These days, we experience one of the most violent foreign policy developments of the last decades: Russia has invaded Ukraine. It is the culmination of a crisis that has been in the making for years – at least since the Euromaidan protests of 2013/2014 ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian government and Russia subsequently annexed Crimea. During the entire crisis, the posture of western governments (most notably that of the United States) has been of great interest: Ukraine has sought a closer alignment with the West to gain economic and military assistance. At the same time, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been committed to rolling back western influence and to prevent further countries bordering Russia from joining the western alliances.
US posture has been not uniform over these eight years: The annexation of Crimea presented the Obama administration America with a fait accompli, and Obama reacted with lukewarm sanctions. Obama’s successor Donald Trump was proud of his alleged good personal relationship with Putin, watered down the sanctions, and even attempted to extort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Selenskyy by tying an aid package for Ukraine to Selenskyy’s announcement of investigating Hunter Biden’s business activities in Ukraine. Current president Joe Biden has taken a tougher line on Russia again, but the exact response to the ongoing crisis is still in flux.
That brings us to today’s article: How does the United States react to local crises in faraway countries? After all, most Americans (including many elected officials and bureaucrats) know little of the place in question. Still, America’s global role resting on its political, military, and economic leadership demands that these crises are addressed. This challenge was by no means smaller when America was just about to transition into the role of a global power in the 1940s. One event stood out among the developments back then: Rooted in two specific local crises, president Harry S. Truman’s speech on March 12, 1947, asking Congress to approve of a support package for Greece and Turkey would have far-reaching implications for US foreign policy – until very recently.
The Specific: Two Local Crises
When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, his vice president Harry S. Truman took over. It fell to him to see the United States through the last months of World War II – ending the war in Europe when Western and Soviet forces met in Germany, and in Asia when the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan and the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and to shape the post-war order. The conferences of Yalta (in February 1945, under FDR’s leadership) and Potsdam (July 1945, now with Truman) confirmed the Soviet hold over eastern Europe. Just when the Nazis had been defeated, a new potentially hostile power seemed be close to controlling Europe – thus fulfilling what the United States had defined as the biggest threat to its security (and, by consequence, its liberal, democratic, capitalist domestic institutions) since the turn of the century.
The United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, but Truman had identified Soviet expansionism as a new challenge at least from 1946 on. The test cases for his new, tougher, policy would be two countries on the edge of Europe: Greece went through a civil war in which Communist insurgents fought the western-aligned government. Turkey was pressured by Stalin to accede to joint control over the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Both countries had been backed by Great Britain. The British, however, found themselves in imperial overstretch – their limited resources could not be applied to the vast areas on the globe where they had direct or indirect influence. Cutting back from imperial obligations, the British government announced it would cease to aid Greece and Turkey by March 31, 1947. Now Truman was faced with the challenge of either remaining aloof (and potentially losing Greece and Turkey to Soviet influence) or committing the United States to the support of these countries.
The Link: Truman’s Doctrine in Rhetoric and Practice
Truman needed congressional approval to send aid to Greece and Turkey. Securing this approval was no easy task – the United States had a strong tradition of isolationism, which had resulted in its retreat from the global stage soon after World War I. Truman was resolved not to have that happen again. In his speech to both houses of Congress, he began by describing the civil war in Greece and the challenge to Turkey – but soon, Truman moved from the specific to the universal in his speech. He called the challenge of totalitarianism to free nations the biggest threat to American security and declared that almost every country was at a crossroads between freedom and totalitarianism. Truman concluded: “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 speech was favorably received by the American public – and Congress approved of the aid package to both countries. The once-faltering Greek government stabilized and defeated the Communist insurgency. Moscow did not make any further move for joint control over the Turkish Straits. Both Greece and Turkey would join NATO in 1952. American foreign policy had acted quickly, efficiently, and decisively.
That practical, specific meaning of “Truman Doctrine” is embodied in the event card of the same name in Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games). The US player can use this to clear a contested European country of Soviet influence – although astute Twilight Struggle players would probably not use it on small countries of limited relevance like Greece and Turkey. All in all, the card’s value to the US player is more that of a deterrent – experienced Soviet players will just not engage in an intense influence struggle over a single European country as long as Truman Doctrine is still in the deck. That’s not too far from what happened in history – after all, the Soviets never challenged the western allegiance of another European country after 1947, and by the end of the Greek Civil War, Stalin had withdrawn his support (which had been limited from the get-go) for the Greek Communists.
