Wednesday, May 08, 2002
Today is Harry Truman's birthday. Apropos of that fact, I thought I'd wonder a bit what the world would have been like without President Truman.
Truman was selected as Vice President pretty much by accident. Roosevelt had decided to ditch Henry Wallace and was looking for a candidate acceptable to the South but not unacceptable to the liberals. Truman was relatively unknown and fit the bill. Wallace was very popular with the Democratic Party, though, and it was a close thing whether Roosevelt was going to get Truman in. Had he been forced to stick with Wallace, how might history have turned out differently?
Franklin Roosevelt died less than six months after his re-election. On April 12th, 1945, had he been Vice President at the time, Henry Wallace would have become President of the United States.
Depending on who you ask, Wallace was a anything from an honorable liberal Democrat to a Soviet puppet. To me, he always seemed a prime example of the "useful idiot" - not someone who was in any way unfaithful to his country in his heart, but fundamentally naive and under the influence of people and organizations who were not similarly patriotic. It is clear enough from his 1948 Presidential run that Wallace was not inclined to see any danger, much less evil, in the advance of Soviet power, nor to give any credence to the notion that the United States was vulnerable to Soviet espionage and subversion.
The years of the first Truman Administration were a crucial period for the United States and the world. He had to manage the denuement of the war in the Pacific, and make the decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His Secretary of State devised the plan for the reconstruction of Europe that bears his name. He had to provide crucial military support to Turkey and Greece against Soviet military pressure from without and Soviet-backed Communist insurgency from within. To follow were the creation of Israel, the Berlin airlift, the collapse of KMT rule in China and the rise of the PRC, the first Soviet atomic explosion, the creation of NATO, and the Korean War. From 1945 to 1950, a series of actions by Soviet Russia and reactions by the United States led to the posture of confrontation without direct military conflict between the powers that we refer to as the Cold War. It was a war in defense of freedom, a war of nerves and of hearts and minds, and a war that the United States and the West won decisively only after more than 40 years. There is no guarantee that another man would have fought this war, or fought it so well.
How would a President Wallace have handled things differently? It is hard to know whether Wallace would have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima as Truman did. Certainly he had great sympathy after the fact for Oppenheimer's concerns, and was an advocate for international control of atomic power. Nonetheless, it is possible that, faced with prediction of over one million American casualties from an invasion of Japan, Wallace would have decided as Truman did. Had he not, an American invasion would have been horribly costly, enervating the country and draining it of any desire for new battles. Moreover, it is very likely that Stalin, uncowed by the awesome display of atomic devastation, would have been more aggressive in the immediate post-war world.
With respect to events in Europe, it is more than likely that Wallace would have taken a frankly pro-Soviet line. What might have been the results? In France's first post-war elections under the Fourth Republic, the Communists took 25% of the vote, the largest bloc. Similar results obtained in Italy. American pressure was crucial in assuring that neither country came under Communist control. It seems likely to me that a Wallace Administration would not have exercised that pressure. 1946 might have seen Communist-dominated governments in Paris and Rome. Prime Minister Maurice Thorez of France would have brought France into decisive alliance with Stalinist Russia. With the two dominant powers on the continent both Communist and allied with one another, it is doubtful that any other states would hold out long. One by one, all the governments of Europe would have either gone Communist or adopted a de-facto pro-Soviet orientation. How Britain's Labor government under Clement Atlee would have reacted to these developments is hard to know, but without support from America it is unlikely that they would have been able, even if they desired, to articulate a policy of resistance to the Sovietization of Europe.
Such a development would have shocked America. As it was the steady advances of Communism in the late-1940s dominated American politics, fuelling a Republican resurgence and a strong anti-Communist movement. A Red France and a Red Italy would have sparked a much swifter reaction. By 1947, President Wallace would have faced a solidly right-wing Republican Congress, with the Southern Democratic leadership allied with the GOP in its efforts to thwart Red Henry. Locked in battle with a Congress he despised and who despised him, it is unlikely that President Wallace - even if he wished it - could have put together a forward-looking foreign policy such as animated the Truman Administration. By 1948, when a resurgent Republican Party would have massacred the Democrats at the polls, the global correlation of forces would have turned decisively against Western democracy. Much of Europe would have already gone Communist. China would be teetering on the brink by this point, the KMT unsalvageable. Prime Minister Thorez would have sent French Communist cadres to all of France's colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia, to pave the way for a global commonwealth of Francophone Soviet states.
It is likely, of course, that the Communist Left would not find it so easy to hold on to their newly won power. De Gaul would not sit quietly while his country became a Soviet satrapy, nor would less savory right-wing elements. But owing to the collapse of centrist government across the continent, these less-savory elements would have a decisive role in any resistance to Communist rule. It is likely that Franco's Spain would be not a vague embarrassment but a rallying point. This would, of course, drive many liberal elements into a distrustful alliance with the elected Communist governments, lending these governments legitimacy and entrenching their rule while they subverted the electoral process to prevent their ever being voted out of office (as they did in Czechoslovakia after coming to power). The prospects for civil war across Europe would have been considerable. In the United States, after the 1946 elections, Congressional investigations might have revealed extensive Communist influence in the Oval Office. Even if President Wallace was not directly implicated (as is likely), major cabinet officers (such as Secretary of State) would have been credibly accused of being Soviet spies. Impeachment and conviction of Wallace himself are entirely plausible scenarios. Whether in 1948 or before, then, the United States would have been led by a Republican Party in alliance with Dixiecrats, a frankly right-wing and even reactionary alliance focused on purging the United States of Communist influence, with only a distant prospect of salvaging the world situation - assuming that the Republican Party had not, by this point, been taken over by its isolationist wing, determined simply to escape from a world gone hopelessly mad.
With such a world situation, what would the prospects be for desegregation in the United States? Remote at best. Allied with Dixiecrats in the 1946 and 1948 elections, Republicans would be in no mood to stir up "trouble" down south. For Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel? It would likely have happened, but only with Soviet support, and the new state would have come quickly under political control from Moscow; American policy would have had a decisively pro-Arab cast by 1948. It is not hard at all to imagine a lengthy period of retrenchment during which the United States focused on its own homeland defense and on crushing Communist movements in this hemisphere while the Soviet Union dominated the rest of the world. In such an environment, even pro-Nazi attitudes would likely have returned; the dominant American right would itself become convinced that, but for Roosevelt's treacherous machinations to get America into war, Hitler might have beaten Stalin and contented himself with a European empire, surely a better situation than spending so much blood and treasure only to free China and France only to cede them to the Reds.
We can all hope that, eventually, human freedom would have triumphed. I strongly suspect it would have, the human spirit being what it is. Soviet Communism was an unworkable economic system; nourished on the talents of Western Europe and the resources of the whole world, it might have lasted longer; then again, it might have split sooner, perhaps over Franco-Russian rivalry. But, even if we are optimistic, freedom's eventual triumph would have followed a harder and bloodier road were it not for the happy accident of the Truman Presidency. We owe it to our children to remind them of this: of the difference that one man can make, the difference between a man of brilliance and good intentions but blind to reality and a man of modest origin and, it was generally thought, modest talents but a character of adamant.