If Harry Truman had had his way he would have continued being a senator from Missouri instead of presiding over the Senate as Vice President of the United States. One rainy afternoon on April 12 1945, while Truman was gathered with Democratic bigwigs in the Speaker of the House’s office for a drink and some gossip, he received a message to call the White House as soon he could. He made the call and was told told to get to the Executive Mansion as fast as possible. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died in Hot Springs, Georgia. Harry Truman was now the President of the United States. In a few minutes he had gone from the presiding officer of the United States Senate to Commander in Chief of American armed forces worldwide.
Truman would be president for the last four months of World War II. He would be the one who made the decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan to bring the war to a sudden close. To the west of Japan, the Korean peninsula, which had been under control of Japan, was liberated in the north by the Soviet Union and in south by the United States. The Americans and the Russians agreed on the 38th parallel as the border between South Korea and North Korea. Both countries withdrew their troops in 1948, the same year Harry Truman pulled a political upset and beat New York governor Thomas Dewey in a close presidential election. The president wanted to get the United States off the war footing where it had been for the last nine years. He thought it was time for federal government to spend money on the domestic front: housing, schools, etc. After his election, Truman submitted a budget that cut the military expenses by a lot. Most of the defense dollars went to support the American military in Europe, where the Russians had gained control of Eastern Europe and closed the border between East and West Germany (with British, French, and American sectors of occupancy). By this time the Russians had successfully tested their own atom bomb, causing the men who advised the president on national security to pause and reflect the course the nation was taking with its foreign policy.
So soon after the close of World War II, the President of the United States did not have the security advisers the occupant of the White House does today. The National Security Council was only three years old in 1950, and this period was before the likes of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and other global security experts. The United States and its western allies had won World War II along with the Soviet Union, who had taken over Eastern Europe and as Winston Churchill had said famously in the speech had gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘Iron Curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia;...”(1)
Two years later, the Chinese Communists sent the Nationalists high tailing to Formosa, thereby winning the Chinese Civil War.
Even though the United States had been involved in the liberation of South Korea from the Japanese, that part of Korea was not included in the nation’s defense plans. At this point, the United States had it’s hands full governing Japan as part of its occupation duties, so President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to leave South Korea to the United Nations, who wanted to hold elections across the entire country, both north or south. The Communists in the north opposed this as they had in eastern Europe. The chief executive of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, agreed with the UN, and threatened to invade the People’s Republic of Korea, so when the United States withdrew their troops from the south, they left the South Korean leader with limited arms for his army. One volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States for 1950(2) describes the status of the Republic of Korea (ROK) from the point of the United States Department of State in the six months prior to the start of the Korean War.
The correspondence between the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Department of State personnel revealed two problems causing dissension between the two countries: inflation in ROK and that nation’s movement away from democratic processes. (3) In April 1950, the focus changed markedly when Secretary Acheson received a communication from Korea describing the Korean Army ‘s victory over an estimated 600 North Korean trained guerrillas near the border. (4)
In a May issue of U. S. News and World Report, Senator Tom Connelly (D. Tex), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that the United States would eventually abandon South Korea to the Communists. The Secretary, Mr. Acheson, and others in the State Department fought back, denying that Connelly’s opinion was the policy of the United States government. President Rhee told Ambassador John Muccio he resented the United States’ reluctance to supply his armed forces with surplus F-51 planes, particularly when the North Koreans were building their armed forces. (5) Within weeks the American Embassy in Seoul sent recommendations for furnishing F-51s to the South Koreans. (6)
Throughout May 1950, Ambassador Muccio tried to get the Secretary and other top officials of the State Department to mention Korea in speeches and other communications with the press and invite people from other government departments to visit Korea when they were in the Far East. (7)
On June 23, the State Department received a recommendation from the embassy to reduce personnel in KMAG (U.S. Military Advisory Group to the Republic of Korea) because the ROK Army was doing so well on its own. (8) Early the next morning the North Korean Army attacked across the 38th parallel.
My next blog: “HST and Korean War”
(1) William Manchester and Paul Reid, The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, p. 960.
(2) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950: Korea, Documents 1-58, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1950v07/comp1
(5) Documents 31- 33, 35-38.
(6) Document 41
(7) Documents 45, 54
(8) Document 58
For further reading
Clay Blair. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953. Part I, pages 3-59
Robert J. Dovonan. Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry Truman
Eric F. Goldman. The Crucial Decade and After: America, 1945-1960.
Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.
David McCullough. Truman.
Cabell Phillips. The Truman Presidency.