“Men and women a century from now will very find the Cold War as obscure and incomprehensible as we today find the Thirty Years War – the terrible conflict that devastated much of Europe not too long ago. Looking back at the 20th century,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wisely observed, “our descendants will very likely be astonished at the disproportion between the causes of the Cold War, which may well seem trivial, and the consequences, which could have meant the veritable end of history.” Did the Cold War have to be fought the war it was – with U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons poised to destroy each other and wipe out all of the rest of humanity as collateral damage? Could the Cold War have been avoided entirely? Were there statesmen who offered a dramatically different vision of a postwar world based on peaceful and friendly competition that would uplift all of humanity?
The early Cold War would be animated by the clash between two fundamentally different version of the U.S. role in the world – Henry Luce’s hegemonic vision of the twentieth century as the “American Century” and Henry Wallace’s utopian vision of the “Century of the Common Man.” The stakes would be enormous.
On September 2, 1945, the Second World War officially ended. Though Americans everywhere were cheered by that news, a strange pall hung over the nation as Americans envisioned their own future in the burned-out ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 12, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow observed, “Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure and that survival is not assured.” Public discourse was rife with apocalyptic forebodings, as Americans were struck by what historian Paul Boyer describes as a “primal fear of extinction.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch worried that science may have “signed the mammalian world’s death certificate.” John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, admitted that he had been contemplating this development for fifteen years and added, “Franky, I am scared.” This was not just a new bomb; it was, he explained, “the power to kill the human race.” The New York Times regretted that humans could now “blow ourselves and perhaps the planet itself to drifting dust.” The Washington Post lamented that the life expectancy of the human species had “dwindled immeasurably in the course of two brief weeks.”
War’s end left much of Europe and Asia in tatters. As many as 70 million people lay dead. Civilian deaths outnumbered military deaths by more than three to two. The Soviet losses were unparalleled, as retreating German troops destroyed everything in their path. President John F. Kennedy later remarked, “No nation in the history of battel ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of home and families were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two-thirds of its industrial base were turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the destruction of the this country east of Chicago.”
Only the United States escaped such destruction. The U.S. economy was booming. GNP and exports more than doubled prewar levels. Industrial production soared, growing during the war at a record 15 percent annually. The United States held two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves and three-quarters of its invested capital. It produced a phenomenal 50 percent of the world’s goods and services. Yet businessmen and planners worried that the end of wartime spending augured a return to prewar depression conditions. They particularly feared the consequences should Europe adopt economic spheres close to American trade and investment.
With Franklin Roosevelt at the helm, the United States skillfully steered a middle course between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Most Americans looked askance at British imperialism and disapproved of Great Britain’s repressive policies in Greece, India, and elsewhere. Many also mistrusted Soviet-style socialism and decried the Soviet Union’s heavy-handed treatment of Eastern Europe. After the war, the United States used a $3.75 billion credit to pry open the British Empire, gaining equal access for American capital and goods. It also canceled Great Britain’s lend-lease debt. The United States disappointed the Soviet Union by not offering similar aid, although it had dangled the prospect of a large credit during wartime discussions. Harry Truman, unfortunately, showed none of Roosevelt’s dexterity as he increasingly tacked toward the British camp, ignoring Soviet concerns at a time of maximum U.S. strength and relative Soviet weakness.
In mid-September, Secretary of State James Byrnes traveled to London to confer with Vyacheslave Molotov and other foreign ministers. Before leaving, he made clear his intention to use the U.S. atomic monopoly to force Soviet compliance with U.S. demands. But whenever Byrnes insisted the Soviets open up Eastern Europe, Molotov pointed to exclusionary U.S. policies in Italy, Greece, and Japan. Tired of Byrnes’ belligerence, Molotov finally asked if he was hiding an atomic bomb in his coat pocket, to which Byrnes replied, “You don’t know southerners. We carry our artillert in our pocket. If you don’t cut out all this stalling…I’m going to pull an atomic bomb out of my hip pocket and let you have it.”
U.S. atomic diplomacy, in its first iteration, had clearly failed to produce the desired results. Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to such crude intimidation. In a September memo, Stimson had advised Truman that bullying the Soviets with atomic weapons would backfire and only speed the Soviet Union’s efforts to attain its own atomic arsenal:
Our satisfactory relations with Russia [are] not merely connected with but…virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb…if we…have this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip, their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives will increase. … The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.
Stimson boldly called for halting U.S. development of atomic bombs if Great Britain and the Soviet Union did likewise, and impounding those the United States had already built. Truman dedicated the September 21 cabinet meeting to Stimson’s urgent appeal to strengthen the U.S. friendship with the Soviet Union before it developed its own atomic bombs. The meeting, occurring on Stimson’s seventy-eighth birthday, would be the last for the retiring statesman. The cabinet split sharply over Stimson’s proposals, with Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace rallying supporters and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal leading the opposition. Forrestal would play an important role in the hardening of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. He had earned a fortune on Wall Street and married a former Ziegfeld Follies girl before joining the White House staff in 1939. Like most other Wall Streeters, he deeply distrusted the Soviet Union. He leaked a phony account of the cabinet discussion to the press. The next day, the New York Times reported that Wallace had proposed sharing “the secret of the atomic bomb” with the USSR. Though Truman immediately repudiated this flagrant falsehood and set the record straight, Wallace could see the writing on the wall.
Having just returned from a conference on atomic energy at the University of Chicago, Wallace understood the real stakes better than Truman and other administration officials. The experts agreed that whatever secret there might have been to the atomic bomb had vanished when the United States dropped the first one on Hiroshima. They also knew, as the Franck Committee had warned in June, that the Soviet Union would soon develop its own atomic arsenal. The scientists in attendance drove home the fact that the current generation of atomic weapons paled by comparison to what would soon be available. Therefore, they concluded, steps to curb an arms race were essential and urgent. Wallace had told the gathering that “any nation that violates the international moral law, sooner or later gets into trouble – the British have done that in relation to colonial peoples and the United States [is] in danger of doing it with the atomic bomb.” He conveyed the same message to his fellow cabinet members.
A few days later, Wallace received a letter from physicist Arthur Holly Compton. Compton alerted Wallace to ominous developments at the weapons laboratories. “There is a reasonable chance,” he reported, “that a concentrated scientific and technical effort, comparable with that spent on the development of the present atom bomb, could develop a super bomb” of staggering destructive capability. He expressed the deeply held view among the members of the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee. “We feel that this…should not be undertaken…because we…prefer defeat in war to a victory obtained at the expense of the enormous human disaster that would be caused by its…use.” Compton presented some rough figures to show just how powerful a bomb he was talking about: The “area completely destroyed by 1 atomic bomb, 4 square miles. Area completely destroyable by 1000 atomic bombs, as in a future war, 4000 square miles. Area completely destroyed by 1000 super bombs, about 1,000,000 square miles. Area of the continental United States, about 3,000,000.” What worried Compton was that “the theoretical basis of the super bomb has arisen spontaneously with at least four persons working on our project who have independently brought the idea to me. This means that it will occur likewise to those in other nations engaged on similar developments. If developed here, other great powers must follow suit.” Wallace and Compton both felt that only some form of world government could meet such a challenge.
Wallace fought a rearguard action against the powerful forces propelling the country toward war with the Soviet Union. Truman’s ouster of the few remaining New Dealers from his cabinet, left Wallace increasingly isolated. Now Stimson too was gone. As Soviet intelligence noted, the rightward shift in Truman’s economic and foreign policy advisors was unmistakable.
Wallace, undeterred, met with Truman on October 15 to press him on softening his tone toward the Soviet Union, and gave him a report he had written titled “The Significance of the Atomic Age.” Truman read it sentence by sentence in his presence. It warned, “When many nations have atomic bombs [it] will require only the smallest spark to set off a worldwide humanity-destroying explosion. Steps should be taken at once to call into being a vital international organization based on the elimination of all weapons of offensive warfare, the pooling of the constructive aspects of atomic energy, and the adoption of the principle of international trusteeship for certain areas of the world.” Truman agreed completely, telling Wallace that “this was what he had been trying to say right along.” He also remarked, somewhat overgenerously, that “Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing.” Truman even agreed with Wallace’s statement that “the purpose of Britain was to promote an unbreachable break between us and Russia.” Wallace’s efforts bore fruit. In the fall of 1945, Truman told a press conference, “Russia’s interests and ours do not clash, and never have. We have always been friends, and I hope we always will be.”
With the nuclear issue looming large, scientists descended on Washington to promote international control of atomic energy and prevent military control of atomic research. Wallace supported their efforts, testifying before the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy that the May-Johnson bill, by providing for military oversight of peacetime nuclear research, would set up the “most undemocratic, dictatorial arrangements that have ever…been proposed to the Congress in a major legislative measure.” Its passage would threaten to deliver the American people into the hands of “military fascism.” Wallace further pressed Truman to remove control of U.S. atomic weapons from Leslie Groves and require authorization of the president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and secretary of the navy before they could be used. Wallace feared that given Soviet-hater Groves’ unilateral control over the nuclear arsenal, he might launch an atomic attack on his own authority.
Such a fear was not as farfetched as it might seem. In late 1945, Groves openly advocated a preemptive attack against the Soviet Union. He reasoned that the United States had two choices. It could quickly reach an agreement with the Soviets ensuring that nobody use atomic bombs under any circumstances. But such an agreement, he believed, would necessarily entail “the abandonment of all rights of privacy – that of the home, the laboratory and the industrial plant throughout the world including the United States.” Failure to reach an agreement, however, would mean the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union all having atomic bombs. In that case, he contended, “The United States must for all time maintain absolute supremacy in atomic weapons, including number, size and power, efficiency, means for immediate offensive use and defensive against atomic attack. We must also have a worldwide intelligence service which will keep us at all times completely informed of any activities of other nations in the atomic field and of their military intentions.” That would lead to an atomic arms race. But he didn’t think that “the world could…long survive such a race.” Therefore, he concluded, the United States should not permit any potential rival “to make or possess atomic weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons we would destroy its capacity to make them before it had progressed far enough to threaten us.”
The scientists, in their efforts to achieve international control of atomic power and to ensure civilian control at home, always viewed Wallace as their most trustworthy ally in the administration. Oppenheimer visited him in October and voiced the scientists’ distress over the growing tension with the Soviet Union and the fact that Byrnes was using “the bomb as a pistol to get what we wanted in international diplomacy.” He knew the Russians would respond by very quickly developing their own bomb. Oppenheimer complained that “the heart has completely gone out of “the scientists. “All they think about now are the social and economic implications of the bomb.” Wallace was shaken by seeing Oppenheimer so agitated: “I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer. He seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent.” Wallace shared Oppenheimer’s concern about the precarious nature of the international situation and encouraged him to speak directly with Truman. Unsettled by the encounter with Oppenheimer, Wallace commented, “The guilt consciousness of the atomic bomb scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen.”
Oppenheimer took Wallace’s advice and met with Truman six days later. The meeting could not have gone worse. Truman stressed national considerations in passing an atomic energy act; Oppenheimer pressed for international control. The meeting ended disastrously with Oppenheimer’s confession of guilt over the bomb.
