. It had been attacked by the US Army as they tried to fight their way towards Japan. The island was defended by a force estimated at 21000 Japanese soldiers. In the fighting, the Americans lost nearly 7000 men out of a force of 70 000 with another 20 000 wounded. The Japanese, by contrast, refused to surrender, and suffered a death rate of 95% as less than one thousand were taken prisoner – and some sources put that figure as low as 216, with many of them having to have their guns dragged from them. That battle was 70 000 against 21 000; there were many other islands to fight for – and what would happen when the Americans got to Japan itself? How many more would have to die? What would it cost? How long might it take? Many people believe the atom bomb saved lives; these figures suggest that was almost certainly true.

The argument against dropping the atom bombs on Japan is simpler. The fundamental point is that the bombs killed many thousands of people in a most violent and horrific manner and most of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important places, the majority of casualties were non-military: women, the elderly and children. The destruction was indiscriminate. Death in war is rarely ‘clean’ but these were casualties of a new kind, a terrible agony being suffered from horrendous burns and the agony of radiation sickness; many people ceased to exist as their bodies were destroyed by the heat and the blast. And the agony went on for the survivors with many people suffering blindness and cancers, many giving birth to babies with the most severe deformities long after the bombing. Every death is a tragedy but Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb undoubtedly led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In reality, the atom bomb was used twice against Japan and the argument is to some extent irrelevant or academic; the bombs cannot be ‘unused’ or the destruction be ‘undone’. What is clear is that nuclear bombs have not, so far, been used again. The shock of the destruction may have played a part in curbing the actions of politicians since then, according to some observers, most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was not a decision Truman took lightly but it was one which met with the strong approval of most Americans; and in a democracy, that is a pretty powerful justification for any politician.

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A burns victim being treated after the attack on Hiroshima. (Author: Shunkichi Kikuchi; Source: here)

The atom bomb had a huge impact politically as well as militarily with repercussions that shaped international relations between the ‘Superpowers’ in those early post-war years. Truman’s relationship with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, was tense from the start and a vital factor in the development of the Cold War. Stalin had respect for, and felt respected by, FDR and Churchill, there being a certain bond between the three leaders who had seen their respective countries, and the Alliance as a whole, through one of the darkest chapters in world history. The most positive conference they had was at Yalta in February, 1945, where they sketched out what was to happen after victory had been won. Things actually looked reasonably bright in the following weeks until other events kicked in; firstly, Roosevelt died in early April 1945, to be replaced by Truman and then, in July, during the Potsdam Conference itself, Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee as Prime Minister of Britain. Stalin was saddened by FDR’s absence but death happens; he was absolutely stunned and horrified by the loss of Churchill to be replaced by, in his opinion, such an inconsequential figure as Attlee. The photos of Attlee at the Potsdam Conference do present him as a totally different presence from Churchill. Stalin had never been keen on democracy but the defeat of Churchill sealed its fate in Eastern Europe and the USSR: if the voters could get rid of a great hero like Churchill, Stalin was not going to be taking any risks in his sphere of influence. The wartime alliance was disintegrating even before the war ended. The relationship between Stalin and Truman would do nothing to help that relationship.

Truman had little by way of real experience in foreign affairs and certainly nothing in terms of dealing with Stalin and the Soviets when he arrived at Potsdam, near Berlin, for the conference in July, 1945. He was a man who felt that he had a lot to prove and so he took a very aggressive line with the Soviet delegation, many of whom said they had never been spoken to as rudely as they were by Truman. When referring to the existence of the atom bomb, Truman did it in a way which was meant to be slightly obscure and with a threat, effectively warning Stalin that it could be used against the USSR at some stage. Stalin was not hugely impressed by the news as he already knew of the atom bomb because of spies; but he was certainly not happy with Truman, who he dismissed as a little man who was not worthy of replacing the great Roosevelt.

