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Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

‘The day may come when my much cursed visit to Munich will be understood.’ Neville Chamberlain speaking to Margot Asquith, May, 1940.

‘You may gain temporary appeasement by a policy of concession to violence, but you do not gain lasting peace that way. It is a grave delusion to suppose that you can.’ Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, speaking in May, 1938.

‘Appeasement’. Rarely has reaction to a word been so transformed by time, taking it from something worthy of the greatest praise to generating near-disgust. From common-sense avoidance of confrontation to cowardice rooted in ignoring the evidence, appeasement has gone from being a sensible policy for thoughtful politicians to something to be avoided at all costs. Why was it that this idea which was once so good has become so bad? Why was it followed with regard to Hitler and Mussolini in the thirties but not against, say, Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003?

In the 1930s, the world was dominated by the suffering caused by the ‘Great Depression’. The economic problems which were triggered by the Wall Street Crash in October, 1929, had seen unemployment rise, trade collapse, industrial production fall, share prices fall, incomes fall and wages fall. From New Zealand to New York, from Britain to Brazil, there was despair and fear, as people struggled to make ends meet. But there were countries that were making progress and there were leaders who promised hope. This was the age of the dictators and two of them in particular seemed to be working economic miracles. In the ‘red corner’, so to speak was Joseph Stalin, bringing industrial growth in the Communist Soviet Union thanks to his ‘Five Year Plans’, while in the ‘brown corner’, by contrast, was Germany’s right-wing dictator, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi (National Socialist) policies were having a remarkable impact and transforming the country. The fact that no other major countries were doing anywhere near as well during the depression brought great envy and attention from the rest of the world.

Praise flooded in from some really rather well-respected people for both men. David Lloyd George, the British former Prime Minister, was one of those who expressed admiration for Hitler. After visiting the Führer, Lloyd George described him as a ‘George Washington of Germany…the greatest living German’. He was probably overwhelmed by the contrast between what he saw in Germany and the state of life in Britain, especially South Wales and the industrial heartlands of the country but, even so, it was a sad thing to hear from a great politician. He would later turn against Hitler, though, supporting Churchill’s ideas against appeasement but his reputation was seriously damaged. But he was far from alone in praising Hitler as there was widespread respect for his achievements across Europe and amongst several leading figures in the USA, most famously Henry Ford. The German economic recovery appeared to be so positive that most people were more than willing to overlook some of the tactics used and the shadowy side of some of the ideology.

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David Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’, in 1932. His visits to Hitler in the 1930s undermined his status as an astute politician. (Author: Robert Sennecke; Source: here)

Likewise, there was praise for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin from many Western visitors who were shown neither the harsh realities of life behind the Five Year Plans nor the effects of the forced collectivisation of farms and the effects of that most terrible disaster, the Ukrainian Famine of 1933. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a famous writer, was one who praised Stalin, controversially defending the Show Trials and naively believing that there was no famine in the Ukraine. He encouraged people from  the West to go to the USSR to find work and a better standard of living. Many hundreds of people did move from the USA and elsewhere to find prosperity and hope in a ‘Communist paradise’ but few found what they were looking for, as Tim Tzouliadis records in his excellent study, ‘The Forsaken’. Shaw spoke well of Stalin, putting him among those ‘superior leaders’ who had emerged during the Russian Revolution. Again, he was not alone in his opinions, with people like WEB Du Bois, one of the US founders of the civil rights group the NAACP, and the British Socialists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, adding their praise for Stalin. In most of the world, though, overall conditions seemed worse than in Germany or the USSR.