The Universal: A World Divided
Truman’s speech had its contemporary critics. They correctly pointed out that the universalist language used implied a global reach for the policy of assisting free peoples resisting subjugation, but that was beyond American capabilities. However, no such wide-ranging policy was intended by the Truman administration: In practice, the administration kept to an individual, case-by-case evaluation of whom to support. That even included China, where the nationalist Guomindang had been embroiled in a civil war with the Chinese Communists since 1945. A more ambitious foreign policy seemed not only out of reach – budgetary concerns in Congress and the administration put a hard limit on defense spending at $15 billion per year – but also unwise: US policymakers expected China’s Mao, even if victorious, to be a force independent from Soviet communism.
The gap between the specific practice of the Truman administration and its universalist rhetoric became more pronounced in the following years. Truman needed the rhetoric to gain congressional and public support, yet it also bound him to support anticommunist movements abroad. Anticommunism as the leitmotif of foreign policy was also reinforced by domestic anticommunism, embodied by the paranoid search for communist spies in the United States called either the second Red Scare, or, by its chief perpetrator, a Wisconsin senator, McCarthyism.
Rhetoric and practice converged with the Korean War. North Korea’s invasion of the south did not touch a vital American interest, but the United States (and their allies) reacted in force anyway – spurred on by their commitment to support free peoples against Communist encroachment. They would fight in Korea for three years. US defense expenditure more than tripled from $15 billion (in 1950) to $50 billion (in 1953) per year. Even after the war was over, it would never again fall below $40 billion.
Thus, the rhetoric had become practice. The US-led intervention also fostered unity between the Soviet Union and Mao’s recently-victorious communist China. Thus, the new universalist practice of US foreign policy also did away with the old realist insight into the varieties of communism whose differences might provide an advantage for the United States. Instead, it ushered in a perception of zero-sum bipolarity.
The Usefulness and Longevity of the Truman Doctrine
The Truman Doctrine was originally meant for short-term, specific, realist purposes. Its universalist language, however, provided guideposts which the American public, Congress, and the bureaucracy took seriously. When the moment arose to fully implement the doctrine (by responding to the non-vital, non-European crisis in Korea), all of them were ready to respond according to the internalized tenets of the doctrine.
The event card Truman Doctrine from the 2+2 expansion for Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame) captures the spirit of the Truman Doctrine as a wide-ranging policy guideline. It incurs financial burdens to the US (the -1 symbol, indicating the smallest measurable expense in game terms, might be a little bit too modest an assessment). It removes one peace dove (and thus heightens the risk of a nuclear war between the superpowers). So, why would anyone want to trigger that event? – The symbols on the bottom of the card provide the answer: The United States will shift the marker on the Dominance track two spaces in their direction. That will not only provide them bonuses (like a decreased Soviet income which will more than offset the American financial commitment), but also previous victory points when the game ends.
The Truman Doctrine outlived Truman’s presidency. It is no coincidence that the doctrines named after presidents for the next 20 years can all be subsumed under its umbrella of support for countries threatened by (communist) aggression: The Eisenhower Doctrine specified that for the Middle East, both the Kennedy and Johnson Doctrines for Latin America.
The first president to depart from the Truman Doctrine in a significant way was Richard Nixon: He accepted that communism was not a monolithic bloc, and that its internal differences be played off against each other: The US opening to China and Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union reshaped the structure of the international system in a way that now the United States enjoyed better relations with either of the great communist powers than they did with each other.
Regardless of these tactical adjustments, the overall goal of containing communism informed US foreign policy until the very end of the Cold War (which can be seen as bringing the Truman Doctrine to its successful conclusion). The doctrine’s legacy, however, goes even further than that: Its moral mapping of the world in good and evil as well as its view of the world as a fundamentally dangerous place for the United States echoes strongly in the Bush Doctrine and the war on terror.
That brings us close to the current affairs which I mentioned in the introduction. There is no comparable policy guideline to the Truman Doctrine right now, nor is there a consensus in the American public or Congress. It remains to be seen if a Biden Doctrine which would provide general guidelines for this and future crises of the sort will be formulated and if it will gain recognition in the public and Congress.
For a good overview in the context of the nascent Cold War and US domestic policy concerns, see Leffler, Melvyn P.: For the Soul of Mankind. The United States, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, Hill & Wang, New York City, NY 2007, especially pp. 58—69.
An important reappraisal of the speech (in the contemporary context of the early 1970s) which distinguishes between the realist-specific practice of the Truman administration and its idealist-universal rhetoric is Gaddis, John Lewis: Was the Truman Doctrine a Real Turning Point?, in: Foreign Affairs 52, no. 2, January 1974, pp. 386—402, online here (free registration required).
For the shadows of the Truman Doctrine in the Bush Doctrine, see Merrill, Dennis: The Truman Doctrine. Containing Communism and Modernity, in: Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 27—37, online here (free registration required).