The following article on the Truman Doctrine is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The combination of one of the worst winters in history and the economic consequences of World War II reduced Great Britain in early 1947 to near bankruptcy. On February 21, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., informed the State Department that Britain could no longer play its traditional role of protecting Greece and Turkey against threats external and internal and would have to withdraw from the region by April 1.
Since Greece faced internal agitation by communists and Turkey confronted a hostile Soviet Union, only a firm American commitment could prevent Soviet control of the two strategically located countries. There was no one to protect the strategic interests of the United States but the United States itself. Great Britain's withdrawal from the international stage had left a political vacuum, and the United States moved to fill it, not for narrow commercial or territorial reasons, but to protect freedom, independent states, and allies in a crucial area of the world.
THE PRAGMATIC ROOTS OF THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE
On February 26, Secretary of State George Marshall and Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson brought their recommendations to President Truman. Greece needed substantial aid and quickly; the alternative would be the loss of Greece and the extension of the Iron Curtain across the eastern Mediterranean. Truman wrote in his memoirs, “The ideals and the traditions of our nation demanded that we come to the aid of Greece and Turkey and that we put the world on notice that it would be our policy to support the cause of freedom wherever it was threatened.”
Central to the development of the Truman Doctrine was the president's February 27 session with congressional leaders. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress following the mid-term elections, and Truman understood that he needed the help of the Republican leaders to craft a bipartisan foreign policy. At the White House meeting, Truman asked Marshall to summarize the case for Greek and Turkish aid, which the secretary did in his usual matter-of-fact way. There was a tepid response from the congressional group. Understanding what was at stake, Acheson intervened with a dire warning that the Soviets were playing “one of the greatest gambles in history.” The United States alone was in a position “to break up the play.”
Silence ensued, broken at last by a solemn Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republicans' foreign policy leader, who said, “Mr. President, if you will say that to the Congress and the country, I will support you, and I believe that most of its members will do the same.”
Truman based the assistance on the belief that governments suited to the peoples of Greece and Turkey would not develop or succeed if tyranny prevailed in those countries. But his concern went farther than the hopes of the Greek and Turkish peoples for a democratic future. He also stressed the implications of communist pressure on the entire region and on the world, asserting that the totalitarian pattern had to be broken.
The consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe depended on the local conditions in each country, the strength of the communist-led wartime resistance movements, and the degree of direct Soviet intervention. The Kremlin had promised in the Paris peace treaties to remove its troops from Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary but had failed to do so. As a result, the communists were able to force the socialists to join them in coalitions they dominated. Moscow had also manipulated the Polish elections to eliminate Stanisław Mikołajczyk and his Polish Peasant Party, with the help of a hundred thousand Polish security police agents, modeled on the Soviet NKVD.
Because the Red Army did not occupy either Greece or Turkey, Truman saw an opportunity to encourage liberty in the two countries by strengthening domestic conditions and preventing Soviet intervention on behalf of the local communists. He signed the Greek and Turkish aid bill into law on May 22, 1947, declaring, “The conditions of peace include, among other things, the ability of nations to maintain order and independence and to support themselves economically.” Although he did not name the Soviet Union, Truman said that totalitarianism was hindering peace and encroaching on peoples' territories and lives and called for an unprecedented American involvement in foreign affairs in peacetime.
The assertion of the Truman Doctrine was truly historic-the first time since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 that an American president had explicitly defined a principle of foreign policy and put the world on notice.
In the absence of an effective United Nations, the president said, America was the one nation capable of establishing and maintaining peace. The international situation, he said, was at a critical juncture. If America failed to aid Greece and Turkey “in this fateful hour,” the crisis would take on global proportions. While political and economic means were preferred, military strength was also needed to foster the political and economic stability of threatened countries.
The Truman Doctrine was a primary building block of containment. The president sounded themes that endured throughout his and successive administrations. The United States, he said, must support free peoples who were resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures so that free peoples can “work out their own destinies in their own way.”
MAIN POINTS OF THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE
Faced with a war unlike any previous one, Truman laid the groundwork for a policy of peace through strength. Against the backdrop of postwar domestic needs and wants, he had to educate the American people and persuade congressional leaders that decisive U.S. engagement in a new world struggle was necessary. Between 1946 and 1950, he reached three conclusions regarding global politics:
- Freedom must precede order, for freedom provides the deepest roots for peace. He rejected the realist preference for order above all.
- What kind of government a people chooses is decisive in both domestic and international politics. He did not echo President Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination with a secondary concern for governing principles. For Truman, a commitment to justice was the overriding principle.
- Security and strength go hand in hand. Truman's definition of strength included political order and military muscle, that is, a government and people embracing and then maintaining their liberty and justice.
President Truman and his administration proceeded to build on this political foundation. The impending economic collapse of Britain, France, and most of Western Europe in the winter of 1946 and the spring of 1947 led the United States to take action in the economic sphere in the form of the Marshall Plan. Soviet expansionism, including the establishment of puppet governments in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, Communist agitation in Italy and France, and the Berlin blockade spurred the United States and its allies to form NATO, America's first military alliance in peacetime. NSC 68 added an international dimension to the concept of peace through political, economic, and military strength.
The Truman Doctrine was the linchpin to foreign affairs in this period.
This article is part of our larger collection of resources on the Cold War. For a comprehensive outline of the origins, key events, and conclusion of the Cold War, click here.
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