The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity

By Merrill, Dennis | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity

Merrill, Dennis, Presidential Studies Quarterly

Addressing a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, President Harry S Truman requested $400 million in military and economic aid for Greece and Turkey. Convinced that both countries faced Communist aggression, the president enunciated a bold new foreign-policy 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."

In the pantheon of presidential doctrines, Truman's stands out for its breathtaking modernism. The term "modern" defies easy definition. It is typically thought to refer to the most recent stage in Western history, an age of astonishing technological and economic progress. Anthropologists, however, advance a more expansive view of modernity as a worldwide cultural revolution, a state of consciousness that elevates science, mastery over nature, mass production, mass consumption, and social engineering. Initially linked to the nineteenth century's industrial revolution, it impacted different regions of the world unevenly, bestowing material benefits upon some and relegating others to poverty. By the 1940s, however, global war had fractured empires, and transportation and communications networks connected the world's peoples as never before, complicating the meaning of modernity and reshaping international relations.

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, each keenly aware of the world's growing interdependence, expanded America's international role and ushered in the modern age in U.S. foreign relations. But the Truman presidency was the first to construct, win public support, and successfully implement a modern foreign policy. Unlike the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt Corollary, which focused on the Western Hemisphere, Truman's policy was global in scope. Beyond Greece and Turkey, it underpinned an array of Cold War initiatives: the $12 billion Marshall Plan for European reconstruction, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and an unprecedented peacetime military buildup in the wake of the Korean War. Indeed, it guided America's Cold War policies for four decades--from Berlin and Cuba to Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The speech also struck a modern chord because of its recommended antidote for instability and aggression. Franklin Roosevelt's quarantine against fascism in the 1930s carried global ramifications, but it was based on a reactive policy of denying aid to potential enemies. Truman's prescription centered on a positive program of aid giving to allies, and an ambitious agenda for nation building. The ideology of development is traceable to the early nineteenth century, an age of nascent industrialization and continental expansion. Truman era officials respected those traditions, but drew on Keynesian theory to unleash the power of public financing and internationalize capitalism.

Although it reflected America's faith in progress, Truman's doctrine also betrayed an existential fear of modernity. The historian Frank Ninkovich has explained how U.S. leaders beginning in the early twentieth century grasped the newness of the era. "We are all peering into the future," TR wrote in 1895, "to try to forecast the action of the great dumb forces set into motion by the stupendous industrial revolution." A generation later, another Roosevelt noted that militarism in Europe and Asia threatened the United States. The American people, FDR presciently remarked prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, had "much to learn of the 'relativity' of world geography" and how technology had resulted in the "annihilation of time and space." U.S. officials during the Cold War worried that a faraway political crisis might unleash a cascading, domino-like catastrophe threatening not only U.S. security, but civilization itself.

The Truman administration addressed those fears by fashioning a world order rooted in both a traditional balance of power and a set of forward-looking civilizational values. …

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