Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy

Categories: John F. Kennedy


The first three postwar American presidents were responsible for molding the United States’ strategy and tactics for the emerging and developing Cold War.  Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy each had similar but unique approaches to the task.  Certain common threads were seen in each policy; communism was seen by all men as an aggressive global menace that must be contained, if not rolled back.

They were also all accepting, to slightly varying degrees, of the premise that all communist movements in the world were orchestrated by Moscow and aimed at furthering the goal of total global communist domination.

  Each man was presented with different challenges and exercised different options in dealing with those challenges.  This paper will assess which of the three immediate postwar American presidents carried out the most effective containment of the Soviet Union.


In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States was the most powerful force the world had ever seen.  To give just one example, at the end of the war the United States produced an inconceivable fifty percent of the entire world’s goods and services.

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[1]  It was into this atmosphere of unprecedented economic might and military dominance that Harry Truman stepped upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After all of America’s previous wars, the nation had retreated to domestic pursuits.  Truman would mold a policy that was without precedent in American history; this policy would call for large standing armies in peacetime, a radically strengthened and centralized executive, and a willingness to project American force around the world, at times without direct congressional approval.

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  The underlying logic to this revolution in American government was the need to contain the expansionist designs of the Soviet Union.

Western Europe was very vulnerable to communist ideology and influence amid the utter destruction wrought by the war.  The Truman administration understood that it was in America’s self-interest to help Western Europe back to its feet.  A generous infusion of American aid would provide markets for America’s avalanche of goods and services, as well as making communism a much less attractive option for the newly affluent Europeans.

The Marshall Plan was the name given the massive infusion of economic aid into Western Europe.  Between 1948 and 1952, this aid totaled $13 billion dollars.[2]  Similar aid was also offered to the communist states of Eastern Europe, but it was rejected by the communists as a thinly-veiled effort at infiltration an influence, as an imperialist Trojan horse.  In accepting western aid, Western Europe averted a slide into communism.  In turn, by rejecting western aid, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union showed themselves to be more concerned with ideological purity than with the immediate physical well being of their citizens.  This was a public relations coup for the United States, and Truman is to be credited for his foresight.

While the Marshall Plan averted the possibility of the expansion of Soviet ideology, Truman also conceived of proactive steps to contain the physical expansion of Soviet power as well.  In 1946, the Soviet Union had failed to end its occupation of northern Iran, as required by prior agreement.  Truman sent Secretary of State James Byrnes to the United Nations to protest this violation.[3]  Eventually, Stalin agreed to withdraw, having been held to account on the world stage for his duplicity.

Stalin’s true intent in Iran cannot ultimately be known.  He may have planned to drive south and seize Iran’s massive oil fields, or he may have been simply dragging his feet in fulfilling his commitments to withdraw.  The fact remains, however, that Truman took the proactive step of calling out the Soviet Union and politically confronting its actions on the world stage.  The precedent that this set should not be underestimated; the United States made it clear to the Soviet Union that it would not quietly accept apparent attempts at further territorial expansion at the expense of weaker neighbors.  That this signal came early and forcefully in the Cold War is again a credit to Truman’s leadership and foresight.

A similar scenario played out in 1946 in Turkey.  Stalin demanded from the Turkish government shared access to the Straits linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.[4]  Again, Truman lined up firmly behind the weaker country, and Stalin was forced to withdraw his demand.  Again, in 1949, Truman broke the Soviet blockade of Berlin by ordering a massive, around the clock airlift.[5]  These shows of resolve were invaluable for America’s allies as well as its credibility.

These episodes convinced Truman that the Soviet Union was bent on expansion and that it must be American policy to help threatened states resist this aggression.  Here the policy of containment came into focus, articulated most effectively in the Long Telegram of 1946, authored by Ambassador George Kennan.[6]

The perceived communist subversion in Greece and Turkey led Truman to articulate the Truman Doctrine, which called on America to aid any nation subjected to communist infiltration.  This new policy was accompanied by a radical restructuring of the American government.

In 1947, the National Security Act created the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.  This creation of a spy agency, a permanent standing army, and a radically strengthened executive changed forever the nature of American government.[7]  Walter Lippmann was one respected establishment academic who warned that the attempt to contain communism across the earth “would wreck the constitution by necessarily creating an all-powerful president as commander in chief.”[8]

The final revolutionary change that Truman instituted was the formation of NATO in 1949.  NATO represented America’s first military alliance with Europe since 1778, clearly marking another radical break with America’s past.  This mutually-reinforcing alliance was intended to make it clear to the Soviet bloc that an attack on any western nation would be reacted to as an attack upon all.  The Soviet Union reacted to each of Truman’s moves, notably by forming the Warsaw Pact in response to NATO.[9]  The reactive nature of Soviet behaviors is indicative that Truman was on the offensive.

