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Mideast Strategists: President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson set the United States on a cold war course that began with the formulation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and didn't end until eight presidents later with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Middle East was never far from either side's strategic calculations. (Harry Truman Library)

On March 31, 1947, British forces were due to withdraw from Turkey and Greece, and British aid to the two countries would end. Greece was in the grip of a civil war that would leave 158,000 dead and 800,000 refugees as its brutal, right-wing but pro-Western monarchy was battling communist insurgents supported by Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito. Since late 1946, Soviet forces were believed to marauding along the Turkish border (not long after withdrawing from Iran under British and American pressure). Without British support, neither Turkey nor Greece could face down a Soviet onslaught.

Truman Doctrine and Dominoes

“Greece and Turkey form the sole obstacle to Soviet domination of the Eastern Mediterranean which is an economic and strategic area of vital importance,” a report to Truman by the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs had read. The report had been commissioned by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, a conservative Democrat and emerging cold war hawk who’d go on to be the architect of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and urge the building of the hydrogen bomb.

Several years before President Eisenhower made the “domino theory” a household phrase in his description of what would happen if the United States did not prevent the fall of Vietnam to communist forces, the State Department and the Department of Defense (then still known as the War Department) argued to Truman that if Turkey and Greece fell, the rest of the Middle East and possibly Western Europe would follow, like dominoes.

Truman v. Republicans

Accurate or not, the dramatic scenario of a Soviet take-over had resonance in the United States for political reasons. For the first time since the Great Depression, both houses of Congress were controlled by Republicans. With Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the Senate and Richard Nixon in the House, the Red Scare was defining the political discourse. Harry Truman’s popularity, at less than 40% approval, was at the lowest of his presidency. He needed something to revive it.

Truman found it in what became known as the Truman Doctrine, a strategic and philosophical vision of the post-World War II order that defined the cold war from then on.

Philosophically, Truman endorsed Acheson’s Manichean view that the world was engaged in a battle between Soviet-style dictatorship and domination and American-style democracy and freedom. Strategically, Truman declared that the United States should be ready and willing to support financially and, if necessary, militarily, any nation opposing communist or Soviet influence. The policy of containment was born.

The Middle East was at the center of the Truman Doctrine, which gave subsequent presidents ample, and arguably excessive, justification and latitude to intervene militarily around the globe.

Read the full account of "The Truman Doctrine and the Middle East."

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