Times of economic hardship tend to make countries turn inwards as they seek to protect their own systems, economies and people. In the USA, the richest and most powerful country of the age, this was especially true as the challenges of the Depression went alongside the renewed commitment to isolationism to which it had re-committed itself after the Great War. The USA had retreated from world affairs since Woodrow Wilson had left the White House in  1920 so that, even though it was his “Fourteen Points” had shaped the post-war world, but the US Congress had rejected the dying man’s plans for their own contribution. The post-war treaties of 1919 had not been ratified by the USA and so they had turned their backs on the League of Nations, the most important single organisation that would try to maintain peace and ensure smoother relations between nations. The League had come into existence but was only a shadow of what it needed to be and responsibility for keeping countries in line if there were unresolved disputes, rested with the two old European Powers, Britain and France. Economically they both lacked the capacity to act and politically they did not have the will to act. And in neither country was there great commitment from the ordinary people to demand decisive action, as they faced the immediate hardships of the Twenties and Thirties, and so the ‘League of Nations’ drifted. The logical thinking was, “Why should Britain and France take on these extra burdens at a time when there was such economic hardship in their own lands? Why should their men, their resources, their armies have to travel the world to sort out problems that had nothing to do with them when they would see little by way of the benefits?” The absence of the USA from the League of Nations would be a central problem which would smooth the path to war immeasurably.

Other problems afflicted the League of Nations between the wars, though. Various countries were not allowed to join the League at first, notably Germany and the other Central Powers from the war, as well as the newly formed Communist state of the USSR. These absences were a natural reaction to the horrors and chaos of the Great war but the gaps at the table would prove significant, morally and psychologically as well as politically. Germany finally joined in 1926 but the sense of ‘rejection’ in those early years was strong in Germany, as was the feeling that they had been made scapegoats for all the problems of the war and were to be ‘second class’ citizens in the new world order. Hitler and the Nazis would stoke up these fires of anger which smouldered away during the 1920s. Leaving the League of Nations was one of Hitler’s first actions in 1933, one which impact on the development of appeasement.

The League of Nations actually enjoyed some successes in the 1920s, mainly because the problems that came its way were quite small and included countries which were not too powerful. These countries were willing to accept the ‘advice’ of the League, which allowed Britain and France to avoid having to use the tougher measures they had available, like sending in troops to settle disputes. The League’s strategies for survival included actions at a more ‘diplomatic’ level: writing letters, holding meetings, sending advisers, making speeches which would criticise countries in public (the use of ‘shame’ to bring change) and trade sanctions. In reality, the solving of disputes in places like Silesia, Bulgaria the Aaland Islands did not tax Britain and France too much. They also had success in dealing with issues to do with border disputes, refugees, prisoners of war, slavery and leprosy. But some things were not well handled, such as a dispute involving Italy in Corfu, the failure to address the whole issue of military disarmament (which had been a big dream of President Wilson’s) and the invasion of the Ruhr by France in 1923 after Germany failed to make its reparations payments. The Ruhr invasion actually indicated a major tension between Britain and France as each country would choose to act in its own interests rather than the League of Nations; the two were not willing or able to cooperate. The weaknesses of the League became even clearer in the 1930′s when they were dealing with bigger countries and when the ‘easy’ solutions were not accepted.

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Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA (1856-1924) (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Anyway, things were generally ‘okay’ for the League of Nations in the 1920s but they were to get much tougher in the 1930s as the Depression started and countries became increasingly aggressive and nationalistic in such tough economic circumstances. Germany, as has been mentioned, was invited to join the League of Nations in 1926, following the Locarno Treaty which settled all remaining border disputes after the war. Germany took its place alongside Britain, France, Japan and Italy as one of the main players in the League of Nations. However, in 1933, Germany left the League as Adolf Hitler did not want to be subject to their system, advice or sanctions. The crisis for the League was exacerbated in that same year when Japan also left because it was in dispute over Manchuria (see below). This indicated a major weakness of the League of Nations: what could they do when countries and politicians didn’t want to listen to them? In contrast, a year later Stalin decided that the USSR would join the League which seemed to strengthen it but the fundamental flaws in the system were so clear by then that even the presence of the USSR made little difference: everything would still depend on good will, reasonableness and the willingness of Britain and France to act together in a decisive manner. And the odds on these being successful were not exactly high.