The second half of Truman’s presidency was characterized somewhat by a loss of focus, perhaps inevitable after Truman’s forceful moves in his first term.  The Marshall Plan, the National Security Act, and the NATO treaty basically laid the entire framework for America’s approach to the Cold War.  Truman’s hard line on Iran and Turkey and the Berlin blockade were important shows of American resolve.  As the Cold War became more complicated, however, Truman lost focus.

The Chinese Communist victory in China’s civil war, consolidated by 1949, was read by Truman as further evidence of a global conspiracy directed from Moscow.[10]  With this mindset, Truman saw the Korean War as an example of Soviet expansion that needed to be resisted forcefully.  It is clearer in retrospect that this was a very oversimplified interpretation of this conflict and that the commitment of American military might, which eventually drew communist China directly into the war, actually did nothing to contain the Soviet Union; it merely bled the United States.


Dwight Eisenhower’s approach to containing the Soviet Union is often dubbed the “New Look” policy.[11]  This approach aimed to make the Cold War cheaper to wage by focusing on a rapid nuclear buildup and expansive covert operations rather than huge conventional armies.  Eisenhower recognized that attempting to take on the communists man for man meant, quite simply, “bankruptcy”.[12]

During Eisenhower’s two terms, America’s nuclear stockpile grew from 1,000 weapons to 18,000, as well as greatly increasing the destructive power of each bomb via the introduction of the hydrogen bomb.[13]  Cutting edge planes and missiles were also developed to deliver these weapons.

In terms of covert operations, the two most infamous such actions of the Eisenhower years were the CIA-orchestrated coups against elected leftist leaders in Iran and Guatemala.  Eisenhower, or at least his rhetoric, aimed to replace “containment” with “rollback”.[14]

These coups were indicative of America’s black and white outlook at this stage of the cold war; leftists were communists, and communists were Soviets.  No ambiguity, no internal contradictions, no shades of gray.  Eisenhower was given to very simplistic interpretations of world affairs.  “Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against dark.”[15]  Therefore, Eisenhower might characterize overthrowing the leftist governments of Guatemala and Iran as “containing the Soviet Union”, but this is a difficult view to endorse in retrospect.

When Mohammad Mosaddeq demanded a greater share of profit from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British government was able to help convince the Eisenhower administration that this could only be a communist plot.  As Iran bordered the Soviet Union and contained huge reserves of oil, the danger of Iran going communist was clear.  Eisenhower ordered the CIA to orchestrate a coup that would empower the shah, or emperor, at the expense of the elected government.  Overthrowing an elected government, even a left-wing one, would only be conceivable if the coup organizers had managed to convince themselves that the Soviet Union was really at work behind the scenes.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected to power in Guatemala in 1951.  His sin was to propose land reform in a country where the poorest fifty percent of the people owned just three percent of the land.[16]  Although only four communists sat in the fifty-six member national Congress, the United States overthrew this government in the name of anti-communism.[17]

Throughout all the specific tactical actions taken in the 1940’s and 50’s, the overarching strategy of building thousands of nuclear weapons, expanding intelligence capabilities and covert operations, and maintaining a huge military machine was all based on the predicate of a Soviet threat.

The dominant force in international affairs during the early Cold War was not communism or democracy, but anti-colonialism.  This is something that the United States could not objectively accept.  As dozens upon dozens of new nations emerged from the remnants of European colonialism, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to recruit them as allies and clients.

The American government proved unable to appreciate that many of the new nations of the world were wary of American power and influence but that this did not mean they were communists.  Many nations, such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia, joined a non-aligned movement, oriented towards neither the Soviet Union nor the United States.  To many American policymakers, including many of Eisenhower’s top advisors, “neutral” was a thin code word for “communist”.

Eisenhower articulated his own doctrine in 1957.  Fueled by fear of leftist influence in the Middle East, especially from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Eisenhower stated his intention to use American force to defend any country from “armed attack from any country controlled by international communism”.[18]

The Eisenhower doctrine rivals the National Security Act of 1947 in terms of its impact on American government.  A republic which, just twenty years earlier, had been isolationist to the point where it did not intervene even after the fall of continental Europe in 1940 was now pledging to use force anywhere in the world if it perceived communists to be at work.  This was an open-ended commitment, to last until “the President shall determine that the peace and security of the nations in the general area…are assured.”[19]  It is now 2007, and this doctrine must still be in effect, since the Middle East is still short on “peace and security”.

Eisenhower’s ability to constructively engage the Soviets was fatally undermined when an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union towards the end of his term.  The resulting cold atmosphere with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev, as well as the recent rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba, would dominate the policy of Eisenhower’s successor.


One of John F. Kennedy’s first priorities was to temper Eisenhower’s New Look policy; covert forces and nuclear arsenals would continue to be built up, but Kennedy would reverse Eisenhower’s neglect of conventional military forces.  In 1961, Khrushev predicted that the worldwide socialist revolution would triumph via national wars of liberation.  Kennedy understood that ground troops would be far more useful in such wars than nuclear weapons, a total weapon unfit for limited wars.