Wallace persevered in his effort to mitigate the influence of Truman’s conservative advisors, who preferred confrontation with the Soviet Union over continuing the wartime alliance. The saw malign intent in every Soviet action. Wallace encourage Truman to understand how his words and actions looked to Soviet leaders. Following the cabinet meeting the day after Truman’s unfortunate encounter with Oppenheimer, Wallace stayed behind to speak with the president. He again urged Truman to be evenhanded with Great Britain and the Soviet Union and to offer the Soviet Union a loan comparable to the one the United States had offered Great Britain. He compared U.S. dictating election results in Cuba and Mexico to the way the Soviets exerted control over the Balkan states. Truman, as always, agreed completely with Wallace’s analysis of events.
The effects of Wallace’s repeated interventions were usually short-lived. Truman’s other advisors discerned a more threatening pattern in Soviet actions and succeeded in convincing the president to view the world through their prism. By November, they were referring to Wallace and Truman’s progressive friends as “Reds” and telling Truman, “Don’t pay any attention to what those ‘Reds’ want you to do.”
Meanwhile, Soviet leaders were pursuing their own agenda: securing their gains in Eastern Europe and Asia, rebuilding their shattered economy, and making certain that Germany and Japan never again posed a threat to Soviet security. They were well positioned to act on those interests. With Communists having played a leading role in antifascist resistance movements, beleaguered Europeans often welcomed Soviet troops as liberators. Communist party membership soared across Europe. Communists won more than 20 percent of the vote in France, Italy, and Finland in 1945. With European populations uprooted, homeless, hungry, and unemployed, the prospect seemed ripe for further Communist gains. In Italy, where 1.7 million joined the party, real wages in 1945 were barely a quarter of 1913 levels and GNP was at 1911 levels. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson worried that Europe would turn toward socialism, leaving the United States isolated: “They have suffered so much and believe so deeply that governments can take some action which will alleviate their sufferings, that they will demand that the whole business of state control and state interference shall be pushed further and further.”
But the Soviet Union, adhering to wartime understandings and hoping to maintain the wartime alliance, went out of its way to restrain its frustrated Communist allies in China, Italy, France, and Greece. In early 1946, a Gallup Poll found that only 26 percent of Americans thought the Soviets sought world domination. Thirteen percent thought the British did.
During these early postwar months, Truman vacillated in his attitude toward Stalin, often likening him to Boss Pendergast in Kansas City. Others did likewise. Even Averell Harriman, a fierce critic who worked with Stalin as ambassador during the war, recognized the complexity of his personality:
It is hard for me to reconcile the courtesy and consideration that he showed me personally with the ghastly cruelty of his wholesales liquidations. Others, who did not know him personally, see only the tyrant in Stalin. I saw the other side as well – his high intelligence, that fantastic grasp of detail, his shrewdness and his surprising human sensitivity that he was capable of showing. … I found him better informed than Roosevelt, more realistic that Churchill, in some ways the most effect of the war leaders…for me Stalin remains the most inscrutable and contradictory character I have ever known.
With tensions over Poland having eased, Germany would provide an early test case for postwar cooperation. After Germany’s surrender, the Allies divided the country into Soviet, U.S., British, and French zones. Roosevelt had first supported the Morgenthau Plan for “pastoralization” of Germany to ensure that it never again posed a threat to its neighbors. “We have to be tough with Germany,” he told Morgenthau in August 1944. “We either have to castrate the German people or you have got to treat them in such a manner so they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past.” But the United States reversed itself once it became convinced that restoration of the German economy would be key to overall European recovery. This placed the Western powers at odds with the Soviets, who feared German revitalization and were busy stripping the eastern zone of assets to ship back to the Soviet Union. These conflicting interests impeded the creation of a unified Germany, thereby planting the seeds for later conflict, while Germans struggled to eke out a living regardless of which zone in which they lived.
The first major superpower conflict erupted in the Middle East, not Europe, as Stain moved to expand Soviet influence in Iran and Turkey at declining Britain’s expense. The Middle East had assumed increased strategic significance following the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the introduction of long-distance air routes in the early twentieth century. English historian Arnold Toynbee described it as “the shortest route between the two chief concentrations of population and power in the world of the twentieth century”: India, East Asia, and the Pacific on the one hand, and Europe, America, and the Atlantic on the other. He explained that “command of the Middle East carried with it the power of keeping open the direct routes between those two geographical poles, or closing them, or forcing them open again.” The Soviet Union had long coveted the Turkish Straits, which would have allowed it access to the Mediterranean, and Stalin believed that he had won that concession from Roosevelt and Churchill during the war. He now pressured Turkey to build joint military bases in the straits. The ensuing conflict, like everything else in the Middle East, revolved around oil. At the start of the war, the United States accounted for 61 percent of overall oil production. Great Britain controlled 72 percent of Middle Easter oil, the United States only 10 percent. The United States now sought a bigger share of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia held the key to U.S. ambitions. In 1943, the United States extended lend-lease to the oil-rich sheikdom. The following year, Saudi King Ibn Saud granted the United States permission to construct an air base at Dharan.
In a 1944 meeting with British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Roosevelt drew a map of Middle Eastern oil holdings and informed Halifax that Iranian oil belonged to Great Britain, Saudi oil to the United States, and Iraq and Kuwaiti oil to both. The following year, Roosevelt concluded a deal with Ibn Saud pledging U.S. support in return for exclusive access to Saudi oil. Truman understood the importance of maintaining U.S. control of this vital resource. In August 1945, Gordon Merriam, Chief of the State Department Near East Division, alerted Truman to the fact that Saudi Arabia’s oil resources were “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in human history.”
Iran was another prize. In September 1941, tired of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s erratic behavior and questionable loyalties, Britain and the USSR invaded and occupied the country, forcing Reza Shah into exile and replacing him with his twenty-one-year-old son.
Having eyed Iran’s rich oil reserves since the 1920s, the United States now maneuvered to expand its influence, offering lend-lease aid and sending in civilian and military advisors. In 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull explained to Roosevelt why it was essential to limit British and Soviet power: “It is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum developments in Saudi Arabia.”
Like Great Britain and the United States, the Soviet Union did indeed have designs on Iranian oil. Stalin wanted to develop the oil fields in northern Iran. He also worried about the security of the Soviet Union’s Baku oil fields, which were only a hundred miles north of the Russo-Iranian border. Stalin pressed Iran for oil concessions comparable to those granted to Great Britain and the United States and, with troops remaining in the country from World War II, supported a separatist uprising in Iran’s northern provinces to force Iran’s hand.
Churchill, meanwhile, itched for a confrontation with the Soviet Union. A rabid anti-Communist and unabashed imperialist, Churchill had tried to draw the United States into military engagement with the Soviet Union as far back as 1918. Though forced to defer his long-sought confrontation during the war, he pounced as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Soviet probes in Iran and Turkey had threatened the British sphere in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and Great Britain’s hold on India seemed precarious. The exposure of a Soviet atomic espionage ring in Canada in early February added credibility to warnings issued by Forrestal, Leahy, and other hardliners. A speech that month by Stalin raised further hackles, though it was actually much less inflammatory that Soviet expert George Kennan and others contended.
Anti-Soviet sentiments were clearly on the rise in early March 1946 when Churchill spoke in Fulton, Missouri, with Truman sitting on the platform. His bellicose words delivered a sharp, perhaps fatal, blow to any prospect for postwar comity:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain had descended across the Continent. … Police governments are prevailing…in a great number of countries…the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization. … I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.
Stalin responded angrily, accusing Churchill of being in bed with the “warmongers” who followed the “racial theory” that only English speakers could “decide the fate of the whole world.”
The speech aroused intense passions on all sides. The New York Times applauded Churchill’s harsh rhetoric, spoken “with the force of the prophet proved right before.” The Washington Post also found elements to applaud but criticized Churchill’s “illogical” call for an “international police force,” as “overdo[ing] the emphasis on force.”
The Chicago Tribune agreed with Churchill’s analysis of what was occurring in Eastern Europe but sharply disagreed with his remedy and pounced upon his defense of British imperialism: “He proposes an alliance, half slave and half free, with the British empire representing slavery. He comes really as a supplicant, begging assistance for that old and evil empire and frankly expecting to get it on his own terms.” Such an alliance would require U.S. acceptance of “the enslavement and exploitation of millions of British subjects.” The Tribune lectured sternly that the United States should not use its power “to maintain British tyranny thruout the world. We cannot become partners in slave holding.”
Several senators vigorously denounced Churchill’s defense of empire. Maine Republican Owen Brewster proclaimed, “We cannot assume the heritage of colonial policy represented by the British foreign and colonial office. Nine-tenths of the world is not Anglo-Saxon. We must consider how we are going to gain the confidence of the world that is not Slave or Anglo-Saxon. I fear an alliance with Britain would be the catalyst that would precipitate the world against us. We should orient American policy independently with the Russians.” Florida’s Claude Pepper observed, “He spoke beautifully for imperialism – but it is always British imperialism. I think his tory sentiments make him as much opposed to Russian as to a labor government in his own country. We want Anglo-American cooperation, but not at the exclusion of the rest of the world.” Pepper later joined fellow Democrats Harley Kilgore of West Virginia and Glen Taylor of Idaho in issuing a statement rejecting Churchill’s proposal for “an old fashioned, power politics, military alliance between Great Britain and the United States” that would “cut the throat of the UNO.” Pepper told reporters, “It is shocking see Mr. Churchill…align himself with the old Chamberlain Tories who strengthened the Nazis as part of their anti-Soviet crusade…the people of the world who really want peace [must] take note of this Tory clamor in Britain and the United States which is building up for war. The new British-American imperialism which Mr. Churchill proposes and defends makes us false to the very ideals for which both Nations fought.”
Nor did the public clamor to support Churchill’s belligerent call. As one Washington Post reader asserted, “Senator Pepper and his colleagues should be congratulated on their courageous reply to the war-mongering speech of Churchill. Who is the President of the United States, Truman or Churchill? Why should Churchill tell us what our policies should be when even the British people repudiated Churchill’s policies in the last election? Churchill is a warmonger and it is time that Senator Pepper gold him so. We need a second Declaration of Independence from British rule.”
Riding on the train to Missouri with Churchill, Truman had read Churchill’s speech in its entirety and heartily approved of its contents. But, in light of the outcry against Churchill’s pugnacity, he denied having advance knowledge of what Churchill would say. Truman’s boldfaced lies were quickly exposed by journalists.
Led by members of the Roosevelt family, New Deal progressives condemned Churchill and beseeched Truman to change course before it was too late. Speaking publicly, Eleanor Roosevelt deplored Churchill’s inflammatory remarks. James Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor’s oldest son, did likewise at a meeting of the Independent Citizen’s Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. He declared, “Let us make clear to all the world that the Right Hon. Winston Churchill – now a guest in our country – speaks only for himself when he attacks world peace – when he proposes once again that mankind divide itself into two camps. Too often in the past his cronies – both here and abroad – have been outright reactionaries. It is up to us and to every peace-loving man and woman in the world to stand up now and repudiate the word, the schemes and the political allies of the Hon. Winston Churchill.” Roosevelt knew what Truman could do if he wanted to ease tensions: “I would like to see the Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, fly to Russia.” Because of his reputation “for fairness and integrity,” Roosevelt explained, a personal mission from him to Stalin could do more for peace and understanding “than any number of sharply worded notes or communiques.
