Doctrines - The truman doctrine




Doctrines The Truman Doctrine 4107
Photo by: Mark Markau

While the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine sought to constrain Japanese militarism, the Truman Doctrine addressed a new and more global threat—that of international communism. The purveyor of that creed, the Soviet Union, had enjoyed a rocky relationship with the United States; since October 1917, Americans had looked upon the Soviets as outcasts and irritants. Then, during World War II, they became allies. With the emergence of the Cold War their status changed again, with Moscow now taking on the attributes of an implacable foe. President Harry S. Truman would help sear that image into the minds of Americans, most spectacularly when, on 12 March 1947, in a message before a joint session of Congress, he laid down a set of principles that would govern U.S.–Soviet relations for decades to come. "At the present moment in world history," Truman proclaimed, "nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life." Too often that choice was not a free one. It would therefore be the policy of the United States "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Although Truman chose not to identify those minorities or groups by name, their identity as communists was hardly in doubt. To help those free peoples—in this case, Greeks and Turks—withstand communist pressure, Truman would ask Congress to provide them with $400 million in economic and military aid. Yet far more than just Greece and Turkey was at stake, Truman proclaimed. The United States was caught in a global struggle between two opposing ways of life. Consequently, Truman deemed all of "the free peoples of the world" equally worthy of American assistance. By implication, then, the president's proposal was no mere stop-gap measure. As many in the press and government realized, it aspired to nothing less than the preservation of Western civilization.

Fears of postwar Soviet expansion had ebbed and flowed during 1946. The presence of Red Army troops in northern Iran well past the date established for their departure raised Western concerns about the nature of Moscow's intentions. Remonstrations by U.S. officials, however, led to a Kremlin withdrawal by late spring. Tensions would heat up later that summer as the Soviets pressured Turkey into revising the Montreux Convention—the protocol governing access to the Dardanelles—to allow for a joint administration of the Turkish straits with an eye toward the eventual establishment of Soviet bases in Turkey. Reports of Soviet troops massing along the Turkish border led the Truman administration to conclude that invasion might well be imminent. Turkish and American resistance led Moscow to drop its request, but Soviet behavior continued to worry U.S. officials.

Greece appeared to be the next target of the Soviet pressure campaign. Civil war between communists and monarchists had been raging in that country since the Nazi retreat of 1944, and neither the British, who stepped in as the occupying power, nor the Americans, who sent millions in aid, were able to quell the strife. Support for the communists came from the Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, although U.S. officials feared—erroneously, as it turned out—that Moscow was the controlling force.

America's rise to power in the Mediterranean is also the story of Britain's fall from power. Previously, Britain had assumed the role of protector of the states in that area. With its economy in tatters following World War I, however, Britain found it could no longer play that role, and thus feared a Russian surge into the power vacuum it created. On 21 February the British embassy in Washington informed the State Department that Britain would soon be cutting off economic and military assistance to Greece and Turkey.

Committing the nation's resources and prestige to the security and survival of Europe during an era of nominal peace was a radical departure for American policymakers. It certainly stood in stark contrast to Monroe's pledge not to intervene in European affairs. As a result, administration officials thought it necessary to portray the situation in the most dramatic of terms. The president's address to the nation therefore employed rhetoric bordering on the apocalyptic, casting the struggle with Moscow in a highly dualistic light. The choice facing America, Truman argued, was between two opposing and irreconcilable ways of life: between the virtues of democracy and the horrors of totalitarianism. Although the East-West conflict had become more ideologically polarized during the preceding twelve months, the administration had yet to frame it—at least publicly—in such a dichotomous fashion.

In doing so, the Truman Doctrine wove together several themes running through the national dialogue on the Soviet Union and thrust them out into the public realm with substantial force. One of them involved the image of "Red fascism." Although parallels between fascism and communism had been popular for years, the Truman Doctrine helped to work that image into the public consciousness, locking in the notion that Soviet Russia posed an equal if not greater threat to world peace than had Nazi Germany. The Truman Doctrine also contributed to the emergence of an equally powerful representation of the enemy: the "Communist monolith." Belief in the "monolith" presupposed that Greek communists, like all communists, were tools of the Kremlin. This was a viewpoint shared widely—and not without reason—by administration personnel and media figures alike. By minimizing the differences between any and all totalitarians, the Truman Doctrine reinforced that interpretation of communist behavior.

Not everyone in the administration embraced the overtly ideological cant of the president's speech. Officials such as policy planning director George Kennan, State Department counselor Charles Bohlen, and Secretary of State George Marshall thought Truman's comments either too dramatic, too overwrought, or too open-ended. Similarly, Walter Lippmann, the nation's leading journalist, likened the doctrine to "a vague global policy" devoid of any limits, and described it as "the tocsin of an ideological crusade." Indeed, fallout from the speech suggested that the public was—from the administration's point of view—focusing too narrowly on its military and ideological aspects and ignoring its economic dimension. The administration was thus caught in a public relations paradox. On the one hand, it sought to brief the country on what was transpiring in Europe; only by "shocking" the nation, it believed, could the American people grasp the issues at stake. Yet the resultant upsurge in anticommunist sentiment threatened to overwhelm the administration's capacity to manage it. Hoping to get the word out in a more sober fashion, a speech by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson reframed the debate around the administration's preferred theme of economic reconstruction. Marshall would return to that theme in early June, laying the groundwork for the recovery plan that bore his name.

