The president was furious. A member of his own cabinet had just blatantly contradicted him by giving a speech in which he argued that the U.S. should compromise, cooperate, and coexist peacefully with the world’s ascendant superpower.
“Getting tough” doesn’t work in the long run “for schoolyard bullies or businessmen or world powers,” the renegade official had noted, proposing that the two countries divvy up regional spheres of influence and engage in a mutually enriching battle of ideas while ensuring “open” global trade. Soon enough, the president was mocking his subordinate as a low-intelligence individual, a “leftist,” a “dreamer,” a “pacifist 100%.” Within days, he forced the official out of his administration, adding to the high turnover in his cabinet. “The reaction” to the firing “is terrific,” the president boasted. “The stock market went up twenty points!”
That president was not Donald Trump, but Harry Truman, and rather than facing off against a rising China, the United States was looking at a superpower challenge from the Soviet Union.
Yet as President Trump prepares for dinner with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the events of 1946 are nevertheless instructive for thinking about Washington’s confrontation with Beijing. The back-and-forth, set out in Truman’s private notes and letters and the public remarks of Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, represents a fleeting moment in the years immediately after World War II, when American officials were casting about for answers on how to define and solve the problem posed by the United States’ rising wartime ally.