Truman and the Cold War: A Mock Q & A Session in a classroom
Truman & The Cold War
The Cold War Drama Within America – An Imaginary Q & A Session with President Truman in 2009 in a high school classroom – by Michael M. Nakade (Key information mentioned in this work came from the Teaching Company’s three different Lecture Series: 1) The History of Modern American Presidency: Lecture Five, The Korean Conflict and McCarthy by Bruce Kuklick, 2) The History of the United States Part VI: Liberalism and the Cold War by James Shenton, and 3) The American Identity: Lecture Forty, Douglas MacArthur – The World-Power Warrior by Patrick N. Allit.
Moderator: We’re honored to have President Truman here today. Our students are eager to fire away all kinds of questions. Mr. Truman, thank you for your time.
Truman: You’re welcome. I understand that today’s Q & A session’s topic is limited to my second term office. We’ll talk about the beginning of the Cold War and several dramas that followed in America during that time.
Student #1: Mr. Truman. I always wonder why the Cold War with the Soviet Union began right after the end of World War II. Isn’t it a bit strange to start a brand new conflict with a former ally, the Soviets just as soon as the War was over?
Truman: If we lived in the perfect world, we would have had peace at the end of World War II. The biggest trouble was that the Soviet Union was not keeping their words. Mr. Roosevelt had met Mr. Stalin of the Soviet Union before the end of World War II in Yalta, and they had both agreed that there would be a free election in Eastern Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Well, Mr. Stalin flat out refused the free election and set up puppet Communists regimes all over Eastern Europe. He was more interested in the expansion of communism in Europe than working with us to build a peaceful Europe and the rest of the world. Right from the start, I couldn’t trust him.
Student #2: Did you think about starting World War III then?
Truman: No, not at all. I read the long telegram by George Kennan, the ambassador to the Soviet Union in February 1946 and felt that working together with Communist Russia would be difficult at best. I agreed with Kennan’s suggestion that the United States would need to contain Communism to where it existed only. I was never going to set the U.S. on a mission to wipe out the Communists altogether from the face of this earth through the American military might. My policy, or the Truman Doctrine, was not to allow communism to spread out. Trying to wipe them out meant the start of World War III, and it was never my intention.
Student #3: How did the containment policy work for the United Stated?
Truman: At the onset, I had asked the Congress to help out Greece and Turkey. We sent them money. Then, in 1947, George Marshall, my Secretary of State, came up with a plan to rebuild war ravaged Europe’s economy. Initially, did you know that America invited the Soviets to join the rebuilding program? Well, they declined, and so did their Eastern European cronies. Anyway, the containment policy worked well, as far as Europe was concerned. We were able to stop the spread of Communism. But the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union became intensified after the Berlin blockade in 1948.
Student #4: How did the American people react to the situation in China and Korea? The containment didn’t work as well in Asia, correct?
Truman: The fall of China to Communism in October 1949 was a big blow. And, there was the Alger Hiss case. This man, Hiss, worked for the State Department and was accused of being a Soviet Spy. In the trial, he was found guilty of perjury and went to a prison. Two Republican congressmen took advantage of the situation and promoted themselves. One is Richard Nixon, who later became the president of the United States, and the other is Joseph McCarthy. They both succeeded in elevating the fear of communism to the forefront of American life. I was put on the defensive as a result. It was against this background that Communist North Korea invaded Free South Korea in June of 1950. I had no choice but to go to a war in Korea. My administration’s credibility was at stake. And, like I said, my policy goal was to contain Communism. I wasn’t going to let the North Koreans come down to the South and spread communism like a wild fire.
Student #5: I am aware that the Korean War produced a lot of dramas at that time, Mr. Truman. It must have been a very difficult time for you. How was it back then for you?
Truman: History is really funny. Today, the Korean War is called The Forgotten War. When it was going on in the early 1950s, it was on everyone’s mind. I don’t ever regret sending the American troops there because we stopped the Communist North’s naked aggression. But, boy, the drama that Gen. Douglas MacArthur brought on was a major headache.
Student #6: You fired him, right? How did you come to that decision? Everyone must have been stunned, including MacArthur himself.
Truman: I heard about MacArthur’s huge ego, and it was unfortunate that I had to give him the job of leading the war in Korea in 1950. He was then a military governor of defeated Japan, and it was natural for my administration to give the position of Supreme Commander to him. At the beginning, it turned out to be a great appointment. He came up with this Inchon Landing plan, and it achieved a spectacular success. His plan literally saved South Korea from a complete and total defeat. I must give him that much. But, he got carried away. I had to do what was constitutionally right. He had to be fired.
Student #7: Like how? Did he stop listening to you?
