Selling the Truman Doctrine

How the Truman Administration changed the Course of American Foreign Policy

Truman with Sec of State Dean Acheson
President Harry Truman with the help of key members of his administration managed to transform the scope of America’s foreign policy through superb salesmanship, laden with emotional appeals to the nation’s sense of moral responsibility and collective ego. His speech to Congress in 1947 urging aid to Greece and Turkey was the subtlest and sweeping pronouncement of an American foreign policy shift to that date and fundamentally altered the course of future American foreign involvement and solidified the Cold War status that had quickly developed after World War II. By painting the world scene as a struggle between good and evil – between liberty and tyranny, and appealing to American traditions and governing principles, the Truman’s administration and its allies in the media managed to convince the conservative, Republican Congress, as well as a majority of the American people that if the United States did not fight tyranny and defend freedom abroad, they would eventually have to do both at home. While the voices of opposition were loud and many, the interventionists carried the day and succeeded in changing both the way the U.S. was perceived throughout the world and the way Americans viewed their own role in global affairs.

The wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. had always been fragile because of the different economic systems that drove an ideological wedge between the two nations. The Soviets were taught and convinced that capitalist countries were inherently imperialistic and therefore mistrusted the United States and the Western allies, even while Joseph Stalin sat down with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to determine the future of post-Nazi Europe.[1]

The single event that convinced many in the U.S. government that the Soviets were intent on conquering the nations in which they overran the Germans in Eastern Europe occurred on July 31, 1944 when the Red Army stood by on the outskirts of Warsaw while the German occupiers in the city massacred the Polish resistance.[2]  This was interpreted as a convenient way for the Soviets to avoid having to deal with a powerful non-communist faction once Poland was liberated. This and other actions on the part of the Red Army and the Soviet government convinced the American Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., W. Averill Harriman that if the U.S. did not stand up to the Soviets, the U.S.S.R. would become a world bully.[3] After the war was over, diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated as the U.S.S.R. suppressed non-communist governments and factions in Eastern Europe.

Churchill feared that if American troops were to leave Western Europe, a “steel curtain” would fall over it just as was happening in Eastern Europe and Stalin would replace Hitler while the Soviet NKVD would replace the Gestapo.[4] To the consternation of both Churchill and his successor Clement Atlee, Americans as of yet did not share their concerns and still viewed the Soviet Union as a strong ally. Influenced by their own propaganda, the American people according to a Princeton poll taken in May 1945 believed the U.S. should continue close cooperation with both the U.K. and the Soviet Union after the war.[5] This desire to cooperate however did not extend to sharing America’s newfound weapon with her allies. Two polls, one in August and another in November of 1945 showed that seventy percent of the American people opposed turning over nuclear weapons to the United Nations.[6] Ignoring the advice of atomic scientists who informed him that Russia could build a bomb within five years, Truman listened to his advisors who predicted U.S. atomic monopoly could last two decades and that the U.S.S.R. had no uranium with which to build a bomb and announced on October 8, 1945 that the U.S. would maintain its atomic monopoly.[7]

Jennifer Madani, "Cold War for Kids"

Many in the British government began to see the U.S. as its lifeline to maintain its empire and world dominance. Churchill argued against turning atomic energy over to the United Nations and claimed the English-speaking nations of the world should retain control of it. At a speech in Fulton, Missouri with Truman sitting on the podium behind him, Churchill dropped what was at the time a rhetorical bombshell in claiming “an iron curtain” had descended across Europe with the Soviets’ domination of Eastern Europe, and that only an Anglo alliance could halt the march of Soviet aggression.[8] Stalin responded by calling Churchill a warmonger and saying he was no better than Hitler.[9]

Most Americans were leery of an alliance with an imperial power, regardless of whether the people of that empire spoke English. Despite Churchill’s wartime popularity, reaction in the U.S. was mostly negative. On March 17, Irish, South Carolinian James Francis Byrnes told the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick that he rejected any notion of a special relationship with Great Britain.[10]

Despite the initial public grumbling though, Churchill’s speech had its intended effect. A poll taken two weeks after his Iron Curtain speech showed that sixty percent of Americans felt that the U.S. was “too soft in its policy toward Russia.”[11]

