Why did the United States, in 1947, suddenly decide that it could no longer negotiate with its wartime partner, the Soviet Union? And why did American policymakers believe that it was now the duty of the nation to police the world, beginning with the Near East?
One answer is the Truman Doctrine.
It came from George Kennan’s containment idea which, as we saw in the previous segment, was the product of his 1946 Long Telegram from Moscow and subsequent article in Foreign Affairs magazine. Published at about the same time that the United States was in the midst of disputes with its former ally over Iran, Eastern Europe, Germany, and the Near East, Truman’s idea of the United States as a world policeman was suddenly something that many Americans could accept.
That idea also spawned NATO and the National Security Council document NSC-68. Kennan would later criticize both. And each, along with the National Security Act of 1947, would destroy some part of the isolationist and anti-militarist traditions in the 10-year period starting in 1945.
That was the beginning of a watershed period in American history. The first application of the Truman Doctrine took place in the Near East. The United States not only intervened, ostensibly to prevent a nation from being overrun by Soviet power, but it also extended the practice of tinkering with foreign governments. It is something that today we casually accept, with little debate. Today we call it nation-building.
The Truman Doctrine also evolved into what one historian, Robert Art, labeled “the first postwar manifestation of the domino theory,” which posited that if one country in a region fell to communism, others in the region would follow. The domino theory would be cited by numerous presidents to justify various interventions that once would have been dismissed or, at best, would have been temporary and would not have entailed the U.S. government’s taking a permanent part in running another nation.
The policy change had the backing of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had previously been one of the leaders of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, but now was an “internationalist.”
The president pushed for hundreds of millions of dollars in supporting a pro-Western government for Greece. He also sent military advisors and U.S. foreign-policy officials to Greece. They strongly suggested policies and cabinet composition to Greek officials. Greece was in the midst of a civil war that began in 1944.
The selling of imperialism
In attempting to destroy the isolationist tradition and replace it with the Truman Doctrine, Vandenberg knew that the president would face considerable opposition. There were dissenters in Congress, the press, and the general public. So Vandenberg said that the recommended policy should include another Red Scare — there had been one just after World War I — without directly mentioning the Soviets.
“Mr. President,” Vandenberg told Truman, “the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.”
He told Congress that the nation, ostensibly at peace, must be prepared for “further struggle.” Indeed, in his famous Truman Doctrine speech of March 1947, Truman warned, “We dare not relax for even a single moment; above all we cannot permit the degeneration of that great national unity in the facing of world problems which we achieved during the war and without which we could not have brought the war to a successful conclusion.” Subsequent presidents would echo him many times, even when a war or a crisis was over.
The U.S. government sent a warship to Turkey. It also announced it would be a party to any disputes in the Dardanelles and that it would support Turkey in a pending dispute with the Soviet Union. The Soviets wanted to renegotiate the Montreux Convention of 1936, which specified that Turkey controlled the Dardanelles in war and peace. They also asked Turkey to cede two border districts.
Beyond Greece and Turkey
Military aid to the Greeks and Turks, interposing U.S. power in regional disputes with the Soviets, was the beginning of sea changes in American policy and society. The United States was in the process of jettisoning its tradition of isolationism.
Soon after the Truman Doctrine was enunciated, the United States departed from a century and a half of tradition by entering into its first peacetime military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. The Soviet threat would become the rationale for dismissing negotiation and emphasizing military options.
As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The Vital Center, even in later absolving Truman from the imperial-presidency syndrome, the United States shared the blame for the Cold War. He wrote that “each side corroborated the fears of the other and thereby heightened the interlocking delusions bred by crisis.” But the United States, as economically and militarily a much stronger nation than the Soviet Union in 1945, was in a much better position to avoid tensions, but didn’t, wrote Thomas G. Paterson in Soviet-American Confrontation.
