The Truman Doctrine Essay

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The Truman Doctrine

In his address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947 President Truman officially committed the United States to an ideological cold war. Newsweek magazine called it “America’s Date with Destiny.” With unmistakable clarity Truman stated the principle that would guide U.S. global strategy for the next four decades: “I believe 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.” (Burns Richard Dean, 1994, 3) As many recognized at the time, it represented a new foreign policy for the United States. The day after the speech, James Reston of the New York Times compared its significance to that of the Monroe Doctrine, and it quickly became known as the “Truman Doctrine.”

The speech led to a transformation of Harry Truman and a transformation of U.S. foreign policy. Those transformations had been more than a year in the making. From the end of 1945 when concern over Soviet maneuvers turned to alarm, the administration had begun narrowing its perceptions and its options. Now, in March 1947 it was time to announce publicly this policy transformation. Truman’s address built on the division Churchill had drawn at Fulton, placed ideological themes and arguments drawn from Churchill and from the Clifford — Elsey report in an American policy context, and transformed that policy (that, for all practical purposes, had been in effect for a year) into a doctrine, a doctrine that would form the basis for the anticommunist reality of subsequent decades.

Truman described it as “this terrible decision” and Margaret Truman concluded that it was “the real beginning of the cold war.” (Cochran Bert, 1994, 9) The president’s speech defined a new ideological reality that would dominate the American political arena in which foreign policy commitments (and many domestic policies, as well) would be debated and either implemented or rejected.

Truman’s historic proclamation, taken with the other rhetorical events of this period, resulted in a transformation of American society. The questions we pose now are: why did the Truman Doctrine become an ideological statement of universal policy and messianic mission for the United States? In other words, why did Truman define the conflict with the Soviet Union in ideological terms instead of diplomatic or other political terms? And what role did Truman’s speech play in the creation of the cold war consensus?


The precipitating event that led to the Truman Doctrine was not an act by an adversary but an announcement by an ally. On the afternoon of February 21, 1947, the private secretary of Lord Inver chapel, the British ambassador to the United States, called the State Department to request an immediate meeting for the ambassador with the new secretary of state, George C. Marshall. The purpose was to deliver a “blue piece of paper,” a code name for an important message from the British government. Since Marshall was away for a speaking engagement at Princeton University, Dean Acheson, undersecretary of state, suggested that a copy of the message be delivered to him and the formal message be delivered when Marshall returned. The British agreed, but delivered two notes rather than one.

The British notes declared that the Greek government was on the verge of collapse, that the British (due to their own economic problems) could no longer provide economic and military support to Greece and Turkey, and that the British government hoped the United States would assume this burden thereafter. The British set March 31 as the deadline for terminating their support for the two countries.

Acheson described the message as a “shocker.” It is unclear what he was shocked about. It could hardly have been the news that the Greek situation was becoming more unstable. The civil war ink Greece had been going on for several years and was now in its “third round.” It entered this new phase in the aftermath of the March 1946 elections which had given the right-wing royalists control of the government in Athens. Soon thereafter, insurgents renewed their guerilla war, this time against the new government. The strain of Nazi occupation during World War II and the continuing civil strife within the country had left both the Greek economy and its political structure in disarray. But the U.S. government, far from ignoring Greece, had been monitoring these events carefully.

Turkey hardly qualified as a “shocker.” The previous October the Soviets had withdrawn their proposal for joint control of the Black Sea straits. The administration perceived no immediate threat to the territory of Turkey, although maintaining a large military force was causing the Turks some financial strain.

Finally, the withdrawal of British financial and military support had been anticipated. The British treasury had been depleted by the war. Like other European countries, the British economy was in a shambles in the early postwar years, and the hard winter of 1946-47 had exacerbated this financial crisis.

Neither the Greek civil war nor the British economic situation could have been shocking to Acheson. A number of memoranda about both situations had been circulating in the State Department for some time prior to the February notes. The possibility that U.S. aid would be needed, as the British recommended, was already in the works. As early as September 1946 the government had quietly begun preparing for military aid to Greece. That month, the United States had granted Greek requests for economic credits to the government.