Meanwhile, the fear that the U.S.S.R. would become a bully began to materialize with the Soviets’ treatment of Iran and Turkey. The Iranians accused the Russians at the UN of instigating an independence revolt in Azerbaijan. When the Russians sought to indict the British for their continued military presence in Greece, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin pointed out that there is a great deal of difference in stationing troops in a country against its will as opposed to stationing them there with the government’s consent, as was the case in Greece.[12] The Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov meanwhile had been using the Soviet-Turkish Pact of Friendship which was due for renewal to blackmail Ankara into allowing Russia joint-control of the Black Sea Straits. U.S. ambassador Edwin C. Wilson warned that Turkey’s collapse would lead to continued Soviet encroachments. The Soviets ceased their campaign of intimidation against Turkey only when the U.S. Navy sent a task force to Istanbul.[13]

Fear of Soviet domination of the Middle East intensified when on February 21, 1947, the British embassy informed the U.S. State Department that it would no longer be able to provide financial assistance to the governments of Greece and Turkey.[14] In Greece, like China there had been two factions opposing the occupying fascist armies. Once the war was over, the capitalist forces gained control of the country with British support while the communists began a guerilla war, exasperating the already weakened Greek economy. The Greek army numbered 115,000 regulars and 35,000 gendarmes while the Communist army led by Markos Vafiadis could not have had more than 13,000. Despite this numerical superiority, the Greek army was poorly trained, poorly equipped, and unfamiliar with guerilla tactics. The morale of the Greek people was largely held intact by the presence of a few thousand British troops in the belief that if things got out of hand, more Brits would come.[15]

A special economic mission, commissioned by President Truman reported that the Greek economy was a disaster, inflation was abysmal, and corruption was rampant. The Greek government it was reported to be “completely reactionary … incredibly weak, stupid and venal.”[16]  Even Truman’s interventionist Secretary of State Dean Acheson described Greek premier Constantine Tsaldaris as a “weak, pleasant, but silly man,” who led an expansionist and spendthrift government.

Nevertheless, Americans continued shipping military supplies to Turkey, Greece, and Iran in line with British desires with the implicit understanding that U.S. troops would intervene in any of those countries if necessary. Secretary of the Navy James Forestal had the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt sent to Athens’ port of Piraeus and on September 30 announced the establishment of a permanent U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean. By December, Secretary of State Byrnes was already referring to Greece and Turkey as U.S. “outposts.” Furthermore, U.S. ambassador in Athens, Lincoln McVeigh pushed for a public declaration against “foreign encroachment” threatening Greece’s “independence and integrity.”[17]

In the spring of 1947, Truman was up against a Republican congress that before the war had supported non-intervention in foreign affairs and at the time wanted to slash taxes by a fifth and his budget by a sixth. They were not eager to help Britain or Truman for that matter and the Democrats were not much friendlier. The administration believed that such aid would require an ideological shift not only in Congress, but in American people as a whole. Acheson viewed the world from a power politics perspective that would define U.S. foreign policy during most of the Cold War and told journalist Louis Fischer during a Metropolitan Club lunch on February 24 that “only two powers” remained. “The British are finished. They are through,” he stated flatly.[18]

Stalin’s retreat under U.S. pressure in Iran and Turkey emboldened the administration to believe that force worked with the Soviets.[19] Truman convened a meeting with key members of the Senate and House of Representatives with the hope of convincing them of the need to offer substantial financial and military aid to Greece and Turkey. However, Truman’s presentation fell flat; prompting one Senator asked why the U.S. should be in the business of pulling British chestnuts out of the fire.[20] Secretary of State George Marshall tried his hand and failed to draw the desired response from the tight-fisted Congressmen. It fell to Acheson to save the day for the administration and persuade the members of Congress present that Greece was of vital strategic importance. Using his understanding of their fear and hatred of communism, he painted the divide between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. as Rome and Carthage. He reinforced the already well-known evils of communism to the Congressmen and explained that the loss of Greece and Turkey could open up all of the Middle East to the Soviet Union. This would cause an “infection” that would spread “to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.” Winning one toss of the dice would be a terrific victory for communism and only the United States was in a position to break up the play. If the Soviets succeeded in winning Greece and Turkey, U.S. security and “freedom itself” would be threatened.

