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The Truman Doctrine of containment was a United States policy to stop Soviet expansion during the Cold War. United States President Harry S. Truman pledged to contain communism in Europe and elsewhere and impelled the US to support any nation with both military and economic aid if its stability was threatened by communism or the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine became the foundation of the president's foreign policy and placed the U.S. in the role of global policeman. As Foner reminds us, the Truman Doctrine "set a precedent for American assistance to anticommunist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic, and for the creation of a set of global military alliances directed against the Soviet Union" (1st edition, p. 781; 2nd edition, p. 844). President Harry S. Truman told Congress that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Truman reasoned, because these "totalitarian regimes" coerced "free peoples", they represented a threat to international peace and the national security of the United States. Truman made the plea amid the crisis of the Greek Civil War (1946–1949). He argued that if Greece and Turkey did not receive the aid that they urgently needed, they would inevitably fall to communism with grave consequences throughout the region. Because Turkey and Greece were historic rivals, it was necessary to help both equally, even though the threat to Greece was more immediate.
For years Britain had supported Greece, but was now near bankruptcy and was forced to radically reduce its involvement. In February 1947, Britain formally requested the United States take over its role in supporting the Greek government.
The policy won the support of Republicans who controlled Congress and involved sending $400 million in American money, but no military forces, to the region. The effect was to end the Communist threat, and in 1952 both countries (Greece and Turkey) joined NATO, a military alliance that guaranteed their protection.
The Doctrine was informally extended to become the basis of American Cold War policy throughout Europe and around the world. It shifted American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union from détente (a relaxation of tension) to a policy of containment of Soviet expansion as advocated by diplomat George Kennan.
In 1946-47, the United States and the Soviet Union moved from being wartime allies to Cold War adversaries. During that time, Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe, its delayed withdrawal from Iran, and the breakdown of Allied cooperation in Germany provide the backdrop of escalating tensions for the Truman Doctrine; the US response has been much debated by historians. To Truman, with growing unrest in Greece, it began to look like a pincer movement against the oil-rich areas of the Middle East and the warm-water ports of the Mediterranean.
In February 1946, Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow, sent his famed "Long Telegram", which predicted the Soviets would only respond to force and that the best way to handle them would be through a long-term strategy of containment, that is stopping their geographical expansion. After the British warned that they could no longer help Greece, and following Prime Minister Tsaldaris's visit to Washington in December 1946 to ask for American assistance, the U.S. State Department formulated a plan. Aid would be given to both Greece and Turkey, to help cool the long-standing rivalry between them. In March 1947, President Truman appeared before Congress and used Kennan's Containment policy as the basis for what became known as the Truman Doctrine.
To pass any legislation Truman needed the support of the Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress. The chief Republican spokesman Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg strongly supported Truman and overcame the doubts of isolationists such as Senator Robert A. Taft.
American policy makers recognized the instability of the region, fearing that if Greece was lost to Communism, Turkey would not last long. Similarly, if Turkey yielded to Soviet demands, the position of Greece would be endangered. That is, it was a regional domino effect threat that guided the American decision. Greece and Turkey were strategic allies important for geographical reasons as well, for the fall of Greece would put the Soviets on a particularly dangerous flank for the Turks, and strengthen the Soviet Union's ability to cut off allied supply lines in the event of war.
The Truman Doctrine was the first in a series of containment moves by the United States, followed by economic restoration of Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and military containment by the creation of NATO in 1949. President Truman made the proclamation in an address to the U.S. Congress on March 12, 1947, amid the crisis of the Greek Civil War (1946–1949). Truman insisted that if Greece and Turkey did not receive the aid that they needed, they would inevitably fall to Communism with consequences throughout the region.
In the second stage of the civil war in December 1944 (The Dekemvriana), the British helped prevent the seizure of Athens by the National Liberation Front (EAM), controlled effectively by the Greek Communist Party (KKE). In the third phase (1946–1949), guerrilla forces controlled by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) fought against the internationally recognized Greek government which was formed after 1946 elections boycotted by the KKE. The British realized that the Greek leftists were being directly funded by Josip Broz Tito in neighboring Yugoslavia; the Greek communists received little help directly from the Soviet Union, while Yugoslavia provided support and sanctuary. By late 1946 the weakening British economy informed the United States that it could no longer continue to provide military and economic support to Greece.
In May 1947, two months after Truman's plea, Congress approved $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. Increased American aid helped defeat the KKE, after interim defeats for government forces from 1946 to 1948.
At the conclusion of World War II, Stalin demanded partial control of the Dardanelles, a strategic passage between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Since British assistance to Turkey had ended in 1947, the U.S. dispatched military aid to ensure that Turkey would retain chief control of the passage. Turkey received $100 million in economic and military aid and the U.S sent the aircraft carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt. The postwar period from 1946 started with a "multi-party period" and the Democratic Party government of Adnan Menderes.
Long-term policy and metaphor
The Truman Doctrine underpinned American Cold War policy in Europe and around the world. The doctrine endured because it addressed a broader cultural insecurity regarding modern life in a globalized world. It dealt with Washington's concern over communism's domino effect, it enabled a media-sensitive presentation of the doctrine that won bipartisan support, and it mobilized American economic power to modernize and stabilize unstable regions without direct military intervention. It brought nation-building activities and modernization programs to the forefront of foreign policy.
The Truman Doctrine became a metaphor for emergency aid to keep a nation from communist influence. Truman used disease imagery not only to communicate a sense of impending disaster in the spread of communism but also to create a "rhetorical vision" of containing it by extending a protective shield around non-communist countries throughout the world. It echoed the "quarantine the aggressor" policy Roosevelt sought to impose to contain German and Japanese expansion in 1937--("quarantine" suggested the role of public health officials handling an infectious disease). The medical metaphor extended beyond the immediate aims of the Truman Doctrine in that the imagery combined with fire and flood imagery evocative of disaster provided the United States with an easy transition to direct military confrontation in later years with communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. By presenting ideological differences in life or death terms, Truman was able to garner support for this communism-containing policy.
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- Fraser J. Harbutt, The Cold War era (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) pp 19–20
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- Truman Comments on Greek Politicking, 1947 Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Truman Library website with papers related to the Truman Doctrine
- Full text of the speech
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- Cartoon on display at the LoC