James Roosevelt had been introduced by Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s former long-standing secretary of the interior, who, as a stalwart New Deal progressive, had consistently been a thorn in Truman’s side. Truman had finally rid himself of Ickes the previous month, after earlier denigrating him in front of reporters as “shitass Ix.” Ickes’ resignation came over his opposition to Truman’s nominating California oil millionaire Edwin Pauley, to whose nefarious activities Truman owed his office, as assistance secretary of the navy. But Ickes stood in the way, accusing Pauley of lying when he testified that he had not lobbied against the government’s suit to assert federal title to the oil along the nation’s coasts. Ickes alleged that Pauley had offered “the rawest proposition ever made to me”: oilmen would contribute $300,000 to the Democratic Party in 1944 if the government dropped the tidelands suit that Ickes had brought. Ickes reported that at a special cabinet meeting the previous week, Truman had implored him to “Be as gentle as you can with Ed Pauley” and that party chairman Robert Hannegan had “been moving heaven and earth” to get Pauley confirmed. Ickes chose integrity over gentleness. He lashed out, “I don’t care to stay in an Administration where I am expected to commit perjury for the sake of the Party.” He released his acerbic exchange of letters with Truman over the resignation. He warned that unless the administration changed its unsavory ways, it would bring about a scandal reminiscent of Teapot Dome. The Department of the Interior, he reminded Truman, “must always be on guard against any association of money with politics.” Ickes also told reporters that no oilman should be allowed to hold a government office that dealt with oil policy. The Los Angeles Times headline its front-page article “Ickes Blowup Rocks Capital like Atom Bomb,” describing what reporter Bill Henry called “the biggest press conference in the history of Washington.”
In introducing James Roosevelt, Ickes offered some sage advice to his former boss on dealing with the Soviets: "The people…want President Truman to stand up aggressively for the foreign policies of President Roosevelt. They do not feel comfortable with the sniping at Russian, which is being indulged in. They know that without Russia we would still be fighting the war. They cannot envisage a peaceful future without an understanding with Russia.”
The following month, on the first anniversary of Roosevelt’s death, Wallace spoke in New York’s City Hall, repudiating Churchill and proposing a different version of competition between the two nations:
The only kind of competition we want with the Soviets is to demonstrate that we can raise our standard of living faster during the next 20 years than Russia. We shall compete with Russia in serving the spiritual and physical needs of the common man. … The only way to defeat Communism in the world is to do a better and smoother job of maximum production and optimum distribution. … Let’s make it a clean race, a determined race but above all a peaceful race in the service of humanity. … Russia can’t ride roughshod over eastern Europe and get away with it any more than we can do the same in Latin America or England in India and Africa. … The source of all our mistakes is fear. … Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement. We fear Communist penetration. If these fears continue, the day will come when our sons and grandsons will pay for these fears with rivers of blood. … Out of fear great nations have been acting like cornered beasts, thinking only of survival. … A month ago Mr. Churchill came out for the Anglo-Saxon century. Four years ago I repudiated the American century. Today I repudiate the Anglo-Saxon century with even greater vigor. The common people of the world will not tolerate a recrudescence of imperialism even under enlightened Anglo-Saxon, atomic bomb auspices. The destiny of the English speaking people is to serve the world, not dominate it.
Following Churchill’s speech, U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly. At the United Nations, the United States pressed for a confrontation over Iran, despite the Soviet Union’s agreement to withdraw its troops. When Soviet troops stayed beyond the March 2 deadline for their removal, Truman threatened war. He wrote, “It the Russians were to control Iran’s oil, either directly or indirectly, the raw material balance of the world would undergo serious damage and it would be a serious loss for the economy of the western world.” Forrestal afterward noted that “whoever site on the valve of Middle East oil may control the destiny of Europe.” Truman decided to send a clear message that the United States – not the Soviet Union – would sit on that valve.
Former Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler, the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made it clear that the issue involved was oil, not democracy. “Iran is wholly a question of oil,” he explained. “Large commitments have been proposed and made to Great Britain. A way ought to found for Russia to have a share of the oil without carrying on a political military disturbance.” Some found that suggestion quite plausible. In an editorial on the crisis, the Washington Post suggested that “Russian may have legitimate claims to make on Iran. On the oil situation, for instance, we have repeatedly argued that a joint plan for the exploitation of the oil resources of the Middle East is definitely in order.”
Claude Pepper got a closer look at the unfolding crisis in his tour of the Middle East, which included an interview with Stalin. After returning to the United States, Pepper addressed the Senate, exonerating the Soviet Union and condemning British imperial overreach: “It comes with ill grace from a certain world power whose people are stationed in every nation from Egypt to Singapore to make a world conflagration out of the movement of a few troops a few miles into some neighboring territory to resist an oil monopoly which they enjoy.” “If American foreign policy is made the scapegoat for such imperialism, it is more stupid than I thought is possible for it to be.” The Washington Post reported that after Pepper finished, several senators and House members walked over to shake his hand.
The public was not enthusiastic about confronting the Soviet Union over Iranian oil. The Washington Post carried a particularly illuminating letter identifying the stakes in Iran and disavowing military action:
I do not believe that the fate of the oil deposits of Iran justifies war with Russia. If this oil were located in North or South American, the…United States would both protect these oil deposits for our use in any future war and guarantee that no other strong power could seize these oil fields. If the Iranian oil occupied a geographic position near any of the British dominions, as it does next to the Soviet states, I believe Great Britain would secure of protect this oi. … The support of Iranian freedom has never before been suggested as justifying an overseas war for Americans. Iranian freedom as we understand freedom has never existed, so those who suggest war in support of such freedom are without a real cause. … I am firmly convinced that the vast majority of Americans do not want to fight for any cause that has yet developed. I also believe that a majority of Americans hope and think that left alone with her own borders reasonably secure that Russia will work to help support the peace of the world and to develop her own great natural resources for generations to come.
Pressured by the United States and Great Britain, Soviet forces withdrew from Iran. Truman later told Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson that he had summoned Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko to the White House and informed him that if Soviet troops weren’t out in forty-eight hours, “We’re going to drop it on you.” They were out, he claimed, in twenty-four hours. Although the real story behind the Soviet withdrawal is much more complicated, Truman drew the lesson that when confronted with superior force, the Soviets would back down. The United States decided to press its advantage. In May, it halted reparations shipments from western Germany that the Soviets desperately needed. In July, it decided to keep troops in South Korea and the following month to maintain a naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
While Truman was making atomic threats, the public quaked at the prospect of atomic war. In early 1946, Ladies’ Home Journal instructed readers, “Over and above all else you do, the thought you should wake up to, go to sleep with and carry with you all day” is prevention of nuclear war. Henry Wallace agreed and pushed Truman to pursue international control of atomic weapons more aggressively. In January 1946, Truman appointed Acheson, who had voiced similar concerns, to head a committee to tackle the problem. Acheson named Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Administrator David Lilienthal to chair a board of scientific advisors. Acheson confided to Lilienthal that Truman and Byrnes had neither “the facts nor an understanding of what was involved in the atomic energy issue, the most serious cloud hanging over the world.” Commitments had been made, and, with Byrnes then in London, new ones were being made “without a knowledge of what the hell it is all about – literally!” Acheson bemoaned the fact that “the War Department, and really one man in the War Department, General Groves, has, by the power of veto on the grounds of ‘military security,’ really been determining and almost running foreign policy.”
The resulting Acheson-Lilienthal report, which the hardheaded Acheson described as “a brilliant and profound document,” was largely the work of Oppenheimer. Under the plan, an international Atomic Development Authority would oversee the mining, refining, and utilization of all the world’s atomic raw materials, denaturing all fissionable material and making it available for peaceful uses. National activity in these “dangerous” areas would be outlawed. The plan intentionally minimized the need for on-site inspections to increase the chances that the Soviet Union would accept it.
Hopes for an international agreement were dashed when Truman and Byrnes appointed Byrnes’ fellow South Carolinian, seventy-five-year-old financier Bernard Baruch, to present the plan to the United Nations. Paying off another old political debt, Truman empowered him to revise it as he saw fit. Baruch had bankrolled Truman when he trailed in his 1940 Senate reelection bid and desperately needed funds. All involved, including Acheson, Lilienthal, and Oppenheimer, were furious, knowing that Baruch, an outspoken anti-Communist who viewed the bomb as the United States’ “winning weapon,” would reformulate the plan so that the Soviets would reject it out of hand. Lilienthal wrote in his journal, “When I read this news last night, I was quite sick. … We need a man who is young, vigorous, not vain, and who the Russians would feel isn’t out simply to put them in a hole, not really caring about international cooperation. Baruch has none of those qualifications.” Baruch’s choice of fellow businessmen as advisors further infuriated those who had labored so hard to come up with a plan that would work. He decided not to include scientists because, he later explained, “I concluded that I would drop the scientists because as I told them, I knew all I wanted to know. It went boom and it killed millions of people.” Vannevar Bush, who had served on the Acheson-Lilienthal Committee, dismissed Baruch’s advisors as “Wall Streeters.” He let Baruch know that he considered him and the rest of the crew completely unqualified for the job. Baruch announced that he would turn to Groves and the industrialists for advice on technical matters. Facing widespread criticism, Baruch finally relented and asked Oppenheimer to come on board as chief scientific advisor. “Don’t let those associates of mine worry you,” he told the physicist. “Hancock is pretty ‘Right,’ but [winking] I’ll watch him. Searls is smart as a whip, but he sees Reds under every bed.” He said they would have to begin “preparing the American people for a refusal by Russia.” Oppenheimer declined the invitation.
Baruch proceeded to amend the original proposal, larding it with inspections and other provisions that the Soviets would be certain to reject. Not only did Acheson and Lilienthal try to convince him to remove those provisions, Truman and Byrnes did too. Baruch remained adamant, threatening to resign if his plan was not adopted, and Truman, in a colossal failure of presidential leadership, backed down. On the eve of Baruch’s submitting the plan to the United Nations on June 14, Byrnes admitted to Acheson that appointing Baruch was “the worst mistake I have ever made.” Even Truman later privately admitted that appointing Baruch was “the worst blunder I ever made.”
Soviet leaders waited ten days before lashing out at the U.S proposal. Pravda charged that the Baruch plan was “a product of atomic diplomacy, [and] reflects the obvious tendency toward world domination.” The plan made it clear that the United States intents “to consolidate [its] monopoly on the production of “atomic weapons.” Pravda pointed out that the U.S. government had contracted production of bombs “to private monopolistic firms such as E. I. du Pont de Nemours, whose entire pre-war outlook was connected by a thousand threads to the German I. G. Farbenindustrie.” The Soviets submitted a counterplan of their own, which would ban production, stockpiling, and use of atomic weapons. Existing stockpiles would be destroyed within three months.
