In early March 1947 the US President Harry S. Truman faced a political and diplomatic quandary. His administration had been informed by the Labour government of Clement Attlee that Britain could no longer afford to provide military aid to Greece and Turkey after the end of that month. Both countries had become embroiled in the nascent Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and the USA was the only state in a position to offer their governments defence assistance. However, Truman also had to contend with Senators and Representatives who were bound to question his proposed $400m aid package to Athens and Ankara.
The President received advice from what would today be seen as a peculiar source. The Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a pre-war isolationist who had changed his mind as a result of the Second World War, and regarded it as inevitable that the USA would now assume a world role. He also understood that any justification of aid to the Greeks and Turks based on the complexities of geopolitics and strategy would fall flat with both the Republican and Democratic parties, and the electorate. Vandenberg told Truman that he had to ‘scare the hell out of the American people’. The President followed this advice in his speech to their elected representatives on 12th March 1947, outlining what was subsequently dubbed the Truman Doctrine.
Today, there is something almost quaint about a Democratic President being offered advice – and taking it – from the other side of Congress. Furthermore, while Truman was making the case for America to see its security interests as being interconnected with peace and stability in the Eastern Hemisphere, the 45th President seems bent on demonstrating the opposite. Nonetheless, Truman’s presentation of his aid programme to Greece and Turkey as a matter almost of life and death for American democracy has parallels with future Presidencies, for example with Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union speech in January 1980 (in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), or George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech 22 years later.
By early 1947 the wartime alliance between the USA, USSR and Great Britain had disintegrated. The imposition of Communist rule in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, quarrels over the fate of a divided Germany, and Josif Stalin’s uncompromising speech on East-West relations on 9th February 1946 testified to the collapse of trust between the Soviets and their former partners in the Grand Alliance, but it was a series of crises in the ‘Near’ and Middle East in 1946-1947 that helped precipitate the Cold War. In Iran, Moscow refused to remove Soviet troops deployed to the country as part of an Allied occupation during WWII, and appeared to sponsor separatist republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Stalin also tried to bully the Turks into revising the 1936 Montreux Convention governing the movement of shipping through the Straits, and also into making territorial concessions to the USSR, and these demands were accompanied by troop movements in the Caucasus and Soviet-occupied Bulgaria. Greece was mired in a civil war pitting the British-backed royal government against a Communist insurgency, aided by the Albanians, Yugoslavs and Bulgarians. Britain was the principal source of military aid to Turkey and Greece, but WWII had left it economically exhausted, and no longer able to sustain a Pax Britannica in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The intellectual foundations of the Truman Doctrine – and subsequent US Cold War policy – came from the ‘Long Telegram’ drafted by George F. Kennan, the then charge d’affairs of the US Embassy in Moscow on 22nd February 1946. Kennan’s argument, which was refined in an anonymous article published in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs, was that the Soviet regime was implacably hostile to the USA and the West, and justified its despotic rule over its subjects by presenting America and its allies as a menace to the USSR. Kennan also stated that Moscow was committed to expand its power and influence throughout Eurasia, taking advantage of the instability and chaos caused by the recent world war. He argued that the USA needed to block the expansion of the USSR’s influence through diplomatic, economic and military means, adopting a policy of ‘containment’ to ensure that the Soviet empire did not expand beyond its own borders and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Kennan’s appointment as the director of the newly-established Policy Planning Staff in the US State Department a month after Truman’s speech gave him the opportunity to help shape America’s Cold War strategy, although he subsequently argued that his concepts of containment had been militarised.
With his speech to Congress on 12th March, Truman outlined the problems that Greece faced; impoverished and wrecked by Axis occupation in WWII, now vulnerable to take-over by a guerrilla movement backed by Stalin and his Balkan clients. Turkey had been neutral during the war, but was now open to pressure from Moscow and lacked the means to defend itself. He then commented on the imposition of pro-Soviet regimes in Warsaw, Bucharest and Sofia, stating that:
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, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the 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 by outside pressures.
Congress approved his aid package to the Greeks and Turks, and in retrospect the Truman Doctrine also provided the basis for the Marshall Plan later that year, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in September 1949, and ultimately the construction of an array of multilateral and bilateral security pacts which currently tie the USA to its allies in Europe and Asia. However, it is worth noting that Truman’s speech also had a controversial legacy.
