The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism

By Elizabeth Edwards Spalding | Go to book overview

Introduction

I suppose that history will remember my term in office as the years when the ‘cold war’ began to overshadow our lives,” Harry S. Truman speculated in his presidential farewell address of January 1953. “I have had hardly a day in office that has not been dominated by this all-embracing struggle—this conflict between those who love freedom and those who would lead the world back into slavery and darkness. And always in the background there has been the atomic bomb.”

From the moment he became president of the United States in April 1945, Truman made hard decisions under acutely trying circumstances, steering the United States between what he saw as the shoals and reefs of military conflict with the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and acquiescence to Communist ideology, on the other. “But when history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the cold war, it will also say that in those eight years we have set the course that can win it,” Truman continued. “We have succeeded in carving out a new set of policies to attain peace—positive policies, policies of world leadership, policies that express faith in other free people. We have averted World War III up to now, and we may already have succeeded in establishing conditions which can keep that war from happening as far ahead as man can see.”1 These policies— notably, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—and the geopolitical conditions they created made up what is called the strategy of containment.

It is often said that George F. Kennan—author of the Long Telegram in 1946 and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” better known as the X article that appeared anonymously in Foreign Affairs in 1947—was the father of containment. “In these circumstances it is clear,” he wrote in the latter work, “that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”2 Yet while Kennan was a key intellectual figure of the post–World War II era, and contributed significantly to U.S. foreign policy in the 1940s, it was, in the end,

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