The Truman Doctrine


Background,   Truman's Speech to Congress,   Results

The Truman Doctrine and Containment




Spartacus page

An interview with Clark Clifford (1998)

Did Truman cause the Cold War?


Background Events

The Truman Doctrine was a response to a crisis.   Behind it lay the Communist/Soviet takeover of many of the countries of eastern Europe by ‘salami tactics’ – which, Truman alleged, was in breach of Stalin’s promises at the Yalta Conference.  


Then, in February 1947, the British government – which had been helping the Greek government resist Communist rebels – announced that it could no longer afford to keep its soldiers there.   It seemed to Truman and his advisers that, of they did nothing, it was only a matter of time before the communists took over YET ANOTHER country.




Truman’s Speech to Congress, March 1947

On 12 March 1947, President Truman spoke to Congress.   His speech is very famous.   What he said became known later as the ‘Truman Doctrine’.


Truman began by outlining the situation in Greece.   ‘Assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation’, he told Congress.   ‘Greece must have assistance if it is to become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.’   Without help, Greece would fall to Communism.   Nearby Turkey, he added, was in a similar situation.


Getting involved in Greece, Truman knew, would go against the belief of many Americans that America should not get involved in European affairs.   Therefore the key part of his speech was designed to explain and justify his change in foreign policy to the Congress:   


I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey, and I shall discuss these implications with you at this time.


First, he reminded Congress that the USA had fought the Second World War and joined the United Nations to protect freedom and democracy (an involvement which, he said, had cost the United States $341 billion):


One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.

To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.


Next, he claimed that the power of Communism was growing:


The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.



And so – he told the Congress – the nations of the world were faced with a choice.   This section of the speech is very famous, in which Truman defined the Cold War as a conflict between good and bad, and as a choice between capitalism and communism, dictatorship and democracy, and freedom and oppression:


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.


In such a world, he told Congress, America was OBLIGED to get involved:


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.

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. ..


The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.

If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world -- and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.

Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.

I am confident that the Congress will face these responsibilities squarely.



Truman's Speech to Congress

Consequences of Truman’s Speech

(= Results of the Truman Doctrine)

Truman’s Speech was an event of immense importance in the Cold War, and it set out many of the principles by which the USA was to fight the Cold War for the next 30 years.


Up until Truman’s speech, the most powerful influence in American foreign policy had been the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ – a statement in 1823 by American President James Monroe that America ought to keep out of European affairs.   The Truman Doctrine overturned the Monroe Doctrine absolutely:


We must take immediate and resolute action.

I therefore ask the Congress to provide authority for assistance to Greece and Turkey in the amount of $400,000,000 for the period ending June 30, 1948. In requesting these funds, I have taken into consideration the maximum amount of relief assistance which would be furnished to Greece out of the $350,000,000 which I recently requested that the Congress authorize for the prevention of starvation and suffering in countries devastated by the war.


In this way, the Truman Doctrine led directly to the Marshall Plan – the plan to contain communism by helping the economies of Europe to get going again – which was ratified by Congress in 1948.


In his speech, also, to convince the Congress that it was essential to confront the Soviets, Truman introduced an idea which had been explained to him a fortnight earlier by Undersecretary Dean Acheson – that if America let one country fall to Communism, all the countries round about would follow like a line of dominoes.   This idea later became known as the ‘domino theory’, and it was later to inspire the American interventions in Korean and Vietnam:


It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. 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.

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….


Another result of the Truman Doctrine was that (by sending military aid to ‘friendly’ nations) it set a precedent for the principle of ‘collective security’ – building up a network of allies and friendly states to which the US gave military aid free of charge (this became known as the Military Assistance Program).   Ultimately, it was to lead to NATO.


In America, Truman’s presentation of the global threat of Communism whipped up an anti-Communist hysteria which was to end in the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950s.   In Russia, the rhetoric of Truman’s speech convinced the Soviets that America was indeed a threat to Soviet Communism, and it substantially enflamed the Cold War.




The Truman Doctrine and Containment

Many historians say also that the Truman Doctrine marked the American policy of ‘containment’ – indeed the 1947 speech is sometimes called ‘Truman’s containment speech’   In this respect, the most famous passage from Truman’s speech has become:


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.


The idea of these historians here is that, in his speech, Truman ‘drew a line in the sand’ – Communism could keep what it had got, but he would not let it grow any more.   This implication is one of an America justifiably resisting – ‘containing’ – any further Soviet aggression: thus one American encyclopaedia (Houghton Mifflin) says that the Truman Doctrine ‘expanded the nation's role in checking the spread of communism’.   This kind of interpretation has been especially popular with Americans and other pro-US historians because it presumes that the US was in the right.   You can see the idea here, in an interview given by Clark Clifford (Truman’s most trusted adviser) in 1972:


We weren't concerned about markets; we were concerned about preventing Soviet control of larger areas of the world than they already controlled.


