Truman Doctrine Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Less than two years after the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech in which he articulated a new American foreign policy that would become known as the Truman Doctrine, intended to address the postwar geopolitical climate. Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had expanded its reach throughout Eastern Europe and was threatening to spur Communist revolutions in the Middle East. The focus of Truman's speech was the situation in Greece and Turkey, two nations that were threatened in different ways by the spread of Communism. Though the threats were different, the response, Truman argued, needed to be the same—financial aid to help contain the tide of Communist expansion. The United States was only just becoming accustomed to its new role as a world superpower; in the postwar order, Truman asserted, the United States was the only nation able to provide such aid, and the country had an ongoing responsibility to safeguard the world from the spread of Communism.

Summary Overview

Less than two years after the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech in which he articulated a new American foreign policy that would become known as the Truman Doctrine, intended to address the postwar geopolitical climate. Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had expanded its reach throughout Eastern Europe and was threatening to spur Communist revolutions in the Middle East. The focus of Truman's speech was the situation in Greece and Turkey, two nations that were threatened in different ways by the spread of Communism. Though the threats were different, the response, Truman argued, needed to be the same—financial aid to help contain the tide of Communist expansion. The United States was only just becoming accustomed to its new role as a world superpower; in the postwar order, Truman asserted, the United States was the only nation able to provide such aid, and the country had an ongoing responsibility to safeguard the world from the spread of Communism.

Defining Moment

In the two years following the defeat of Nazi Germany, US relations with its wartime ally the Soviet Union had changed dramatically. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had agreed that the nations Germany had conquered during the war should be able to freely choose their governments through democratic elections. Very quickly after the conclusion of the war, however, it became clear that the Soviet Union was doing everything it could to ensure that all of the nations along its borders came under Communist rule. This direct disregard for the Yalta Agreement meant that the United States now had a new foe in a “cold war,” which pitted democracy against totalitarianism.

American foreign policy experts struggled to determine the best course of action; George F. Kennan, who had perhaps the most familiarity with the Soviet government, having served as a US diplomat in Moscow for seven years, articulated what he saw as the reasons for Soviet aggressiveness in his “long telegram” in February 1946. To Kennan, Soviet expansionism was shaped by Russia's history of imperialistic conquest as well as by Marxist ideology, which saw Communism in an ongoing war against capitalism. He believed the only policy that could stop the Soviets' expansionist influence was one of containment, which required a commitment by the United States to the long-term limitation of the Soviets to their own sphere of influence. This had dramatic implications for American policy, as Kennan had no doubt that the Soviets would continue their drive to expand for the foreseeable future.

The need to articulate a new policy came to a head in February 1947, when the British government, which had suffered far greater economic hardship than the United States during World War II, informed American officials that it would no longer be able to provide economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, both of which were facing important threats related to Communist expansionism. In Greece, leftist rebels, supported by Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, had waged an insurgency against the Greek royal government. In Turkey, the Soviet Union was aggressively seeking to share control over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus straits, which connect the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, where the Soviets had large naval bases. Truman administration officials believed that if Greece and Turkey were overtaken by Communists, the appeasement of Soviet demands would only embolden the Soviets to go further, and country after country would fall to Communism—an idea that became popularly known as the “domino theory.” The only way to stop the dominos from falling—or to contain the Soviet threat to Greece, Turkey, and the rest of the free world—was for the United States to take an active role in international affairs by meeting Soviet aggression with countervailing political, economic, and military force whenever necessary. With this policy in mind, Truman spoke to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947.

Author Biography

Following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, in the last days of World War II, Harry S. Truman became president of the United States. The peace that followed the war was short-lived, however, as almost immediately, Truman was faced with a new kind of war, a “cold war,” pitting the United States against its wartime ally the Soviet Union. Relations began to break down even before World War II had ended, due to the ideological differences between the two nations, with the United States supporting capitalism and democracy, while the Soviet Union championed socialism and an authoritarian form of government. Though these differences had existed since the Russian Revolution in 1917, they took on geopolitical overtones after World War II and became a much more pressing concern for Truman. Much of Truman's presidency was defined by the nascent Cold War, and in 1947, Truman sought to define what the US government's response to the Soviet threat would be.

