Few presidencies have been as uniformly dominated by foreign affairs as Truman’s but that’s expected when assuming office during history’s largest war and the birth of a new global order. He oversaw the final weeks of the European war and Nazi Germany’s surrender. He then became the only leader in world history to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in warfare, the main reason for Japan’s surrender. At the time, estimates for expected American casualties from invading Japan were around 30,000, but subsequent estimates have surpassed one million, plus over ten million Japanese. I’m not going to rehash the debate over dropping the bomb in this post, but I will say that I’m convinced Truman was more focused on defeating Japan than sending a message to Stalin, as some critics claim. The more interesting point is whether Truman knew the second bomb was going to be dropped on Nagasaki until after it happened. My reading suggests that he did not and that this was why he established the presidential monopoly on authorizing the use of nuclear weapons.
Woodrow Wilson articulated the Liberal World Order and FDR designed it but Truman implemented it. He established the United Nations in June 1945, committing the world to preventing anything like World War II and the Holocaust from ever happening again. The UN hasn’t always lived up to its founders’ hopes, but it remains the centerpiece of international liberalism and humanity’s quest for peace. He also insisted the top German and Japanese leaders be tried for the crimes, leading to the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. This established humanity’s definition of evil and modern international criminal law.
Truman’s policies toward Europe are one of the five greatest achievements of any President. He put former President Hoover in charge of distributing food across the continent in 1945, saving an estimated 100 million lives. Two years later, the Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe into an important democratic block and NATO bound it and the US into the world’s most important alliance.
Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and commitment to spreading communism led to Truman setting containment as the US’ main foreign policy goal under the Truman Doctrine. There are many critiques that could be made of how the US waged the Cold War, but ultimately, Truman’s framework saved the world from both Soviet world hegemony and World War III. He also supported Israel’s creation, helped push the 1947 partition plan through the UN, and made the US the first country to recognize Israel’s existence (overruling Secretary of State George Marshall’s advice). This is either good or bad depending on one’s views on that conflict.
With all of these accomplishments, you might wonder why he’s only number five on this list. Let’s look at some of his missteps.
Most historians don’t blame Truman for Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War, and that’s probably fair, though it should be noted that Eisenhower did think his mentor, George Marshall, bore some responsibility for suggesting Chiang Kai Shek bring some communists into his government. Either way, China’s fall expanded communism into East Asia and helped ignite the McCarthy era in America.
Truman was right to rescue South Korea from the North’s invasion with a UN coalition. Unfortunately he didn’t stop there, authorizing MacArthur to go north of the 38th Parallel and unify the Peninsula under the West’s influence. This provoked Chinese intervention, leading to a stalemate that cost 30,000 American lives only five years after vanquishing the Axis. Truman properly sacked MacArthur (and his own popularity) when the general publicly called for using nuclear weapons, but it was Truman’s initial authorization that led to the stalemate and his receiving the lowest approval rating in presidential history.
Worst of all was his approval of NSC 68, a document that predicted the Soviets would dominate Eurasia and strike the US with nuclear weapons by 1954 and set US defense spending to WWII levels on a permanent basis. Truman authorized the document after the Korean War began, quadrupling defense spending and increasing inflation. NSC 68 was the culmination of Truman’s foreign policy and it wasn't financially sustainable, meaning the US would have to either forfeit the Cold War or combat the Soviet Union by the end of the 1950s. I think this holds Truman back from the Rushmore of foreign policy Presidents, while the President who made containment a durable strategy remains higher on the list.