The U.S. decision to proceed with its July 1 atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands sent the Soviets another chilling message about U.S. intensions. The General Assembly of the Universalist Church denounced the tests as being “offensive to the very purpose of the Christian spirit.” Ickes described the Bikini tests as “diplomacy by intimidation” and note that if it were the Soviets carrying them out, “Americans would find cause for deep concern about the future peace of the world.” Raymond Gram Swing told his ABC Radio listeners that many Americans, including atomic scientists and members of Congress, had protested the decision. “On the one hand we’re striving to rid the world of a weapon which may set back civilization for centuries. … On the other hand we’re training ourselves in the use of this very weapon. So we strive to save civilization, and we seek to learn how to wreck it, all on the same weekend.” The Soviets, predictably, responded in similar fashion. Pravda’s Boris Izakov wondered why the Americans would go to such lengths to improve their bombs if they were serious about disarmament.
There was indeed a madness to the unfolding nuclear arms race that no one expressed better than Lewis Mumford when he first learned that the test was to occur. In an article in Norman Cousins’ Saturday Review titled “Gentlemen, are you Mad!” Mumford wrote:
We in American are living among madmen. Madmen govern our affairs in the name of order and security. The chief madmen claim the titles of general, admiral, senator, scientist, administrator, Secretary of State, even President. And the fatal symptom of their madness is this: they have been carrying through a series of acts which will lead eventually to the destruction of mankind, under the solemn conviction that they are normal, responsible people, living sane lives, and working for reasonable ends. Soberly, day after day, the madmen continue to go through the undeviating motions of madness: motions so stereotyped, so commonplace, that they seem the normal motions of normal men, not the mass compulsions of people bent on total death. Without a public mandate of any kind, the madmen have taken it upon themselves to lead us by gradual stages to that final act of madness which will corrupt the face of the earth and blot out the nations of men, possibly put an end to all life on the planet.
Henry Wallace tried to stop the madness. In July 1946, he wrote a long memo to Truman, repudiating the “growing feeling…that another war is coming and the only way that we can head it off is to arm ourselves to the teeth…all of past history indicates that an armament race does not lead to peace but to war.” He saw the coming months as very possibly “the crucial period which will decide whether the civilized world will go down in destruction after the five or ten years needed for several nations to arm themselves with atomic bombs.” He urged Truman to consider how “American actions since V-J Day appear to other nations,” pointing to “$13 billion for the War and Navy Departments, the Bikini tests of the atomic bomb and continued production of bombs, the plan to arm Latin America with our weapons, production of B-29s and planned production of B-36s, and the effort to secure air bases spread over half the globe from which the other half of the globe can be bombed. … [This] make[s] it appear either (1) that we are preparing ourselves to win the war which we regard as inevitable or (2) that we are trying to build up a predominance of force to intimidate the rest of mankind. How would it look to us if Russia had the atomic bomb and we did not, if Russia had 10,000-mile bombers and air bases within a thousand miles of our coastlines and we did not?”
Wallace called for sharply cutting defense spending, because maintaining peace by a “predominance of forces is no longer possible.” In 1938, the United States spent less than $1 billion on national defense. Now, he calculated, the War and Navy Departments, war liquidation, and interest on public debt and veterans’ benefits, representing the cost of past wars, consumed $28 billion, or 80 percent, of the current $36 billion budget. Wallace reiterated scientists’ warnings that “atomic warfare is cheap” and even having ten times as many bombs as one’s enemy gives no decided advantage. “And most important, the very fact that several nations have atomic bombs will inevitably result in a neurotic, fear-ridden, itching-trigger psychology. … In a world armed with atomic weapons, some incident will lead to the use of those weapons.” He forcefully dismissed those advocating a “preventive war,” whose “scheme is not only immoral but stupid,” The only solution, he concluded, “consists of mutual trust and confidence among nations, atomic disarmament, and an effective system of enforcing that disarmament.”
Wallace’s peace offensive was aided by two significant publications that summer. In late August, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” that did more to humanize the victims of the atomic bombings than any other contemporary English-language publication. In September, Look magazine began publishing a four-part series by Elliot Roosevelt that detailed how his father’s and Stalin’s plan were derailed by Truman and Churchill. Truman would later dismiss Roosevelt’s son as the “product of a piss erection.”
Wallace understood the urgency of the situation. He looked forward to a major address on September 12 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Before delivering the speech, Wallace went over it with Truman, who repeatedly expressed his agreement. Truman told reporters beforehand that he had read it and concurred entirely with its sentiments. In New York, with twenty thousand in attendance, Wallace sat on stage with Paul Robeson as Claude Pepper told the crowd, “With conservative Democrats and reactionary Republican making our foreign policy as they are today, it is all we can do to keep foolish people from have us pull a Hitler blitzkrieg and drop our atomic bombs on the Russian people.” When Wallace’s turn came, he delivered a powerful plea for peace:
Tonight I want to talk about peace – and how to get peace. Never have the common people of all lands so longed for peace. Yet, never…have they feared war so much. … We cannot rest in the assurance that we invented that atom bomb. … He who trusts in the atom bomb will sooner later perish by the atom bomb. … The British imperialistic policy in the Near East alone, combined with Russian retaliation, would lead the United States straight to war. … we are reckoning with a force which cannot be handled successfully by a “Get tough with Russia” policy. … This does not mean appeasement. We want to be met halfway. … And I believe that we can get cooperation once Russia understands that our primary objective is neither saving the British Empire nor purchasing oil in the Near East with the lives of American soldiers. We cannot allow national oil rivalries to force us into war…we have no more business in the political affairs of eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, western Europe, and the United States. We may not like what Russian does in eastern Europe. Her type of land reform, industrial expropriation, and suppression of basic liberties offends the great majority of the people of the United States. … But at the same time we have to recognize that the Balkans are closer to Russia than to us – and that Russia cannot permit either England or the United States do dominate the politics of that area. … Russian ideas of social-economic justice are going to govern nearly a third of the world. Our ideas of free-enterprise democracy will govern much of the rest. The two ideas will endeavor to prove which can deliver the most satisfaction to the common man in their respective areas of political dominance. … Under friendly peaceful competition the Russian world and the American world will gradually become more alike. The Russians will be forced to grant more and more personal freedoms and we shall become more and more absorbed with the problems of social-economic justice. Russia must be convinced that we are not planning for war against her and we must be certain that Russia is not carrying on territorial expansion or world domination…the United Nations should have…control of the strategically located air bases with which the United States and Britain have encircled the world. And not only should individual nations be prohibited from manufacturing atomic bombs, guided missiles, and military aircraft for bombing purposes, but no nation should be allowed to spend on military establishment more than perhaps 15 percent of its budget…we who look on the war-with-Russia talk as criminal foolishness must carry our message direct to the people – even though we may be called communists because we dare to speak out.
The speech was absolutely incendiary. Republican Senator Robert Taft accused Truman of betraying Byrnes, who was irate over being so publicly repudiated. The New York Times’ James Reston wrote that Truman was the only person in Washington who saw no difference between what Wallace advocated and what Truman and Byrnes had been proposing. The State Department let it be known that this was more embarrassing to Byrnes than if someone had yanked off his pants in the middle of the Paris conference. British officials were furious. Experts in the British Foreign Office said, “there is no such thing as the government of the United States” and the London press sneered that American foreign policy is still “in the hilly-billy stage.”
Many rallied to Wallace’s defense. Eleanor Roosevelt approved Wallace’s remarks: “he tried to make clear that we neither approve of British imperialism nor of Soviet aggression. He stated that we wanted to be friendly with Russia, that we wanted to meet her half-way, but that she also had to meet us half-way.”
Having become an object of international derision, Truman attempted to tell reporters that he meant only to defend Wallace’s right to express his opinions, not the content of his speech. He later denied that he had read and approved the entire speech in advance.
In the midst of the controversy, someone leaked Wallace’s July 23 memo to Truman in which he identified the “fatal defect” in the Baruch plan. Several Soviet newspapers published it in its entirety:
That defect is the scheme…of arriving at international agreements by ‘easy states,’ of requiring other nations to enter into binding commitments not to conduct research into the military uses of atomic energy and to disclose their uranium and thorium resources while the United States retains the right to withhold its technical knowledge of atomic energy until the international control and inspection system is working to our satisfaction. Is it any wonder that the Russians did not show any great enthusiasm for our plan? … I think we would react as the Russians appear to have done. We would have put up a counterproposal for the record, but our real effort would go into trying to make a bomb so that our bargaining position would be equalized. … Realistically, Russia has two cards which she can use in negotiating with us: (1) our lack of information on the state of her scientific and technical progress on atomic energy and (2) our ignorance of her uranium and thorium resources. These cards are nothing like as powerful as our cards – a stockpile of bombs, manufacturing plants in actual production, B-29s and B-36s, and our bases covering half the globe. Yet we are in effect asking her to reveal her only two cards immediately – telling her that after we have seen her cards we will decide whether we want to continue to play the game.
Truman insisted that Wallace stop talking about foreign policy while the postwar conference of the Council of Foreign Ministers was taking place. Byrnes had cabled Truman from Paris to complain that Wallace’s speech and memo had thrown the meeting into complete disarray. Byrnes and Baruch were both threatening to resign. Truman feared that Forrestal and Secretary of War Robert Patterson would do likewise. He decided to fire Wallace and wrote a scathing letter demanding his resignation. Wallace immediately phoned the president to say that the letter would not reflect well on Truman if it got out. Truman immediately sent someone over to pick it up. No copy remains. Only Truman’s diary entry that night gives some indication of what he might have written. He described Wallace as
a pacifist one hundred percent. He wants us to disband our armed forces, give Russia our atomic secrets and trust a bunch of adventurers in the Kremlin Politbureau. I do not understand a “dreamer” like that. The German-American Bund under Fritz Kuhn was not half so dangerous. The Reds, phonies and “parlor pinks” seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger. I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Uncle Joe Stalin.
With Wallace’s departure, the last chance to avert the Cold War and nuclear arms race disappeared. That night, September 20, 1946, Wallace told a national radio audience:
Winning the peace is more important than high office. It is more important than any consideration of party politics. The success or failure of our foreign policy will mean the difference between life and death for our children and our grandchildren. It will mean the difference between the life and death of our civilization. It may mean the difference between the existence and the extinction of man and of the world. It is therefore of supreme importance, and we should every one of us regard it as a holy duty, to join the fight for winning the peace. … I wish to make it clear again that I am against all types of imperialism and aggression whether they are of Russian, British, or American origin. … The success of any policy rests ultimately upon the confidence and the will of the people. There can be no basis for such success unless the people know and understand the issues, unless they are given all the facts and unless they seize the opportunity to take part in the framing of foreign policy through full and open debate. In this debate, we must respect the rights and interests of other peoples, just as we expect them to respect ours. How we resolve this debate, as I said in my New York speech, will determine not whether we live in “one world” but whether we live at all. I intend to carry on the fight for peace.
Support for Wallace had poured in throughout the controversy. Albert Einstein wrote, “I cannot refrain from expressing to you my high and unconditional admiration for your letter to the President of July 23rd. There is a deep understanding concerning the factual and psychological situation and a far-reaching perception you present American foreign policy. Your courageous intervention deserves the gratitude of all of us who observe the present attitude of our government with grave concern.”