More recently, Loy Henderson, who was in charge of Near Eastern Affairs, had discussed this continuing problem in a memorandum that Acheson retitled “Crisis and Imminent Possibility of Collapse.” (Cochran Bert, 1994, 19) It called for substantial aid to Greece. Acheson had edited the memorandum and sent it on to Secretary Marshall. On the day before reception of the British notes, according to Acheson, Marshall instructed him to “prepare the necessary steps for sending economic and military aid” to Greece.

In all probability it was the March 31 deadline that was the source of Acheson’s “shock.” In reaction, he immediately treated the situation as a crisis. That urgent mood pervaded both the private deliberations and public announcements from that day forward. The “crisis” was rhetorically manufactured by Acheson’s preconceptions and his immediate reaction.

“Crisis” is only a word, a description of a situation, but it is a description pregnant with urgency. In the medical world a crisis is a turning point for a sick patient, a crucial moment when a life or death decision must be made. That’s the way members of the administration saw the British announcement and their opportunity. It should be stressed that what Acheson responded to, like Churchill before him, was not an act by the Soviet Union, but new conditions now that the British were withdrawing financial aid from Greece.

Working within the critical atmosphere he himself originated, Acheson took the lead in developing the official U.S. response. Secretary Marshall was preoccupied with preparing for the all-important Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers on attempting to find common ground among the allies for a settlement over Germany and Austria. Marshall stayed intimately informed about the situation, and before leaving on March 10, he participated as fully as his other duties allowed in discussions and with the decision President Truman made.

But it was Acheson who was the driving force. Immediately after receiving the British notes he called President Truman and Secretary Marshall to inform them of the crisis. He immediately set the appropriate groups working on position papers for the U.S. response. He worked ceaselessly to coordinate this response. By the end of the first evening an initial draft of a position paper had been written. Throughout the weekend Acheson received updated progress reports by various groups within the administration that were developing American policy.


By February 26, a more complete position paper had been worked out and approved by Secretary Marshall. On that day he and Acheson met with the president, and the undersecretary made an oral presentation. The memorandum, which President Truman described as a result of studies by our experts, recommended that the United States step in to fill the void that would be left by the British withdrawal of financial and military aid to Greece and Turkey.

In Harry Truman, the two State Department officials had a receptive audience. As early as January, 1946 he had focused on the East Mediterranean region as a Soviet target. In a “dressing down” letter to Secretary James Byrnes, which the president later said he personally read to him, Truman said:

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Russia intends an invasion of Turkey and the seizure of the Black Sea Straits to the Mediterranean. Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand — “how many divisions have you?” I do not think we should play compromise any longer. . . . I’m tired of babying the Soviets. (McCoy Donald R, 1988, 22-23)

But he did not act directly on his private feelings at that time. Perhaps his reluctance was due to the less than enthusiastic reception Churchill’s speech at Fulton soon received. Perhaps it was due to the fact that 1946 was an election year and he did not want to split the Democratic Party between those who sought conciliation with the Soviet Union and those who sought greater firmness. Perhaps it was because he did not yet feel secure enough in the presidency to make such a change in policy. Perhaps it was because he retained lingering hopes that some accommodation with the Soviets could be realized. There is enough historical and biographical evidence to support any of these suppositions and even more.

Moreover, he had already taken firm action against the Soviet Union. He had gotten the Soviets out of Iran. He had dispatched a naval force to the east Mediterranean when the Turkish dispute arose. He had approved the merger of the British and American zones in Germany. He had fired Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace for proposing a more accommodating stance toward the USSR. In sum, until February 1947 the president had kept his public option open even though his perception of the kinds of policies necessary to confront the Soviet Union had narrowed. He was inclined to view Soviet-American relations ideologically. Kennan’s “long telegram” had stressed these as the primary motives of the Soviets.

Winston Churchill had proclaimed at Fulton that the new division of the world was between “Christian civilization” and the communists. The Clifford-Elsey memorandum of September 1946 contended that the “key to an understanding of current Soviet foreign policy . . . is the realization that Soviet leaders adhere to the Marxian theory of ultimate destruction of capitalist states by communist states.” (McCoy Donald R, 1988, 46) Drawing extensively from Kennan’s telegram, Clifford had made the ideological challenge even more rigid to the virtual exclusion of any other motivation for Soviet intentions and actions. He had concluded: “The language of military power is the only language which disciples of power politics understand.

