The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were two superpowers with significantly different views that arose after World War II (WWII). The USA and the USSR were allies during World War II, but their differing opinions on the world order and a sense of mutual threat led to the Cold War. Harry Truman became President of America at the end of WWII, and during his term, he went through several wars and post-war reconstruction.
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Fearing a threat from the Soviet Union, the president initiated the Truman Doctrine, which led to the Containment Policy’s formation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) foundation. Although Truman’s popularity fell significantly during the presidency, he had influential achievements in the international arena in opposition to the Soviet Union, and currently, he is considered one of the greatest politicians.
America’s Image on the World Stage after World War II
In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were the World War II final chord and the beginning of a new era in human history. The victory was seen as the triumph of democratic and peace-loving countries, and the war instigators as an evil that can be blamed for all troubles. Moreover, the war’s end meant hope for a new world order based on the Atlantic Charter, where organizations such as the United Nations (UN) could prevent war recurrence. The hope was based on the fact that large world states would be able to act in concert for the sake of common interests. However, in the triumph of peace-loving democratic states, their leaders, including Truman, did not worry that their victory would be impossible without the dictatorship – of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, World War II completed turning the United States into a financial, economic, political, and military leader. Economic primacy, military power, and nuclear weapons have led to claims to world leadership. The atomic bomb was an essential argument of the United States in influencing European and Asian countries and relations with the USSR. In turn, the Soviet Union also wanted to spread its influence and supported socialist governments in Central and South-Eastern Europe on their way to power.
As a result, the countries of Europe were divided into areas of American and Soviet interests, and notably, Germany and even its capital Berlin were split. British Prime Minister Churchill called the border between socialist and non-communist countries Iron Curtain, which interferes with the peaceful world order. The speech in which he used this phrase marks the beginning of the Cold War and the confrontation of the superpowers over spheres of influence.
In addition to the spread of communism, several more factors influenced the vision of the USSR as an enemy. In the United States, Republicans were looking for a reason to criticize the Democrats, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) conducted publicly covered investigations to find people engaged in subversive communist activities. To protect against Republicans’ attacks, Truman led a program to review the loyalty of federal employees. Many officials were fired, and even Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, members of the Communist Party, were executed. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s search for spies and traitors was so intense that it went down in history as McCarthyism. Moreover, the Soviet Union could develop its nuclear weapons, reinforcing fears of an impending attack. Such actions created a feeling of a close presence of the threat and led to panic and anxiety.
To counter the spread of the Soviet Union’s influence, Truman began to pursue a Containment Policy. It started with the Truman Doctrine, proclaimed in 1947, which aimed to prevent the imposition of totalitarian regimes on various countries and support democratic countries. It provided cash assistance to Turkey and Greece to recover after WWII in return for loyalty. The president feared that if the USSR’s influence extended to Greece and Turkey, it would move to Italy and France, capture all of Europe, and impact East Asia1. However, Offner2 notes that the concerns were not sufficiently justified since Stalin did not express claims to these countries recognizing the influence of the United States in them. Despite the financial assistance provided, the doctrine was more political, as it proclaimed the ideological base of US actions in the international arena.
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In 1947, the Truman Doctrine led to the European Recovery Plan (ERP), also known as the Marshall Plan. It involved providing economic assistance to European countries for post-WWII recovery. Traditionally, scientists consider it a manifestation of humanism and an intelligent move in maintaining the interests of America3. As an essential step in foreign policy, the main task of the Marshall Plan was to strengthen the European states to counter the danger posed by the Soviet Union. It was successful, promoting trade between America and Europe and helping to restore France and West Germany. However, historians rethinking Truman’s activities emphasize that the Plan’s costs were high and success was limited. For example, the Plan exacerbated injustices by financing the rich and served American military plans more than economic interests4. These features exacerbated the confrontation with the Soviet Union, forcing the last to take additional measures.
The Marshall Plan has had unexpected long-term consequences intensifying Cold War tensions. The USSR interpreted Plan as a seizure of Europe and changed their strategy, supporting the coup in Czechoslovakia5. Truman perceived the Soviet Union as a new threat similar to Nazi Germany and attributed responsibility for the Cold War to Stalin. Institutions such as Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), National Security Council (NSC), and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were created under Truman’s leadership to strengthen the country’s security and make quick military decisions6. European countries shared the fears of the United States, which marked the beginning of the creation of a powerful military alliance.
