In two excerpts from speeches given in 1946 and 1947 by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, one can see the tightrope he walked in the years immediately following World War II as the Cold War loomed.
The Soviet Union was still ostensibly the United States' ally, though the ties that bound the nations were beginning to fray. The U.N. charter was still seen as the way to resolve all conflicts. But there is a plaintive note in his insistence that "international law…must be made to rest on the growth of a common fellowship."
Byrnes devotes much of the first speech to defending the United States against what he perceives as scurrilous Soviet propaganda, while at the same time striving to emphasize that cooperation does still exist between the two postwar superpowers. He insists that the United States and other nations are not "ganging up" on Russia and scoffs at accusations of a Western plan of "encirclement." He points out that there were many areas of agreement at the recent Paris peace conference and defends the Marshall Plan and indignantly rejects claims that the United States enriched itself during the war at Europe's expense. He repeatedly appeals to the U.N. charter as a way of resolving conflicts.
By 1947, his tone has grown more exasperated and aggressive. "Force does not make right," he begins, "but…power, as well as reason, does affect international decisions." He objects to Russia's refusal to waive its veto privilege, which has stalled atomic arms control negotiations. He also addresses Argentina's not living up to the Chapultepec Act (later formalized as the Rio Treaty), and makes a plea for more aid to poor countries in the form of increased support for both the International Monetary Fund and and the World Bank.
Whereas becoming secretary of state would be considered the culmination of a typical career, for Byrnes it was just one stop among many in one of the most impressive political journeys of the 20th century. Largely forgotten today, Byrnes was a powerful and savvy public servant for over five decades. Born in South Carolina in 1882, he rose from impoverished beginnings to be elected to Congress in 1910. In 1931 he was elected to the Senate, where he became President Franklin D. Roosevelt's chief adviser, shepherding much New Deal legislation through the congress. As a reward for his services, Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1941. But for a consummate wheeler-dealer the court proved a poor fit. He resigned less than two years later to become, as a New York Times editorial put it, "'assistant president' who managed the economy and mobilized the country during World War II."
Twice, Roosevelt seriously considered Byrnes as his vice-presidential running mate, opting instead for Henry Wallace and then Harry Truman. Thus it was Truman, not Byrnes, who ascended to the Oval Office after Roosevelt's death. Byrnes, who had been Truman's mentor in the Senate, was appointed secretary of state during a particularly delicate time in the nation's foreign affairs. As the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography recounts:
Byrnes's tenure coincided with the collapse of the wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War. As secretary of state, he tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the conflicting interests between the United States and the Soviet Union. To satisfy the Soviet Union's demand for security against Germany, he proposed a four-power treaty of alliance to keep Germany demilitarized for 25 years; but the Kremlin rejected this offer. His effort to resolve the atomic energy issue between the two powers in 1945 -- he suggested the exchange of atomic information without absolute and effective agreement on inspection and control -- met with opposition in Congress. Although unable to obtain solutions on either issue, Byrnes managed in 1946 to work out compromise peace treaties with the Soviet Union for Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. On September 6, 1946, he delivered his famous Stuttgart speech, which called for the creation of an autonomous democratic German state. Increasingly, Byrnes adopted a tough posture toward the Soviet Union, but disagreements with President Truman led to his resignation on January 10, 1947.
At the age of 65, most politicians would have been content to retire. Instead, Byrnes went back to South Carolina, where he served as governor from 1951-55. His administration is remembered chiefly for its violent opposition to desegregation. This stance led to Byrnes' split with the Democratic Party. He endorsed Dwight D. Eisenhower for president in 1952 and 1956. He also is credited with devising the "Southern strategy," breaking the Democratic "solid South" and enabling Richard M. Nixon (for whom he served as a campaign adviser) to be elected president in 1968. The scope of Byrnes' life in public service is summed up by this appreciation by the website byrnesscholars.org:
The South that produced Byrnes lacked industry, roads, and educational facilities, and moved slowly to correct these ills. It was small-farm- and factory-oriented with a strong emphasis on yesterday and little emphasis on tomorrow. This man, a product of Southern rural America who was conditioned by its values of individualism, became an international figure, who met with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta and Potsdam to forge the policies which dominated the world for the next 30 years. A man essentially conservative, with a conservative South Carolina distaste for change, he was instrumentally involved from 1932 to 1937 in some of the greatest changes this nation has ever witnessed.
James F. Byrnes died in 1972, at age 89.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.