Trans-Pacific View

Why Does Harry Truman’s Asia Legacy Matter?

Truman’s successes ought to be weighed against his significant policy setbacks and outright failures in Asia.

Why Does Harry Truman’s Asia Legacy Matter?

Photograph of President Truman in the Oval Office, reading the announcement of Japan’s surrender. A significant exception to Truman’s dismal legacy in Asia.

Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

As we approach the anniversary of the communist victory on the Chinese mainland, it is worth reflecting on the dismal legacy of U.S. President Harry Truman’s Asia policy.

Truman is usually ranked in the “near great” category by scholars and historians of the U.S. presidency, who point to his significant accomplishments in foreign policy, such as the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, and NATO. In assessing Truman, however, those successes should be weighed against Truman’s equally significant policy setbacks and failures in Asia, the consequences of which are still with us today.

In fact, Truman’s Asia legacy includes the Korean War’s costly stalemate, the subsequent and even more costly U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia, and today’s most serious challenges and threats to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific.

When Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, America’s Nationalist allies retreated to the island of Taiwan. At one stroke, the most populous country in Asia — indeed, in the world — joined the communist bloc led by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This development, as the great French strategist Raymond Aron noted at the time, presented the world with Sir Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical nightmare of a heartland-based empire in control of Eastern Europe and positioned to potentially dominate all of Eurasia.

As some U.S. “China hands” noted at the time, and as recent scholarship has confirmed, communist domination of all of mainland China was not inevitable, and greater and sustained U.S. military assistance to Nationalist forces may have altered the outcome of the Chinese civil war. Michael J. Green in his recent book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia-Pacific Since 1783, explains the consequences of the Truman administration’s unwillingness to fully support Chiang kai-shek’s regime:

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[The] Communist victory … was ‘far from secure, and its margin of victory in the civil war was thinner than it might appear to have been.’ The 1946 arms embargo left Chiang short of ammunition he needed to fight in the north…, and the combination of proper equipment and American advisors… may well have been enough to tip the balance in the pitched conventional battles in Manchuria and the north and ended the war in stalemate and the blunting of communist expansion.

Less than a year after Mao’s victory, with both Chinese and Soviet backing, North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea in an effort to forcibly unify the Korean peninsula under communist rule. Several months prior to the North’s invasion, Truman’s secretary of state, in a now infamous speech at the National Press Club, had conspicuously excluded the Korean peninsula from America’s security perimeter in East Asia.

Although Truman belatedly recognized the threat this invasion posed to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific, and dispatched American forces to oppose communist aggression, once China massively intervened in the war against U.S. and U.N. forces, Truman settled for stalemate instead of victory. The North Korean regime survived.

Those who contend that a stalemate in Korea was the best the United States could do under the circumstances ignore the United States’ unrivaled military power at the time (including strategic superiority in nuclear weapons and delivery systems), and forget that the “circumstances” (namely, Chinese intervention) that supposedly warranted a stalemate in Korea resulted from Truman’s failed post-World War II China policies. As Green points out, had all of mainland China not fallen to the communists it is doubtful that China would have been able to intervene in Korea as massively and as effectively as it did.

Today, the North Korean regime threatens the United States and its Asian allies with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to spread around for this current threat, including the failed policies of Presidents Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. But the root of the problem can be traced all the way back to Truman.

Truman’s Korea precedent, it is worth noting, was replicated by U.S. leaders in the war in Southeast Asia, where fear of Chinese and/or Soviet intervention caused U.S. political leaders to refrain from even attempting to achieve victory over North Vietnam. James Burnham once wrote that America’s defeat in Vietnam stemmed from its “self-imposed strategic prison” of containment. In this sense, U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia was yet another legacy of Truman’s failed Asia policies.

One notable and significant exception to this dismal legacy in Asia is Japan, where the Truman administration helped transform that country from a militaristic empire into a stable, democratic Asian ally.

At the time Harry Truman left office in January 1953, he was viewed in America as a failed and unpopular president. Sometime in the early 1970s, many historians and scholars began to rehabilitate Truman and eventually ranked him among the “great” or “near great” U.S. Presidents. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere between those extremes.

In that process of historical rehabilitation, Truman’s failed Asia policies were overlooked, downplayed, or explained away. The United States, it was said, did not “lose” China. Chiang kai-shek was corrupt and unworthy of U.S. military assistance. Truman’s conduct of the Korean War, it was argued, prevented World War III.

Statesmen should be judged not by the rightness of their intentions, but by the consequences of their policies. The United States today faces an increasingly assertive communist China in the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and in Central Asia, and a nuclear-armed hostile regime in North Korea. The seeds from which these current threats and challenges sprouted were planted and nourished on Truman’s watch. You reap what you sow.

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Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.