After a long silence, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who before the war had been a strong non-interventionist told Truman, “Mr. President, if you will say that to the Congress and the country, I will support you and I believe that most of its members will do the same.”[21]

Vandenberg’s main concern with the executive branch, as has traditionally been that moderate Republicans throughout history who found themselves in the position of the opposition party was the seeming lack of a clear strategy from the Democratic executive. Acheson had relieved all such worries with his clear explanation of the challenge and the needed response.

Acheson assured interventionist, Canadian ambassador Hume Wrong that “bold action” would overcome isolationist tendencies, and the U.S. would “execute her full responsibilities as the strongest Power in the world.” Foreign policy would now change “from top to bottom.” The people would rise like a “trout to a fly” to “pursue a vigorous 100% American foreign policy, which would combat on a world scale the spread of Communism.”[22] In his memoirs, Truman would later call his doctrine “the turning point in America’s foreign policy.” Acheson and the other chief architects of his foreign policy knew from the experience of getting the British loan passed that the way to get what they wanted from Republicans was by using anti-communist arguments rather than “nuanced economic appeals.”[23]

The problem, however was that the Greeks and Turks had not yet requested aid. The state department quickly sent those nations’ embassies drafts for the requests they should make. Both governments made the expected requests, with the Greeks emphasizing war damage and humanitarian needs rather than any contest with communism. Acheson had won Congressional leaders over with his anti-communist appeal and privately told Robert Oppenheimer the speech would signify that “we were entering an adversary relationship” with Moscow. But, the president had no intention of issuing any condemnation of the USSR or of “communism” in front of Congress or the American people. It would be much better to maintain the high ground and sound altruistic with no intention of dividing the wartime alliance. Acheson told the assistants in his office who were responsible for framing the Truman’s speech to Congress that the president should speak of waging a “global struggle between freedom and totalitarianism,” and emphasize the protection of “individual liberty” and “democracy everywhere in the world.” He added, “If F.D.R. were alive I think I know what he’d do. He would make a statement of global policy but confine his request for money right now to Greece and Turkey.”[24] It was to be understood that helping Greece and Turkey was not mere “vague do-goodism”, but was vital to protecting Americans’ way of life. It was agreed upon not to mention the Soviet Union in the speech.[25]

In his message to Congress, Truman warned that “confusion and disorder might spread throughout the entire Middle East.” No democratic country, including the United States, could be safe in a world dominated by dictatorships. He framed the aid as an investment to ensure the investment of World War II would not be in vain and concluded that the national interest demanded that the policy of the United States should be to protect free peoples around the world “resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside forces.[26][27] It was this promised commitment that became known as the Truman Doctrine and marked the first time that the United States became involved with the internal affairs of a European nation during peacetime.

The pervading belief among the administration that Stalin was funding the Greek guerillas was unfounded and at odds with logical strategy. Stalin was loath to provide any support to the Greek communists for fear of arousing American intervention in the region. British observer in Greece and author of several books on the subject, Charles M. Woodhouse insisted that Stalin never seriously considered aiding the communist guerillas. Rather it had been Yugoslavia’s rogue communist leader Josep Tito who had been supplying the rebels with arms hoping to expand his influence in the region.[28] In fact, when it became obvious that the communists would not win after the U.S. began pouring in aid, Stalin instructed Tito to stop his support for the rebels, a wish that the independent-minded Tito completely ignored.[29] But, Truman’s speech covered all his bases. Even if it had been proven beyond a doubt that the U.S.S.R. had nothing to do with the communist insurgents in Greece, the “armed minorities” plank of the Truman Doctrine took care of that nicely.

