June 3, 2022

Brett Stephens is The New York Times’ resident “conservative” – which roughly translates into an opinion columnist who isn’t part of the Times’ far-left stable of writers. In his most recent column on China’s threat to Taiwan, he suggests that President Biden should “model” his policy on Harry Truman’s containment instead of FDR’s New Deal.

One wonders if Stephens has reflected enough on Truman’s policies in Asia – they were disastrous.

On Truman’s watch, China fell to the communists and formed a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. Truman sent George Marshall to negotiate an end to the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists – the latter was an American ally in World War II. Marshall failed, but that failure was due to Truman’s decision to gradually reduce aid to Chiang at the same time that Soviet aid to Mao increased. Instead of fully supporting an imperfect ally, Truman – whose administration was staffed with Far East advisers who were communist sympathizers and viewed Mao as an agrarian reformer instead of a brutal totalitarian – positioned the United States as an impartial mediator in the conflict.

Shortly after proclaiming the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Mao formulated plans to invade Taiwan and conspired with Stalin and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to launch the North’s invasion of South Korea. A few months before that invasion, Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson publicly declared that the Korean peninsula was not part of the U.S. defense perimeter in East Asia. In his column, Stephens mentions Acheson’s “infamous mistake,” but as Truman himself once said, the “buck” stops at the president’s desk.

Then after committing the United States to fighting the communists in Korea without a congressional declaration of war (calling it a “police action”), and appointing a general – MacArthur – who wanted to achieve victory, Truman, after China massively intervened in the war in October-November 1950, suddenly discovered that Korea was, in the words of his Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Truman expended the lives of nearly 40,000 U.S. soldiers in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is not a “model” for any president to follow.  

Mao’s communists also provided sufficient assistance to enable Ho Chi Minh to defeat the French in the first Vietnam War, which set the stage for the communization of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the 1970s. And Truman’s Korean War paradigm – fighting a war with a goal of something less than victory – served as a “model” for our defeats in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Fortunately, the U.S. Seventh Fleet prevented Mao from invading Taiwan in 1950 – Truman deserves credit for that. But Truman’s weakness and vacillation in East Asia undoubtedly persuaded Mao that he could eventually take Taiwan – which he tried to do twice in the 1950s. Only the strong leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower prevented that during the Taiwan Strait crisis of the mid and late 1950s. 

Truman left the White House with a well-earned and unpopular reputation. His worthy achievements in postwar Europe have rightly received applause from historians, but even there his seemingly unlimited global commitments announced in the Truman Doctrine were rightly criticized by such luminaries as George Kennan and Walter Lippmann.

Stephens writes that President Biden’s recent statements that the United States will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack were “prudent, necessary and strategically astute,” and demonstrate a “sense of history.” But instead of emulating Truman, Biden would have been better to channel Theodore Roosevelt – speak softly and carry a big stick. The problem, however, is that the stick isn’t big enough, and Joe Biden has never been mistaken for a prudent, strategically astute statesman. We can only hope that in East Asia and the western Pacific, Biden’s policies will not be as bad as Truman’s.

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