The Presidency’s of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson shared quite a few similarities. They were both Vice-Presidents who came to power because the Presidents preceding them died in office. They both succeeded Presidents who were hugely popular. Truman came after Franklin D Roosevelt who died at the end of WW2.John was sworn in on Air Force in the aftermath of John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. They both decided not to run again at the end of their second term due to declining popularity linked to their foreign affairs. Also a characteristic of both Truman and Johnson’s presidency was that international affairs were to dominate at the expense of domestic matters. They strongly advocated the strategy of communist containment, developed under Truman, and were fully endorsed by Johnson. In effect this meant that America would contain communism where it existed and not allow it to expand any further. The red scare was a genuine concern for Whitehouse officials and military advisors during both Truman and Johnson’s terms as president. Both men believed that unless the proliferation of communism was halted this system of government would spread to other counties and soon dominate world affairs. This would become known as the domino affect during Johnson’s tenure as it was believed to be particularly relevant in relation to south East Asia. “If we quit Vietnam,” Johnson said “tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we’ll have to fight in San Francisco.” This very real fear that existed around communism can be seen in the hysteria caused by Senator Joe McCarthy and his personal fixation with routing out communists whom he believed infiltrated all levels of government in the states. The era of McCarthy bridged the Truman and Johnson administrations and illustrated how the menace of communism became so influential in decided US foreign policy after WW2.No American leader during this time wanted to be seen as being too soft on communism.
Both Truman and Johnson had to make difficult decisions in regard to foreign affairs. Although neither flinched in that task, I believe the Truman was more successful. When he became president in April 1945 Truman immediately stepped into a foreign policy maelstrom. The Soviet Union had begun to push for control of Eastern Europe and Stalin wanted to position himself as a leading world statesman .War continued to rage with Japan despite the fact that Europe had been liberated from Nazi control. To complicate matters Truman had learned about the atomic bomb soon after becoming president. He agonized over whether to use the weapon against the Japanese. It would bring hostilities with Japan to a swift end and hopefully negate the need for an invasion on Japanese soil. However he knew that thousands of innocent Japanese people would die. In June a committee appointed by the president recommended using the bomb. Truman concurred and gave the order to use atomic weaponry. As well as forcing the Japanese to surrender through the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he assisted in the founding of the united nations, issued the Truman doctrine to contain communism, provided 13 billion Marshall plan to rebuild Europe, he supported and recognized the state of Israel, oversaw the Berlin airlift in 1948 which forced Stalin to abandon his plan to control all sectors of Berlin ,he was involved in the establishment of NATO and sent US troops into Korea after the communist North invaded the South and gained UN approval for this action.
Johnson on the other hand was shacked with a war that was not of his doing but under his watch American involvement to Vietnam escalated. Johnson refused to accept that the Vietcong were popular in south Vietnam and so on his orders Operation Rolling Thunder began which expanded the US bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese in an effort to close down the Ho Chi Minh trail. This route was used by the communist controlled North Vietnam to supply their communist counterparts in the south.
The Vietcong in South Vietnam, led by Nyugen Van Thieu, were using guerrilla tactics to overthrown a military Junta propped up by the US. Johnson did not initiate American involvement in Vietnam. Truman, Eisenhower and JFK laid the groundwork for US intervention. Johnson was hampered by the witch hunt led by Joe McCarthy which saw many state department workers in the South fired or resigning. The people advising Johnson had little to no knowledge of the region. Robert McNamara, one of the president’s chief advisors writing in 1996 admitted that he had never been to Indochina and didn’t understand or appreciate its history or culture. But the Vietnam War would come to be seen as Johnson’s war. Besides drastically escalading American involvement in the war following the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 from 16000 advisors and soldiers to 550000 combat troops in 1968, Johnson also signed the immigration act of 1965 which substantially liberalized US immigration policy towards non-Europeans.
In July 1945 Truman and Stalin, the two leaders of the emerging superpowers met for the first and only time at Potsdam. Here Truman told Japan to surrender of face “prompt and utter destruction”. Japan refused and Truman, after being advised by this committee, issued the demand to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.130000 people were killed and many died after from radiation. This was a strategic move on Truman’s part .He was seen as being tough on communism and also sticking to his guns by following through on his threat to Japan. He also had successfully ending ww2 in the East immediately.