The United States must use that language in order that the Soviet leaders will realize that our government is determined to uphold the interests of its citizens and the rights of small nations.” (Freeland Richard M, 1994, 9) This conclusion foreshadowed the language of the Truman Doctrine. Unlike his predecessor, Truman did not like to postpone decisions. Instead, he loved to make decisions. He had more of the temperament of a judge than a diplomat, preferring clear rulings to the equivocations of power politics.

During the previous year he had grown increasingly impatient and angry with what he believed were blatant Soviet violations of their agreements with the allied powers. (He wrote his daughter the day after his speech that he “knew at Potsdam that there is no difference in totalitarian or police states, call them what you will, Nazi, Fascist, Communist or Argentine Republics.”) (Freeland Richard M, 1994, 15) The president quickly approved the memorandum, and thus the decision was made. He would replace British aid to the two countries with U.S. financial and military aid. The memorandum that Truman approved contained nine recommendations in all. For our purposes, the sixth and ninth recommendations of the memorandum are significant:

  • The problem [should] be discussed privately and frankly by the leaders of the administration with appropriate members of the Congress.

These were recommendations about the rhetorical handling of the president’s decision. Truman quickly scheduled a meeting the next day with leaders from Congress. Since Secretary Marshall would soon be off to the Moscow Conference, Acheson continued his assumption of leadership in putting these recommendations into action, especially the rhetorical dimension.


After deciding to extend aid to Greece and Turkey, the primary issue became how to persuade Congress and the American public to support such aid. In simple terms, the rhetoric became the principal problem. The decision to act had been made with dispatch. During the past year the administration had been persuaded or had persuaded itself that the communist Soviet Union was driven by an ideological fanaticism to expand aggressively to conquer Europe and perhaps eventually the world. Of these ominous Soviet objectives they were convinced. The primary audience for the new foreign policy — elites in the administration — had by this time already been persuaded about the insidious Soviet motives and goals.

Now other elites in Congress who shared this view had to be convinced that Greece and Turkey were sufficiently important to American national interests to cause the United States to abandon its traditional policy of isolationism in favor of a policy of international intervention. It was necessary to line up influential members of Congress on the president’s side as an advance force to getting the full Congress to approve aid.

At the same time, the second major audience — influential journalists — would have to be persuaded to accept the policy. Their support was critical to giving credibility to congressional support and in convincing the final audience — the American people. Constructing persuasive arguments to convince these others of the rightness of this policy, they feared, would be much more difficult than reaching the decision in the first place.

The administration launched a campaign targeted at these three specific audiences: congressional leaders, especially leaders from the majority Republican Party; influential members of the press; and finally the American people. Members of the administration, led by President Truman and Acting Secretary of State Acheson, approached these audiences successively, beginning with influential senators and representatives. They magnified the situation they faced into a crisis confronting the entire Western world of which the United States, they said, was the only bulwark against a Soviet offensive intended to conquer western Europe. The existing apprehensions and fears among people in each of these audiences made them receptive prey for the messianic rhetoric of the administration.

But it should be remembered that no dramatic act on the part of the Soviet Union precipitated this “crisis” atmosphere. The “crisis” was rhetorically constructed from the arguments and style in which the administration’s case was presented to these various audiences. Indeed, later on, there would be much criticism of the crisis atmosphere that the administration had created so as to stampede others into accepting its policy of aid to Greece and Turkey. However, the crisis atmosphere became commonplace. This environment bred its own brand of fanaticism.

Any small act by the Soviet Union would become as “critical” to “Western survival” as any other. It was in this urgent atmosphere that the administration first sought to convince congressional leaders of the need to act, then briefed reporters on the background of the “crisis” and the policy to meet it, and finally went before the public with an all-out speech that declared a universal ideological policy for the United States. It set a rhetorical pattern of perpetual crisis that was repeated by the administration and later adopted by its opponents to culminate in the great fear of the Fifties.

The administration embarked upon three simultaneous activities: convincing influential senators and representatives to support economic aid to Greece and Turkey, drafting a speech for the president, and preparing for positive reception by the press. Let us consider each of these in turn.