The New York Times declared Truman’s speech as the end of the “epoch of isolation” and welcomed “an epoch of American responsibility.” Time and Newsweek praised the president’s pledge to defend freedom throughout the world. Nevertheless, despite the administration’s intense public relations campaign, the Doctrine faced fierce criticism from both the left and right with the administration defending itself against both sides using their opposition’s talking points.[30]  On the left, The Nation and the New Republic joined Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in criticizing the president for a policy that could lead to war with the Soviet Union. On the right, Walter Lippmann supported assistance measures to Greece, but believed it should have gone through the UN.[31] This was the position of 56% of the American people polled on the issue in 1947 as opposed to only 25% who supported unilateral intervention in Greece.[32] This was no doubt kept in mind by the bill’s authors who included the pro-UN statement in the bill “whereas the furnishing of such assistance to Greece and Turkey by the United States will contribute to the freedom and independence of all members of the United Nations in conformity with the principles and purposes of the Charter…”[33]

To achieve passage, the administration and its Congressional supporters lobbied journalists, commentators and public figures to support the aid package. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson voiced his support for intervention in Greece based on its ancient democratic history, thereby creating an emotional link between the small Mediterranean nation and 20th century Americans. But, Greece was ruled by a corrupt monarchy, causing many senators to hesitate at the notion of giving aid to such a country in the name of democracy and insisted that any U.S. aid be limited to humanitarianism.[34]

Still, Acheson was not sowing in unfertile ground and the ideological appeal was by far the most successful tactic employed by the Truman administration because it appealed to the American people’s ego. This was after all the time of “America Triumphant.”[35]  America’s sons had just come back from defeating fascism abroad, her economy was booming, and she was the sole possessor of the atomic bomb making her the world’s undisputed superpower. She had essentially taken the place of Great Britain in world dominance and enforcer of international order and stability through hegemony and the Truman Doctrine was an appeal to that feeling of paternalism.

The agreement to present the package in sharp ideological terms, appealing to the American people’s love of individual liberty and democracy was by no means unanimous. Republican Congressman Francis H. Case who had supported the bill, wrote to the president warning that no country is “wise or rich enough to run the rest of the world.”[36] Diplomat George Keenan, known for his influential “Long Telegram” in which he argued for containment of the Soviet Union strongly opposed pitching the aid package in moralistic terms. He believed the United States should take a tough stand against Soviet expansion and even favored economic aid to Greece. But, in a speech to the National War College in Washington, he called the president’s speech “grandiose” and bulging with commitments that the nation could not and should not honor.[37] He simply was not comfortable with applying universalist rhetoric to a particular situation with clearly defined goals in order to win over the simple and the ideologues. He believed it was the government’s responsibility to educate the masses, many of whom suffered from a lack of mental development. But, there was a difference between education and exaggerated distortion and he felt that Truman’s speech to Congress had crossed that line. He simply did not believe it was possible “to describe in a few pages a program designed to achieve U.S. objectives with respect to the U.S.S.R.”[38]

The failure of the policy’s opponents to produce a solid, consistent, and eloquent opposition was one of the main reasons for which it went smoothly into effect. Republican Senator Robert Taft was the leading anti-interventionist voice in Congress, but he had little more than ideology to back up his foreign policy position which was in large part just an extension of his fiscally conservative, domestic agenda. Taft believed that even if all of Europe were to fall to communism America would not be threatened and that only through over-extending the nation’s resources could America be destroyed. However, he never succeeded in transforming his beliefs into a coherent foreign policy which hurt not only his position, but his chances of becoming president as well.[39]

The most peculiar and by far most radical aspect of the Truman Doctrine was that it did not limit the possibility of U.S. intervention to instances of communist aggression. While the case in point dealt with internal communist insurrection and it was widely understood to be an anti-communist doctrine, Truman spoke more broadly about opposing totalitarianism in general and did not even specify the prerequisite that the beleaguered nation ask for U.S. assistance.[40] This posed the possibility that the United States could and would intervene militarily in another country even if it meant moving in against the will of that country’s people or its government in order to put down an external or internal development with that nation that the United States perceived to threaten said country. This stretched America’s foreign policy beyond the bounds of containment of the Soviet Union and put the American government and not the United Nations in the place of judge, jury, and executioner of tyrants around the world. It also meant that American taxpayers would now bear the brunt of this crusade while their sons, brothers, and fathers died for it.