With Wallace gone, the United States plunged headlong into Cold War both at home and abroad. On September 24, the long-awaited report from the White House counsel, Clifford Clark, and his assistant, arrived. The comprehensive review of Soviet actions, intentions, and capabilities was intended to show that the Soviets had regularly violated their agreements. It painted a dire picture of Soviet efforts “to weaken the position and to destroy the prestige of the United States in Europe, Asia, and South America” so they could rule the world, while sowing discord in the United States through the Communist Party. The United States needed to respond by beefing up its atomic arsenal, expanding its network of overseas bases, strengthening its military capabilities, and mobilizing its resources to “assist all democracies which are in any way menaced or endangered by the U.S.S.R.” They failed, however, to document Soviet perfidy in regard to treaty obligations, admitting that “it is difficult to adduce direct evidence of literal violations.”
“The United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare” against the Soviet Union.
In a penetrating critique of the report’s distortions, historian Melvyn Leffler wrote, “Clifford and Elsey ignored actions that might have injected hues of gray into their black-and-white characterization of Soviet foreign policy,” such as all the instances where the Soviets had honored or exceeded their agreements, withdrawn their troops, allowed free elections, and discouraged insurrectional activity. “Double standards and self-deception repeatedly crept into the Clifford-Elsey report,” he noted, adding:
Truman’s advisors did not ask how America’s own questionable record of compliance affected Soviet behavior. They did not acknowledge that [General Lucius] Clay and other War Department officials consistently identified France, not Russia, as the principal source of U.S. problems in Germany. They suspected that any Soviet interest in German unification masked the Kremlin’s quest to gain leverage over all of Germany, but conveniently dismissed the American desire to dilute Soviet influence in the east and to orient all of Germany to the West. Likewise, Clifford and Elsey pointed to the retention of Russian troops in Iran as irrefutable proof of the Soviet desire to dominate Iran and gain control of Middle East oil. They did not say (and may not have known) that, at the very time they were writing their report, State Department officials and military planners were contending that the U.S. troops must remain beyond the stipulated deadlines for their withdrawal in Iceland, the Azores, Panama, the Galapagos, and other locations in order to augment American bargaining leverage for postwar base and military transit rights.
Leffler also accused them of presenting “a totally misleading rendition of Soviet capabilities.” Clifford later admitted that it was the kind of “black-and-white” analysis Truman liked.
Clifford and Elsey ruled out further efforts to negotiate with the Soviets. “The language of military power,” they wrote, “is the only language” the Soviets understand. Hence, they warned ominously, “the United States must be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare” against the Soviet Union. Truman ordered Clifford to round up all ten copies of the report and lock them up. “If this got out,” he snapped, “it would blow the roof off the White House, it would blow the roof off the Kremlin.” It would also prove that Wallace, whom Truman had fired four days earlier, had been correct in all his warnings about the hard-line, confrontational direction of U.S. policy.
In his response to Clifford and Elsey’s questions, Admiral Leahy provided Truman and Clifford with copies of the will of Tsar Peter the Great, in which he urged the Russians to conquer large parts of Asia and Europe and maintain a constant war footing. No one questioned the veracity of this notorious eighteenth-century forgery. Truman cited it on several occasions, drawing continuities between tsarist policies and those of the present Stalinist regime.
While the Soviets were imposing friendly left-wing governments in their sphere, the British were imposing right-wing governments in theirs. In Greece, the British army toppled the popular leftist National Liberation Front and restored the monarchy and right-wing dictatorship. Jailing of critics and other repressive measures soon sparked a Communist-led uprising. The Yugoslavs provided support but the Soviets did not, as Stalin abided by his wartime agreement with Churchill that placed Greece with the British sphere of influence.
Following the severe winter of 1946-47, financially strapped Great Britain asked the United States to take the lead in defeating the Greek insurgents and modernizing the Turkish army. One State Department official later commented, “Great Britain had within the hour handed the job of world leadership…to the United States.” But the war-weary public and the Republican-controlled Congress, which was intent upon reducing and cutting back U.S. international commitments, stood in Truman’s way. The Republicans had trounced the Democrats in the November 1946 congressional elections, employing the kind of Red-baiting tactics that would become so familiar over the next decade. The Republican National Committee chairman declared the election a choice between “communism and Republicanism” and charged that “alien-minded radicals” had seized control of the Democratic Party.
Congress was reluctant to foot the bill for Truman’s costly Greek and Turkish initiatives. Soviet military probes in the Mediterranean had largely ceased, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had again abated. Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Truman that he would have to “scare the hell out of the country” if he hoped to win approval for a global anti-Communist campaign that would change foreign policy “from top to bottom.” Dean Acheson took the lead in crafting the administration’s message, framing it as a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. Only a few months earlier, he had complained about supporting the “reactionary regime” in Greece. But the Turkish crisis had convinced him otherwise. The son of a clergyman, Acheson believed that life was a “pilgrimage from birth to death through a battleground of good and evil.” He told a group of congressional leaders, “Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and then all to the east. It would also carry the infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.” He called it an “Armageddon.”
George Kennan, who was head of the State Department policy planning staff, and others, including George C. Marshall, whom Truman had picked to replace Byrnes as secretary of state, George Elsey, and Soviet expert Chip Bohlen, found this farfetched. Truman sided with Acheson against those who advised him to tone down the rhetoric. Addressing both houses of Congress, Truman appealed for $400 million to finance efforts in Greece and Turkey and declared that the United States must support “free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure,” thence to known as the Truman Doctrine.
After a heated debate, Congress fell into line. Many members, however, were troubled by Truman’s call to arms and support for blatantly undemocratic and unpopular governments. Bernard Baruch described the speech as “tantamount to a declaration of…ideological or religious war.” Marshall criticized Truman’s exaggerations. Walter Lippman was so upset with the Truman Doctrine’s overblown rhetoric and apparently open-ended commitment to intervention that he and Acheson almost came to blows at a Washington dinner party. Some, including Kennan, rejected Truman’s justification for aiding Turkey, which faced no overt Soviet threat, and feared that Stalin would respond the way Truman would if the Soviets sent military aid to Mexico.
Once again, Henry Wallace led the opposition. The day after Truman’s speech, he took to the airwaves on the NBC radio network to decry the “utter nonsense” of describing the Turkish or Greek governments as democratic and accused Truman of “betraying” Roosevelt’s vision for world peace. “When President Truman proclaims the world-wide conflict between east and west,” he warned, “he is telling the Soviet leaders that we are preparing for eventual war.” People the world over were feeling hungry and insecure and demanding change. Trying to thwart that change was not only futile, it was counterproductive. “Once America stands for opposition to change,” he prophesied, “we are lost. America will become the most hated nation in the world.” Military aid was not the answer. “Truman’s policy,” he predicted, will spread communism in Europe and Asia. When Truman offers unconditional aid to King George of Greece, his acting as the best salesman communism ever had.”
The Soviets responded angrily. Pravda accused the United States of “imperialist expansion under the guise of charity” and trying to “extend the Monroe Doctrine to the Old World.” Howard K. Smith, who was in Moscow covering the conference of the Council of Foreign Minister for CBS, wrote that Truman’s message had changed the atmosphere in Moscow and throughout Eastern Europe. In late May, the Soviets sponsored a Communist coup overthrowing the democratically elected government in Hungary. The New York Times opined, “the coup in Hungary is Russia’s answer to our action in Greece and Turkey.”
The Greek civil war grew bloodier, and U.S. personnel began arriving in the war zone in June 1947. They used Greece to test tactics, some new and some old, that would later be employed in Vietnam, such as the destruction of unions, torture, napalming villages, forced mass deportations to concentration camps without trial or charges, mass imprisonment of wives and children of subversives, mass executions ordered by military court martials, and censorship of the press. Greece was thus kept in the hands of the monarchists and wealthy businessmen, many of them Nazi collaborators; the victims were primarily the workers and peasants who’d resisted the Nazis.
Fighting raged on for a couple more years. Historian George Herring described it as “an especially savage conflict with atrocities on both sides in which even children became pawns.” In addition to sending a large contingent of “advisors,” the United States armed the right-wing Greek monarchy to the teeth.
The Soviet Union temporarily assisted the left-wing forces but then cut off aid. In February 1948, Stalin ordered Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito to stop supporting the “guerrilla movement” in Greece, precipitating an open rift with his closest ally. When the Yugoslav’s pushed back, Stalin thundered, “they have no prospect of success at all. What do you think, that Great Britain and the United States – the United States, the most powerful nation in the world – will permit you to break their line of communication in the Mediterranean Sea! Nonsense. And we have no navy. The uprising in Greece must be stopped, and as quickly as possible.” When Tito refused to go along with Soviet demands, the Cominform expelled Yugoslavia. The State Department reported, “For the first time in history we may now have within the international community a communist state…independent of Moscow. … A new factor of fundamental and profound significance has been introduced into the world communist movement by the demonstration that the Kremlin can be successfully defied by one of its own minions.” Despite providing covert support for Tito, the United States never adjusted its rhetoric to reflect the fact that international communism was not as monolithic as once believed.
Churchill later told an American journalist, “Stalin never broke his word to me. We agreed on the Balkans. I said he could have Romania and Bulgaria and he said we could have Greece. … He signed a slop of paper and never broke his word. We saved Greece that way.”
Stalin’s halting of support for the uprising spelled doom for the rebels, and Truman heralded the United States’ victory. The Greek people weren’t so sure. More than 100,000 people died, and 800,000 became refugees. The Greek action also had other troubling implications. Though it was a largely homegrown insurgency, Truman treated is as part of a Soviet plan for world domination, setting the stage for U.S. intervention to support right-wing governments in the name of anticommunism. The United States substituted force for diplomacy, embracing unilateralism instead of the United Nations and repression instead of treating the socioeconomic causes of popular discontent. Historian Arnold Offner concluded, “The legacy of this action was that for the next three decades, successive Greek governments used the state apparatus – decrees, the police, the military, and a Central Service of Information, modeled on the CIA – to systematically persecute their former enemies and deny them their basic rights and livelihood.”
Marshall adopted a more positive approach to the crisis in Europe: he invited European countries to come up with a plan for economic recovery and development, which the United States would finance. Seventeen European countries requested $27 billion. The United States eventually spent $13 billion between 1948 and 1952. Great Britain, France, and Germany were the largest recipients, adding to the Soviet fears that the United States was recklessly restoring German power and creating a Western bloc. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were invited to participate but were offered terms that U.S. policy makers knew Stalin would reject. The Soviets were coming to realize that their earlier expectations that Western unity would run aground on the shoals of imperialist rivalry were mistaken.
Truman described his new doctrine and the Marshall Plan as “two halves of the same walnut.” Abandoning all hope for continued collaboration with the West, the Soviets offered Eastern Europe its own Molotov Plan. They also cracked down with renewed intensity. The last remaining non-Communists were soon forced out of government in Bulgaria. Early the following year, the Red Army helped overthrow the Czech government, putting an end to Czech democracy.
George Kennan provided the theoretical rationale for the new U.S. policy. His article titled “The Source of Soviet Conduct” appeared in the July issue of Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” A Soviet expert who had served in Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s, Kennan emphasized the Soviet Union’s global appetites and laid out a plan to “contain” Soviet expansion with the goal of breaking up Soviet power and maintain U.S. hegemony. The previous October, he had taken a more nuanced stance, writing, “I think it is a mistake to say that the Soviet leaders wish to establish a Communist form of government in the ring of states surrounding the Soviet Union on the west and south. What they do wish to do is to establish in those states governments amenable to their own influence and authority. The main thing is that these governments should follow Moscow’s leadership. … In certain countries which are already extensively under Soviet influence, as for example Poland, there has been as yet no effort to establish what we might call a Communist form of government.”