A Dress Rehearsal for Congress

On February 27, the day after the decision was made, the president, Marshall, and Acheson met with a small group of Republicans and Democrats from Congress. This meeting was crucial. “We are met at Armageddon,” (Hamby Alonzo L, 1993, 5) is the way Acheson described it, and he was speaking not about the Soviets but about the representatives from Congress, especially the Republicans. In the 1946 election Republicans had wrested control of both Houses of Congress from the Democrats, winning fifty six seats in the House and thirteen in the Senate. They had campaigned on promises to cut the budget, to reduce taxes, and to bring the boys home. It was an all-out attack on Roosevelt’s New Deal and, to a lesser degree, on internationalism.

Republicans had emerged from the campaign triumphant and now they chaired and held the majorities on the committees that Truman’s aid program would have to go through. However, Republicans had left an opening in the campaign. Some had made communism or the “communist threat” as they called it, a major issue in the campaign. Since the president and his officials at this meeting shared this fear to one degree or another, it was an opening that could and would be exploited.

The congressional delegation included Senators Arthur Vandenberg (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Styles Bridges (chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee), and Tom Connally (senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee); Representatives Joseph Martin (Speaker of the House), Sam Rayburn (Democratic minority leader), Charles Eaton (chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs), and Sol Bloom (senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee). Conspicuously absent was Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican” and the leader of the isolationist forces in Congress.

The official explanation for his absence, as voiced by Acheson later, was that it was an “accidental omission” that was rectified at a later meeting. But that strains credulity. How could such politically sophisticated men “accidentally” omit one of the most prominent men in Congress and perhaps the Republican nominee for president the next year? A more plausible explanation for his absence is that he was deliberately not invited. Three reasons can be advanced for this belief. First, the administration did not want to alert the isolationist forces about the momentous change in policy upon which it was embarking.

Second, the administration saw this meeting as critical in getting Republican support, it did not want the most prestigious Republican to voice his opposition, as Taft later did, and thus influence the other Republicans. Finally, ignoring Taft presented the administration with the opportunity to split the Republican Party between its isolationist faction and its internationalists, a split that could increase the chances for Truman’s election in his own right. Later, at Senator Vandenberg’s suggestion, Taft was invited to a meeting, but that was only after other Republicans had fairly well committed themselves to supporting the president.

These were the men who composed the audience for the first presentation of the president’s new policy. If the administration were to be successful, that success was dependent on overcoming congressional skepticism and opposition. Thus, in rhetorical terms, this meeting was a dress rehearsal for the arguments that would be used to persuade Congress and the public to support the president’s decision to extend aid to Greece and Turkey.

The president spoke first outlining the problem and what he intended to do about it. He then turned to Secretary Marshall for elaboration. There is a mythology that has grown up that Marshall spoke only in humanitarian and economic terms thereby “flubbing” his lines, as Acheson haughtily described it. Reading Marshall’s statement today hardly supports that conclusion.

The secretary began by saying that a “crisis of utmost importance and urgency” had arisen in Greece and Turkey that had a “direct and immediate relation to the security of the United States.” He briefly described the political and financial problems of the Greek government and Great Britain’s notice that it could not continue aid to the government. Then, he stated in succinct terms the threat that the potential collapse of the Greek government posed to the United States:

Our interest in Greece is by no means restricted to humanitarian or friendly impulses. If Greece should dissolve into civil war it is altogether probable that it would emerge as a communist state under Soviet control. Turkey would be surrounded and the Turkish situation would in turn become still more critical. Soviet domination might thus extend over the entire Middle East to the borders of India. The effect of this upon Hungary, Austria, Italy and France cannot be overestimated. It is not alarmist to say that we are faced with the first crisis of a series which might extend Soviet domination to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. (Hamby Alonzo L, 1993, 46-48)

Marshall went on to say that only the United States could help Greece. He mentioned the Turkish situation in less critical, but still serious, terms. The secretary concluded with the list of executive actions the president proposed and for which they sought congressional support.