By the time Kennedy took office, the Cold War had lost some of the unambiguous, black and white nature that had seemed so clear at first.  It was beginning to become clear that the Soviet Union and China were far from the best of friends, and that many nations of the free world were not exactly free.[20]  This new blurriness proved difficult to apply as practical American policy, however.

The Soviet Union, of course, picked Kennedy’s term to attempt two of its biggest gambles of the entire Cold War. In 1961, the Soviets attempted to drive the Allies from West Berlin by building the Berlin Wall.[21]  Kennedy effectively and forcefully made it known that America would not withdraw from West Berlin.  An important line had been drawn by the young president.

In 1962, the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them in Cuba, ninety miles from Florida.  Kennedy is to be commended for his handling of this very real crisis.  A diplomatic settlement was reached whereby the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba and the United States would remove its missiles from Turky, and Kennedy can be said to have rolled back the Soviet Union in the one case where they actually threatened the physical security of the United States from very close range.

The Cuban Missile Crisis also led to a thawing of US-Soviet relations, as both nations were given a reminder of how dangerous their arsenals were to each other and to themselves.  This new sobriety led to the first arms-control pact between the two powers in August 1963.[22] Kennedy’s speech at American University in June of 1963 made it clear that the policy of the United States from that point forward would be the gradual but inevitable pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union.[23]

The ultimate shadow hanging over Kennedy’s legacy, of course, is Vietnam.  During Kennedy’s tenure, the number of American advisors increased rapidly.  While Kennedy was clearly not satisfied with the course of events in Vietnam, it remains unclear what he would have done had he lived.  If he had pursued the course that his successor did and sent in hundreds of thousands of American troops, his anti-communist legacy may have been weakened quite a bit.  Vietnam, like Korea, was a conflict that had much more to do with local history and politics than with the Soviet Union.  As in Korea, American learned this lesson much too late in Vietnam.


It seems clear in retrospect that Harry Truman had the best record of containing the Soviet Union.  Firstly, Truman benefits in this judgment from simply having been there at the beginning.  Beyond being there, however, he oversaw the creation of the tools and institutions that would be used to fight communism throughout the Cold War: the Department of Defense, the CIA, and NATO.  For his foresight his setting of precedents alone, Truman deserves a lion’s share of the credit.

In addition to overseeing these new institutions, however, Truman was also faced with what he perceived to be instances of attempted Soviet expansion.  Iran, Greece, and Turkey all lay just beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and, while the Soviets may have felt that they were simply securing their borders by meddling in these countries, the Americans were inclined to see their behavior in these countries as being aggressive.  Wherever Truman detected this “aggression”, he ultimately forced the Soviets to back down.

By the time Truman left office, the Soviets were assured that any overt attempt at territorial expansion would be met head on by the United States.  Indeed, if anything, the United States was likely to jump the gun and intervene if there was even the smallest hint of communist subversion in a strategic country.

Eisenhower endorsed Truman’s containment policy, and even talked occasionally of a more aggressive “roll back” policy, but he did not have a direct confrontation with Soviet power of the sort that Truman did, so in the broad sense, his presidency simply held the line and undermined certain leftist governments that were not directly controlled by the Soviet Union.

  It is unfair to say that Eisenhower contained the Soviet Union by overthrowing the government of Iran, although that was his stated intention at the time.   Eisenhower should be condemned, furthermore, by ordering the building of thousands of nuclear weapons that could have never have all been used, and which must now be destroyed before they fall into the wrong hands.

Kennedy deserves nearly as much credit as Truman because he, too, was confronted with direct Soviet threats including the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the most dangerous moment of world history from a certain point of view.  Kennedy’s containment of the Soviets in Berlin, his rollback of the Soviets from Cuba, and his subsequent search for better relations before his death combines to be indicative of very strong Cold War leadership.

[1] Walter LaFeber, The American Age, Volume 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994), 457.

[2] Ibid., 479.

[3] Ibid., 469.

[4] Ibid., 469-70.

[5] Bernard Bailyn, et al.,  The Great Republic (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), 452.

[6] Lafeber, The American Age, 474-5.

[7] Ibid., 483.

[8] Ibid., 484.

[9] Bailyn, The Great Republic, 461.

[10] Lafeber, The American Age, 502-4.

[11] Bailyn, The Great Republic, 502.

[12] Lafeber, The American Age, 541.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bailyn, The Great Republic, 502.

[15] Ibid., 500.

[16] LaFeber, The American Age, 546.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 564-5.

[19] Richard B. Morris, ed., Significant Documents in United States History, Volume II (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969), 201.

[20] Bailyn, The Great Republic, 525.

[21] Morris, Significant Documents, 225-8.

[22] Lafeber, The American Age, 604.

[23] Morris, Signifcant Documents, 247-53.

Updated: Mar 11, 2022
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Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy essay
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