Historical Document

The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of the Congress. The foreign policy and the national security of this country are involved.

One aspect of the present situation, which I wish to present to you at this time for your consideration and decision, concerns Greece and Turkey.

The United States has received from the Greek Government an urgent appeal for financial and economic assistance. Preliminary reports from the American Economic Mission now in Greece and reports from the American Ambassador in Greece corroborate the statement of the Greek Government that assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation.

I do not believe that the American people and the Congress wish to turn a deaf ear to the appeal of the Greek Government.

Greece is not a rich country. Lack of sufficient natural resources has always forced the Greek people to work hard to make both ends meet. Since 1940, this industrious and peace loving country has suffered invasion, four years of cruel enemy occupation, and bitter internal strife.

When forces of liberation entered Greece they found that the retreating Germans had destroyed virtually all the railways, roads, port facilities, communications, and merchant marine. More than a thousand villages had been burned. Eighty-five per cent of the children were tubercular. Livestock, poultry, and draft animals had almost disappeared. Inflation had wiped out practically all savings.

As a result of these tragic conditions, a militant minority, exploiting human want and misery, was able to create political chaos which, until now, has made economic recovery impossible.

Greece is today without funds to finance the importation of those goods which are essential to bare subsistence. Under these circumstances the people of Greece cannot make progress in solving their problems of reconstruction. Greece is in desperate need of financial and economic assistance to enable it to resume purchases of food, clothing, fuel and seeds. These are indispensable for the subsistence of its people and are obtainable only from abroad. Greece must have help to import the goods necessary to restore internal order and security, so essential for economic and political recovery.

The Greek Government has also asked for the assistance of experienced American administrators, economists and technicians to insure that the financial and other aid given to Greece shall be used effectively in creating a stable and self-sustaining economy and in improving its public administration.

The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists, who defy the government's authority at a number of points, particularly along the northern boundaries. A Commission appointed by the United Nations Security Council is at present investigating disturbed conditions in northern Greece and alleged border violations along the frontier between Greece on the one hand and Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia on the other.

Meanwhile, the Greek Government is unable to cope with the situation. The Greek army is small and poorly equipped. It needs supplies and equipment if it is to restore the authority of the government throughout Greek territory. Greece must have assistance if it is to become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.

The United States must supply that assistance. We have already extended to Greece certain types of relief and economic aid but these are inadequate.

There is no other country to which democratic Greece can turn.

No other nation is willing and able to provide the necessary support for a democratic Greek government.

The British Government, which has been helping Greece, can give no further financial or economic aid after March 31. Great Britain finds itself under the necessity of reducing or liquidating its commitments in several parts of the world, including Greece.

We have considered how the United Nations might assist in this crisis. But the situation is an urgent one requiring immediate action and the United Nations and its related organizations are not in a position to extend help of the kind that is required.

It is important to note that the Greek Government has asked for our aid in utilizing effectively the financial and other assistance we may give to Greece, and in improving its public administration. It is of the utmost importance that we supervise the use of any funds made available to Greece; in such a manner that each dollar spent will count toward making Greece self-supporting, and will help to build an economy in which a healthy democracy can flourish.

No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected. The Government of Greece is not perfect. Nevertheless it represents eighty-five per cent of the members of the Greek Parliament who were chosen in an election last year. Foreign observers, including 692 Americans, considered this election to be a fair expression of the views of the Greek people.

The Greek Government has been operating in an atmosphere of chaos and extremism. It has made mistakes. The extension of aid by this country does not mean that the United States condones everything that the Greek Government has done or will do. We have condemned in the past, and we condemn now, extremist measures of the right or the left. We have in the past advised tolerance, and we advise tolerance now.