The distinction between the two interpretations of Soviet postwar intentions is crucial. Not only did the Soviet Union not have a blueprint for postwar Sovietization of Eastern Europe, it hoped to maintain friendly and collaborative relations with its wartime allies. The last thing it wanted was confrontation with the West. As Russian scholars Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov explain, there was “no master plan in the Kremlin, and Stalin’s ambitions had always been severely limited by the terrible devastation of the USSR during World War II and the existence of the American atomic monopoly.”
Unfortunately, Kennan’s Foreign Affairs article offered a monochromatic analysis of a Soviet Union bent on conquest. Kennan would long regret that his words were interpreted as support for the kind of militarized response to the Soviet Union that he later abhorred. In looking back, he was appalled by the even more measured message in his telegram, which struck him as if it had been written “by the Daughters of the American Revolution” during an anti-Communist tirade. Journalist Walter Lippmann criticized Kennan for resorting to military rather than peaceful settlements and for the global sweep of his containment policy, which failed to differentiate between vital interests and peripheral ones. He feared that the policy would mean “unending intervention in all the countries that are supposed to ‘contain’ the Soviet Union.” And it would undermine the Constitution by vesting too much power in the president as commander in chief.
While Truman scared the hell out of the American people about Communists abroad, the Republican did the same regarding Communists at home. Truman decided to steal the Republicans’ thunder. Just nine days after delivering his call for an international crusade against Communism, he unveiled an elaborate program to root out “subversives” working for the federal government, even though, as White House aide Clifford Clark later admitted, “the President didn’t attach fundamental importance to the so-called Communist scare. He thought it was a lot of baloney. But political pressures were such that he had to recognize it. … We did not believe there was a real problem. A problem was being manufactured. There was a certain element of hysteria.” Truman mandated loyalty checks on all government employees. Those accused could neither confront their accusers nor ascertain the basis of the accusations. Having the wrong views on religion, sexual behavior, foreign policy, or race could brand one as disloyal. An Interior Department Loyalty Board chairman observed, “Of course the fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a communist, but it certainly make look twice, doesn’t it?” The FBI conducted field investigations of suspect employees. Even Truman feared that under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI could become “an American Gestapo.” Clifford believed that Hoover “was very close to being an American fascist.” The government organized large meetings at which employees sang “God Bless America” and took freedom pledges. Loyalty boards fired approximately three hundred government employees outright and forced ten times that number to resign between 1947 and 1951, thereby institutionalizing guilt by association and encouraging a stultifying conformity in which much of the nation equated dissent with disloyalty.
In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held public hearings on Communist influence in Hollywood. The committee called eleven unfriendly witnesses, including some of Hollywood’s most prominent writers and directors. Invoking the First Amendment, ten refused to answer questions about whether they were members of the Communist Party, which was perfectly legal, and were cited contempt of Congress. The eleventh, playwright Bertolt Brecht, denied being a Communist and escaped to East Germany. Brecht had earlier moved to Hollywood to escape from the Nazis. Rather than stand up for their employees, Hollywood studio executive denounced the “Hollywood Ten” and pledged not to hire anyone with suspect affiliations. Among the friendly witnesses who testified that the Communist menace in Hollywood was real was Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan. Robert Talyor, Gary Cooper, and Walt Disney agreed. Far greater numbers of Ollywood celebrities publicly denounced the congressional witch hunts, including Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, William Wyler, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Orson Wells, Katharine Hepburn, Pete Seeger, Henry Fonda, Ethel Barrymore, Benny Goodman, and Groucho Marx. Despite those efforts, all ten were convicted of contempt the following year and sentenced to prison.
In July 1947, following five months of hearings and heated debate, Congress passed the greatest military reform in U.S. history. The National Security Act created the National Military Establishment (later called the Department of Defense), consisting of the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, headed by a secretary of defense, and a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Truman appointed the anti-Soviet hard-liner James Forrestal as the first secretary of defense. Creating a new U.S. Air Force separate from the army confirmed the importance of atomic warfare in future military planning.
The act also created the National Security Council, a War Council, the National Security resources Board, and the Central Intelligence Agency, all of which Marshall opposed because they gave the military too much influence over foreign policy and abridged the constitutional authority of the president and secretary of state. Truman also feared that the CIA could turn into a “Gestapo” or “military dictatorship.” The Agency’s clandestine nature troubled Acheson, who wrote, “I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, or anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.” Although the act specifically authorized the Agency only to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence, it also empowered it to perform “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” The Agency used that vague wording to conduct hundreds of covert operations, including eighty-one during Truman’s second term alone.
In late September 1947, Kennan urged Forrestal to establish a “guerrilla warfare corps” – a suggestion Forrestal heartily endorsed – although the JCS recommended against establishing a “separate guerrilla warfare school and corps.” In December, Truman approved secret annex JSC 4-A, authorizing the CIA to conduct covert operations. He had dismantled the OSS’s covert paramilitary operations capabilities in September 1945, but now he brought them back in force. In the summer of 1948, he approved NCS 10/2, which called for “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures: subversion against hostile states, including assistance, to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened free countries of the free world.” These activities were to be done in a way that would always afford the U.S. government plausible deniability. In August 1948, Truman approved NSC 20, which authorized guerrilla operations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Even the seemingly benign Marshall Plan provided a cover for subversion. Half of the 10 percent of the money allocated for administrative costs was siphoned off to fund covert actions through the Cia’s Office of Policy Coordination, whose director, Frank Wisner, would actually report to the secretary of defense and state. Tim Weiner described it as “a global money-laundering scheme.” Colonel R. Allen Griffin, who headed the Marshall Plan’s Far East division, confessed, “We’d look the other way and give them a little help. Tell them to stick their hand in our pocket.” Kennan, the architect of this effort, described it as “the inauguration of organized political warfare.” With the diverted funds, the CIA established a network of phony front organizations that recruited foreign agents as frontline warriors in the propaganda wars that ensued. Sometimes they went beyond propaganda, infiltrating unions and other existing organizations and establishing underground groups. Forrestal and the Pentagon wanted the programs to go further, including “guerrilla movements…underground armies…sabotage and assassination.”
Some of the diverted Marshall Aid money went to supporting a guerrilla army in Ukraine called Nightengale, which had been established by the Wehrmacht in the spring of 1941 with the help of Stephan Bandera, head of the Ukrainian National Organization’s more radical wing OUN-B. The following year, Mikola Lebed founded the organization’s terrorist arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. It was made up of ultranationalist Ukrainians, including Nazi collaborators, who wreaked havoc in the region, assisting in or directly carrying out the murder of thousands of Jews, Soviets, and Poles, and occasionally also fighting the Germans, who opposed OUN-B’s plan for a separate Ukrainian state. In 1944, Lebed helped form the Supreme Ukrainian Liberation Council (UHVR), which served as the organization’s political arm.
At the end of the war, Lebed fled to Rome and contacted the Allies. The U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps started working with him in 1947 and smuggled him to Munich, where he began collaborating with the CIA the following year. In June 1949, the CIA brought him to the United States. When the Justice Department later tried to deport him, Allen Dulles claimed he was of “inestimable value to this Agency” and was assisting in “operations of the first importance.”
Among those operations, Wisner’s “Special Projects,” was one masterminded by Munich-based CIA officer Steve Tanner, who, in late 1948, started working with the UHVR. The following year, he readied operatives to infiltrate back into Ukraine. On September 5, 1949, the CIA parachuted the first of its Ukrainian agents back into the country. The operation continued for another five years but had little success. Although the Soviets made quick work of most of the infiltrators, such operations clearly signaled the lengths to which the U.S. was willing to go to dislodge Soviet control in Eastern Europe.
The Soviets tightened their grip. The last remaining non-Communists had already been driven out of the Bulgarian and Czechoslovakian administrations. Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk’s manner of death – falling or being pushed out of his bathroom window – would come to haunt Forrestal. After Soviet imposition of a puppet regime in Czechoslovakia, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States froze over. The brutal Eastern European dictatorships would last another four decades.
The CIA’s first covert operation involved subverting Italy’s 1948 election, thus ensuring a Christian Democratic victory over the Communists. In that case, as in many throughout the post-World War II ear, the U.S. commitment to “democracy” only went so far. Kennan told Marshall that a Communist victory would undermine “our whole position in the Mediterranean.” He preferred to see the Italian government outlaw the Communist Party and precipitate a violent civil war, giving the United States an excuse to intervene militarily.
Nor was democracy a major consideration when the CIA took over responsibility for running the Gehlen Organization in Germany from the U.S. Army. General Reinhard Gehlen, a former Nazi who had run intelligence in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for Hitler, recruited a network of Nazi war criminals drawn in part from the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Gestapo, and Waffen-SS. The Gehlen Org, as it was known, provided extensive intelligence on Eastern Europe, always painting the worst possible picture of Soviet actions and threats. A retired CIA official acknowledged, “The Agency loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear. We used his stuff constantly, and we fed it to everybody else: the Pentagon, the White House, the newspapers. They loved it, too. But it was hyped up Russian boogey-man junk, and it did a lot of damage to this country.”
At war’s end, U.S. policy-makers decided not to allow their booming military industrial machine to erode. In 1948, 62 percent of all federal research and development was military-related. The air force claimed a large share. General Carl Spaatz testified before Congress that “the next war will be preponderantly an air war.” The United States began missile research, employing many of the hundreds of scientists it had secreted out of Germany, including almost the entirety of Wernher von Braun’s staff at Peenemunde. Some of the scientists had been involved in human experimentation and Nazi slave-labor programs. Equally disturbing, during the Tokyo war criminal trials, U.S. authorities secretly granted blanket immunity to Japanese officers and researchers involved with the notorious Unit 731 in exchange for sharing the results of the lethal experiments conducted on three thousand prisoners in Manchuria. Meanwhile, the air force, competing with the army and the navy over funding and prestige, employed its own in-house think tank to design strategies that would promote the air force’s primacy. In 1948, this division transformed itself into the independent RAND Corporation. During these years, U.S. war plans became increasingly reliant on atomic weapons and air warfare, which were determined to be far cheaper than conventional military forces. By the middle of the next decade, the air force would consume nearly as much of the defense budget as the army and the navy combined.
The evolution of U.S. military strategy enhanced the strategic importance of the Middle East. By 1947, U.S. war plans called for U.S. air attacks on Soviet targets from bases in the Middle East, Okinawa, and Britain. Of particular importance was the base at Cairo-Suez, from which U.S. bombers could reach 84 percent of Soviet oil refining capacity. As part of this strategy, the United States bolstered its military capabilities in Turkey, enhancing that country’s ability to impede a Soviet offensive in the region.