Appeasement might not have been mentioned much so far but all of these developments in the League of Nations were important as background to it. The most significant political development that would put the spotlight on appeasement, of course, was that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on 30th January, 1933. He was invited to take on the role of Chancellor and he was determined to use this position to restore German power and pride by rebuilding the armed forces, revitalising the economy and creating a new Reich, a one party state that would end democracy. He set this process in motion as soon as he was in power, removing political opponents, closing down the Trades Unions, marginalising then attacking the Jews and so on. In time, he broke all of the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles: the army was increased to more than 100 000 troops, the air force was built up, warships and submarines were built, troops were sent into the Rhineland, land lost under the Treaty of Versailles was re-occupied and so on. This did not all happen overnight; it took several years, and it was often a tentative process because Hitler knew that the country was still vulnerable to a strong military action from Britain and France. Hitler could not be sure of how these two powers would react to his breaches of the treaty, but he did have some good clues as to what would probably happen and they served only to encourage him. After 1933, Germany was no longer subject to the League of Nations, but there could still be problems from London and Paris in the form of trade sanctions or even an invasion, so why was he increasingly confident that he would face no direct confrontation? Two events from the 1930s suggested that Britain and France would do all they could to avoid conflict, choosing talking over fighting and direct action; these events were the ‘Manchurian Crisis’ (1931-34) and the ‘Abyssinian Crisis (1935-36). Appeasement was pretty much a nailed on certainty when you see what happened with these two problems.

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Maps are needed here so let’s start with Manchuria, that’s away over in the north-east of China, where the Japanese were in control in 1931. The darker red section is the main region that they occupied. (Author: CIA; Source: here)

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And now a world map to show how far it was from Britain and France. Remember, in 1931, no one was making long journeys by plane; everything was by ship, making intervention across the globe both difficult and slow. Communications by telegram and increasingly by phone were possible. But Manchuria really was a long way away in the minds of most Europeans, so why bother? (Author: Wikiacc; Source: here)

The “Manchurian Crisis” was an expression of Japanese expansionism, which had really begun when it took control of Korea in 1910. This was all tied in with Japan’s economic growth and its desire to industrialise when it had very few of its own natural resources. To cope with this situation, the army led an invasion of Manchuria in north east China, effectively telling the politicians what to do. China raised the issue of the invasion with the League of Nations in 1931,  but the initial decision of the main powers was ‘to have a look at the problem’ and so they sent some officials to check things out. They also asked Japan to leave Manchuria but this was simply ignored and nothing was done about it. When the delegation reported in October, 1932, the delay itself was a sign in itself, the decision was to recommend that the Japanese that they should give Manchuria back to the Chinese. In February, 1933, the League held a  formal vote on the matter, two years after the case had been presented to them, and there was a unanimous vote to condemn Japan and demand their immediate withdrawal from China. In response, the Japanese simply got up and walked out, ignoring the League of Nations and staying in Manchuria.

The next stage in this dispute should have been public condemnation, a ban on the sale of weapons to Japan and a trade embargo, but with the USA not involved, any such ban on trade would simply have led to more trade between those two countries. What’s the point of a ban when the country you want to punish can just trade with someone else? Added to this, Britain and France needed any trading opportunities they could have with Japan as the Great Depression was causing serious economic hardship at home. The ‘Manchurian Crisis’ passed with no real changes and clear evidence that the League of Nations would not take decisive action, especially when there were such clear flaws in the process. Added to this, no one in Britain and France really cared about what was happening on the other side of the world; the majority of people and politicians simply saw no reason to fight over Manchuria. It had been only 13 years since the end of the Great War and few people had the appetite, money or willingness to fight – and Adolf Hitler was just one of those who took note.

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A map of Abyssinia in 1908 (Author: Ken Mayer; Source: here)

 

Africa and Europe showing the strategic importance of Abyssinia

The next major challenge to the League of Nations came with the “Abyssinian Crisis” which started in late 1934. Abyssinia was the name at the time for the country we know as Ethiopia. Being in East Africa, Abyssinia was a dispute that was much closer to Europe than Manchuria had been, and was one that touched on the interests of the great powers, but it followed a similar process and had a similar result. The dispute was based on the Italian dream of power and glory, an ambition linked with control of Abyssinia.

