Commentary Magazine

Memoirs, by Harry S. Truman. Volume One: Year of Decisions

Candor from the Top
by Henry Bamford Parkes
Memoirs. By Harry S. Truman. Volume One: Year of Decisions. Doubleday. 596 pp. $5.00.

Harry Truman is entitled to a high rank in the roster of American presidents—not, of course, with the half-dozen great figures, but certainly on a level with Monroe or Polk or Cleveland. Once he had fully grasped the meaning of the Soviet threat, he provided effective leadership in a transformation of American foreign policy that was even more fundamental and far-reaching than our abandonment of isolation during the Roosevelt administration. Coming from the border-state region that had produced three 19th-century presidents, he resembled all of them in his combativeness, his outspoken integrity, and his deep-rooted belief in democratic ideals, while he was also capable of displaying some of Jackson’s vindictiveness against personal enemies, some of Polk’s wrong-headed obstinacy, and on a few deplorable occasions the lack of dignity and tact that was the ruin of Andrew Johnson. While he was sometimes stubbornly wrong on minor issues, especially where personal friendships were involved, he could meet major responsibilities boldly and decisively, as was shown by the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, and the Korean war.

These bouquets, however, do not apply to the period of apprenticeship covered in the present volume. Our relations with the Soviet Union are the dominating theme, and the record shows that Mr. Truman accepted all the illusions that had developed during the Roosevelt period and did not fully recognize the realities of Soviet policy until 1946. It would, of course, be unjust to hold him personally to blame for the errors of American policy. Like almost all other Americans in high positions, he was the victim of the misapprehensions that had developed during the war years and had been systematically propagated by the American government and by most of the more responsible media for the shaping of opinion. It is extremely improbable, moreover, that the American public of 1945, so impatient for demobilization and for a return to peacetime luxuries, would have supported its government in any measures involving the risk of a new war. Much credit is due to Mr. Truman for the candor and honesty with which he has presented the record, without looking for alibis or claiming more foresight than he actually displayed. Nevertheless, the chief historical importance of Year of Decisions is in revealing how persistently American policy-makers clung to illusions long after they had been exposed by the actual course of events.



On the day after he assumed the Presidency Mr. Truman received from the State Department a report summarizing American foreign relations. “Since the Yalta Conference,” it declared, “the Soviet Government has taken a firm and uncompromising position on nearly every major question that has arisen in our relations.” The report analyzed the “highly unsatisfactory” Polish situation, which it called “one of our most complex and urgent problems,” described how the Soviet government was violating the Yalta agreement by its “unilateral political interference” in Rumania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and also mentioned Soviet intransigence over the exchange of liberated prisoners and civilians, and over the coming San Francisco conference. Thus the shape of things to come was already clearly visible in Washington. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1945, nevertheless, Mr. Truman’s first objective, as he reiterates half a dozen times, was to make sure of Russian assistance in the war against Japan. “Russia’s entry into the war would mean the saving of hundreds of thousands of American casualties.” We know that some American officials were arguing that since Russia’s self-interest would certainly compel her to enter the war, it was unnecessary to purchase her support with damaging concessions, and that Japan was already so close to surrender that an invasion of her homeland would also be unnecessary. But these questions had apparently been already answered, and answered wrongly, at governmental levels below the White House. Mr. Truman seems to have had no doubts about the wisdom of the policies established during the previous administration.

The ultimate American aim was world peace based on cooperation among the three major powers. Mr. Truman was therefore unsympathetic to Churchill’s appeals for firmness towards the Russians, and supposed that the British were thinking of their own imperial interests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. “Stalin,” he declares, “was always fearful that the British and ourselves would gang up on him. We did not want that. We wanted world peace, and we needed the three powers working together to get it.” He therefore tried “to get Churchill in a frame of mind to forget the old power politics and get the United Nations organized to work.” When Churchill urged that, in view of Soviet violations of the Yalta agreements, the American armies in Europe should no longer limit themselves to the zones of occupation arranged for in 1944, Mr. Truman “could not agree to going back on our commitments.” Both in the spring of 1945 and at the Potsdam conference, moreover, he was unwilling to “become involved in the Balkans in a way that could lead us into another world conflict.” When Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam began to argue about the violation of the Yalta agreements by the Tito government of Yugoslavia, he soon “felt that I had heard enough of this. I told Churchill and Stalin that I had come to the conference as a representative of the United States to discuss world affairs. I did not come there to hold a police court hearing on something that was already settled or which would eventually be settled by the United Nations. If we started that, I said, we would become involved in trying to settle every political difficulty.”



When did Mr. Truman first begin to realize that the difficulties with Stalin were due to more than Russian fears that “the British and ourselves would gang up”? According to his account he became aware during the Potsdam conference that Stalin was “misrepresenting the facts” about the seizure of Germany east of the Oder by the Poles. “I would not stand for it, nor would Churchill. I was of the opinion that the Russians had killed the German population or had chased them into our zones.” Summarizing his impressions of the conference, he declares that Stalin’s opposition to the internationalization of the principal European waterways showed “how his mind worked and what he was after.” “What Stalin wanted was control of the Black Sea straits and the Danube. The Russians were planning world conquest.” This statement, however, sounds like hindsight (in fairness to Mr. Truman, it should be added that this is a unique example). After Potsdam Mr. Truman determined that the Soviets should not be allowed to share in the occupation of Japan, but the first definite proof that his education into the realities of international power politics was approaching completion did not come until January 5 of 1946. On that day he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Byrnes in which he said: “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand—‘how many divisions have you?’ I do not think we should play compromise any longer. We should refuse to recognize Rumania and Bulgaria until they comply with our requirements. . . . We should maintain complete control of Japan and the Pacific. We should rehabilitate China and create a strong central government there. We should do the same for Korea. . . . I’m tired of babying the Soviets.”

Presumably Mr. Truman’s next volume will explain why we accepted illusionary concessions in Rumania and Bulgaria which left those countries still firmly under Communist control; what happened to the program of creating strong central governments in China and Korea; and why it was not until the spring of 1947 that we began to use the “iron fist and strong language” which we should have used in the spring of 1945.

Mr. Truman has always been very conscious of history, and his memoirs have been written not merely in an understandable desire for fair treatment by future historians but also out of a real sense of duty. History will record that he learned the right lessons and will not judge him too harshly for entering office with illusions which he shared with so many of his fellow citizens. In this volume, however, he has been content to state what happened, without attempting to explain why those illusions were so persistent and so widespread. Undoubtedly the functioning of the American government was at fault in that the doubts expressed by those public servants who had the best knowledge of Soviet aims were suppressed before they reached the policy-making levels. But the main cause is to be found in the adolescent psychology of the American people as a whole, with their view of war as a crusade of the forces of light against darkness and their assumption that all people were fundamentally well-meaning and could be made into our friends by displays of generosity and of good will.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

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.