The first problem with the Doctrine concerned applicability. What was good for Greece and Turkey was perhaps good for Nationalist China in 1949, South Korea in 1950, and South Vietnam in the early 1960s. Just over two years after Truman’s enunciation of his doctrine, his administration was pilloried by the Republicans for the ‘loss of China’, namely Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese civil war. Republican Senators and Representatives loudly demanded why the Democrats had allowed a stalwart ally to fall, and decried the package of military aid that Truman had provided to the Guomindang as insufficient. The logical implication here was that if arms, money and advisors were insufficient to stop a ‘free’ nation from being subjugated by Communism, then what was next? More military instructors? More equipment and munitions? The overt introduction of US combat troops?
Secondly, who exactly qualified to be ‘free’? East Berliners revolting against the GDR in 1953, and Hungarians involved in the 1956 revolution found that the criteria did not apply to them. The costs of liberating Eastern bloc countries would involve a Third World War, and no US administration confronted with turmoil in the Soviet empire was prepared to accept that outcome. In contrast, the criteria for ‘free’ throughout the Cold War essentially meant ‘anti-Communist’. Ngo Dinh Diem, Fulgencio Batista, Mobutu Sese Seko, Manuel Noriega and Augusto Pinochet were no more committed to contested elections, an independent, a free press and the concept of a ‘loyal’ legislative opposition than the USSR, China, North Korea or East Germany were. Yet their regimes were still deemed worthy of US backing because they were run by pro-American thugs, rather than pro-Communist ones.
Thirdly, there was a key question related to strategic priorities. Kennan subsequently argued that America would squander its means if it responded to every single Communist encroachment across the globe. Some countries and some regions mattered more than others from a power-political perspective, and in certain cases zero-sum thinking about successes and failures detracted from long-term calculations on strategic outcomes. NATO powers saw Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe as a strategic threat to the Western half. But this could also be viewed as an encumbrance to Moscow, particularly with the troop presence in the GDR, Poland, Hungary and (after 1968) Czechoslovakia that was needed to keep loyal regimes in power in the region. Further abroad, South Yemen (after its independence from Britain in 1967) was a basket-case. The Ethiopian and Angolan regimes needed substantial financial and military aid to fight off powerful insurgent movements, while a unified Vietnam required Moscow’s protection from China, particularly after the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. Furthermore, the Afghan ‘revolution’ in April 1978 proved to be a disaster for Soviet interests, requiring an extensive military intervention to save a client regime from downfall, leading to a war from 1979 to 1989 which contributed to Moscow’s economic and strategic woes.
Fourthly, there was the image of the monolithic Communist conspiracy that distracted US policy-makers from the multifaceted challenge they faced. The opening of Russia’s archives after 1991 showed that Stalin was not applying a master plan for world domination in the late 1940s, and adopted an opportunistic response to post-war crises. His territorial claims on Turkey were in part an attempt to appease the Communist Party of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, demonstrating that even the ‘captive nations’ could have a significant impact on the USSR’s foreign policy. The coup in Prague in February 1948 was largely the initiative of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Later that year the Soviet and Yugoslav leaderships had a bitter and public schism arising from Marshal Josef Tito’s clear frustration with Stalin’s efforts to direct his regime; the split removed one of the key sources of support for the Greek Communist rebellion. Twenty one years later, China and the USSR were on the brink of war over a series of border clashes in Siberia/Manchuria and Central Asia, and in February 1972 Mao welcomed President Richard Nixon – a formerly avowed enemy of the People’s Republic – to Beijing.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to judge the Truman administration for failing to foresee the eventual fragmentation of the Communist ‘bloc’. Statesmen, diplomats and senior military officers have fragmentary and contradictory information to guide them, and rarely have the ability to see ‘the other side of the hill’. There is also a tendency in international politics for policy-makers to overrate both the strength and the strategic acumen of an adversary. It is also worth noting the USA’s alliance with its European allies did give it an advantage over its superpower adversary, insofar as political differences (such as France’s withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure in 1966, or Britain’s refusal to send troops to fight in Vietnam or to back the USA during the Yom Kippur War) could be mitigated by the established arts of democratic compromise. Debates over Communist dogma could not be managed in the same manner.
Nevertheless, Truman’s speech to Congress on 12th March 1947 still represents a turning point in US foreign policy, as he was able to do what his predecessor Woodrow Wilson failed to achieve after WWI; persuade the American body politic and the electorate that the national security interests of the USA and the survival of its constitution depended on its ability and willingness to protect its friends worldwide. This was reciprocated by what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad called the process of ‘empire by invitation’, in which allies (notably Britain in this case) solicited US diplomatic and military intervention to bolster their own security interests. Truman told his audience that America needed a stable world order as much as the latter needed the former. It remains to be seen if the current US President can persuade Congress and electorate that the reverse is true, and also what the consequences of such an outcome will be.
Image: President Harry S. Truman addressing a joint session of Congress asking for $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey. This speech became known as the “Truman Doctrine” speech. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.