The man at the heart of the dispute was Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator who led Italy between 1922-1943. One of the great posers in political history, Mussolini had an ego almost as large as his chin and his torso, both of which he liked to thrust in the general direction of an adoring crowd. For Italy, he desired greatness, power and an empire; for himself he wanted glory and adoration from the people – and to be respected and feared by his enemies. Unfortunately, the chances of Mussolini or Italy being respected and feared in the mid-1930′s were rather low as the country was a bit of a laughing stock amongst the European powers, which could be traced back to the end of the Great War when their desire for land was pretty much passed over at Versailles. The Italian army had not performed with any real credit in the war, they had few colonies and little by way of industry to support a great military force. it was not actually that long since the army had actually been humiliated with defeat to Abyssinia  at the hands of Menelik II during the battle of Adwa in 1896. When Mussolini was looking for a target and an opportunity to build an Empire in the 1930s, Abyssinia was there, providing the land and resources as well as the chance for revenge and glory.

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Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Abyssinia was actually an important area of Africa for several powers. Control of it was useful for its proximity to the important sea lanes linked with the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and India, as well as the Middle East. For some time, Britain and France had held territory in the country as did the Italians. In 1934, there was a clash between Italian and Ethiopian forces at a place called Wel-Wel which was triggered by a border dispute focused on Italian Somaliland. The French and British noted that the Italians had moved beyond their borders in this dispute and it was referred to the League of Nations. Part of the problem was about whether Britain and France should support a potentially important Fascist European power or a small, more peripheral, African kingdom. Italy seemed to have greater significance for them in everyday affairs and economic business, so they both took care to do as little as possible to rock the boat. The decision was taken to ignore the law and so to avoid challenging Mussolini.

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Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. (Author: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; Source: here). Haile Selassie was the leader of Abyssinina at the time of the Italian invasion. His dignified appeal for help from the League of Nations in June, a936, fell on deaf ears and he was forced into exile in Britain. In 1941, he was reinstalled as leader with British assistance. Today, Haile Selassie is revered as a god in Rastafarianism.

The big issue for Britain and France at the time was the growing fear about Germany’s military build-up in Europe, and the two main powers wanted to keep Italy as an ally in that struggle. In 1935, Britain and France said that neither side was really at fault in Abyssinia, hoping that it would all just settle down, but this was effectively telling Italy that, as long as they promised to help against Germany, they would be pretty much free to act as they wanted in Africa. Mussolini built up his forces and, to cut a long story short, launched an attack which led to war. Over several months, from October, 1935, to May, 1936, the fighting continued until the Italians declared victory. Mussolini had his empire and the adulation of the Italian people; and the League of Nations had been exposed as toothless once more. It had been both powerless and, more importantly, unwilling to act in a clear-cut dispute; Britain and France failed to do the right thing by protecting Abyssinia, a small state which needed support against a more powerful aggressor. They had acted out of pure self-interest in allowing Italy to act as it did. Again, Hitler took note of the actions and the arguments of the British and French; the message was pretty easy to understand.

Soon after the conflict ended, Mussolini took Italy into an alliance with Hitler, seeing his strength and clarity as a better model for leadership than the inertia and avoidance of Britain and France; their plan to keep Mussolini on their side had unravelled. This was in October, 1936, and the so-called ‘Rome-Berlin axis’ was to be the start of a great alliance across the Alps. It would lead to further cooperation and a strengthened unity in the joint venture to support the Fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War which had started in July, 1936. This would be another example of the failure of the League of Nations to take decisive action to stop the rise of the dictators. And so all this is the background for appeasement, the failure of Britain, in particular, to stand up to Hitler’s expansionism in Germany ahead of World War II.

Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933. It was expected that he would be a ‘flash in the pan’, kept under control by the President, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), and various other experienced politicians. They got it slightly wrong, to say the least, so that Hitler and the Nazis stayed in power rather longer than had been expected, until May 1945, in fact. On Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler became both Chancellor and President, combining these roles as ‘The Führer’, the Leader of Germany.

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Adolf Hitler with his first cabinet in 193, Hermann Goering to his right and Franz von Papen to his left. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

As soon as he had power, Hitler acted in a far more decisive manner than his opponents expected. They could not have foreseen that he would take out the Communist and Socialist members of the Reichstag as a force; they did not foresee his ban on the Trades Unions on May 2nd, the day after he allowed the traditional May Day marches to go ahead; they could not have foreseen that the ‘Reichstag Fire’ in February 1933 would allow him to pass the Enabling Act, granting him the powers to act as a dictator during a time of ‘crisis’, a situation that would last until the end of the Second World war. And no one could have foreseen the energy with which the Nazis would enact their policies and the drive with which so many people came to support them, especially in moving forward the economic regeneration. The great symbol of this new Germany came to be the autobahns, the motorways built across the country in such number, and with such quality, that they remain amongst the finest in the world but there was development to observe in other areas of German society during the thirties.

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Building the autobahns in the 1930s; Hitler does some symbolic digging. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On the back of the support he received, Hitler basically began to prepare for war and nearly every major decision he made has to be seen in this light. He was one of those who felt betrayed by the ‘November Criminals’ who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. He had served as a soldier in the Great War and felt deep anger at the armistice which inflicted defeat on a mighty army. He also had a deep seated hatred of the Jews, seeing them as a disease and a curse, worthy of punishment simply for being alive. He saw the Treaty of Versailles as the greatest injustice imposed upon the people of Germany, something that had to be thrown off as soon as possible. He believed that Germans were superior to other races, and deserved more ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the East, where they would put it to far better use than the Slavic peoples. Time was short and preparations had to begin immediately to help build the Third Reich, which was to last for a thousand years.

Hitler proceeded to break each of the key terms of the Treaty of Versailles: the numbers in the army exceeded 100 000, warships were constructed and the Luftwaffe formed but Britain and France did nothing. German troops entered the Rhineland in 1936, it having been declared a demilitarised zone by the Treaty of Versailles, and Britain and France did nothing. Germany was united with Austria in the ‘Anschluss’ of March 1938 and, although there were concerns, Britain and France did nothing. They did speak to Hitler, though, and his promises that he would not do anything else to break the Treaty were enough for them; it is hard to see the acceptance of such a ‘promise’ as an act of wisdom. And then in October, 1938, Hitler’s troops moved in to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This was an area which had been taken from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Sudetens being German speaking, and Hitler declared that they should rightfully be in the German Reich. All the actions of Britain, France and the League of Nations suggested that they might moan and complain but they would not actually do anything about it. And so it was: comments were made, questions were asked, concerns were raised but no action was taken to stop Germany retaking the Sudetenland.

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A warm welcome for the German troops in Vienna, Austria, March 1938. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

This is really where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, came in, doing an early form of shuttle diplomacy, flying off to visit Hitler in the hope of brokering a deal on Czechoslovakia. The Munich Conferences came to be seen as the epitome of appeasement, the weakest diplomacy, whereby a madman gave a fool the run around. The promise made by Hitler that he would not seek to extend Germany’s control any further would soon be ignored. The decisive moment that finally brought an end to appeasement came in September, 1939, when Hitler decided to move into Poland. Again, he thought that words not actions would follow but this time it proved wrong as both France and Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began. Six years of the most intense fighting would follow, the largest and most destructive war in history. But why did Britain, in particular, not act earlier?