Nineteen forty-eight was also the year that the Israeli-Palestinian issue came to a head in a way that would plague U.S. policy for the next six decades plus. The situation was complicated by the fact that despite the procrustean efforts of U.S. policy makers, Middle East issues never fit neatly into the Cold War paradigm. U.S. policy makers tried to navigate among a number of constituencies with fundamentally different interests: reactionary Arab leaders who controlled vast oil resources as well as strategic bases and routes in the region; nationalist Arab masses, often living in squalid conditions; Palestinian victims of Israeli policy; Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had been desperate for a homeland; Jewish and later conservative voters in the United States, including Christian evangelicals, who staunchly defended Israeli actions; and a united Islamic world that opposed Israeli policy and sometimes the very existence of a Jewish state in their midst. The problem had already taken form while the region was under British control.
In 1915, using their usual dived-and-conquer strategy, the British promised the Arabs an independent state in order to foment an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. Then, in 1917, Arthur Balfour, Britain’s secretary of foreign affairs, pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was home to 750,000 Arabs and 65,000 Jews. Arthur Koestler described this as one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation.
At Versailles, in 1919, the delegates ratified the Balfour Declaration, giving Great Britain a mandate over Palestine. In 1922, the U.S. Congress also ratified the declaration. In the early years of the century, European Jews looking to relocate typically chose the United States, not Palestine, to which only 3 percent of European Jews emigrated prior to the 1930s. Sixty-eight percent went to the United States. But Jewish emigration to the United States was sharply curtailed by the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924. During the 1930s, Jews fleeing Nazi persecution raised the number of Jewish emigres to Palestine substantially, angering the Arab inhabitants. Arab attacks on Jewish settlers increased as the Jewish population climbed to half a million, or 30 percent of the total population. Jews retaliated in kind.
Roosevelt vacillated in his support for a Jewish homeland. Not wanting to alientate the Saudis, whom the United States was courting for their oil, he made contradictory commitments to Jews and Arabs. On his way back from Yalta, he met with Saudi King Ibn Saud and was surprised by the depths of his opposition to a Jewish homeland. Saud told him to establish a Jewish homeland in Germany: “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander.” Roosevelt reversed his earlier commitments and promised Saud that he would “do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and…make no move hostile to the Arab people.” He also did little to help Jews escape from Nazi persecution. He was hindered by a State Department that was insensitive to the tragic plight of Jewish victims, even after early 1942, when word began to filter out about the Nazi extermination policies. The United States admitted only 160,000 European Jews between 1933 and 1942, increasing the Jewish population only from 3.6 to 3.7 percent of the overall U.S. population.
At war’s end, the British still dominated the area, with 200,000 troops at their Suez Canal base, air bases in Iraq and Sudan and air installations at Lydda in Palestine, naval bases in Bahrain and Aden and a naval presence om Haifa, and command of the eight thousand-strong Arab League in Transjordan. Determined to do nothing that would further antagonize the Arabs and jeopardize British interests, including oil from Iraq and Iran, they continued Neville Chamberlain’s 1939 policy of restricting and then halting Jewish immigration. That did not, however, staunch the flow of Holocaust survivors and other Jewish emigres streaming “illegally” into Palestine after the war. When the British cracked down, arresting more than two thousand Jews, the Jewish terrorist organization Irgun retaliated by bombing the British secretariat and military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, leaving ninety-one people dead.
In mid-1946, Truman decided to back a plan that would allow 100,000 European refugees to emigrate to Palestine but, instead of creating a separate Jewish state, would establish a single state with separate Jewish and Arab provinces. Jewish leaders were adamantly opposed to the plan. Truman devoted a cabinet lunch to discussing the Palestine problem. Acheson and Forrestal urged Truman to go forward with the plan. Henry Wallace was opposed. Wallace’s diary entry sheds light on the discussion and Truman’s attitude: “President Truman expressed himself as being very much ‘put out’ with the Jews. He said that ‘Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?’ Truman said he had no use for them and didn’t care what happened to them.” Wallace reminded him, “You must remember that it is easy for them to get into quite a state of mind because nearly all the Jews in the country have relatives in Europe and they know that about 5 million out of the 6 million Jews have killed and that no other people have suffered in this way.” Wallace wrote, “Jim Forrestal had previously undertaken to say that the Poles had suffered more than the Jews. Forrestal brought up the question of the oil in Saudi Arabia and said if another war came along we would need the oil in Saudi Arabia. President Truman said he wanted to handle this problem not from the standpoint of bringing in oil but from the standpoint of what is right.”
In early 1947, Great Britain announced that along with its retrenchment in Greece and Turkey, it would terminate its mandate over Palestine and refer the problem to the United Nations without recommending a solution. In May, the Soviets surprised U.S. officials when Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko unfurled the Soviet position before the UN General Assembly. Citing the horrors of the Holocaust, the fact that both Jews and Arabs had historical claims to the land, and the ways in which British malfeasance had exacerbated tensions between them, Gromyko said, the Soviets preferred a binational or federal state. However, if that weren’t possible, they would support a two-state solution, which the Jewish militants greatly preferred and the Arabs adamantly opposed. In late 1947, the United Nations, despite fierce Arab opposition, endorsed the partition of Palestine into two independent states. The Soviets supported this solution; the British and the Arabs opposed it; and the United States equivocated but finally came on board. Arab violence flared in Palestine as soon as the partition vote was announced.
On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel proclaimed its existence. Eleven minutes later, the United States offered diplomatic recognition. Hours later, the Arab nations launched a full-scale war, hoping to eliminate the new nation before it got off the ground. Relying heavily on Soviet and Czech weapons, the badly outnumbered Israelis defeated the Arabs in the initial six-month war. In recognizing Israel defied the advice of Marshall, Forrestal, and Lovett, who feared a break with U.S. oil-producing friends in the region. They also feared losing U.S. and British access to Middle Eastern bases from which to attack the Soviet Union if war broke out. During a meeting in the Oval Office on May 12, Clifford had laid out the moral and strategic case for recognition. He envisioned Israel as an invaluable ally in a volatile region. Marshall vehemently countered Clifford’s arguments and insisted that they were based on domestic political considerations: Truman’s hope of winning the Jewish vote. Marshall bluntly told Truman that if Truman recognized Israel, he would not vote for him in the 1948 presidential election.
There was some truth to Marshall’s contention. Truman was certainly aware of the domestic political implications of his actions. “In all of my political experience,” he told a friend, “I don’t ever recall the Arab vote swinging a close election.” And Truman was in a very close election in 1948, one in which every vote counted. But Truman, despite his frequent anti-Semitic comments and contempt for Jewish activists, was also motivated by a sincere concern for Jew’s suffering in the Holocaust.
Marshall had advocated a trusteeship over Palestine under UN auspices that would keep Jews and Arabs in the same country. He and the others also worried about the close ties between Israel and the Soviet Union, whose legal recognition of Israel had followed closely behind that of the United States on May 15. U.S. intelligence reported Soviet influence with the Irgun and the Stern Gang and took note of the influx of Jewish Communists into the region. The United States and Great Britain, trying not to antagonize the Arabs completely, placed an embargo on arms shipments to both sides and the United States maneuvered to preempt UN resolutions condemning Arab aggression. U.S. policy makers, fearing Soviet military intervention either unilaterally or as part of an international peacekeeping force, pushed for a quick resolution.
Despite Ibn Saud’s threats to cancel the concession to Aramco, which Texaco and Standard Oil of California had established in Saudi Arabia, the United States was not overly concerned about Arab retaliation. An early July State Department report found that, excluding Iran, the Middle East supplied only 6 percent of Western oil supplies and that the loss could be absorbed “without substantial hardship to any group of consumers.”
Although Israel signed an armistice agreement with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria in 1949, the Arabs’ bitterness over the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East persists to this day and the issues that caused the 1948 war remain unresolved. The situation was exacerbated by a massive refugee problem, as many Arabs fled from what would become Israel – some following the advice of Arab leaders and some driven out by the Israelis. The refugee problem, after more than sixty years, remains a constant source of tension in the region.
While Arabs and Israelis fought in the Middle East, the United States and the Soviet Union almost came to blows over Germany. In spring 1948, the United States and Britain took preliminary steps toward carving out a separate West German government, overcoming the reluctance of France and other Western European nations that feared a powerful, potentially remilitarized nation. Many German politicians in the western zones were also resistant to this development, fearing the severance of economic, political, and personal ties to eastern Germany.
In late June, the United States boldly and provocatively instituted currency reform in the three western sectors of occupied Berlin, which was a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone. Seeing this as not only a major step in establishing an independent, remilitarized West German state only three years after the defeat of Hitler but as a betrayal of the U.S. promise to provide desperately needed reparations from the more prosperous western zones, the Soviets cut off rail and road access to Berlin. Stalin maintained that western access had been based on wartime agreement establishing a quadripartite Allied Control Commission as the supreme authority for a unified Germany. Because the Western powers were now shattering that framework, he reasoned, they had forfeited access rights. Western observers decried the savage cruelty of the Soviet’s “Berlin Blockade.” The commander of the American sector of Berlin, Fran Howley, described it as a “comprehensive criminal plan to shut off the Eastern Zone of Germany from the West and isolate completely the three Western Sectors of Berlin.” It was, Howley charged, “a wicked decision, the most barbarous in history since Genghis Khan.” The Soviets, Western leaders screamed, were trying to starve West Berliners into submission. Images of Soviet cruelty would be seared into global consciousness – a perception of the crisis that still persists today.
But, contrary to this widely held view, the Soviets, for all their faults, attempted nothing of the sort. They had, in fact, gone out of their way to guarantee West Berliners’ access to food and coal from the Eastern zone of from direct Soviet provisions. In October 1948, U.S. military intelligence analysts reported, the “road, rail and water blockade of Berlin by no means constitutes a complete economic blockade either by intent or in fact.”
What people do remember, however, is that over the next eleven months, the United States airlifted 1.6 million tons of food and fuel into West Berlin to feed 2.2 million people. Truman also sent sixty presumably atomic-capable B-29s to British and German bases. He assured Forrestal that if conditions warranted it, he would approve the use of atomic weapons. “We are very close to war,” he wrote in September. When Forrestal asked Kennan for his analysis of the Soviet blockade, Kennan offered the most alarming assessment: “Communist ideology and Soviet behavior clearly demonstrate that the ultimate objective of the leaders of the USSR is the domination of the world.” And despite knowing the risks, the United States prolonged the crisis until it achieved both a basic law outlining the West German state and the creation in April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which committed the United States, for the first time in its history, to a peacetime military alliance with Western Europe. In May 1949, having won its objectives, the United States agreed to talks over the future of Germany, and it was only then that the Soviet Union lifted the blockade, ending the most dangerous postwar confrontation to date. The United States had gambled that its atomic monopoly would enable it to achieve its goals without having to go to war, and it won.
Once out of office, Henry Wallace assumed the editorship of the liberal New Republic and continued to criticize Truman’s policies. On December 29, 1947, he announced that he was going to take his fight for peace one step farther and challenge Truman in the 1948 presidential elections. “Thousands of people all over the United States have asked me to engage in this great fight,” he declared. “The people are on the march. We have assembled a Gideon’s Army, small in number, powerful in conviction, ready for action…the people’s peace will usher in the century of the common man.” “The bigger the peace vote in 1948, the more definitely the world will know that the United States is not behind the bipartisan reactionary war policy that is dividing the world into two armed camps and making inevitable the day when American soldiers will by lying in their arctic suits in the Russian snow.”
