Reassessing Harry Truman’s Statesmanship: From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism

Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, Claremont McKenna College
September 23, 2006

The Cold War was the global conflict that dominated the twentieth century, and the strategy of containment was the U.S. response to the political, military, economic, and moral challenge posed by the Soviet Union. While surrounding himself with “wise men” such as George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George F. Kennan, President Harry Truman was central to the new strategy and thus the subsequent remaking of both liberal internationalism and American foreign policy. How important was Truman in the critical period between 1945 and 1950? Was he the architect of containment or merely its administrator? What parts did top advisors play? What were the chief principles and policies of containment? Drawing on presidential archives and other primary sources, Elizabeth Edwards Spalding will illuminate Truman’s understanding of foreign policy and his role in the Cold War and the strategy of containment, and consider the Truman legacy in the post-Cold War world and the war on terrorism.

Elizabeth Edwards Spalding is Assistant Professor of Government and Director of the Washington Program at Claremont McKenna College, where she teaches U.S. foreign policy and American government. The author of The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism (University Press of Kentucky, 2006), she has contributed to several volumes on the presidency and U.S. foreign policy and written for the Wilson Quarterly, Comparative Political Studies, Presidential Studies Quarterly, the Claremont Review of Books, and The Weekly Standard.

Session One

Focus: After Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry Truman was suddenly president. Many at the time considered him simplistic and unprepared, especially when it came to foreign policy, and had little hope that Truman could both win World War II and begin building a peaceful, prosperous postwar world. Truman’s presidency quickly became defined by the Cold War, and again few thought he could meet the challenge. Truman went on to become our first cold warrior, and his approach underlay bipartisan foreign policy throughout the East-West conflict. In this session, we will explore Truman’s understanding and framing of the Cold War and examine the main foreign policies of the first years of his presidency. How did Truman build on and depart from the liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson and FDR? What specifically distinguishes Truman’s liberal internationalism? What were the core principles and goals embodied in the building blocks of containment: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO? In what ways did Truman’s thought and goals remain constant and develop over time?


Session Two

Focus: Although the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO were necessary to counter the Soviets in the Cold War, the president realized that they were insufficient to support America’s unprecedented commitment in world affairs and to “frustrate the Kremlin design” in the long run. Truman reorganized and created new institutions in the U.S. government——from the Department of Defense and the National Security Council to the CIA and the “freedom radios”——as part of the grand strategy of containment; of the many Cold War policies that flowed from these institutions, special attention must be paid to NSC 68. As well, Truman firmly joined a moral component——expressed in his religious faith and his dedicated anticommunism——to the political, military, and economic elements of containment. What was the meaning of national security under President Truman? How did the new institutions of national security contribute to and secure the building blocks of containment? In what ways did Truman’s faith and political philosophy influence his understanding of the Cold War and the strategy of containment? How can Truman’s approach be considered a model for current U.S. foreign policy?


Get Email Updates is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)