The person seen as the epitome of the policy was, of course, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. While this is logical, it is also a bit harsh as Chamberlain was not alone in following this policy. However, appeasement was an attitude and a policy of the British establishment throughout the 1930s, as can be seen from the way Winston Churchill was widely derided as a warmonger for his analysis of Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Indeed for most of the thirties,he was the only senior politician to speak out against Hitler and appeasement, and his ideas around a ‘gathering storm’ saw him pushed well and truly to the margins of political life. People like Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister before Chamberlain, would often mock Churchill and his analysis of the dangers posed by Hitler and a strong Germany. The truth of the matter is that just about no one, no politician, no military leader and no major group in society, wanted war in 1935 or ‘36 or ’37, and with good reason: Britain was in an economic depression and could not afford it and the armed forces were not strong enough in numbers of trained troops and in technology.  And also of great significance was the fact that people remembered all too well the horrors of the Great War so that the thought of choosing a ‘return match’ for no good reason was beyond them; the fathers who had fought and survived, did not want to put their sons through the same hell. Appeasement was a hopeful ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, but it was one that united the country and made sense. Any politician taking an alternative position would have been accused of being a ‘warmonger’, a maker of war, just as Churchill was accused.

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Neville Chamberlain and his famous piece of paper: ‘Peace for our time’, 30th September, 1938. (Author: Ministry of Information official photographer; Source: here)

The reaction of the people as Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30th September, 1938, waving that famous piece of paper in his hand, Hitler’s promise to keep his word, was one of overwhelming support. People sang and wept and cheered. They sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and they celebrated long into the night because it was ‘Peace for our time’. Chamberlain represented a nation of appeasers, and is that not what politicians are supposed to be in a democracy, people who represent the views of the majority? The reaction of the newspapers the next day indicated that it was Chamberlain who was seen as the wise one, the strong one, the brave one, and not Churchill. The years to come would change that but the country, and the papers, were lucky to be able to be wise after the event.

And France was no different really. They took pretty much the same line as Britain, seeking to negotiate where they could, taking the moral high-ground by pointing out breaches of the Treaty and expressing their concerns, but not pushing for war. This was actually an important positive in appeasement because when war finally did come, both Britain and France could say, ‘You were warned’. They could say they had tried everything else rather than rushing to war at the first opportunity. Hitler was clearly to blame for World War II in a way which the Kaiser probably could not have been held to be so totally responsible 25 years earlier.

One other thing that can serve to explain, if not totally justify, appeasement is that Britain (and France) eventually won. Okay, it might have happened earlier and with far less damage and fewer deaths, but there is a big argument to say that Britain could not have successfully embarked on a war of such magnitude any earlier than it did. Maybe if Britain and France had taken on Germany in 1938 or even 1936, they would have been fighting a much weaker force but they too were far weaker than they were in 1939 – and their leader would have been Chamberlain. Behind the banner of appeasement, Britain did build and prepare for war: planes were developed, tanks were built, ships were refitted, soldiers were recruited and supplies were built up. To argue against appeasement is easy and ‘alternative’ histories are impossible to prove; there is certainly an argument to justify Chamberlain’s actions and that comes with victory in 1945. Rather like the appalling ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ of August 1939, the one justification is that, when Hitler did launch Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the USSR withstood the attack. It was a victory achieved at huge cost and it might well have ended differently but, in the end, the USSR played the key role in defeating the Nazis. So it could not have been completely the wrong decision to make the Pact – and maybe Chamberlain could argue the same. All of his trips to Munich, being made to look a bit of a fool and sounding rather weak as he said, ‘My mother always told me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, all was worth it because, in the end, victory was achieved. But it was a mighty close run thing.

And don’t forget, an alternative to appeasement might well be having leaders who look for opportunities to go to war, as some might say happened with the Falklands Conflict in 1982 or the Gulf War in 2003. Somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a ‘happy medium’ – what a shame it’s never in the same place from one crisis to the next.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis’ by David Faber; ‘The Road to War: The origins of World War II’ by Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft; ’1939: Countdown to War’ by Richard Overy; ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ by AJP Taylor; ‘Making friends with Hitler’ by Ian Kershaw

TV: ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’ by Laurence Rees; ‘The World at War’ (Directed by Peter Tiffin for Thames Television, 2010 edition); ‘The Gathering Storm’ (BBC drama, 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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