Following World War II many of the factories that had been devoted to military production during the fighting were converted back to their prewar, civilian uses. However, the cessation of fighting in Europe and Asia was not greeted—as the end of World War I had been—with a wave of revulsion against American arms makers. Instead, the nation's military industries were widely viewed as a major pillar of American military strength and an important source of technological innovation. Thus, when the Cold War began in earnest, most members of Congress were prepared to support a new round of arms transfers along the lines of the lend-lease program.
The resumption of U.S. arms aid to friendly powers abroad did not occur without prodding from the White House, however. With World War II barely concluded, many in Congress were at first reluctant to authorize significant military aid to the European powers—fearing, as had their counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s, that this would eventually lead to U.S. military involvement in overseas conflicts. To overcome this resistance, President Harry S. Truman and his close advisers, including Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall, sought to portray the expansion of Soviet power in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean as a vital threat to the Western democracies and, by extension, to U.S. national security.
The first significant test of U.S. attitudes on this issue came in early 1947, when Great Britain announced that it could no longer afford to support the royalist government in Greece—which at that time was under attack from a communistbacked insurgency. Fearing that the loss of Greece to the communists would invite Soviet aggression in neighboring countries, including Turkey, President Truman concluded that it was essential for the United States to provide arms and military training to the Greek military. On 12 March 1947, Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress to request funding for this purpose. In what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the president articulated a new guiding principle for American foreign policy: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
As noted by many historians since then, this speech shaped U.S. security doctrine for the next several decades. Henceforth it would be the unquestionable obligation of the United States to provide economic, political, and especially military assistance to any nation threatened by Soviet (or Soviet-backed) forces. As the first expression of this principle, Congress voted $400 million in military assistance for Greece and Turkey on 15 May 1947; this was soon followed by the appropriation of even larger amounts for these two countries and for many others in Europe and Asia.
In time the transfer of arms to anticommunist governments abroad came to be seen in Washington as a critical component of "containment," the strategy that governed American foreign and military policy throughout the Cold War. As articulated by its original architects, containment held that the totalitarian Soviet system was forced by its very nature to seek domination over the rest of the world, and thus, in response, the United States had no choice but to join with other nations in resisting Soviet aggression. And because many of the nations on the periphery of the Soviet empire were too poor to provide for their own defense, it was up to Washington to supply the necessary arms and equipment.
This principle was given formal expression in the Mutual Defense Assistance Act (MDAA) of 1949. Signed into law by President Truman on 6 October of that year, the MDAA (later incorporated into the Mutual Security Act of 1950) gave the president broad authority to conclude mutual defense assistance agreements with friendly powers and to provide these countries with a wide range of military goods and services. In its initial authorization Congress awarded $1 billion to members of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); $211 million to Greece and Turkey; $28 million to Iran, the Philippines, and South Korea; and $75 million for the "general area" of China. These appropriations were increased in subsequent years, reaching a peak of $5.2 billion after the outbreak of the Korean War.
These arms aid endeavors were accompanied, of course, by U.S. efforts to strengthen its own military capabilities. If a full-scale war were to break out, it was believed, the United States would have to provide the bulk of the required forces. But the initial tests of strength were assumed to take place in the border zones between East and West. As a result, much of U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War was directed at the establishment of military alliances with friendly states in these areas and at bolstering the defensive capabilities of their armies. The linkage between military aid programs and U.S. national security was formally articulated in National Security Council policy document number 68 (NSC 68) of April 1950. Described by Representative (later Senator) Henry Jackson as "the first comprehensive statement of national strategy," NSC 68 called on Washington to aid any nation that might conceivably fall under Soviet influence.
At first U.S. arms aid was given primarily to the NATO countries and to other friendly powers on the periphery of the Soviet Union and China, including Iran, South Korea, Turkey, and the Nationalist government on Taiwan. In later years such assistance was also supplied to friendly nations in Africa and Latin America. Between 1950 and 1967 the United States provided its allies with a total of $33.4 billion in arms and services under the Military Assistance Program (MAP), plus another $3.3 billion worth of surplus weaponry under the Excess Defense Articles program. The United States also sold weapons to those of its allies that were sufficiently recovered from World War II to finance their own arms acquisitions; between 1950 and 1967 Washington exported $11.3 billion worth of arms and equipment through its Foreign Military Sales program. (All of these figures are in uninflated "current" dollars, meaning that their value in contemporary dollars would be significantly greater.)
Although the basic premise of American arms transfers—to strengthen the defenses of U.S. allies facing a military threat from the Soviet Union—did not change over the years, many aspects of these programs underwent significant transformation. Thus, while the bulk of U.S. weaponry was originally funneled to the industrialized powers of Europe and Asia, by the late 1950s an increasing portion of these arms was being provided to friendly nations in what was then called the Third World. The primary impetus for this shift was Moscow's apparent success in using arms transfers to establish military links with Egypt (beginning in 1954), Syria (in 1955), Iraq (in 1958), and Cuba (in 1961). In order to combat the growing Soviet presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, Washington began supplying vast quantities of arms and ammunition to its own allies in these regions— thereby triggering fresh Soviet arms transfers to its Third World clients, in what was to become an ongoing pattern of U.S.–Soviet arms competition.
Although the primary objective of U.S. arms transfer policy during this period was to bolster the defensive capabilities of key allies, American leaders did on occasion emphasize other priorities. In the early 1950s, for example, the United States joined with Great Britain and France in restricting arms deliveries to the Middle East. As noted in the 1950 Tripartite Declaration, the aim of this effort was to prevent the outbreak of an uncontrolled and destabilizing arms race in the region. (This effort collapsed in 1954, when the Soviet bloc began selling arms to Egypt and the United States responded by increasing its arms deliveries to Israel and other friendly powers in the area.)
In another attempt at restraint, the Kennedy administration attempted in the early 1960s to dissuade Latin American countries from acquiring expensive, "big-ticket" weapons such as jet fighters and armored vehicles. Believing that persistent underdevelopment—rather than the distant threat of Soviet power—represented the greatest threat to these states' long-term stability, President John F. Kennedy suggested that any funds saved by reducing arms imports be devoted to economic and social development. When supplying U.S. arms to these countries under the MAP program, moreover, Kennedy favored the transfer of "counterinsurgency" gear—small arms, light vehicles, helicopters, and so on.
For the most part, however, U.S. policymakers favored a liberal approach to arms transfers, permitting the flow of increasingly costly and sophisticated arms to American allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This policy was strongly backed by U.S. military leaders, who saw arms transfers (and their accompanying training and advising operations) as a valuable instrument for establishing and nurturing ties with the military elites of friendly countries. It also enjoyed strong support from the domestic arms industry, which consistently opposed any restrictions on the sales of weapons to friendly powers abroad.