 

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The Big Three at Potsdam: Attlee in a crumpled three piece suit, Truman in a bow tie and Stalin in military uniform. They make an unlikely team of allies. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Truman’s view of Stalin and the USSR was that both the man and the country were evil. When he received George Kennan’s famous  ‘Long Telegram’ in 1946, the idea that Stalin was calculating and aggressive, the modern equivalent of a dreadful modern Tsar, it made perfect sense to Truman. The ‘Long Telegram’ said that Stalin was seeking to expand Communism and he wanted ‘world revolution’ as Marx had called for. Truman responded with his policy for the ‘containment’ of Communism, the so-called ‘Truman Doctrine’ which would, despite some name changes under later presidents, come to dominate US foreign policy for most of the Cold War. The tension in the relationship between Truman and Stalin was certainly a significant contributory factor at the start of the Cold War, one which took it further and deeper than it might otherwise have gone.

Another crucial element in Truman’s contribution to world affairs was the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was a key aspect of ‘Truman Doctrine’ in action and transformed the post-war world. Its full title was the ‘European Recovery Plan’ and it was developed under the guidance of one of the most significant and reliable figures of the Twentieth Century: General George C. Marshall, Truman’s Secretary of State (which means he dealt with Foreign Affairs). It was on a visit to Europe in 1947 that Marshall saw the destruction of the continent, the plight of the refugees and the potential growth in influence by Communist supporters if recovery did not come quickly. He proposed the ‘Marshall Plan’ as a way of ensuring this recovery and eventually Truman’s support enabled $13.5 billion of aid to be given to 16 countries in Western Europe. Britain and France were the biggest beneficiaries, although even that would not be enough to ensure a full recovery; Britain had been effectively bankrupt in 1946-47, having to withdraw from its commitments to support Greece at a time when it faced the on-going threat of Civil War and this would be a crucial moment in which Truman further established himself as the first of the ‘Cold Warriors’.

Truman saw that Britain’s economic plight was a true crisis and that the USA had to step into support and, effectively, to replace the old powers who had for so long been the main players in international affairs, through their Empires and the League of Nations. This demanded a massive change of attitude in the US as he had to overturn the country’s long standing isolationism, whereby it had stayed out of foreign matters unless it had to get involved during a war. He also know that the decisions that would be faced had to be backed  by a huge amount of money so that the US could deliver on promises it would have to make. Truman managed to do this and so changed the role of the USA in world affairs, creating a new world order which was to ensure that the US would be the biggest player on the global stage throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century. Truman was fundamental in shaping the modern world order.

As indicated earlier, the primary goal of ‘Marshall Aid’ and the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was to contain the spread of Communism in the post-war era. These put the ‘Long Telegram’ into action but there was more to containing Communism than these high-profile policies. One country where the Communists/Socialists were especially strong in politics after World War II was Italy. It had turned away from the Fascism of Mussolini to embrace Left Wing ideology and, as elections loomed in 1948, the USA became deeply concerned at the prospect of a Communist Government in such a key European state. Such a result would extend Communist influence right into the heart of the Mediterranean and to the border with France. It would be a sign of the failure of containment, a sign of ‘domino theory’ in action. It would be a failure for the ‘Marshall Plan’ and for Truman himself. The Catholic Church was also deeply concerned at the thought of an atheistic Government in power in Italy, the heartland of the church and effectively the home of the Pope who lived in the Vatican. The shock of a Communist Government in a country such as Italy would have been immense and, at a time when stories of communist spies in the US itself were beginning to grab the headlines, Truman and the Democrats were under great pressure to act, especially as they faced own elections in November 1948. Something had to be done and Truman was prepared for a radical approach, so in stepped the recently formed CIA for its first direct attempt at influencing foreign affairs on behalf of capitalism and democracy.

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The CIA, an organisation brought into existence by President Truman (Author: US Central Government; Source: here)

The CIA is, of course, the ‘Central Intelligence Agency’. Although the USA had always gathered intelligence through spies and in other ways, there was nothing formally coordinated until World War II when FDR set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). This was closed down after the war but the importance of such work in the increasingly threatening atmosphere of the ‘Cold War’ led to it being re-established by the National Security Act. The CIA was set up in 1947 when President Truman gave it responsibility for overseeing security and intelligence matters abroad. Its first major attempt at going beyond intelligence gathering and into influencing events overseas was to be in those Italian elections, where they were directed to help the Christian Democrats against the Communists. With support also coming from the Catholic Church, whose priests often directed their congregations how to vote and excommunicated members of the Communist Party, the CIA gave money, technology and resources to help the anti-Communist politicians. F. Mark Wyatt, one of the CIA ‘operatives’ on the ground during what was a violent and dirty campaign, was interviewed for the CNN ‘Cold War’ series and said that he quite literally took bags of money around with him to hand out to politicians for their ‘expenses’ and to pay for propaganda posters and pamphlets. In addition, a massive campaign was run encouraging millions of Italian-Americans in the USA to write home, telling people of the dangers of communism.

