On 12 March 1947 President Harry S. Truman gave a speech in front of the United States Congress in which he famously laid out what came down in history as the Truman Doctrine. Truman stated that the United States would come to the aid of those democratic nations threatened by authoritarian forces both domestically and internationally. This aid would be provided through political, military, and economic means.
The most direct objective of the speech was to gather consensus around the urgency of aiding those nations like Greece and Turkey, which were struggling with Communist-led guerillas or were threatened by Soviet expansionism. Through sources at the RIAS it is possible to reconstruct the historical backdrop of that famous speech and look, for instance, at how Truman administration’s advisers discussed the issue among themselves and with representatives of the Congress.
On 27 February 1947, for instance, Truman had a meeting with Congressional leaders. During which the President explained the situation in Greece and Turkey. On that occasion, Dean Acheson, Truman’s Under Secretary of State, tried to convince the Congressional leaders of the importance of aiding Greece and Turkey to contain the Soviet Union. In an effort to convince the Congressional leadership of the urgency of the matter, Acheson stated: “We have arrived at a situation which has not been paralleled since ancient history. A situation in which the world is dominated by two great powers. Not since Athens and Sparta, not since Rome and Carthage have we had such a polarization of power. It is thus not a question of pulling British chestnuts out of the fire. It is a question of the security of the United States. It is a question of whether two-thirds of the area of the world, and three-fourths of the world’s territory is to be controlled by communists.” Whereas the Congressional leadership seemed to be not completely convinced at first, after Acheson’s presentation, they were extremely impressed.
In the weeks after this meeting, several drafts of Truman’s speech were made and rewritten, all of which are available at the RIAS. The speech was meant to convince both Congress and the American public of the importance of US intervention and its broader implications. As one of Truman’s staff members described, the speech was going to be the most important Presidential statement since Pearl Harbor. The final draft was presented to President Truman on 10 March. After some minor changes, he approved the it.
On 12 March 1947 then, President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress. He began by describing the situation in Greece and Turkey, and how it affected the United States’ national security, and the need for the U.S. to act. Truman then argued that it was up to the United States to come to the aid of Greece since it was the only country in the world that was capable of helping to contain the spread of Communism, de facto endorsing the precepts and suggestions of the famous telegram that U.S. diplomat George Kennan had sent from the U.S. embassy in Moscow to Washington in February 1946.
It is especially interesting that, throughout his speech Truman made no mention of the Soviet Union. Yet, at the same time he obviously demarcated the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime that represented an existential threat to the foundations of international peace. Anti-communist rhetoric in Truman’s speech was very strong, and worked extremely well amongst member of Congress. Truman framed his opposition to the Soviet Union in terms that put democracy as the antithesis to authoritarian regimes:
“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.”
The Truman Doctrine, hence, contributed to launching an ideological war between the two superpowers and was not only the “epitome of containment,” but one of the most important milestones of the whole Cold War.
This piece was written using the following microfilm reel available at the RIAS:
U.S. Congressional Record vol 93, reel 280.
With the following primary source at the RIAS:
Documentary History of the Truman Presidency, volume 8.
With the Following online source at the RIAS:
New York Times, March 16, 1947.
And the Following Book available at the RIAS:
Donovan, Robert J. Conflict and Crisis. The Presidency of Harry S. Truman 1945-48 (New York, 1977).