Truman: He started doing things behind my back, and it was undermining my administration’s policy goals in Korea. I had to wonder who he thought he was. He must have thought that he could set his own policy goals for the United States because he led the successful Inchon Landing operation.
Student #8: So, Mr. Truman, you two had a difference of an opinion. Will you tell us about it?
Truman: Sure. It was a major difference. He and I had a face-to-face meeting on a remote island in the Pacific called Wake Island in October 1950. I wanted the war to end quickly. I would have been satisfied with the restoration of South Korea to the 38th parallel in the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, the Communist China was warning us that they would come into the side of North Korea if the American troops cross the 38th parallel to chase the retreating North Korean Army. I didn’t need the Chinese to get involved in the Korean War. My question to MacArthur was this: Do you think that the Chinese would follow through with their threat if we keep going up the north? He said: No, I don’t think the Chinese will come into this war. With that, I gave him my okay to chase the retreating North Koreans to finish them off. But, of course, he was wrong about the Chinese. When our troops were getting ready to unite the entire Korean Peninsula, the Chinese crossed the border, the Yalu River, and surprised us. They poured lots of men against our troops. Now, our men were running way in retreating back to the South. It made MacArthur look really bad. He didn’t want to admit that he read the Chinese wrong. So, he began saying things that were totally not acceptable to me. Like, he wanted to bomb key Chinese industrial cities and wanted to blockade major Chinese ports. Worst of all, he wanted to use nuclear weapons against China to conquer the Communist China once and for all. That was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. He proposed all these crazy military ideas so that he could erase his mistake. When I said, no to all of his ideas, then, he began criticizing me.
Student #9: Mr. Truman, but, what MacArthur wanted to do during that time must have sounded good to some people in America, right? I mean, we all hated Communism. Wiping out the Chinese in Asia seemed like a good thing to pursue.
Truman: Maybe up to 25% of Americans thought so at that time. We had our hands full with the Soviet Union in Europe. Fighting the Chinese in Asia was a wrong war against a wrong group, at a wrong place, and at a wrong time. Besides, that was not the original intent of the war in Korea. I got the support of the United Nations when I sent troops to South Korea for the purpose of saving the southern half of free Korea. A full blown war with China was not in the card from the start. MacArthur was completely out of line when he went to a Republican congressman in Washington D.C. to get his plan approved in the Congress. He was interfering with my administration’s efforts to wrap up the war in Korea. His action was that of an insubordination, and I had every constitutional duty in me to get rid of him. So I did in April, 1951. His military career was finished. I then appointed Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, and he got the job done.
Student #10: That must have taken a lot of guts on your part. I imagine that you were criticized by many people in America, especially by Republican supporters.
Truman: Yes, I was, but only for a limited time. I expected a strong knee-jerk reaction from the right wing Republican supporters. A guy like Richard Nixon openly called for my impeachment for an unjustifiable firing of a great military hero. MacArthur got a hero’s welcome, too. In a nutshell, it was all politics. The Republicans wanted to discredit me for anything that they could find. Remember, they had not occupied the White House since 1932. They were desperate to get the White House back. MacArthur, too, had presidential aspiration. But in the end, I had to do what I was required to do as the Nation’s top commander-in-chief. MacArthur was challenging the constitutional mandate of civilian control. I could not let him get away with it regardless of his brilliant military success at Inchon.
Student #11: Mr. Truman, it sounds like the War in Korea had lots of dramas. Then, why was this war later forgotten?
Truman: I can give you three major reasons: 1) War ended exactly how it began. Even though it was a hard war for three years, it changed nothing, in terms of the border of two Koreas. It was a tie. We don’t remember a tie ballgame too well, don’t we? 2) It happened after America’s greatest military victory in World War II. The Korean War was a regional war, and its scale was limited, and 3) it was taking place within the context of the larger Cold War. In other words, the war in Korea was just one of the military conflicts among many. People in America remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War much more vividly. The Korean War was kind of lost in the shuffle.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Truman for telling us your first-hand experiences during the beginning phrase of the Cold War. There’s nothing like the first person account. You lived and worked through some of the toughest periods in America’s foreign relations.
Truman: It’s great that you study history. To tell you the truth, I studied history when I fired MacArthur. I went back to Abraham Lincoln’s firing of Gen. McClellan during the Civil War. History has thousands of actual case studies to look up. In other words, in history, there are lots of precedents for us to study. What I did in my eight years at the White House have been studied, too. Carter studied me and went on the record, saying that I was his role model. Interesting, huh? A more interesting thing is that history sometimes validates figures from the past. When I left the White House, I was literally run out of town. My approval rating was below 20%. But, history restored my reputation. Many historians think that I was one of the best presidents of the 20th century. In history, the evaluation of a person can fluctuate. One more reason that I say history is interesting. Thank you.