Meanwhile, the unexpectedly rapid collapse of Germany in May and Japan in August 1945 caught the administration unprepared for a series of pressing foreign and domestic decisions. The administration's preoccupation with domestic reconversion and the war against Japan, as well as Truman's desire to await completion of the American atomic program before informing Stalin of it, led the President to postpone the meeting of the Big Three at Potsdam until late July 1945.
Several domestic factors constrained the Truman administration's freedom of action in foreign policy. A lingering isolationism among Congress and the public, manifested in sentiment for rapid demobilization and against large-scale foreign aid and defense programs, limited the administration's ability to meet worldwide American responsibilities. The economic dislocation and high inflation attendant upon the end of the war, coupled with the President's own fiscal conservatism, discouraged experimentation at home or abroad. By the same token, the Republican Party, after so many years out of power, hardly welcomed major foreign policy initiatives by the unelected President.
The Second World War, to be sure, had destroyed the traditional bases of support for isolationism. The clear-cut nature of the Axis threat united the nation in a war of survival. Technological developments, especially long-range bombers and the atomic bomb, meant that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could no longer serve as moats that would protect the country from devastating attack by a determined enemy. The war also underscored the growing American dependence upon foreign sources of critical raw materials. Thus, the war experience undermined both the geographical and economic postulates of the old isolationism. During the war Roosevelt had won the support of Republican leaders, notably Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, for a postwar collective security organization.
Still, isolationism was only transformed, not dead. Roosevelt had not prepared the American public for the postwar rift with the Soviet Union, quite possibly because he himself did not foresee it. Given the priority of the war effort, Roosevelt both understated the differences between Soviet and American postwar goals and failed to educate the public on his efforts to reach a compromise, as reflected in the implicit spheres-of-influence provisions of Yalta, that would accommodate the legitimate security aims of the major powers. The convening of the San Francisco UN Conference amidst the collapse of the Axis engendered a euphoria that did not lend itself to a sober appreciation of America's continuing responsibilities overseas. In time, a profound disillusionment, a revulsion for foreign affairs, and an exaggerated sense of betrayal by America's erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, would overtake U.S. public opinion.
The pell-mell demobilization of American armed forces after the war demonstrated the underlying strength of neo-isolationism. Forrestal and Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, who had replaced Stimson in September, warned Truman in October 1945 that demobilization jeopardized the American strategic position in the world. Truman agreed, but felt that he could do nothing to stop it. In January 1946, Forrestal noted in his diary, the "Under Secretary [Dean Acheson] said [demobilization] was a matter of great embarrassment and concern to his own Department in their conduct of our foreign affairs."
The Truman White House could not contain the overpowering public and bipartisan Congressional outcry--accompanied by riots at overseas military bases in January 1946--for the early return home of American soldiers. Only a serious foreign crisis could have reversed this trend, and, for the time being, the administration did not publicize its misgivings about Soviet behavior. American armed forces shrank from about twelve million in June 1945 to one-and-a-half million in June 1947 (see appendix, graph 1). Across-the-board cuts of specialists and experienced members of the armed forces eroded the military effectiveness of units even more than these figures would suggest.
Meanwhile, legislation for Universal Military Training (UMT), which Truman, Forrestal, and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall promoted as the only satisfactory alternative to large standing forces, went nowhere on the Hill. The War Department, reflecting Army interests, continued to recommend UMT, rather than forces-in-being, as the mainstay of American defense in the atomic era on the grounds of fiscal prudence and military efficacy. Yet Congressmen and interest groups often voiced the suspicion that UMT was somehow un-American. In April 1946, Congress unenthusiastically extended the draft through March 1947, but forced the services to resort to voluntary recruitment between April 1947 and August 1948. The United States continued to maintain the largest navy and air force in the world and to retain a monopoly on the atomic bomb. But after one takes into account American commitments in occupied territories, the United States lacked the ground forces required to intervene in anything greater than a minor conflict, such as that over Venezia Giulia. Another result of demobilization and the failure of UMT was to highlight the importance of atomic weapons in defense planning.
By both choice and necessity, the Truman administration relied more on economic than military power to achieve its foreign policy aims. Strategic planning reflected this emphasis. The Joint Chiefs did not approve a statement of general military strategy until mid-1947, nor a war plan until 1948, for they accepted the State Department's assessment that the main danger facing the United States was political rather than military. Similarly, the Army air staff did not fully accept the deterrent concept of powerful air forces in place and on the alert until 1947.
Although the pace and scale of demobilization dismayed the President and his advisers, almost everyone agreed that major cuts in defense spending were in order. Administration officials perceived no immediate threat to U.S. security and feared that the continuation of wartime expenditures and deficits, or anything approaching them, would bankrupt the country. While the war had demonstrated the power of expansionary fiscal policies to spur enormous growth and high employment, Keynesian economics--in the sense of major compensatory spending to stimulate the economy--had made little headway among either the general public or Truman's Cabinet, which assigned priority to balancing the budget. Hence, the annual rate of military spending plunged from $90.9 billion in January 1945 to $10.3 billion during the second quarter of 1947 (see appendix, graph 3). The cessation of hostilities would have prompted defense cutbacks in any case, but the fiscally conservative mood of the country, which Truman and his advisers shared, caused what in retrospect appears a precipitous dismantling of the American military machine.
No pervasive, national security "ideology" characterized U.S. military thinking in the early postwar period. The disorganization, misconceptions, and infighting that had disrupted the military services during the war continued well into the postwar period. This does not mean that the military services did not engage in contingency planning for wars of the future, against Russia among other hypothetical enemies. Military planning, however, was not the same thing as actual defense programs, for the Truman administration did not believe that the Soviet Union posed a direct military threat to the United States at the end of the war. Instead, the containment doctrine that evolved from early confrontation with the Soviet Union would prescribe primary reliance upon the greatest American asset of all, its unrivalled economic power.
Return to Vinnie's Home Page
Return to Cold War Page