Harry Truman was born on May 8, 1884 — 132 years ago today.
He was the first president I voted for and in my view he is the least appreciated of presidents. I consider him one of the greatest for what he accomplished. His ordering the use of the atom bomb marked him as one able to make difficult decisions.
My perspective begins when I was in the Army in Germany in 1948. After the war, Germany was divided into four zones to be administered by U.S., USSR, England and France. Berlin, deep in the Soviet zone, was also divided into four similar sectors. The Western nations had access to Berlin via a road and rail corridor through the Soviet zone.
In June 1948, the Soviets blockaded that corridor and threatened to starve Berlin if the Western allies didn’t surrender their interests there. The knee-jerk reaction was to use military forces to reopen the corridor. As a soldier on the ground that seemed serious, personally. It would probably have resulted in a long conflict with the Soviet Union and others, probably including China.
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Instead, Truman initiated an airlift to supply Berlin. The airlift started with C-47 planes that carried 2.5 tons. The effort was joined by Britain, France, Canada and others, and with larger planes the airlift actually hauled more tonnage to Berlin than had gone by ground before. The Soviets dropped the blockade in May 1949, after suffering a worldwide propaganda disaster. It was the beginning of the decline of Soviet influence. It can be argued that Truman won World War III without firing a shot.
Other successes of Truman’s foreign policy were the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a war-torn world, the Truman Doctrine to counter Russia, leadership in establishing the United Nations and NATO, and encouraging the formation of a united Europe as well as making Japan a friend. It is said that a war is not won until your enemy becomes your friend. Truman accomplished that in both Germany and Japan without losing friendship of our allies.
The error most attributed to Truman was the Korean War. A treaty obligated our defending South Korea. Truman honored that agreement when the North invaded the South in mid-1950. His stated policy was pushing the North Korea forces back across the 38th parallel, the border established at the end of World War II.
General MacArthur commanded the American and U.N. forces, and with a brilliantly executed maneuver he landed forces at Inchon in September 1950 and successfully cut off the North Korea forces. The initial goal of getting the North out of South Korea was accomplished by late 1950. MacArthur and other hardliners said stopping at the 38th was missing an opportunity to unify Korea. MacArthur had been vocal in his dislike for Truman and claimed that not being allowed to cross the 38th parallel was handicapping his effort and was a sign of weakness.
Truman may have bowed to political pressure and given MacArthur the go-ahead to invade the North, an action that alarmed the Chinese. They sent a large army accompanied by Soviet air power to drive the U.N. force back. Truman fired MacArthur, but the damage had been done and the war continued for two and a half more years. It ended with the truce in July 1953 that could have been better negotiated from a position of strength in late 1950 with tens of thousands fewer American deaths.
Firing a popular general was highly unpopular and Truman’s approval ratings plummeted. He was blamed for the stalemate, but many believe MacArthur exceeded his authority and crossed the 38th parallel contrary to stated policy.
Truman was instrumental in peace in Europe and friendship with former enemies. He had successes in domestic policy that brought unprecedented prosperity, but his bold decisions and leadership that brought decades-long peace in Europe make up a legacy equaled by few presidents.
Kenneth Viste, of Boise, was in the Army from 1945 to 1948, stationed in Germany from 1946 to 1948, and was recalled to active duty in 1950 and served for a year.