The Truman Doctrine was the United States’ first definitive Cold War policy. The road to the Truman Doctrine began with the death of Franklin Roosevelt, who had been US president since January 1933. During his time in office Roosevelt responded to several great challenges, not least of which was overseeing the reconstruction of the nation after the devastating Great Depression. When World War II erupted in 1939, Roosevelt remained true to America’s long-standing commitment to neutrality – but he also supported America’s allies, particularly Britain, through the development of the lend-lease program. Two years later, after the American base at Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese, Roosevelt declared it a “date which will live in infamy”, as he committed American might to the European war. Roosevelt’s leadership was instrumental in vanquishing two great tyrannies: Nazism and Japanese military imperialism. Sadly, he would not live to see the final defeat of either. Weakened by years of paralysis, smoking and stress, Roosevelt’s own days were numbered. In November 1944 he was swept back into power for a record fourth term – but he would serve barely another four months. On April 12th 1945, Roosevelt, while resting at his holiday home in Georgia, said “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head” then slumped unconscious onto his desk. The pain was a massive stroke and the president never regained consciousness.
The leadership passed to Roosevelt’s vice-president, Harry S. Truman – the ‘S’ did not stand for another name – a relatively inexperienced politician hurried into the vice-presidency the previous year. Truman was a World War I veteran and a former shopkeeper with comparatively little education (he did not attend school until he was eight, and he was the only 20th century president without a college degree). Truman had been a US Senator since 1935, where he received some press attention for heading a committee which cracked down on wasteful spending and corruption in the military. Truman had a reputation as a plain speaking, no-nonsense politician who got things done. But he was by no means an ideal candidate for the presidency, as suggested by Roosevelt’s decision not to discuss major policies or war tactics with Truman during his 82 days as vice-president. In fact Truman only learned of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb after becoming president.
Elizabeth Spalding, historian
In July 1945, just three months after taking office, Truman journeyed to Potsdam, Germany for a tripartite meeting with Churchill and Stalin. There he would face two considerable difficulties. The first was his own inexperience as president and as a foreign policy negotiator. The second was dealing with Stalin, given that Russian troops had occupied much of eastern Europe – including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania – under the pretext of stabilising the region. Truman would write to family members that he enjoyed the company of Stalin – a man who looked him firmly in the eyes when speaking – but that the Russians were, in general, “pig-headed” negotiators who always sought the upper hand. Truman was much more suspicious of Stalin’s motives than Roosevelt had been. He viewed the ongoing Russian occupation of eastern Europe as the beginnings of a Soviet empire, believing that it endangered the rest of the continent. In an attempt to gain the upper hand over Stalin, Truman revealed to him that the US had a new weapon of “unusual destructive force”. But Stalin showed little interest (what Truman did not know was that Soviet spies in the US had already alerted Moscow of the atomic bomb – in fact Stalin had known of it before Truman himself).
The ‘Long Telegram’
Truman spent much of the two years after the war dealing with American domestic economic issues, however he also kept one eye on Soviet encroachment in eastern Europe. An important source of advice on Soviet Russia was America’s embassy in Moscow. In February 1946 the deputy ambassador, George Kennan, sent a lengthy telegram to the US Treasury Department, summarising his view of the USSR, its government, ideology and objectives. This ‘Long Telegram’, as it became known, became the foundation of American attitudes during the Cold War: Kennan argued that the Soviet Union was hell-bent on the destruction of capitalism, and would seize any opportunity to advance communism in countries that were weak, politically unstable or recovering from the ravages of war. Of the struggle between Western capitalism and Soviet communism, Kennan noted that:
Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets… every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow… We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in [the] past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own. Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened by experiences of [the] past and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security. They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities. We should be better able than [the] Russians to give them this. And unless we do, [the] Russians certainly will.
Truman accepted Kennan’s final recommendation and used it as the basis for his foreign policy toward the USSR. Truman argued that several European nations were weak and at risk of being annexed or unduly influenced by totalitarianism, so the US should assist those nations to make their own decisions. In March 1947 he outlined this view more definitively in a speech to Congress which later became known as the ‘Truman Doctrine’:
At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, free elections, freedom of speech and religion… The second way of life is based upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and suppression of personal freedoms. 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 outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
Greece and Turkey
The two initial focal points for the Truman Doctrine were Greece and Turkey. During World War II Greece had been invaded by Mussolini’s Italian fascists and then occupied by the Nazis; its citizens had suffered persecution and starvation before being liberated by the British in 1944. Between 1944 and 1949 Greece was wracked by a civil war between government and communist forces. The government was initially supported by the British, however London withdrew from Greece in late 1946. Recognising the possibility of a communist victory there, the US Congress issued the Greek government with $US400 million in aid. Turkey was more politically stable but was under pressure from the Soviet Union, which was pushing for access to the Dardanelles, a strait linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Turkey was also given $US100 million in aid for refusing these overtures from Moscow.
Truman’s speech to Congress signaled a transition in American foreign policy: from detente (a state of relative calm and amicable relations) to containment (a more aggressive policy, aimed at restricting Soviet expansion and influence). The Truman Doctrine would underpin some well known Cold War policies, including the Marshall Plan, nuclear armament and the formation of NATO. It drew an angry response from the Soviet Union, one newsreel in Moscow suggesting:
President Truman’s message to Congress is a threat to the principles of the United Nations. The US needs to serve the interests of its huge business corporations, which are out for world domination. The USA is trying to establish its control over Greece and Turkey by means of ‘dollar diplomacy’. The Soviet Union accused Truman of talking “nonsense” about the dangers of Soviet expansion whilst exploiting countries on the pretext of providing aid to them.
1. The death of Franklin Roosevelt led to the rise of a new president, the relatively unknown Harry Truman.
2. Truman was a no-nonsense politician who was sceptical about Stalin’s motives and assurances at Yalta and Potsdam.
3. In devising his foreign, Truman drew heavily on George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’, drafted in early 1946.
4. In 1947 Truman told Congress he would support any nation at risk from “armed minorities or outside pressures”.
5. This speech formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine, which underpinned many significant US policies during the first decade of the Cold War, including containment, the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Truman Doctrine”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/truman-doctrine/.