Commentary Magazine


Greatest Foreign Policy President? The Case for Harry Truman

With the presidential debates coming up and foreign policy emerging as an issue in the election, CNN’s Global Public Square blog has asked a panel of historians and writers to weigh in on the following question: “Who was the best foreign policy president?” There are not many surprises–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush appear prominently. (Realists love Herbert Walker, and their votes for him can best be understood as a begrudging acceptance of the success of the Reagan administration he served without having to actually grit their teeth and name him.)

FDR and Reagan are fairly obvious choices, and not bad ones: Nazism and Communism are generally considered the twin evils of the 20th century, and each presided over the defeat of those ideologies. But there is someone else who deserves at least honorable mention, if not a nomination for the top spot himself. For although FDR and Reagan served decades apart, one president played a significant role in the achievements of both men, and whose foreign policy outlook eventually became the consensus: Harry Truman. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine, and it’s worth taking a stroll through his presidency and its legacy.

It’s true that FDR got the U.S. involved in, and then successfully prosecuted, the Second World War, and there’s no reason to diminish that accomplishment. But it’s worth noting that FDR’s dismissal of Poland at Yalta opened the door to the spreading of Soviet influence that was only stemmed by Truman first at Potsdam and then in Greece. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan will probably always be the most famous wartime decision of his presidency. But it was Truman’s resolve to use the bomb immediately upon hearing of its readiness while at Potsdam that stopped him from even considering giving Stalin the foothold in Turkey he wanted in return for Soviet engagement in the Pacific.

While Truman certainly is given most of the credit for the doctrine bearing his name, he is rarely considered the visionary that he was. A certain snobbishness had always greeted Truman in Washington; he was our last president not to have a college degree, and he was always viewed as something of an accidental president. (This is surely unfair to Truman, since the decision to drop Henry Wallace from the final Roosevelt presidential ticket was made with succession in mind. FDR was dying.) Additionally, Truman had the blessing and the curse of being surrounded by what was an all-star team of advisers and diplomats. Many of these men believed that Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes should have been president. Byrnes, who fashioned himself a kind of co-president to the ailing, but still globetrotting, FDR, certainly believed this. As such, Byrnes ran State as if it were the Executive Branch. Truman quickly reasserted his authority, but the underlying conflict sent Byrnes packing soon after.

And George Kennan, author of the famous “long telegram,” is widely credited with the American policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. This credit is an egregious and outstanding overestimation of Kennan’s contribution. He correctly diagnosed the political situation in the Soviet Union and even correctly predicted how it would act, and how and why conflict would arise in the future. He was a pessimist of the highest order, but he was no saber-rattler. Had Kennan been in charge of policy the Truman Doctrine would have been much weaker, and so would have been Truman and the U.S. As Elizabeth Edwards Spalding has shown, the Truman Doctrine’s ideas were Truman’s. Reading Spalding’s account, in fact, it seems that if anyone deserves more credit than he receives, it is (and I can already hear the groans in contempt) the self-styled “wise man of Washington” Clark Clifford.

The following year brought another momentous decision when Truman immediately recognized the new state of Israel. The significance of this recognition by the world’s new democratic major power (and emerging superpower) cannot be understated. As we now know, this decision not only was Truman’s call, but it seems there were scant few who even agreed with it around the president.

It is often noted that the Korean War was unpopular. But the legacy of South Korea speaks for itself. Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur was controversial to say the least; “The Kremlin should give you a 21-gun salute,” a woman from Texas told Truman, according to Stanley Weintraub. But Truman’s decision served to fend off the last serious challenge to civilian control of the military, which thus reasserted by Truman became a prerequisite for democratic governance.

Truman forged a friendship with Winston Churchill and permitted Churchill to speak for the Western world on the evils of Soviet Communism–something Truman was under no obligation to do, since Churchill was no longer prime minister, and something which, as I have written, Truman went out of his way to do.

He oversaw the Marshall Plan for European recovery, the gold standard of foreign aid. And he oversaw the creation of NATO–though of course Dean Acheson (another of Truman’s all-stars) would play an important role in that as well. FDR worked hard to oversee the inauguration of the United Nations, but this week’s UN General Assembly should tell you all you need to know about which multinational organization is still upholding the defense of democracy, and which is undermining it.

None of this is to suggest that Truman didn’t make mistakes, but the crucial and successful implementation of American policy from the last stages of World War II through the early stages of the Cold War were Truman’s. More than half a century later, it’s Truman’s world we’re living in.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.