 However, whether the March 1947 speech was a ‘containment speech’ is open to debate.   It is interesting to note that Truman’s speech in 1947 did not mention the word – or the idea – ‘containment’.   Moreover, on 15 May 1947, while Truman was signing the legislation into law, he made comments which suggest that he was wanting to go beyond just ‘containment’:


We are guardians of a great faith. We believe that freedom offers the best chance of peace and prosperity for all, and our desire for peace cannot be separated from our belief in liberty. We hope that in years ahead more and more nations will come to know the advantages of freedom and liberty. It is to this end that we have enacted the law I have now signed.


Certainly the Soviet newspaper Izvesta declared that Truman’s idea of an American ‘responsibility for freedom’ was no more than ‘a smokescreen for expansion’:


The cry of saving Greece and Turkey from the expansion of the so-called "totalitarian states" is not new. Hitler used to refer to the Bolsheviks when he wanted to open the road for his own conquests. Now they want to take Greece and Turkey under their control, they raise a din about "totalitarian states”.


and some Republicans in America expressed the fear that the Truman Doctrine was a ‘blank cheque’ which would lead to war with Russia.


In fact, there was at least as much aggression as defence in Truman’s foreign policy in 1947.   In the next year, America poured $338 million into Greece.   A quarter of it went in food aid, and a quarter in economic aid, but half of the money was spent on military aid, including dive bombers, and napalm bombs. Two hundred and fifty army officers, led by General James Van Fleet, advised the Greek army – and brought in a policy of forcibly removing thousands of Greeks from their homes to isolate the rebels.    In Turkey, $80 million was spent in military intervention, a further $4.5 million on roads, and almost nothing on food or economic aid.  


Neither was Truman openly honest about what was going on, even in Greece.   Although the Greek Communists had been getting some help from Yugoslavia, they had been given NO help by Stalin, who at the Yalta Conference had promised to leave Greece to Britain.   The Greek government – against which the Communists were fighting – was corrupt and undemocratic.   Turkey, too, was far from a democracy.   Truman himself described the British withdrawal from the Mediterranean as a foreign policy ‘opportunity’ in the Middle East of which America must ‘take advantage’.   One of Truman’s advisers suggested that the best argument for intervening in Greece was to tell Congress that he was protecting America’s Middle East oil supplies – it was Truman who decided to present his intervention as an ideological crusade.


‘Containment’ was certainly a component of US thinking about foreign policy at the time.   In 1946, the American ambassador to Russia George Kennan had sent a ‘long telegram’ to the President suggesting that the US should ‘contain’ Soviet expansion, and in July 1947 his ideas were published in an American magazine:


It is clear that the main element of any United States policy towards the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.


In September 1946, also, Truman’s adviser Clark Clifford had compiled a report which advised the President – in words which found their way into the Truman Doctrine speech – to "support and assist all democratic countries which are in any way menaced by the USSR" by means such as economic aid, Trade agreements, loans, and, as a ‘last resort’ military support in case of attack.  One section of the memorandum stated that: "the main deterrent to Soviet attack on areas of the world which are vital to our security will be the military power of this country."


However, there were many in the Truman administration (e.g. Paul Nitze and John Foster Dulles) who thought that the US response to Russia ought to be more than merely ‘containment’.   Already, in late 1946 and early 1947, Truman had in his speeches indicated that he was going to adopt a tougher stance towards Soviet Russia:

  1. The present Russian ambassador is not welcome and does not belong in Washington.

  2. America would oppose the Communists in Korea and China.

  3. America has no territorial ambitions; America only wants peace, but is prepared to fight for it!

  4. The U.S. would go to war if provoked.

Truman’s foreign policy towards the USSR, therefore, always tended towards ‘expansion’, and by 1950 the ‘hawks’ had taken over completely.   In 1947 Truman had formed the CIA; in 1950 he gave orders to develop the hydrogen bomb; in 14 April 1950, a policy document known as NSC-68 stated that the policy of the USA should be ‘change the world situation by means short of war in such a way as to … hasten the decay of the Soviet system’; and by 1952 John Foster Dulles was openly talking about ‘rolling back’ Communism.



Thus, one pupils’ website on the internet comments about the Truman Doctrine:


The prevention on Communism spreading is known as containment - the Iron Curtain border was accepted but it was not to move any further.

Project GCSE


but this comment from a modern American University website is probably nearer the truth:


This policy of aid, popularly known as the Truman Doctrine, was an American challenge to Soviet ambitions throughout the world.

Penn University

and in the opinion of the Soviet Union – in its protest to the United Nations on 18 September 1947:


the proclamation of [the so-called Truman Doctrine] meant that the United States Government has moved toward a direct renunciation of the principles of international collaboration and concerted action by the great Powers and toward attempts to impose its will on other independent states, while at the same time obviously using the economic resources distributed as relief to individual needy nations as an instrument of political pressure. This is clearly proved by the measures taken by the United States Government with regard to Greece and Turkey which ignore and bypass the United Nations... This policy conflicts sharply with the principle expressed by the General Assembly in its resolution of 11 December 1946, which declares that relief supplies to other countries "should . . . at no time be used as a political weapon."

Truman and Containment