The headline is purposefully provocative. How could Truman, who came on the scene after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, have started the Vietnam War of two decades later? He didn’t, of course, but the case could be made, and was made in my thesis, that Truman instituted a policy shift towards Indochina which set the groundwork for what was to come. Here’s a snippet of my introduction on the topic.
Harry S. Truman, Vice-President and former Senator from Missouri, assumed the office of the Presidency on April 12, 1945 after the death of the longest serving U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman immediately found himself in charge of a nation embroiled in the most all-encompassing war in human history. Unprecedented in scope and in challenge, President Truman faced the ravages of war waning in Europe but with the likelihood of a long and costly affair in the Pacific Theater against Japan. The Truman administration was charged with the task of managing war reparations, checking Communist advances, attacking an entrenched Japanese army, and balancing fragile relations with Britain and France. This would have been enough of a challenge for a seasoned leader like Roosevelt, but for the inexperienced Truman, it was truly daunting.
Truman had served as Vice President for only a matter of weeks before Roosevelt’s death. His senatorial background gave him limited experience in the realm of foreign affairs, and Roosevelt did not include the new V.P. in important matters of state during the nascent hours of FDR’s fourth term. In fact, Truman had been excluded from most executive branch conferences on foreign policy, leaving him to gleam his knowledge of world events mostly from reading newspapers and listening to Capitol Hill chatter (Donovan xiv). When he became president, Truman did not know about the Manhattan Project (Bradley 103), and had not been informed of what Roosevelt had said at the meetings in Tehran and Yalta earlier in the year (Donovan 10). He entered the Presidency as a neophyte in foreign policy with no experience in the art of negotiating (Donovan 10), and he brought with him a new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who also had little foreign policy training (Donovan 17). This lack of experience, coupled with Roosevelt’s confusing and often contradictory foreign policy, presented Truman with great challenges as his administration tried to bring closure to two wars while balancing world peace.
Not surprisingly, Truman said very little publicly about foreign policy over the first few months of his presidency, but a closer look at the actions of the executive branch in the early days of his administration reveals a clear shift in foreign policy which favored an understandably strong commitment toward France and Britain as tensions heightened with the Soviets over the make-up of post-war Europe (Lucas 13). In July 1945, the discord over Poland unraveled the trust between the two war-time allies and put Warsaw firmly under control of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Donovan 57). This undoubtedly gave Britain, France, and the U.S. a great deal of apprehension concerning the Soviet Union’s long-term plans. The U.S. viewed the Soviets in purely ideological terms, thinking that worldwide Communism was the goal (Lucas 13). By the end of 1945, most American policy experts viewed Soviet aggression as the greatest threat to world security, and they saw the Soviets emerging as the dominant power in Asia (Buhite and Hamel 370). Because of this, Truman’s focus on repairing European alliances in the summer of 1945 made a lot of sense; however, this European-focused foreign policy shift would have grave consequences for the peoples of Indochina.