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The Truman Doctrine and the Middle East

How US Policy in Turkey and Greece Shaped the Cold War's Central Strategy

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The Truman Doctrine and the Middle East

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.

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.

The Truman Doctrine Speech

In a 21-minute address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, Truman requested $250 million in military and economic aid for Greece and $150 million in similar aid for Turkey—the equivalent of $2.4 billion and 1.5 billion, respectively, in current dollars. He mentioned communism only once by name (in reference to communists fighting in Greece) and the Soviet Union not at all. But Truman’s message was clear: He was committing the United States against what he perceived but not explicitly describe as Soviet aggression on Iran, Iraq, Greece and Turkey, countries at the rim of Western interests in the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. (read the full text of the Truman Doctrine speech.

“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one,” Truman said. “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.”

Reactions to the Truman Doctrine

Members of Congress, The New York Times reported the following day, “saw their country’s foreign policy undergo radical change in the space of twenty-one minutes. They reacted sharply. At points they were in violent conflict. At the same time there was evident constantly an agreement that decisive action under the bold recommendations of the President must be taken.”

The American press was largely supportive—not because there was much interest in propping up Middle East regimes or spending American taxdollars abroad, but because American security was interpreted as a global affair. “These are our own chestnuts that are in the fire,” concluded an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “America is an integral part of the world and in its own security and welfare must undertake to see that it is the right kind of a world.” The Memphis Commercial Appeal conceded that Truman’s proposal was serious, but agreed with Truman’s claim that “the alternative is more serious.”

Bi-Partisanship or Blindness?

On May 9, 1947, the House of Representatives voted 287-107 to approve the aid package and, by extension, the Truman Doctrine. It was a larger majority that then 260-165 vote that had approved the Lend-Lease bill that established the basis for American involvement in World War II (a bill that had been opposed by 135 Republicans and supported by just 24). The Senate voted 63-23 to approve the measure. Truman signed the bill on May 22 in the penthouse suite of the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City, Mo., where Truman was staying as he attended to his ill mother, Martha E. Truman (she died in late July).

Congress’ “unpartisan” approval of what, by May, was referred to publicly as the Truman Doctrine establishing a precedent of unquestioning, often blind and blank-checked bi-partisan support for waging the cold war that would last until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

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