Whether it was Marshall’s dry manner of speaking or the brevity of his remarks or the tentative way he talked about threat of Soviet domination, Marshall’s presentation did not have the dramatic effect needed to persuade the representatives. The congressional delegation immediately began asking disconcerting questions rather than voicing their approval: “How much would the aid cost?” “Isn’t this just pulling British chestnuts out of the fire?” Acheson was aghast. He asked to speak and did so with Truman’s and Marshall’s permission. The effect of his impromptu remarks was electric. (Hamby Alonzo L, 1993, 65)

Marshall’s statement had been brief, precise, and without stylistic flourishes. Acheson spoke for ten to fifteen minutes. He amplified the threat. He made the central issue an issue of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, between an aggressive power from the East and the last defender of freedom in the West. He was not tentative, but authoritative. In addition, he emphasized the ideological conflict and cited a historical analogy to give it greater force. According to Jones, Acheson said:

We had arrived at a situation unparalleled since ancient times. Not since Rome and Carthage had there been such a polarization of power on this earth. Moreover the two great powers were divided by an unbridgeable ideological chasm. For us, democracy and individual liberty were basic; for them, dictatorship and absolute conformity.

To stress the horrendous consequence of not acting, Acheson drew upon a well-worn metaphor:

Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.

He concluded by saying: “It is a question of whether two-thirds of the area of the world . . . is to be controlled by Communists.” (Kirkendall Richard S, 1999, 4) In the later anticommunist rhetoric, the historical analogy would be changed from Rome and Carthage to Munich, but the disease metaphor would continue and be made more deadly. But for the moment, these sufficed. At the conclusion of Acheson’s remarks, there was silence.

Finally, Vandenberg spoke. He said he had been impressed and even shaken. Others report that Vandenberg’s language was more colorful and to the point. Cochran, for example, wrote that Vandenberg’s words to Truman are: “If that’s what you want, there’s only one way to get it. That is to make a personal appearance before Congress and scare hell out of the country.” (Ryan Herman Butterfield, Jr, 1993, 45) The others seemed to agree. None of them voiced opposition this time to the president’s intention to extend aid to Greece and Turkey.

Although no promises of support were given, Vandenberg and the others said they were inclined to support the president “on the condition. . . that the President should, in a message to Congress and in a radio address to the American people, explain the issue in the same frank terms and broad context in which it had been laid before them.” (Ryan Herman Butterfield, Jr, 1993, 46) Thus, the style and theme for the president’s address had been struck. Marshall’s dry precise style would not do. The president would have to speak in the “frankest, boldest, widest terms” possible. And the emphasis would have to shift from the problems Greece and Turkey were currently experiencing to an ideological confrontation between the United States and communism.


On March 12, 1947 President Truman addressed a special joint session of Congress. His speech was a rambling address reflecting the many people who had a hand in its construction. The speech has been so thoroughly analyzed by so many scholars that a detailed analysis of it would be redundant. Our purpose here will be to summarize the speech and point to the parts that played the major role in developing the anticommunism consensus. Despite the brevity of his remarks and the plain style he employed, Truman had the electrifying effect he sought.

In the preamble of his address, President Truman stressed the gravity of the recent events. He stated that these events involved the foreign policy and national security of the United States, a world situation he subsequently called a “crisis” and one that required “immediate action.” The most pressing problem, “one aspect of the present situation,” involved Greece and Turkey. Thus, right off the bat, Truman implied that Greece and Turkey were only symbolic of a far more fundamental problem confronting the United States, but also that each were inextricably part of U.S. national security.

Truman announced that Greece had issued an urgent appeal for aid from the United States and briefly described the economic problems that government faced. But the problem was even greater than these financial difficulties: “The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists, who defy the government’s authority at a number of points, particularly along the northern boundaries.” (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 162) The Greek government, Truman stated, could not cope with these problems and only the United States was in a position to render aid. After further describing the plight of the Greeks and adding disclaimers about the character of its government, Truman briefly said that Turkey too needed additional aid from both the United States and Great Britain to maintain “its national integrity.”

