Saturday, December 15, 2007

Was the Cold War Truman's Fault?

Last Sunday School class dealt with the chapter in Jim Juhnke's book, "The Missing Peace", on the cold war. Jim blames Truman and "his hard-line Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes" for creating the sort of cold war hysteria which we baby-boomers lived through in the 1950's.

Jim calls Truman "a politician uninformed and inexperienced in international affairs". He suggests that if Roosevelt had kept Wallace on the ticket in 1944, instead of dumping him for Truman, Wallace would then have become President instead of Truman, and "might have spared the world some forty years of cold war".

Jim's one sentence describing how Truman was selected in 1944 instead of Wallace is: "Roosevelt allowed conservative Democrats of the anti-civil rights South and the urban machines to dump Wallace for Truman". This did not ring true with my own recollection of the process, as described by Jim Bishop in his wonderful book, "FDR's Last Year", so I went back and reread that chapter in Bishop's book.

Bishop describes how FDR announced he would run again on 7/11/44, and shortly thereafter he met with his advisers to discuss who would be his running mate. Various names were mentioned and then shot down, with Wallace's name being scarcely mentioned at all. Bishop writes that "it was obvious that Mr. Roosevelt was too tired to start another battle for his personal preference, as he had in 1940."

The upshot of the meeting was that Roosevelt would be happy with either Truman or Bill Douglas as a running mate. Robert Hannegan, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, asked FDR for a note to that effect, and Roosevelt wrote: "You have written me about Bill Douglas or Harry Truman. I should, of course, be happy to run with either of them and believe that either of them would bring real strength to the ticket." The next day Hannegan had FDR's secretary type the note, except he asked that it read "Truman or Douglas" rather than "Douglas or Truman", making it look like FDR preferred Truman.

Truman, who had pledged his own support to James F. Brynes, was not told until the Sunday before the convention that his name was to be placed in nomination. The convention delegates preferred Wallace, and on the first ballot Wallace led 429 to 319 over Truman, with favorite sons receiving the other 400 votes. On the second roll call vote the state delegations one by one started switching to Truman, and he prevailed 1031-105.

This, then, is the detailed account of how Truman got selected. The people in the room with FDR when this was discussed were his political advisers, and I see no evidence that they were stacked in favor of Southerners or urban machine politicians. These were people FDR had selected to advise him and to hold the top spots in the party machinery.

FDR himself had written that if her were a delegate, he would vote for Wallace. However, he also made it clear that he did not want to influence the delegates one way or the other. Hence his rather mild endorsement of Truman and Douglas.

The real "what if" question is what if FDR had not run in 1944? Bishop's book makes it clear that FDR was way too sick in 1944 to undertake another 4-year term. He was given complete physical exams by his doctors every morning and every evening, and was constantly being told to get more rest, even though he was already spending most of each day in bed. A better man would have stepped aside at that point, but this after all is the same man who refused to support Upton Sinclair in his run for California governor in 1934, who refused to let the boatload of Jews into the country and sent them back to Europe, where most of them perished in the Holocaust, who refused to desegregate the armed forces, who put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during the war, and who refused to tell Truman about the atomic bomb project.


The other part of Juhnke's chapter which interested me is his citing of George F. Kennan as somene who should have been listened to in the aftermath of WW2. I had always thought of Kennan as a hard-liner, but Juhnke presents a different view. He was indeed one of the architects of the post-war policy of "containment", but he soon started taking issue with how that policy was being carried out. His concern had been the *political* expansion of Stalinist communism, not the *military* expansion.

Kennan's Wikipedia biography depicts a long life of constructive criticism of US foreign policy. His famous 1946 "long telegram" discussing US-Soviet relations suggested that the solution was "to strengthen Western institutions in order to render them invulnerable to the Soviet challenge while awaiting the eventual mellowing of the Soviet regime". The hard-liners in the Truman administration, and Truman himself, used this to advocate for a military solution. It is interesting in hindsight to note that the "eventual mellowing" Kennan mentioned did in fact ultimately occur.

Kennan served the govenrment intermittently untl 1963, when he retired to academia. During the '60's he criticized US invovlment in Indochina. In 2002, at age 98, he criticized US involvement in Iraq, saying: "Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before... In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end." Again, he hit the nail right on the head, as the last 5 years of our misadventure in Iraq have made clear.

Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101, survivied by his wife of 74 years. His daughter Grace remarked that "It was his enormous curiosity that kept him alive so long. He had an enormous interest in the world, and I remember, even toward the end, he would get so angry at the paper, angry at the TV."

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