To deal with the Wallace challenge, Clifford suggested that Truman adopt a progressive strategy on social and economic issues, ignore left-wing attacks on his foreign policy, and let others handle the job of discrediting Wallace. Clifford wrote, “Every effort must be made…to identify and isolate him in the public mind with the Communists. … [The] Administration must persuade prominent liberals and progressives – and no one else – to move publicly into the fray. They must point out that the core of Wallace backing is made up of Communists and fellow-travellers” (italics in original). Red-baiting began almost immediately and was almost entirely conducted by people clearly identified with the liberal camp. They accused Wallace and the Progressive Party of being tools of Moscow. Truman could not refrain from joining the chorus: “I do not want and I will not accept the support of Henry Wallace and his Communists,” he told those attending a St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
Wallace repeatedly denied any involvement with the Communist Party USA and warned that charges of anticommunism were being used to undermine American freedoms. This proved to be of little avail. Mobs broke up Wallace rallies. Wallace groups were banned from campuses. Universities denied Wallace the right to speak on campus, and his supporters were sometimes fired from their jobs. The Pittsburgh Press published the names, addresses, and places of employment of more than a thousand people in the western part of the state who had signed Wallace nominating petitions. Wallace’s running mate, Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho, was arrested and beaten up by police in Birmingham, Alabama, for defying a municipal ordinance banning integrated meetings and, adding insult to injury, by entering the gathering of the Southern Negro Youth Congress through a door marked “Colored.” Wallace wire Taylor, “This dramatizes the hypocrisy of spending billions for arms in the name of defending freedom abroad, while freedom is trampled on here at home.”
The Red-baiting, the dismissive treatment of Wallace by the major newspapers, Truman’s move to the left on domestic issues, and a last-minute rush to Truman by Democratic voters who feared a victory by Republican Thomas Dewey resulted in an electoral disaster for the Wallace campaign. Gallup showed Wallace polling 7 percent in early 1948. Some observers predicted that he would win more than 10 million voters. Wallace predicted 3 to 5 million. In October, he was polling at 4 percent. The final tally had him coming in fourth with 1,157,063 votes, almost 12,000 votes behind Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. In the end, he totaled only 2.38 percent of the national vote. The Wall Street Journal put an interesting spin on the impact of the campaign, editorializing, “It is said by political commentators that Mr. Wallace made a bad showing because he got few votes. What they neglect is that Mr. Wallace succeeding having his ideas adopted, except in the field of foreign affairs. From the time that Mr. Wallace announced he would run for President, Mr. Truman began to suck the wind from Mr. Wallace’s sails by coming out for more and more of the Wallace domestic program.” But on the issues most central to the Wallace campaign, which would change the way the United States operated in the world, American voters backed the candidate who had driven the nation down the path of empire, nuclear arms race, and global confrontation. It was a sad final chapter to a storied political career by a man who never fit the mold of U.S. politicians but who espoused a moral vision of the role an enlightened United States could play in the world.
In a top secret 1948 memo, George Kennan outlined the dilemma facing U.S. policy makers, making clear why Wallace’s alternatives were dismissed with such contempt:
We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 of its population…we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreamings. … We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization…we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Successful resolution of the Berlin crisis and the establishment of NATO in 1949 temporarily raised Westerners’ spirits, but two colossal setbacks reversed that momentum. First, the Chinese Communist Party, under Mao Zedong, routed Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang and seized power in the world’s largest and most populous nation. The New York Times described the Communist victory as “a vast tragedy of unforeseeable consequences for the Western World.” And by the end of the year the Times concluded, “the developments in China represent a startling defeat for the traditional Far-Eastern policy of the United States and an equally startling victory for Soviet Russia.
Losing the world’s most populous nation to communism represented such a reversal of fortune that some saw it as the beginning of the end for U.S. efforts in Asia. Major General Claire Chennault, the former head of the Flying Tigers, predicted a “third and more horrible world war…if the United states permits Communism to conquer China.” “We will make a billion enemies.” Chinese leaders feared U.S. military action. Republicans blamed Truman for “losing” China and demanded stronger support for Jiang.
Though the American public was caught off guard, top U.S. officials had long anticipated a Communist victory due more to Jiang’s incompetence and corruption than to Mao’s brilliance. As Truman noted, “We picked a bad horse.” Jiang’s administration, he said, “was one of the most corrupt and inefficient that ever made an attempt to govern a country.” Jiang was sent scurrying to set up shop in Taiwan, where U.S. officials expected a Communist takeover within a year. More concerned about their own immediate security than world revolution, the Soviets had provided little assistance and less encouragement to the Chinese Communists. Even though Mao and Stalin formed an alliance in February 1950, the Soviets urged Chinese Communist leaders to maintain cordial relations with the United States, and trade between the two nations continued for several months. But China’s commitment to revolutionary change and U.S. refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the new government doomed any efforts at rapprochement.
On September 23, 1949, President Truman shocked the nation: “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” Most scientists had anticipated this and took the news in stride. In early 1946, the Los Angeles Times cited testimony from the chemist Harold Urey and other scientists that the Soviets would have a bomb within five years to discredit Groves’ assertion that it would take the Soviets another twenty. Experts had long recognized that the challenge was an engineering one, not a scientific one. The Times accused Groves of “consign[ing] the American people to a fool’s paradise” by promoting the fanciful notion that the United States had a “secret” worth preserving and wisely urged U.S. authorities to use “their five years of grace – not by piling up atom bombs and behaving like a dog in the manger, but for constructive statesmanship,” a view widely shared by the scientists. By 1948, J. Robert Oppenheimer told Time magazine, “Our atomic monopoly is like a cake of ice melting in the sun.” The air force had also just predicted that the Soviets would not test for years. Truman, who had earlier told Oppenheimer that the Soviets would never develop a bomb, initially disbelieved the reports of the Soviet test and then credited German scientists working in the Soviet Union.
Soviet scientists breathed a huge sigh of relief. Physicist Yuli Khariton commented, “In possessing such a weapon, we had removed the possibility of its being used against the USSR with impunity.” The bomb, he felt, allowed “Our country…to defend itself from really threatening mortal danger.” Physicist Igor Golovin wrote their sleepless night and herculean efforts had been worth it because “they had knocked the trump card from the hands of the American atomic diplomats.”
American’s felt more vulnerable than ever. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock from seven minutes to midnight to three minutes. Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas feared that “we may be in the last stage of a great civilization, the final stage before the colossal war and the disintegration of society as we have known it in our lifetime.” The New York Times wondered if “anyone [was] rash enough to say who is winning the cold war?”
On the other hand, some people saw a silver lining. William Laurence thought is reasonable to assume that the Soviets could produce a bomb per week and would, in one year, have fifty bombs capable of destroying fifty U.S. cities containing 40 million people. But he also thought that the Soviet Union’s possessing the bomb might yield the long-awaited agreement for international control because bargaining between equals was much more productive than bargaining between two decidedly unequal powers. Once again, hotter heads prevailed. Additional money poured into nuclear research and expanding the U.S. arsenal. Senator Brien McMahon, chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, told David Lilienthal that the United States now had to “blow [the Soviets] off the face of the earth” and quickly.
James Forrestal did not live to see what for him would have been a thoroughly nightmarish development. The details of his death are still murky. For years, Forrestal had been as fierce an anti-Communist as strode the corridors of the nation’s capital. His views has helped shape the poisonous climate in Washington in which the Truman administration repeatedly attributed the most damning motives to Soviet actions. Yet he had been on the losing end of several policy battles with Truman, including recognition of Israel, military versus civilian control of atomic bombs, defense spending, strengthening the German cartels, and arming Latin American countries. In October 1948, when Truman’s prospects for reelection looked bleak, newspapers reported that Forrestal had reached out to Dewey, expressing his interest in remaining in the cabinet when Dewey became president.
All of that boded poorly for his relationship with Truman. On March 1, Truman asked for his resignation, leaving him “shattered.” He officially retired on March 28, 1949. The following day an aide found him sitting at his desk, staring at the wall. He was sent to Hobe Sound, Florida, to be with his wife, who was visiting recently retired Undersecretary of State, Robert Lovett. “Bob, they’re after me,” he told Lovett upon his arrival. Whether “they” referred to the Jews and “Zionist agents” he believed were trailing him, or the Communists, was never specified. On April 2, the navy flew Forrestal from Florida to the District of Columbia, where he was admitted into the Bethesda Naval Hospital, reportedly suffering from a “nervous breakdown.’ Drew Pearson informed his radio audience that Forrestal was “out of his mind” after Forrestal was discovered in the streets wearing his pajamas and shouting “The Russians are coming!” He believed that the Russians had invaded the United States. Pearson later reported that during his brief stay in Florida, Forrestal had attempted suicide four times by hanging, slashing his wrists, and taking sleeping pills.
Communist countries milked the story of the Soviet-phobic Forrestal’s mental travails for all it was worth. Washington Post columnist Marquis Childs described a five-column-wide May Day cartoon in Pravda with the caption ‘Club Aggressors.’ The cartoon showed Forrestal in a strait-jacket lecturing to Winston Churchill, John Foster Dulles, and others…a hospital orderly restrains Forrestal who crouches on all four on a pedestal. An accompanying verse says that not the strait-jacket but the will of those who do not want war is preventing Forrestal’s freedom of action.” The Polish Communist paper Tryhbuna Ludu reported, “Insanity. Diagnosis: persecution mania. Patient: James Forrestal, Minister of War of the United States, who resigned his post two weeks ago. Symptoms: a few days ago upon hearing the siren of a fire truck passing his house, the patient rushed into the street in his underwear shouting, ‘The Russians are invading the city!’ The doctors declared that the patient had long been suffering from psychic disturbances, even when he was still fulfilling his official functions.” The Polish paper cited Pearson’s revelation that Truman had ordered a review of all of Forrestal’s recent reports, recommendations, and decisions, wanting to ascertain “whether Mr. Forrestal went mad under the pressure of cold-war propaganda, which he himself had carried on for years, or…whether all that propaganda was the consequence of the insanity which had seized Mr. Forrestal a long time ago.”
Trying to downplay the seriousness of his condition, hospital officials placed him on the sixteenth floor instead of the first-floor mental ward to avoid suspicion. Alone in his room, he suffered constant nightmares. He thought he would suffer the same fate as Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk – to be pushed out of a window. But his condition began to improve, and on the night of May 22, 1949, he stayed up late copying Sophocles’ “The Chorus from Ajax,” in which the hero ponders his fate far from home. At the word “nightingale” he put his pen down and jumped.
And in a bizarre, though oddly revealing, turn of events, the man who oversaw contact with Nightingale as well as a plethora of other covert operations, Frank Wisner, would himself become infected with paranoia and psychosis. In 1965, after repeated institutionalizations and sustained electroshock therapy, Wisner blasted his head off with a shotgun.
On January 1, 1950, the world happily bade farewell to the 1940s. For the United States, the decade ended on a bitter note with the Communist triumph in China and the first Soviet atomic bomb test. Despite the immensity of U.S. power, the United States felt besieged by enemies at home and abroad. The optimism that had reigned just years earlier with the end of the war had given way to a new sense of fear and anxiety.
Next, Chapter 6 - EISENHOWER: A Not So Pretty Picture