But the Truman Doctrine did more than attempt to defeat Soviet goals. It changed America. It was one of the justifications for secret government, for adopting the methods of an enemy Americans believed was amoral, and for spending incredible amounts on defense. Within three years, the U.S. defense budget would be tripled. The United States was departing from its traditional practice of reducing the military once a war was won.
(One example of that tradition may be seen after the Civil War: “The Grand Army of the Republic, the finest military machine in existence at the time, made its three-day march down Pennsylvania Avenue and was dissolved.… The Civil War military structure collapsed. The ships were sold. The guns were stored,” according to Walter Millis’s Arms and Men; A Study of American Military History.)
In the late 1940s, the United States entered into an imperial system that would evolve into the nation-building of the early 21st century. The policy would go from alliances to the suggestion, made some 60 years later by the retired general and presidential hopeful Wesley Clark, that the United States should do more than just provide aid for allies. It should, he said, reconstruct various unstable countries. What would George Washington and John Quincy Adams have thought of that?
Going beyond Wilson and Roosevelt
Truman was building an American empire of alliances and engaging in both overt and secret interventions. His imperial approach was a system that was more than a hit-or-miss intervention here and there, as it had been under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century. Their quasi wars had been controversial. They were often subject to public debate that ended them, such as Wilson’s sending of troops to Russia after World War I.
However, Truman’s system would become permanent. It would be beyond serious discussion on the hustings or in the mass media, even though such commitments previously would have raised economic, constitutional, and political questions. But a few questions from a noisy minority persisted over how extensive the Truman Doctrine was. What this policy meant in Greece and Turkey, columnist Walter Lippmann wrote in his book The Cold War, was that the United States was “in sum, trying to police the world.”
Indeed, Truman conceded in his memoirs, Years of Trial and Hope, 1946–1952, that the initial commitments in the Near East could easily lead the United States to other obligations. There were dangers in his new policy, he said.
His new policy, he said in his memoirs, could lead to more and more potential wars or near wars for America. The domino theory could be dangerous. It could mean that the United States would become involved not just in the Near East but in many other places. For instance, in pushing for aid to Greece and Turkey, Truman at the same time increased aid to the French. They were fighting a local communist rebellion in Southeast Asia led by a communist who hated the Chinese, both communist and non-communist, was suspicious of the Soviets, and had grown to like Americans during World War II.
Ho Chi Minh pointed out that the Chinese had a long history of trying to subvert Vietnam, a land they called the Pacified South or Annam. And those of Ho’s colleagues who wanted to work with Chinese he called fools. He warned that, once entrenched in Vietnam, the Chinese would never go.
“As for me,” Ho said, “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life,” according to Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow. Yet under the Truman Doctrine, he would become a new communist enemy of the United States. Here was an enemy Americans never had to fight, but did.
Still, Truman, appraising himself in his memoirs, conceded that his policy could result in sending U.S. military forces to more and more places.
“And in the same way,” he wrote, “our increased aid to Indo-China and the Philippines and our move for the defense of Formosa by the Seventh Fleet were designed to reinforce areas exposed to Communist pressure.”
In the case of Indo-China, part of which became Vietnam, American support and later intervention would have tragic results far beyond what Truman and his belligerent advisors could have imagined. But it all started with the Truman Doctrine and Greece.
Truman also linked aid to Greece with aid to Turkey, Iran, and others as critical to world peace. In early 1947, the British were cutting back on worldwide commitments. Centuries of empire, as well as their wars and bureaucracies — one Victorian radical MP had called the British Empire “a system of outdoor relief for aristocrats” — had bankrupted them.
The Soviets, Truman believed, would take advantage of British pullouts around the world after World War II — pullouts necessitated by centuries of imperial policies the United States was now initiating. Preventing the Soviets from taking over parts of Europe and the Near East was Truman’s justification for constructing a Pax Americana. Greece was the first place where the new policy would come into play.
But we still haven’t answered the question, How did Americans, many of whom dreaded the idea of alliances and huge military budgets, come to agree to these imperial ideas?
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).