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This week in history: Harry Truman announces the Truman Doctrine

On March 12, 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman went before a joint session of Congress to ask the legislative branch to authorize $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey, two nations struggling against communist insurgents. The “Truman Doctrine” also announced that the United States would oppose communism wherever it threatened democracy.

Great Britain had long had an interest in events in Greece. Greece lay just across the Mediterranean Sea from Britain's lifeline to India, the Suez Canal in Egypt, and Britain sought to promote stability in its southeastern European ally. Not long after Italy invaded Greece from Albania in World War II, Britain sent an expeditionary force and succeeded in helping the Greeks fight off the attack. When the Germans intervened in the Balkans in April 1941, Greece was soon overrun, and the British force was forced to evacuate the country. Adolf Hitler later praised the courage of the Greek soldiers.

During the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met several times with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and they paid special attention to Greece in their discussions. In an October 1944 meeting, Churchill and Stalin agreed that Britain should have 90 percent influence in Greece, while the USSR would have 90 percent influence in Romania. Other eastern European nations were similarly assigned a percentage. Churchill was aware that such an arrangement would be seen as callous by others and referred to the agreement as his “naughty document.”

Less than a year after the end of World War II, Greece erupted into Civil War. Communist insurgents attempted to overthrow the country's legitimate government, though Stalin remained more or less true to his word and did not support the Greek communists, at least not actively. Instead, the Greek communists were backed largely by Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito, who had his own beef with Stalin as well as other eastern European communist regimes.

Though the British had pledged to help the Greeks, World War II had bankrupted the United Kingdom. The years after the war saw Britain pull out of Iraq, Palestine and several other imperial possessions and mandates. The nation that had bravely stood alone before Hitler in 1940-41 was now unable to fulfill all of its commitments around the world. On Feb. 21, 1947, the government of Great Britain informed the United States that it could no longer back Greece financially or militarily. It also could not protect Greece's neighbor Turkey, which was experiencing a similar communist uprising. If the countries were to remain democratic, the United States must assume the responsibility.

In contrast to Britain, the postwar American economy was booming. Most of the world's gold reserves were controlled by America, and roughly half the ships carrying cargo on the high seas were flying the stars and stripes. Policymakers in the State Department considered the implications of America taking on the role of supporting foreign governments against indigenous communist insurgents.

In the book “Truman,” biographer David McCullough wrote, “At a cabinet meeting on March 7 … (Undersecretary of State Dean) Acheson said the complete disintegration of Greece was only weeks away. ‘If we go in, we cannot be certain of success in the Middle East and Mediterranean. If we do not go in, there will be a collapse in these areas.’ There was also, of course, the possibility of ‘military risk.’ Truman felt he faced a decision as difficult as any ever to confront a president. The money for Greece was only the beginning. ‘It means the United States is going into European politics. …’”

Truman was set on sending help to Greece and Turkey, and ordered a speech prepared. Several drafts were submitted, some too technical, some lacking the moral weight Truman thought the circumstances demanded. The policy was crafted by Truman and close advisers, including Acheson, Clark Clifford, military adviser George Elsey and others.

George F. Kennan, one of the state department's top analysts and an expert in Russian communism, feared the speech's declarations went too far. In the book “The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War,” historian Nicholas Thompson wrote the following:

“Should the United States make it a principle to intervene in support of democracy? Here, Kennan was deeply skeptical. Declare that you will backstop every government facing a communist attack, and you will soon have a line of ambassadors with their hands out proclaiming that they have found some nasty Marxists hiding in the bushes. … The United States should fight communists in places crucial to its interests and where it had a reasonable chance of success (like Greece). It should ignore them where intervention appeared hopeless (like China) or in nations of peripheral geopolitical significance (like Guatemala).”

Truman, however, stood firm. This was the time for America to announce to the world that it would not sit back and allow communist aggression. Just after 1 p.m. on March 12, 1947, Truman went before a joint session of Congress and delivered the 18-minute speech.

“The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of the Congress,” Truman began. “The foreign policy and the national security of this country are involved. One aspect of the present situation, which I wish to present to you at this time for your consideration and decision, concerns Greece and Turkey. The United States has received from the Greek government an urgent appeal for financial and economic assistance. Preliminary reports from the American Economic Mission now in Greece and reports from the American Ambassador in Greece corroborate the statement of the Greek government that assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation.”

Truman went on to describe the suffering of the Greek people and the nature of their emergency. He noted that the Greeks lacked the funds for the basic needs of survival, such as clothing and food. He also noted that because of the relative poverty of the country, Greece could not provide adequate security and order for its people. Critically, however, its army faced important challenges.

“The Greek army is small and poorly equipped,” Truman said. “It needs supplies and equipment if it is to restore the authority of the government throughout Greek territory. Greece must have assistance if it is to become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.”

Truman noted Britain's role in maintaining Greece's stability and how Britain could no longer provide assistance. He also noted how the particular assistance required was not within the scope of the United Nations' mandate, though the United States would be acting to preserve United Nations ideals. Truman also spoke at length on the problems of Turkey and how, despite the fact that Turkey had largely been spared the kind of military disaster and occupational depredation that Greece had experienced, it still needed American help.

Truman then asked Congress to provide $400 million in aid for the two countries as well as an American military and civilian presence in the countries to help oversee the funds, though no active military forces should be in a combat role. He also noted the need for the president and Congress to work together, and he promised to come before Congress again if additional funds were needed.

“This is a serious course upon which we embark,” he said. “I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious. The United States contributed $341 billion toward winning World War II. This is an investment in world freedom and world peace. The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain.”

Though his speech met with opposition from both some Republicans and some of his own Democrats, Truman succeeded in convincing Congress of the need to act. The Senate voted 67 to 23 to support the president on April 22, and the House followed on May 9, with a vote of 287 to 107.

The Truman Doctrine set up a major cornerstone of American foreign policy for the next four decades. The United States would aid governments in fighting communism. At times, this policy led to America supporting dictatorial regimes and other bad actors around the world, but it ultimately succeeded in putting up a roadblock to Soviet global ambitions.

The Truman Doctrine also led to further U.S. assistance to Europe. In June, Truman's Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced the Marshall Plan, which sent roughly $13 billion to European nations to help them rebuild after the destruction of World War II.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and has taught at SLCC. He is currently a salesperson at Doug Smith Subaru in American Fork. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com