And it all worked, much to the despair and anger of the Italian Communists who were defeated. The success of the campaign saw the Christian Democrats in power. There was relief in the capitals of Western Europe and a new belief in Washington: the ‘dominoes’ had not fallen and it was possible to get the desired results if there was an appropriate level of commitment and intervention. The CIA would be at the heart of many more years of covert American activities aimed at supporting anti-Communist groups in places like Guatemala, Chile, Cuba as well as around Europe and Asia. In Italy itself, declassified records from the CIA show that the tactics used in 1948 were repeated at every Italian General Election for at least the next 24 years: so much for democracy, it might be said.

Just back to Harry Truman to finish off. Truman amazed everyone by winning the 1948 election after he had been written off and some newspapers had even printed news of his defeat before the election was over. Despite his victory over the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, though, there was lots of trouble ahead. Within a year, the defeat of Jiang Jieshi at the hands of Mao Zedong saw the greatest ‘domino’ falling as China went ‘red’, taking Communism from central Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia. This led to the accusation that Truman had been responsible for ‘the loss of China’, a phrase which would haunt Truman. It was also used to threaten subsequent presidents who feared that they would be accused of the loss of another state which fell to Communism in future. In this way ‘Domino theory’ was a central part of US foreign policy in the next two decades, never more so than when Kennedy and Johnson became embroiled in the troubles of south-east Asia. In addition to the Chinese Revolution, the Soviet Union’s development of the atom bomb, spying scandals and difficulties of the Korean War, as well as the rise of McCarthyism, all made his final years in office a difficult time. Despite these problems, Truman is usually regarded as a successful president and a tough politician who seized his opportunities and made the the most of his talents.

Even if the ‘S.’ in his name stood for nothing, Truman himself certainly stood for something very important.  His most famous quote was, ‘The buck stops here’, a man who believed that as president he was ultimately responsible for what happened, for good or ill. And whether you think he was right or wrong over the Atom Bombs or anything else, Truman was a man who made some pretty big decisions and, in doing so, transformed the USA and shaped the modern world in a most profound manner.

Harry Truman died in 1972 at the age of 88.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (1992); ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey (1946); ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, 2009)

Films and DVDs: ‘Truman’ (Starring Gary Sinise) (1996); ‘The World at War’ (Thames Television); ‘Cold War’ (CNN); ‘Hiroshima’ (Paul Wilmhurst) (2011)

 

“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.” Harry S. Truman

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

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In 2008, this square in London was re-named to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’. (Author: Felix-Felix; Source: here)

 

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

‘These people have British passports and they must be allowed to land…Anyway, they will not last a winter here.’ Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary.

22nd June, 1948. At Sheffield, the mighty Australian cricket team, ‘The Invincibles’, led by the great Don Bradman, were playing out a rather dull draw against Yorkshire. On the island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland, George Orwell was finishing ‘1984’. In London, the final preparations for the Olympic Games were in full swing ahead of the opening ceremony set for the end of July. In Germany, the Deutsche Mark had just been introduced, leading to the blockade of Berlin and the ‘Berlin Airlift’. War was on-going in Israel and the Communists had taken control of Czechoslovakia. And in just two weeks time, on 5th July, the new National Health Service was to start in Britain. These were hugely important and interesting times.

One of the most important events of that day, though, was taking place almost unseen and unheard at Tilbury Docks on the River Thames. The event was the arrival of a small group of passengers from the Caribbean who had arrived on the Essex coast on a very ordinary ship, the ‘Empire Windrush’. The arrival of a boat-load of immigrants from the West Indies, then part of the British Empire, attracted some attention from the media but there was very little interest overall and the significance was not grasped then nor in the years immediately following. This was a change which would impact on language, music, fashion, sport and food. Politics, culture and laws would be affected – and it would raise issues never considered before. The arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, marked a new phase in British life, the moment when Britain took a major step towards being a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural society. But those first arrivals had no intention of having such a grand impact and most only intended to stay for a few years at the most. Why did they come to Britain just after the war? Why come to a country with a notoriously dull climate? Why live in a place where rationing still dominated the weekly shopping? Why take such a risk?