The Truman Doctrine is remembered as a major step in transforming the United States from an isolationist to an interventionist power or in the minds’ of Wilsonians, a worldwide defender of freedom and democracy. However, in hindsight, it is clear that the doctrine itself was not originally intended to be a foreign policy doctrine, but a political tool to gain the needed support for the immediate ends of providing military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947. The Truman Doctrine would eventually be significantly mellowed under Eisenhower, but the Truman vision remained alive and well throughout subsequent administrations much as many aspects of the New Deal survived despite the fact that both ceased to be officially, declared policies.[41] While it is true that Truman and most of his administration supported the principles behind his doctrine the United States would always have to be selective in its application for lack of unlimited funds and manpower. As the slim numbers of the communist guerillas in Greece show, the Greek government with ample economic aid could have most likely handled the situation on its own without the U.S. government turning it into the start of an international crusade against tyranny. But, an economic aid package would have been harder to sell to the American public and Congress. Truman and Acheson correctly understood that in order to sell a product to an unwilling buyer, a salesman must appeal to ego, fear, and passions; and in that way they were able to garner enough public support to change the course of more than a century and a half of American foreign policy.


[1] “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism A Popular Outline,”, accessed 12/03/2014,, chapter 3.

 [2] Randall B. Woods and Howard Jones, Dawning of the Cold War: The United States’ Quest for Order, (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), 23-24.

[3] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 23-24.
 [4] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 54.
 [5] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 53, 74.
 [6] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 53, 74.
 [7] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 71.
 [9] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 114-115.
 [10] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 116.
 [11] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 117.
 [12] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 101-102.
 [13] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 135-136.
 [14] Dennis Merril, “The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36:1, 2006, 27.

 [16] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 140.
 [17] Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: a Life in the Cold War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 53.
 [18] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 57.
[19] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 52.
[20] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 32.
 [21] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 57.
[22] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 57
[23]Beisner, Dean Acheson, 52.
[24] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 57-59.
[25] Beisner, Dean Acheson, 57-59

,” YouTube video, 19:11, posted by "Thule," Oct. 23, 2012,
[27] Berril, 33.
 [28] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 152.
 [29] Carl C. Hodge and Cathal J. Nolan, U.S. Presidents Foreign Policy: From 1789 to the Present, (Santa Barbara, CA, ABC-CLIO, 2007), 269.
 [30] Merril, “The Truman Doctrine,” 34.
 [31] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 146.
 [32] Lawrence S. Kaplan, “The Monroe Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine: The Case of Greece," Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, 13:1 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993),, 5-6.

 [34] Kaplan, “The Monroe Doctrine,” 5.

 [36] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 150.
 [37] Woods and Jones, Dawning of the Cold War, 147.
 [38] John Lewis Gaddis and Robert A. Lovett, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 49-52.
 [39] John Moser, “Principles Without Program.”

 [40] Doris A. Graber, “The Truman and Eisenhower Doctrines in the Light of the Doctrine of Non- Intervention,” Political Science Quarterly, 73:3 (The Academy of Political Science, 1958),, 321-334.
 [41] Graber, “The Truman and Eisenhower Doctrines.”


Beisner, Robert. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gaddis, John Lewis, and Robert A. Lovett. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Graber, Doris A. “The Truman and Eisenhower Doctrines in the Light of the Doctrine of Non- Intervention.” Political Science Quarterly 73, no. 3 (1958): 1. Accessed December 3, 2014., 321-334.

Hodge, Carl C., and Cathal J. Nolan. U.s. Presidents Foreign Policy: From 1789 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. “The Monroe Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine: The Case of Greece.” Society for Historians of the Early American Republic 13, no. 1 (1993): “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism a Popular Outline.” Accessed December 3, 2014.

Merril, Dennis. “The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2006): 1. Web address.

Moser, John. “Principles Without Program: Senator Robert A. Taft and American Foreign Policy.” Ashbrook Publications. September 1, 2001. Accessed November 2, 2014.

United States Statutes at Large Containing the Laws and Concurrent Resolutions Enacted during the First Session of the Eightieth Congress of the United States of America 1947. Washington: Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1948, 103.

Woods, Randal B., and Howard Jones. Dawning of the Cold War: The United States’ Quest for Order. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.


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