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What was the Truman Doctrine?

President Truman was willing to go to great lengths to halt the spread of communism – and in Greece and Turkey, he succeeded. But what was the Truman Doctrine and what was its significance?

President Truman, seen here in 1948
Published: August 16, 2022 at 4:03 pm
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While the Marshall Plan attempted to bolster the economies and domestic harmony of European countries after the Second World War, the Truman Doctrine was the United States foreign policy initiative aimed at keeping these states free from physical attacks by “armed minorities or by outside pressures”.

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No reading between the lines was necessary. This was the US’s clearly stated intention of ensuring that communist forces would not interfere with or undermine the sovereignty of its allies. This was unlikely to involve direct military action from the US, but instead would take the form of financial aid packages for countries attempting to withstand communist uprisings.

President Harry S Truman announced the doctrine in a speech before a joint session of Congress on 12 March 1947, specifically asking for the two Houses to agree to support packages for Greece and Turkey, both of whom – with their funding from the UK government having dried up – were facing extraordinary pressure from communist influence. Greece was in the middle of a bitter civil war, waged by left-wing guerrillas against the government of King George II, while Turkey was bowing to pressure from the Soviet Union for shared control of the strategically important Dardanelles Straits.

Truman emphasised how time was of the essence, and how relying on the still-new United Nations to collectively act and swiftly respond was unrealistic. The threat was spreading – and spreading quickly. “The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. I must also state that, in a number of other countries, there have been similar developments.” It was, he stressed, time to act.

Pledges of allegiance

Explicitly framing his argument in terms of American interests (the third sentence of his speech had invoked “the national security of this country”), Truman managed to secure $400m in aid from Congress for Greece and Turkey – equivalent to more than $5bn today. This funding helped to successfully dissolve the communist threat in both cases. Indeed, five years later, Greece and Turkey both pledged their allegiance to the US by joining Nato. Having nullified unwanted influence in a vulnerable corner of Europe, Truman would certainly agree that that was money well spent.

Greece and Turkey officially became members of Nato in 1952
Greece and Turkey officially became members of Nato in 1952, proving Truman’s strategy to be effective. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The success of the Truman Doctrine in southeast Europe led to its adoption by the US government beyond this particular continent. The world saw it as a commitment by Washington to intervene where it was believed free people were being subjugated – and without the turmoil that a heavy US military presence might bring to bear on a delicate situation. And the world knew what the doctrine fundamentally meant: it became shorthand for guaranteed American opposition to any spread, or any threatened spread, of communism, anywhere on the planet.

By adopting this role as the ‘policeman’ of the free world, it was only a short step for the US to extend the policy and intervene militarily – as would soon be witnessed in Korea and Vietnam.

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Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history

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