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‘MV Empire Windrush’ (Author: Michael A.W. Griffin; Source: here)

‘Empire Windrush’ brought 492 passengers from the West Indies on that June day. Many were wrapped up against the cold even though it was summer, while others wore their ‘Sunday best’ or ‘Church clothes’. Some leaped up and down as they were met by friends and family. For some, their arrival was a return as they had lived, worked and fought in Britain during World War II, when they had volunteered for the ‘Mother Country’. The ties between Britain and the Caribbean were strong as the West Indies were part of the British Empire, building trade, cultural, sporting and tourist links. These ties were further strengthened in 1948 when Parliament passed the ‘Nationality Act’, an incredibly important and often forgotten piece of legislation. It gave all members of the British Commonwealth the right to visit, and the right to live in, Britain. 22nd June, 1948, was a hugely important day.

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A child’s ration book from WWII. Rationing remained in place in the UK until well into the 1950’s. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

But there was no paradise for the 492 visitors at Tilbury. Britain after the war was a country on its knees, desperately seeking a way towards recovery after the war. It has often been said that the best thing about World War II for Britain was winning it and the worst thing was winning it. No one would want to swap victory for defeat, especially in such a hugely significant and ideological conflict, but the cost of victory crippled the country financially. By 1947, Britain was bankrupt and there were huge consequences politically as it was unable to meet its commitments to protect its spheres of influence as agreed at Yalta and Potsdam. This was a humiliation but also a situation that demanded urgent action. Things came to a head in 1946 during the Greek Civil War, a conflict which had begun as World War II ended. Britain had to call an end to its support for the right-wing, pro-monarchist forces who were fighting the Communist rebels. The USA had to step in and it led to President Truman’s request to Congress for the funds to take on the responsibility for opposing the growth of Communism around the globe. Britain’s financial collapse was, therefore, the trigger for ‘Truman Doctrine’ as it developed from George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ of February 1946, the policy which developed into containment. In that way, Britain’s economic crisis, one of the reasons for the arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, was also connected to the rapid rise of the USA into a ‘Superpower’.

Britain was struggling most of all because it had been forced to borrow so much money to fight the war. Actually during the war, the USA had operated a generous system called ‘Lend-Lease’, which meant goods were given to Britain, the USSR, China and other allies on a ‘use or return’ basis. They were to be used in fighting the war; if they were destroyed, so be it; if they were not, they could be returned. However, as the war ended so did ‘Lend-Lease’ but a series of loans and rents to the USA, which Britain had to repay, remained. Britain faced debt on a new scale. In fact the last repayment on those wartime loans to the USA was only made by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, at the end of 2006.

It must be remembered that in the 1920s and the 1930s, Britain had also been struggling economically. As the first country to have industrialised, Britain had developed technology and products which had started the ball rolling in industry but it had then fallen behind. Germany and the USA had caught up with, and then overtaken, Britain’s industrial power by about 1900. and then they had pushed ahead, partly by building on British technology and learning from her mistakes. So, for example, they had moved beyond steam power and coal to embrace cheaper and more efficient electricity. Britain’s position as a great power was always dependent to a large degree on its vast overseas Empire and that control was increasingly tenuous both during and immediately after the war: trade was badly disrupted during the war and increasing unrest developed in the ‘colonies’ afterwards, epitomised by Indian independence in 1947. Britain actually faced a situation similar to the economic and industrial issues of the USSR from about 1960 onwards: old, inefficient technology and an inflexible, unskilled workforce. Times were hard and change was needed but little happened.

Another factor in these economic troubles was that Britain had been heavily bombed during the war but it had not seen anywhere near the level of the destruction suffered by Germany, Japan, Italy, France and other rivals. In this period, there was a major change of political leadership as the old powers, like Britain and France, were replaced by the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR. At the heart of the changes in the Western world, the USA took on an aggressive, dynamic role, using its enormous wealth to rebuild Europe, buying influence and creating a barrier to contain Communist expansion. This was seen most clearly in the ‘Marshall Plan’, the politically motivated economic recovery package funded by the USA and targeted at Europe and Japan as a means of ensuring that these countries remained capitalist and democratic. The resources for this huge project came from the USA alone and not from Britain which had neither the money nor the capacity to take that lead role.

