Seventy years ago, on March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech before a joint session of Congress that would shape the course of American foreign policy for the next 40 years.
In his speech, the president outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine. He stated that it would be the policy of the United States to help free nations “resist attempted subjugation by outside groups or armed minorities.” Furthermore, he said, the U.S. must help free peoples to “work out their own destinies in their own way.”
The immediate cause of President Truman’s speech was a political crisis and civil war in Greece, which threatened neighboring Turkey. The broader context for his speech was political turmoil and unrest in western and southern Europe, which had not recovered from the devastation of World War II, and the existence of Soviet-controlled governments in eastern Europe. The president never mentioned the Soviet Union in his speech, but the necessity of preventing the expansion of Soviet communism was at the front of his mind.
In his memoirs, Truman described the communist threat. The “new menace facing us seemed every bit as grave as Nazi Germany and her allies had been” during World War II. He insisted that the nation must not slip back into isolationism, as it had following World War I. ”Inaction, withdrawal, `Fortress America’ notions” would only result in “handing to the Russians vast areas” of the world. Truman felt that it was the duty of the United States to be at the “head of the free world.”
This was particularly true because Great Britain, exhausted by the strains of World War II, could no longer bear the financial burden of supporting Greece and Turkey. As Henry Kissinger observed in his book, “Diplomacy,” “Truman was prepared to take over Great Britain’s historic role of blocking a Russian advance toward the Mediterranean ...” In his “Long Telegram” of 1946, State Department diplomat George Kennan described the Soviet Union’s “neurotic” worldview in terms of Russian leaders’ historical insecurity and their seeking “security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”
In a White House meeting with congressional leaders on Feb. 27, 1947, Dean Acheson, then undersecretary of state, put the crisis the United States faced in bold and frank terms. In “Present at the Creation,” his memoir, Acheson recalled how he described Soviet pressure in northern Iran, the Turkish Straits and Greece. Like “apples in a barrel infected by a rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east.” That infection could spread to Africa and to Europe. Acheson’s argument persuaded the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, to support the administration’s position.
Both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress voted by large majorities to approve a Greek-Turkish aid bill. Even a staunch isolationist such as Robert Taft of Ohio voted to approve it. Commenting on the vote in his book, “A Preponderance of Power,” historian Melvin Leffler noted, “... there would be no resurgence of isolationism.”
On May 22, President Truman signed a $400 million Greek-Turkish aid bill at the Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. He signed it there because he was already in the area, visiting his ailing mother in Grandview. The New York Times described the scene: “Promptly at 8 o'clock this morning [the bill] was placed on the table in the little dining room that forms part of the suite Mr. Truman occupies when he is in Kansas City.” Prior to his signing the bill, Truman and his administration worked vigorously to educate members of Congress, the press and the public about the necessity and urgency of the Truman Doctrine and the funds that would support it.
The Truman Doctrine, together with the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations, would form the foundations for an internationalist foreign policy that prevented a third world war and contained Soviet expansionism. The containment policy, while ultimately successful, would result in the loss of American and Asian lives in Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.