Truman believed strongly in the idea of containment. He did not want Turkey and Greece to fall to communism and he ensured 6400 million of military aid to them. In his speech seeking support from Congress he said “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This became known as the Truman doctrine which was accompanied by Marshall Plan. This gave economic recovery. These two plans added tension to the already frosty relationship between the USSR and USA and led to the cold war arms race and moon race.
In 1948 Stalin blocked off West Berlin shutting 2 million West Berliners off, in hopes of forcing the US out of Berlin. Truman knew if he let Stalin win he would appear weak and soft both internationally and at home. He said “We are going to stay, period” After nearly a year of airlifting supplies to West Berlin, Stalin lifted the blockade. This was a huge victory for the US and led to the belief that America was unbeatable. It also resulted in the formation of NATO, a peacetime military alliance between the US, Canada and 10 Western European countries.
The policy of containment was also tested by the invasion by North Korea of South Korea. Truman had been called weak by republicans and Senator Joe McCarthy after “losing china” to communism. Truman bypassed congress and intervened in South Korea. He got UN backing for this intervention. After a very public row with General MacArthur, America lost the war and 50000 soldiers.
After inheriting the Vietnam War Lyndon Johnson increased the number of us advisors by 30%.He did not want to be “the first president to lose a war”. Although publically he led people to believe that the US were without doubt going to win, privately he said he didn’t think it was worth fighting for and described it was the biggest damn mess.
In 1964 the USS Maddox was fired on following the turner joy a few days later. This event was known as the gulf of Tonkin. Johnson used this to get the Tonkin resolution passed. He deliberately misled the American public about the event and the resolution gave him unlimited power to wage war. He launched Operation Rolling Thunder which was air assaults on North Vietnam and a huge build up of ground forces. By the end of 1968 the war was costing 20 billion a year.
Johnson fought the war with dirty tactics like dropping napalm and chemicals on forests in the South and using search and destroy missions. He also laid out free fire zones. Anyone is these zones was a target.
The war had been supported by the American people but as the US got more involved, an anti war movement began and took hold with celebrities endorsing it Muhammad Ali was a hugely against the war saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
American eventually lost the war. It had shown American to be beatable. It had also left Johnson as the only American president to have lost a war.
On paper Truman was more successful than Johnson in the realm of international policies. He brought American involvement in WW2 to a decisive end when he gave the order to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki .In doing this; he avoided the long drawn out costly conflict of sending ground troops to Japan. There is little doubt among historians that this would have been the case as the Japanese had fiercely defended the pacific islands and used kamikaze pilots as a military tactic against the allied naval ships. The monumental decision by Truman to use atomic weaponry had lasting effects on us and foreign policy. It was evident that nuclear weapons had the capacity to wipe out all people especially after the USSR developed its own bomb in 1949.The US-USSR completion led to an arms race with huge political effects .this was supported a policy of deterrence to maintain a strong nuclear force so that the USSR would be deterred from attacking the US. His success in dealing with the threat posed by Stalin during the Berlin Blockade demonstrated his steely determination to face-off communism telling the American commander in Berlin that “ we are going to stay, period” the money provided by his government as result of the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe and restore stability in the region. He failed to prevent the victory of communists in the Chinese civil war but committed US troops to South Vietnam when it was invaded by the communist North. He later fired General MacArthur for publically challenging him.
However it was in the shadow and with the legacy of the Truman doctrine that LBJ had to operate his foreign policy. It had grave consequences for Johnson and the American people. The war in Vietnam was a massive failure which distracted both time and resources from Johnson’s Great Society. Martin Luther King jr said “The promises of the great society have been shot down in the battlefield of Vietnam! It cost 112 billion dollars and the human cost was even more appaling, 2.5 million Vietnamese died, 58000 US soldiers died and 300000 wounded. It was the first defeat for Truman’s policy of containment because in April 1975 Saigon and parts of Indochina, Laos and Cambodia establish communist regimes. Ironically Ho Chi Minh was a great admirer of American politics and preferred the US to the soviets as allies. Unfortunately as far as foreign policy was concerned you couldn’t b e the leader of a communist country and be a friend to the US. A communist state was viewed as only a satellite of the Soviet Union.