Britain had desperate need of that aid itself and received a huge amount of money from the USA, more than any other country, in fact. But because many of Britain’s factories and its infrastructure (like the roads, railways and power supply) were more or less intact, they were rebuilt but not replaced. In Germany, by contrast, the destruction was on a whole different scale and things had to start from scratch: new water supplies, new power systems, new railways, new cities – and new attitudes. In the very short term this meant greater hardship but it soon brought many economic benefits to those countries which had suffered most in Western Europe. One only has to visit European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels, to see the impact of this even now, in the broader streets, more efficient public transport and faster train travel than that enjoyed in Britain. Germany, Japan and other countries could not avoid the massive issues they faced: destruction had been almost total. Britain had the economic burdens of victory and the psychological baggage that came from seeing itself as ‘superior’ to those it had defeated; it carried on as best it could but it was trying to cling on to its old glories. And those days were over.

But going back to Tilbury, the people who arrived on the ‘Empire Windrush’ were not tourists; they were workers. They came because they were needed by Britain. They had been invited to come to Britain to work and so help the country recover after the war. The idyllic images of the Caribbean actually masked the widespread problems of poverty and a lack of job opportunities, so the 492 were not alone in travelling for work. Many moved within the West Indies while many others went to the USA and Canada, always looking for work. Until World War II, few had come to Britain but then they came to fight in the war, supporting the ‘Mother Country’. Some settled here afterwards but others returned home. And, in 1948, they came back, encouraged by Britain’s politicians who needed their help in re-building the country, to restore the economy and re-establish its links with the Empire.

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Clement Attlee, Prime Minister from 1945-51. His concern for the poorest in society had been inspired in part by his time working in the East End of London as a young man. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The need for workers was especially important for the Labour Government of Clement Attlee with its extraordinary plans for a new Britain with many nationalised industries and the creation of the Welfare State, most importantly the new National Health Service. There was a major shortage of labour in many areas, though, including nursing, as well as low-skilled jobs, like cleaning and the transport sector. In filling these gaps, the many migrant workers who were to follow in the footsteps of those who travelled on the ‘Empire Windrush’, were playing a vital role for Britain but this soon got over-shadowed by bigger ‘issues’. The number of people immigrating to Britain from the Caribbean grew so that over 60 000 arrived in 1961, a figure many people considered too high. Competition for jobs, housing, pay and the like meant rising tension, especially between ethnic minorities in white working class areas.

Despite the contribution made by many immigrant workers to the British economy in the two decades after the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’, tensions mounted in several areas. Increasing numbers of people arrived from Britain’s former colonies, seeking work and a new life, but also requiring accommodation, education, health care and the like. Differences in language, culture, religion and music can often inspire excitement and fear in equal measure and such was the case in Britain. There was undoubtedly widespread racism in many parts of the country; white immigrants were never treated with the same fear and anger which was shown to people from the West Indies, Africa and India, for example. Things came to a head in 1968, when Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP who had actually been one of those who had encouraged people from the Caribbean to come to Britain after the war, made an infamous speech which became known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell was not saying that blood ‘should’ flow but that it ‘would’ flow from violence linked with racial tension unless ‘non-white’ immigration ended. Although he presented himself as being a reasonable voice expressing concerns based on what he had heard and seen, his proposal that non-white people already in Britain should be ‘encouraged to go home’ certainly inflamed relationships in society. Powell spoke for many people in Britain at that time but he personally became the focus of the blame that followed the rise in racial tension. Non-white immigrants had been an easy target for attack as they physically and culturally stood out on the streets of Nottingham or Notting Hill, both of which had seen racial unrest and violence in the 1950s. There was far less hostility to immigrants from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe for the simple reason of skin colour.

