If you ever take a course on the history of American foreign policy, you are bound to get tested on doctrines. The first president to lend his name to a foreign policy doctrine was James Monroe, though to be accurate, the term “Monroe Doctrine” wasn’t coined until two decades after his death. Theodore Roosevelt is the only president to give us a “corollary” to a presidential doctrine, namely, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In recent decades seemingly every president has offered up a doctrine. There is the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine, the Reagan Doctrine, the Clinton Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine, and the Obama Doctrine. None of these doctrines, however, can claim the title of being the most consequential U.S. foreign policy doctrine. That title belongs to the Truman Doctrine, which Harry S. Truman unveiled in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947.
The events that produced the Truman Doctrine were set in motion three weeks earlier. On February 21, 1947, Lord Inverchapel, the British ambassador to the United States, delivered two official notes to the State Department. The notes communicated a simple message: in light of Britain’s severe economic problems, the British government had decided to end all aid to Greece and Turkey, effective March 31, 1947. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson immediately understood that the British decision opened the door to a geopolitical disaster. He told the State Department’s director for Near Eastern and African Affairs to “get your staff together and work like hell over this weekend.”
Why did Acheson, and subsequently President Truman, see a looming international crisis in the news from London? The answer lies in the turmoil wracking the eastern Mediterranean at the time. Greece was embroiled in a civil war with communist rebels, and Turkey sat astride the strategically important Dardanelles. Over the previous year the Soviet Union had been seeking to establish a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe. Without continued British support for Athens and Ankara, Truman and his advisers calculated that both countries might slip into the Soviet orbit.
Determined not to make the mistakes that British and French leaders had made in dealing with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Truman wanted the United States to replace Britain as the major power in the eastern Mediterranean. But doing so required overcoming two daunting obstacles—the United States had no tradition of providing economic aid to other countries, and Republicans bent on cutting federal spending controlled Congress. Truman understood the difficulties well, calling the case for aid “the greatest selling job ever facing a president.”
The president met privately with congressional leaders to get their support. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former isolationist, told Truman that the Republicans would support him if he made a public case for aiding Greece and Turkey. But Vandenberg added, if he wanted public support, he had to “scare the hell out of the American people.”
Truman took Vandenberg’s advice. On March 12, 1947, he appeared before a joint session of Congress and laid out what become known as the Truman Doctrine:
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.
With this single sentence Truman was asking his fellow Americans to break with their traditional reluctance to become embroiled in events outside the Western Hemisphere and to assume the responsibility of global leadership. This expansive new role for the United States was justified, Truman argued, by the fact the world was now caught in a struggle between two ways of life:
One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
As a down payment on preserving the way of life based on the will of the majority, Truman asked Congress to appropriate $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey for the coming fiscal year.
Members of Congress found Truman’s portrait of the threat facing the United States to be both scary and convincing. In May, the House and Senate both voted by wide, bipartisan margins to appropriate the funds he had requested.
Congress’s swift action meant that the United States was suddenly in the foreign-aid business. More importantly, the passage of the Greek-Turkish Aid Act signaled that the United States would not be retreating into the comfort and security of Fortress America as it had after World War I. Instead, with a powerful speech on March 12, 1947, Truman signaled that the United States intended to lead the Free World. The Truman Doctrine had changed the course of history.