Fire, Flood, and Red Fever: Motivating Metaphors of Global Emergency in the Truman Doctrine Speech

By Ivie, Robert L. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Fire, Flood, and Red Fever: Motivating Metaphors of Global Emergency in the Truman Doctrine Speech


Ivie, Robert L., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Cold war exaggerations of American vulnerability derive rhetorically from the Truman Doctrine speech perhaps more than any other single presidential source. As the initial declaration of hostile relations with the Soviet Union after World War II, the president's speech was deliberately designed, in a well-known phrase attributed to Senator Arthur Vandenberg, "to scare hell out of the country." It articulated an "interpretive framework" calculated to command "maximum public support," which was precisely its effect, not only on the president's popularity but also on the public's willingness to combat communism globally (Freeland 1972, 89, 9; LaFeber 1989, 454-55. See also Kernell 1986, 158; Kolko and Kolko 1972, 338-46; Theoharis 1971, 47-53). Truman's framework of interpretation soon "chained out" as John Cragan (1981, 54-55) has observed, into a full-blown "rhetorical vision" of containing communism by extending a protective shield to noncommunist countries around the world. This same vision helped to legitimize anti-communism beyond the immediate requirements of the containment doctrine, fostering an "urge to fight" that outstripped "the need to fight" (Brockriede and Scott 1970, 36, 39-41; see also Ryan 1973, 294, 298).

Despite the role of the Truman Doctrine speech in configuring cold war motives, relatively little attention has been given to its terministic incentives for construing international circumstances as threatening in the extreme. Indeed, the symbolic inducements of such a compelling framework of interpretation have proven peculiarly difficult to discern. As Wayne Brockriede and Robert Scott (1970) have noted, Truman's speech was "articulated with a power that easily eludes the critic" (p. 27). They saw little for traditional rhetorical critics to applaud in its argument, organization, style, or delivery, even though the speech has been recognized universally as a significant rhetorical event (Underhill 1961, 272-74). More recently, Martin Medhurst (1988) has looked to the context of Truman's speech for an explanation of its powerful effect, while Hinds and Windt (1991) have surveyed its imagery and argument for characteristics of early cold war rhetoric.

Even critics using more text-oriented methods have portrayed the speech's rhetorical dynamics in relatively broad-brush strokes. Brockriede and Scott (1970, 39) observed, for instance, that Truman employed a contrapuntal structure to advance ten themes repeatedly, each interlaced with the others in various combinations. Three of those themes, they concluded, fashioned from latent American attitudes an anticommunist ideology potent enough to sustain Truman's containment policy. Drawing on the nation's sense of mission, its hostility toward world communism as a threat to freedom, and its desire to combat the forces of evil, the president created "an evangelism for a cold war against communism." These observations about the ideological appeal of themes in the Truman Doctrine speech were confirmed by Cragan's (1981, 54-56) fantasy-theme analysis of the cold war rhetorical vision as it evolved between 1946 and 1972.

The rhetorical amplification of American insecurity, however, is a process that can be discerned only partially and indirectly through an analytical lens that focuses on broad themes and their relationship to one another. A more precise understanding requires a sustained focus on the exact language with which Truman constituted a framework of interpretation that warranted the containment of communism. Perspectives, as Kenneth Burke (1984) has argued, are a function of metaphors, and metaphors are shorthand terms for motives that realize their rhetorical potential through elaboration and literalization in extended discourse (see Ivie 1982, 240-41; Ivie 1986, 166-68; Ivie 1989, 122-26). Thus, a compelling relationship between the desperate economic conditions of postwar Europe and the president's proposal for containing the spread of communism was envisioned for Americans through a particular terminology of motives--a terminology that converged on the image of an international emergency. …

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