Today, NATO is still an influential intergovernmental military organization for the mutual protection of the member states. Its foundation was provoked by suspicions that the Soviet Union, following the example of Nazi Germany, would take action to conquer other countries7. The rapid spread of communist influence significantly supported these suspicions. European states wanting to protect themselves have created a mutual protection treaty. Later, the secret Anglo-American negotiations at the Pentagon were held, and the United States joined the treaty, which led to the creation of NATO.
The confrontation of superpowers had various influences on world states, and in some of them, serious conflicts arose. According to Koenig8, the three most active points where the Containment Policy manifested itself were Greece, Berlin, and Korea, and only the latter was unsuccessful. At the same time, Korea was recognized as the key to peace and the establishment of influence in the Far East9. Before the end of WWII, when Japan’s loss became predictable, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula into spheres of influence along the 38th parallel. This solution was supposed to be temporary, but disagreements between the countries did not allow them to find a compromise and unite.
At the same time, in both parts of the divided peninsula, militaristic sentiments and the desire for unification of the country grew. Each side did not recognize the other and had a contrasting view of power. As a result, when the superpowers left the Korean Peninsula, representatives of the communist North crossed the parallel and attacked the South on June 24, 195010. The United States and the USSR, in turn, began to support the opposite sides – America – South and the Russian – North. Simultaneously, the United States acted through the UN, appealing to the duties of world states, which they accepted under the charter of the organization11. The conflict lasted until 1953 and resulted in numerous casualties, but its end was never officially announced.
Historians’ views on US actions in Korea are also different. From a traditional perspective, this conflict was a side effect of the fight against the Soviet Union, when the latter could not achieve influence on Europe and moved its efforts to Asia. Moreover, some historians consider it proof of the USSR’s claims to world domination and the protection of the United States from them12. Revisionists, in turn, are not sure that the motives of the Russians and Americans were so strict. They believe that the Soviet Union did not provoke a conflict but supported the North to reduce the Chinese Communists’ influence and US efforts to create a Pacific alliance with Japan. For America, in turn, the conflict was the reason for expanding the Truman doctrine and its impact. Moreover, Korea helped strengthen American influence in Indochina and create new airbases13. In this way, America has achieved a presence in many parts of the world.
At the end of WWII, relations between America and the USSR deteriorated with the division of areas of influence in Europe. The atomic bomb created in the United States significantly increased its power in the international arena and supported the desire for world leadership. However, the Soviet Union had a different view of the world order and ideology, which manifested in the spread of communist influence on world states. Since 1947, Truman had promoted a Containment Policy – measures the goal of limiting the spread of communism. As part of this policy, Turkey and Greece support America in return for financial assistance.
A little later, Truman signs the Marshall Plan, which involves funding European countries to rebuild them after WWII and, in this way, to ensure significant influence in countries. Moreover, thanks to Truman, NATO began its activities to protect lands against communists. However, the president’s foreign policy is also criticized by some historians. In particular, the war in Korea, which did not achieve the goal of stopping the influence of the communists, was one of the controversial actions. It had further reduced the president’s popularity among Americans, although, at the moment, he is seen as a great leader.
Brinkley, Alan, John Giggie, and Andrew Huebner. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016.
“George M. Elsey Oral History Interview, 1970.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Web.
Graebner, Norman. “The Truman Administration and the Cold War.” Current History 35, no. 206 (1958): 223-228. Web.
Griffith, Robert. “Truman and the Historians: The Reconstruction of Postwar AmericanHistory.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 59, no. 1 (1975): 20-47. Web.
“Harry S. Truman to General William Donovan with Related Material, 194 Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Web.
Koenig, Louis W. “Truman’s Global Leadership.” Current History 39, no. 230 (1960): 225-229. Web.
Offner, Arnold A. ““Another Such Victory”: President Truman, American Foreign Policy, and the Cold War.” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999): 127-155. Web.
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“Remarks by Dean Acheson Before the National Press Club.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Web.
- Robert Griffith, “Truman and the Historians: The Reconstruction of Postwar American History.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 59, no. 1 (1975): 22. Web.
- Offner, ““Another Such Victory”: President Truman, American Foreign Policy, and the Cold War,” 139.
- Griffith, “Truman and the Historians: The Reconstruction of Postwar American History,” 26.
- Griffith, 27.
- Offner, 141.
- Griffith, 29.
- Offner, 141.
- Koenig, “Truman’s Global Leadership,” 227.
- “Harry S. Truman to General William Donovan with Related Material, 1945.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Web.
- Brinkley, Giggie, and Huebner,The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, 669.
- “Remarks by Dean Acheson Before the National Press Club.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Web.
- Griffith, 31.
- Griffith, 31.