Neither Greece nor Turkey was the main issue in this crisis. Their problems were real, according to Truman, but they were primarily symbolic of larger issues. He reminded his listeners of the “real” meaning of World War II, that the United States had fought that war to keep some nations from imposing their way of life on others. This analogy linked the recent war to the present situation and set the stage for fundamental meaning to be placed on the current crisis. Declaring that he was “fully aware of the broad implications” of the policy he was to announce, Truman launched into the meat of his speech:

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. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 164)

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, and 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 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.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 166)

Here was the new foreign policy for the United States and the justification for it pristinely and plainly stated. Truman declared in no uncertain terms the broad policy that would guide the country for decades. He had created the linguistic lens through which every American could see the central meaning of complex and difficult problems confronting the country in international affairs.

It should be noted that President Truman stated with equally unmistakable language that American help should “primarily” be offered through economic and financial assistance. However, by focusing almost exclusively on Greece, the country involved in a real civil war, and by describing the universal problem as one of “armed minorities” attempting to “forcibly” subjugate “freedom-loving peoples,” the military images and implications overshadowed the precise call for economic aid to threatened countries.

Later, when Secretary Marshall recommended aid to European countries in his speech at Harvard, some interpreted Marshall’s economic plan as an alternative to Truman’s belligerence. Even more to the point, Truman did not (and probably could not at the time) say what additional measures the United States would take if economic aid did not achieve the effect he desired. It became simple for the president and others then to advocate military aid as the next step in confronting communism.

As Truman viewed the world situation, there were only two choices and the question was: Which side are you on? His vision was that of an ideological dialectic with no synthesis in sight. The president had made his choice. He contended that failure to act at this critical moment in world history would have tragic consequences. Echoing Archeson’s private presentation thirteen days earlier and presenting what would eventually be known as the “domino” theory, President Truman stated:

If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 170)

Moreover, the disappearance of Greece as an independent state would have a profound effect upon those countries in Europe whose peoples are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedoms and their independence while they repair the damages of war.

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

Thus did President Truman describe the stakes in the problem and the policy he was presenting to Congress and the American people? He spent the remainder of his address detailing the legislation he sought and the amount of money needed. Though the principle Truman had stated was global in scope, the money he asked for ($400 million) was minimal in aid.

In eighteen minutes President Truman had announced a significant departure in America’s traditional foreign policy and had created a new way of seeing its place in the postwar world. He had created a simple good-evil perceptual lens through which the American people could view, understand, interpret, and act upon events that the administration said symbolized confrontations between two mutually exclusive “ways of life.” Differences within the so-called free world and within the so called communist world were minimized or ignored, as the moral and mortal conflict between the two was accentuated.


The three basic elements of creating a new political reality, as noted earlier, are actual events, the language used to interpret those events, and the widespread acceptance of that interpretation. All three are plainly visible in this situation.

The actual event that precipitated the speech was the British declaration that they could no longer provide aid to Greece and Turkey. But that would be mentioned only in passing. Instead, other events would be cited for Truman’s speech, his policy, and his action.

Truman’s address did not merely interpret events that were present without Truman’s words. By defining certain events as he did and constructing arguments to support those definitions, the president called a new reality into being and gave it meaning. In essence, he set a new political reality in motion. But he did not do so by words alone. He drew upon a rhetorical stockpile that pre-existed the speech, most notably Churchill’s speech at Fulton, and had the new reality (i.e., the new language and arguments) extended by the reporting that followed it.

The first aspect of this reality called into existence by Truman was a crisis of world proportions. The core of the speech was based on three definitions, each intimately related to the others. These three laid the foundation for the assertion of the principle that would guide the United States in world affairs and for the immediate policy toward Greece and Turkey that would exemplify that principle.

The first definition was of crisis itself. The president spoke of “this fateful hour” and “gravity of the situation” that confronted not only the United States, but the world at large. Although the press and officials from the administration had prepared the way, the crisis came into full political existence by being spoken into existence.

But unlike Churchill who a year before had warned of an impending crisis but who could only speak in general and metaphoric terms about it, Truman could point specifically, as he did, to the war in Greece. Thus, he had a tangible situation to exemplify the “crisis” and also a tangible situation to lead into the greater issue that he wished to address: “The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists, who defy the government’s authority at a number of points, particularly along the northern boundaries.”