In the interim, Congress debated the terms of the Greek and Turkish aid bills. Their passage was by no means assured, for Republican victories in the 1946 election ushered in a Congress that was not in Democratic control for the first time since 1932. Many of those who now sat in the majority had won their seats on pledges of fiscal restraint and tax reduction. Lawmakers thus sought to limit the scope of Truman's policy, a restriction that Acheson refused to accept; future requests for aid, he stated, would receive consideration on a case-by-case basis. Congress raised additional concerns over whether the recipients of foreign aid could be considered democratic. Acknowledging that neither the Turkish government nor the Greek forces were paragons of liberal virtue, administration officials urged Congress to fund both groups nevertheless. Otherwise, they argued, both Turkey and Greece would lose the ability to govern themselves and lay vulnerable to forces aided and abetted by the Soviet Union. Time was of the essence, Acheson declared; he and his associates urged quick action on the Greek and Turkish aid bills, arguing that the United States, and not the United Nations—with its clumsy machinery—was the proper engine for the aid program. Congress passed the aid measures and on 22 May Truman signed the bills. The Truman Doctrine was now the operative principle of U.S. foreign policy.

If the Monroe Doctrine established the general principles for subsequent declarations of American foreign policy, the Truman Doctrine established the more particular guidelines for the duration of the Cold War. It was the most dramatic statement issued by the administration since the emergence of conflict with the Soviets. It established a precedent of sweeping appeals to aid democratic forces, leaving to subsequent administrations the privilege of deciding precisely what constituted democratic behavior. Perhaps the greatest testament to its impact is the legislation and diplomacy that followed, more or less logically, from the premises it established. Within three years, the administration would usher through Congress bills establishing aid programs and treaties such as the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, committing the United States both economically and militarily to the defense of Europe. NSC 68, a 1950 National Security Council report to the president, and the attendant legislation that tripled the defense budget, likewise were expressions of the themes and arguments contained in Truman's speech. Indeed, for the next several decades, much of the nation's international behavior—from its involvement in Korea and Vietnam to its support of Afghani and Nicaraguan rebels—grew out of the postulates laid down in the Truman Doctrine.

Historians have long debated the merits and demerits of the Truman Doctrine. Some have described it as an inherently self-serving policy. For these scholars, the Truman Doctrine was the opening gambit in America's quest for global economic hegemony; the plan, they charge, was to make the world safe for American capitalism. To be sure, U.S. policymakers were acutely aware of economic concerns as they mapped out American strategy in the postwar era. Fears of a "dollar gap" in Europe mounted when American leaders considered the domestic implications of the continent's misfortune; the inability of Europeans to purchase U.S. goods threatened to slow down the American economic recovery, leading to renewed concern about recession and even depression. The Marshall Plan, as the argument goes, thus primed the American pump, allowing European consumers to maintain levels of spending adequate for U.S. economic vitality.

It is not entirely clear, however, whether American policymakers focused on those issues with such single-minded zeal. Administration officials certainly understood the reciprocal features of an economically vital Europe and United States and were no doubt interested in maintaining growth in the home market. But they also recognized the dynamic between the economic vitality of Europe and the political health of Europe; it was their contention that a vibrant economy, both home and abroad, was the best protection against communist gains. It was most likely this larger picture, involving a wider matrix of forces, that they had in mind as they contemplated their response to the British withdrawal notes of February 1947.

Scholars have also questioned the wisdom of Truman's rhetoric. Some have argued that his use of Manichean imagery locked the nation into a rigid, inflexible policy toward the Soviet Union. Diplomacy—the art of compromise—was all but impossible when one's counterparts were regarded as evil. Likewise, historians have argued, the persistence of that Manichean and monolithic framework prevented policymakers from recognizing difference and division within the communist world. An earlier appreciation of fragmentation in the Soviet bloc—and of downright hostility between some of its members—might have prevented America from pursuing some disastrous policy options, such as those involving the war in Vietnam.

These arguments need to be qualified, especially in light of evidence emerging from the former Eastern bloc. While the Truman Doctrine certainly did its part in establishing a powerful vocabulary for the Cold War, it seems as though the language it used reflected some fundamental truths about international communism. Stalinist Europe was very much a closed system, with the Soviet Union controlling much of what went on there. True, Tito's Yugoslavia was able to assert its independence from the Soviet grip, but that was the exception; the regionwide purge resulting from the Tito split only reinforced the tendency for the other Eastern European nations to do Moscow's bidding. Chinese Communists were no more willing than their European counterparts to contravene Soviet wishes. Although tensions often resulted from tactical differences between Moscow and Beijing, on the larger questions the two stood side by side. As a result, American officials had little chance to court the Chinese Communists either before or after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Things would change during the late 1950s and the 1960s, but so, too, would U.S. policy; the consensus established by Truman during the late 1940s would come unraveled as the nation plunged further into the jungles of Southeast Asia, leading another generation of policymakers to recast some of the early Cold War premises.

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