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Enoch Powell (1912-1998), a Conservative MP (1950-1974) and an Ulster Unionist MP (1974-1987). His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was made in 1968 but it is often referred to today when issues linked with immigration and racism come up.  (Author: Allan Warren; Source: here)

It might be worth quoting a little bit of Powell’s speech here as it is so famous but also because it is not always as simple as it might appear. Powell was an intelligent man, a popular MP and a politician who wanted to reflect what people told him in terms of their concerns; many saw him as at least a future leader of the Conservatives and, therefore, a future prime Minister. He has been presented as a bit of a ‘mad-man’ over the years but, whether or not he was right or wrong, he acted in a way that really did reflect the concerns of many of his constituents and of the ordinary people who wrote to him. His comments also reflected many in people in the country at large and it is important that his infamous words should be put into some sort of context, otherwise any unpopular message (and the messenger) from the past can too easily be dismissed as a lunatic. Enoch Powell reflected the values and fears of many people at the time and his views remain embedded in the ideas of numerous politicians and many parts of society today, despite what might be said in public. Here is a part of his long and complex speech which he made to the Conservative Association in Birmingham on 20th April 1968. It demands careful reflection and does not work well with a ‘soundbite’. His references to Kindertransport, Karl Marx and the Windrush are especially interesting.

For these dangerous and divisive elements the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum (bland or meaningless intellectual comments) they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic (violence and tension linked with the Civil Rights Movement) but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

Migration is a common feature of life, for British people as much as any other nationality. Thousands of people emigrate from Britain each year and they value the opportunity. No one thinks of them as doing anything immoral as they move abroad for work or retirement, ignoring any negative impacts on local culture, wealth and welfare in the areas in which they settle. It is seen as something positive. Britain itself has a long tradition of opening its borders to people from abroad. It has been a very tolerant society welcoming those who face persecution, such as the Huguenots expelled from France in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Jewish children who arrived in the late 1930s on the ‘Kindertransport’ from Germany or even to Karl Marx who spent his last 30 years of life in London. The welcome to the new arrivals made by politicians to those on the Windrush reflected that but the problems began within conservative working class society. Racism presented itself as people tried to find accommodation and work, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes blatant but tension developed, mainly in the cities and industrial towns. The fact that workers from abroad were needed was forgotten and skin colour, language and cultural differences proved far more significant. In fact it was in the Trade Unions that much opposition was found as migrant workers were often paid lower wages, so undermining pay and conditions for existing workers. This was seen in the Post Office and in transport where migrant workers seen in larger numbers than elsewhere. White workers blocked opportunities for non-white colleagues as they feared change and the impact on their own pay and conditions; and some were simply racist and did not like people who were different. This was seen in the early 1960s when white bus drivers and some companies blocked a decision to allow black immigrants to become drivers. It may seem strange today but this happened in Bristol, for example, even though it was a move supported by the Trade Union and the employers.

Powell’s speech raised many issues, put the matter into a broad historical context and placed much of the blame for racial tension with the white community, all factors which are missed or ignored when quoting him. He was undoubtedly controversial but his message reflected something important about British attitudes and must not be dismissed without proper study.

Racial unrest in the 1950s and 1960s grew on the back of other social change. Groups like the ‘Teddy Boys’ and skinheads had right-wing nationalist attitudes, seeing foreigners as an easy and legitimate target for violence. The police were often seen to ignore or belittle racial crime, seeing it as just a part of life and something to be put up with if foreigners wanted to live in Britain. There was successful racial integration in some areas but there was a sense of disturbance and upheaval in many towns and some parts of the cities at the rapid pace of change in the ethnic mix of communities.

Britain might not have seen the level of violence, civil unrest and segregation that happened in the Southern States of the USA but racial tension was clearly present after World War II and still exists today, as the steady if low level of support for groups like the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) shows. Too many people forget that those first immigrants on the Empire Windrush were needed in Britain they were encouraged to come to help the country. They came out of choice but they worked, paid taxes and kept key industries going at a time of great hardship. Some people, even our supposedly informed politicians, forget such things, seeing obvious differences and ignoring some hidden truths from the past. Racial tension is widespread and is common in many different societies but that does not mean it is right and students of history and politics should be able to present a balanced informed argument backed by more than just some gut feelings and simplistic argument.

Find out more:

Books: ‘Empire Windrush: Fifty years of writing about Black Britain’ by Onyekachi Wambu  ; ‘Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain’ by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips (HarperCollins, 1998); ‘The British Dream: Successes and failures of post-War immigration’ by David Goodhart (Atlantic Books, 2013); ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy (Headline Review, 2004).