The “crisis” was heightened, according to Truman, by the Greek government’s “urgent” appeal for help. From that point on and in subsequent news reports, the situation in Greece was called a “crisis,” a rhetorical description of a complex political situation. The mood of the administration was thereby set and the environment in which Truman’s decision would be considered was created. It would be difficult to point to an event of the preceding days that, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, could be construed as critical. It would be more accurate to say that the “crisis” lay in the perception of what the British notes meant to officials of the administration and in the language used to describe that meaning.

The second definition concerned the future of this world “crisis.” Churchill had dramatically divided Europe into those countries on either side of an iron curtain, a divison that Truman drew upon in his address. But Churchill stressed the political nature as much as the ideological shape of the impending conflict — the rise of Communist parties on the western side, and the consolidation of the Soviet “sphere” on the eastern side. That admission weakened the argument he had made by giving some legitimacy to Soviet concerns for security against the West.

Truman would have none of this. Even as he drew upon Churchill’s fundamental division, the president both contracted and expanded the meaning. He defined the world conflict as ideological, a Manichean choice between freedom and totalitarianism, or as he phrased it between “alternative ways of life.” (By simple word count, Truman used the word “free” or one of its derivatives twenty-four times in the eighteen minute speech, “totalitarian” four times, “democracy” three times.

“Communist” is only used once, and the Soviet Union was never mentioned.) Truman made no reference to understanding the USSR’s needs for security or for any other interpretation of the increasing disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Instead, he gave Americans a linguistically created political reality in which the confusions of the present were clarified in the simple terms of a contest between the defense of freedom and the threat of totalitarianism, between two mutually exclusive ways of life, between political good and political evil. In this way Truman’s language sought to transcend the actual conditions in Greece and Turkey and to transform their meaning so as to create a different public consciousness (and public reality) about the challenge the United States faced.

But even as he was constricting the meaning of the conflict, he was expanding its application to the entire world: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” In addition, he was further expanding America’s role. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 182)

Churchill had called for an Anglo — American alliance. That had caused some to claim that Churchill was asking Americans to rescue the crumbling British Empire. Truman avoided this rhetorical trap. The president emphasized unilateral U.S. action in saving Greece from totalitarianism. Thus, Truman defined the new role of the United States in world affairs. If it is too harsh to call this speech a declaration of war (since Truman stated that U.S. assistance should “primarily” be financial and economic), the speech was at least the call to a holy ideological crusade in defense of freedom against the aggressive forces of totalitarianism.

From this second definition Truman proceeded to the final, more troublesome one: how to describe the situation in the Near East to conform to the general declaration of policy. Already we have seen the difficulty that writers and advisers had in describing the governments of either Greece or Turkey as democratic. Therefore, the definition of free (“free institutions, representative government, etc.”) used in the policy section was expanded in those parts of the speech that dealt with Greece and Turkey to mean “independent.” Indeed, in the case of Turkey, that was the only justification for aid: “The future of Turkey as an independent and economically sound state is clearly no less important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world than the future of Greece. Economic aid was needed, to help Turkey maintain its “national integrity.”

In the case of Greece, an additional quality was present: the desire (only obliquely evident at the time) “to become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.” Thus, the conditions for being recognized as a “free” nation were reinterpreted in these two instances, as they would be in many cases to come, to include “independent” nations or even nations that only “desired” to become democratic. The justification was thereby established for later alliances with nations that made no pretense to meeting the conditions of “free nations.” The ways in which Greece and Turkey were treated in this original request for aid under the Truman Doctrine set the precedent for those alliances. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 179)

This definitional coin had more than these two sides to it. There was also the problem of describing the threat to Greece and Turkey. Neither the Soviet army nor communist troops from another country had invaded either Greece or Turkey. The administration clearly believed the Soviets were involved and acted upon that belief. But they had no proof. Therefore, they defined the menace in more abstract terms borrowed from the language of democracy (a “militant minority” or “armed minority”) or from the language of community (“outside pressures”). The rhetorical problem was that the administration was attempting to define strategic policy in universalistic terms and attempting to justify it in ideological terms.

