Party Politics - The early cold war

To be sure, Americans have on occasion set partisan and personal political concerns aside in foreign policy, in line with the sentiment of Stephen Decatur's toast. This has been the pattern in the early stages of the nation's wars. But such consensus on international matters has often been short-lived, more so than is generally acknowledged. It is often assumed, for example, that the period surrounding the onset of the Cold War—from the end of World War II to the start of 1950—was a bipartisan period in U.S. foreign policy. A close examination of these years suggests otherwise. There was a period of strong bipartisanship on foreign policy decisions in Washington from the passage of the aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947 through the middle of 1949, but it was not there before that time or after.

In late 1945, with the popular Franklin D. Roosevelt dead and World War II over, Republicans in Congress saw a chance to gain control on Capitol Hill in the 1946 elections and to take the presidency two years later. On domestic issues they could run against the federal government and against trade unions, especially the open influence of the American Communist Party in those unions. On foreign policy issues the GOP could denounce Truman's "weakness" in dealing with the Soviet Union—that is, unless the administration preempted this line of attack by standing up forcefully to Moscow.

Domestically, Truman could do relatively little to deflect the Republican challenge on policy issues. He could, however, be firmer with the Soviets—a shift urged on him in the fall of 1945 by his White House chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, and by the two leading senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Tom Connally of Texas and Republican Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. Vandenberg, who represented a state with a large number of Polish Americans unhappy with developments in their native land, was especially adamant about standing up to the Kremlin on all fronts.

It is unclear just how much of an effect partisan politics had on Truman's decision to "stop babying" the Soviets in early 1946. But he was very much aware of the growing congressional criticism of Secretary of State James Byrnes's continuing efforts to make deals with Moscow, and also Congress's aim, now that World War II was over, to reassert legislative authority of some foreign policy issues. The evidence is not conclusive, but it appears Truman was significantly affected by strong pressures from Congress to take a harder line toward the Soviet Union in the early weeks of 1946. In the election campaign that autumn, political paranoia and exploitation was much in evidence. Republican campaigners delighted in asking voters: "Got enough inflation? … Got enough debt? … Got enough strikes? … Got enough communism?" Senator Robert Taft, one of the most distinguished figures on Capitol Hill, accused Truman of seeking a Congress "dominated by a policy of appeasing the Russians abroad and fostering communism at home," while in California, a young House candidate named Richard Nixon denounced his opponent as a "lip service American" who consistently voted the Moscow line in Congress and who fronted for "un-American elements." And indeed, the GOP scored a resounding victory in the election, gaining control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. The day after the election several of Truman's advisers met and concluded that the White House would have to take definite steps to put the Democratic coalition back together if Truman was to have any chance of winning the 1948 election. One such step: make clear to the American people that Harry Truman opposed Soviet domination of eastern Europe.

As the 1948 election approached, Truman missed few opportunities to talk up the Cold War, a strategy urged on him by numerous advisers. Such a stance, they pointed out, would insulate the president against Republican charges that he was too soft on Moscow and at the same time undercut Henry Wallace's bid for the presidency on the Progressive ticket. In November 1947, White House aide Clark Clifford and former FDR assistant James Rowe predicted that relations with Moscow would be the key foreign policy issue in the campaign, that those relations would get worse during the course of 1948, and that this would strengthen Truman's domestic political position. "There is considerable political advantage in the administration in its battle with the Kremlin," the two men told the president. "The worse matters get … the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president." In the months that followed, White House speechwriters talked tough on Soviet-American relations and mocked Wallace's call for improved relations with the Kremlin, portraying him as an unwitting dupe of communists at home and abroad.

It was a conscious blurring of domestic and foreign communism, and it would have important implications for politics in Cold War America. In the spring of 1947, Truman had created the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, which gave government security officials authorization to screen two million employees of the federal government for any hint of political deviance. It marked the inauguration of an anticommunist crusade within America's own borders that paralleled the Cold War abroad, a crusade that contained a large element of practical politics. Opposing radicals and the Soviet Union was a way of attracting votes and building a political reputation, or of avoiding being denounced as a fellow traveler. Meanwhile, any possibility for honest debate and criticism about policy toward the communist world disappeared, as those on the left who might have articulated an alternative vision lost cultural and political approval. For at least a quarter of a century thereafter, campaign attacks from the left on either Democratic or Republican foreign policies proved singularly unsuccessful.

Truman went on to win the 1948 election against the expectations of many. Stunned Republicans immediately began working overtime to exploit the communist victory in China, allegations of communists within the U.S. government, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson's support of the accused spy Alger Hiss as they maneuvered for revenge in the midterm election two years later. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Truman initially received strong bipartisan support for his decision to intervene. But he knew the Republican support could evaporate quickly. When Truman that summer considered a plan to expand the war into North Korea, he feared that what the historian Melvin Small called "the prudent but not anticommunist-enough decision" to halt at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel could hurt the Democrats at the polling booth in November. Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur to try to liberate North Korea and announced his decision at a cabinet meeting where the major item on the agenda was the election.

MacArthur's gambit caused Chinese forces to intervene from the North in November 1950, and a military stalemate quickly developed. When the Truman administration commenced armistice talks in 1951, GOP leaders, still determined to make foreign policy a central part of their criticism of the Democrats, immediately went on the attack. Any truce at or near the Thirty-Eighth Parallel would be an "appeasement peace," they charged. When the presidential election campaign geared up the following year, Republican leaders, including nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower, asserted that Truman had been foolish to agree to negotiations and that he was compounding the error by continuing them in the face of clear evidence that the communists were using the time to build up their forces in Korea. Even the apparent economic health of the nation was turned against the White House: the prosperity, GOP spokesmen charged, "had at its foundation the coffins of the Korean war dead," slaughter that as yet appeared to have no end. The historian Rosemary Foot, in her study of the Korean armistice talks, showed that this partisan pressure contributed to the hardening of the administration's bargaining posture in 1952. "Sensitivity to public charges, to congressional attacks, and to electoral charges that the Democratic administration had been led into a negotiating trap by its 'cunning' enemies, all reinforced the administration's preference for standing firm rather than compromising," Foot concluded. Pleas from the State Department for a flexible posture, especially on the nettlesome issue of repatriating prisoners of war, fell on deaf ears.

Attacking an incumbent's policies is a simpler matter than governing, as the Republicans would soon learn. Upon taking office in January 1953, Eisenhower faced not merely the task of bringing the Korean War to an end (a deal was reached in July 1953) but a myriad of other thorny issues as well. Party politics, it is clear, influenced his approach to many of them. And it was not just the Democrats Eisenhower had to think about; he also confronted differing impulses on foreign policy within his own party. Some socalled old guard Republicans such as Robert Taft were dubious about the Europe-centered internationalism to which Eisenhower and his soon-tobe secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, adhered in the 1952 campaign; many of them wanted a limited American role in world affairs, rooted in an airpower-oriented Fortress America strategy and weighted more toward Asia. Eisenhower immediately set upon placating this old guard on military, Asian, and domestic security matters to gain its acquiescence in a Europe-first internationalism. He undoubtedly had the old guard partly in mind when he wrote to his NATO commander, Alfred Gruenther, in the midst of the Quemoy-Matsu crisis of 1954–1955, that "at home, we have the truculent and the timid, the jingoists and the pacifists." On Taiwan, the president continued, he was considering "what solutions we can get that will best conform to the long term interests of the country and at the same time can command a sufficient approval in this country so as to secure the necessary Congressional action " (original emphasis).

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