The two constantly clashed even within the speech so what was intended as very clear (if abstract) language had to be constantly redefined and reinterpreted to fit specific situations. The linguistic result was a shifting contraction and expansion of commitment that the doctrine was supposed to allay. The practical result was that the United States was transforming the political reality through these definitions, but also leaving enough elasticity in the language to be able to apply the doctrine to a variety of situations that did not meet the exact conditions inherent in the doctrine.

These finer points were ignored, except by a few critics, at the time. The messianic language of Truman’s speech transcended and transformed the mundane complexities of the existential world into a transcendental political reality in which ideological angels do moral and mortal combat with ideological devils. (Wittner Lawrence S, 1990, 180,189)


The authority with which one speaks directly influences belief. Part of Churchill’s authority came from his person. His reputation as spokesman for freedom during World War II required that others weigh his words seriously, even if they rejected them at the time. Harry Truman’s authority came from his office. He was president of the United States and he was proposing a sharp departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy. Unlike Churchill, he was in a position to implement that policy. But in this particular case, the speech lent authority to Truman.

Ever since he had been propelled into the presidency, he had been hounded by questions, mainly privately spoken but sometimes voiced in public, about whether he was up to the job. He pondered the same questions himself. With the decisive language and bold policy of this speech, he began to be transformed. Again, this was no overnight or magical transformation.

His appointment of General Marshall, probably the most esteemed American citizen of the time, as secretary of state in January 1947 enhanced his authority. The other appointments early that year conveyed the image that government by crony was being replaced with government by capability. Secretary Marshall’s pointed deference to the president, especially noted in his announcement about the Greek request for aid, added further to recognition of Truman’s ultimate responsibility for foreign policy. Yet, these only prepared the way.

Truman had made an historic decision. He had presented it to Congress in an historic speech. He had used little evidence in the speech, and the logic of relating Greece and Turkey to his doctrine was tortured. Yet, the sweep of his proposal and the fears he aroused created a new Harry Truman.

The transformation was immediately noted. Reporters noticed a new briskness to his step. Newsweek reported there was no question now whether he would run for election in his own right or not. His personal approval rating that had stood at 32 percent just after the 1946 congressional elections, now had soared to more than 60 percent. Long stories in major magazines now treated him with greater respect. Before the speech at least one writer had called America’s upcoming new global strategy, Marshall’s policy. Now and forever more, it would be known as the Truman Doctrine. The increasing prestige accorded to the president gave greater authority to his version of reality and the appropriate ways for Americans to deal with it.


On May 22 Truman signed the bill authorizing aid to Greece and Turkey into law, But in the days between February 21 and May 22 much more had happened than a partisan campaign for a political policy. A new reality about the world and America’s place in it was announced and began to take hold. The process had begun with Churchill’s speech but now it had been Americanized and given an enormous boost by Truman’s address. Both Churchill and Truman described a world divided into two irreconcilable ideologies. Whereas Churchill called for an alliance, Truman insisted that only the United States was strong enough to engage in this ideological war. The American way of life was at stake. A world hung in the balance.

When Secretary Marshall objected to the extravagance of the speech, the reply was that it was the “only way” the president could get Congress to pass the legislation for aid to Greece. That reply suggests that Truman believed the rhetoric pertained only to this situation and that he had Congress in mind as his principal audience. He may have believed that such universal language and commitments were needed on this specific occasion to pass the enabling legislation and that later he could apply these principles selectively. There is considerable evidence that Truman and his advisers did not believe these principles should be applied to Asia, especially China. But Truman underestimated the powerful impact his speech had and the authority he possessed.

The drama of the crisis, the melodramatic presentation of arguments, and the sinister enemy who was linked to the just defeated but universally hated Nazis — all came together to produce a growing unity among Americans in opposition to communism. Indeed, the rhetorical threat of a diabolical enemy threatening the world all but obscured the policy of sending aid to Greece and Turkey. Bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, reinforced by leading journalistic opinion-makers, made it a common reality beyond partisan differences, beyond the president’s power to control or recall it.

The extensive publicity generated in the press overwhelmed criticism of this new reality. Those who had the fortitude to question or criticize found themselves consigned to the alien community in which questions about their patriotism were raised. In his brief speech President Harry Truman constructed only the bare bones of an American anticommunist ideology. Others would give flesh and muscle to it.


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