Greece's neighbor, Turkey, also deserves our attention.

The future of Turkey as an independent and economically sound state is clearly no less important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world than the future of Greece. The circumstances in which Turkey finds itself today are considerably different from those of Greece. Turkey has been spared the disasters that have beset Greece. And during the war, the United States and Great Britain furnished Turkey with material aid.

Nevertheless, Turkey now needs our support.

Since the war Turkey has sought financial assistance from Great Britain and the United States for the purpose of effecting that modernization necessary for the maintenance of its national integrity.

That integrity is essential to the preservation of order in the Middle East.

The British government has informed us that, owing to its own difficulties can no longer extend financial or economic aid to Turkey.

As in the case of Greece, if Turkey is to have the assistance it needs, the United States must supply it. We are the only country able to provide that help.

I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey, and I shall discuss these implications with you at this time.

One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.

To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.

The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.

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.

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.

I believe that 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.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.

The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred. But we cannot allow changes in the status quo in violation of the Charter of the United Nations by such methods as coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration. In helping free and independent nations to maintain their freedom, the United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East.

Moreover, the disappearance of Greece as an independent state would have a profound effect upon those countries in Europe whose peoples are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedoms and their independence while they repair the damages of war.

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

We must take immediate and resolute action.

I therefore ask the Congress to provide authority for assistance to Greece and Turkey in the amount of $400,000,000 for the period ending June 30, 1948. In requesting these funds, I have taken into consideration the maximum amount of relief assistance which would be furnished to Greece out of the $350,000,000 which I recently requested that the Congress authorize for the prevention of starvation and suffering in countries devastated by the war.

In addition to funds, I ask the Congress to authorize the detail of American civilian and military personnel to Greece and Turkey, at the request of those countries, to assist in the tasks of reconstruction, and for the purpose of supervising the use of such financial and material assistance as may be furnished. I recommend that authority also be provided for the instruction and training of selected Greek and Turkish personnel.

Finally, I ask that the Congress provide authority which will permit the speediest and most effective use, in terms of needed commodities, supplies, and equipment, of such funds as may be authorized.

If further funds, or further authority, should be needed for purposes indicated in this message, I shall not hesitate to bring the situation before the Congress. On this subject the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government must work together.

This is a serious course upon which we embark.

I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious. The United States contributed $341,000,000,000 toward winning World War II. This is an investment in world freedom and world peace.

The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than 1 tenth of 1 per cent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain.

The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive.

The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.

If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.

Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.

I am confident that the Congress will face these responsibilities squarely.

Document Analysis

The Truman Doctrine represents a dramatic turning point in the history of American foreign policy. President Harry S. Truman spoke to a joint session of Congress and announced a new direction in US foreign policy, marking what many consider to be the beginning of the Cold War. In his speech, he speaks directly about the situation faced by Greece and Turkey as they sought to avoid Communist domination. In a larger sense, however, Truman used the speech to articulate a new vision of the United States' role in the world. According to Truman, the United States could no longer shrink back to an isolated existence as it had at the conclusion of previous wars. A new geopolitical landscape, a new position as a world superpower, and the spread of Communism created the need for a new strategy to deal with the situation.

Truman begins by explaining the two crises in Greece and Turkey. The Communist-led insurgency in Greece, funded by the Communist government of Yugoslavia, threatened to overthrow the pro-Western monarchy. Great Britain had been providing financial assistance to the Greek government but, due to their own economic crisis, were unable to continue. Truman asserts that, without American aid, Greece could very well fall to the Communists. In Turkey, the Soviet Union was pressuring the small, weak nation to share control over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. Without assistance from the United States, the Soviet Union could dominate the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Truman speaks briefly about how he had considered asking the United Nations (UN) to assist Greece and Turkey, as the settlement of international disputes was the very reason for its existence, but he came to the conclusion that the situation needed immediate assistance of a greater extent than the UN could provide.

The larger issue, however, was the choice the nations of the world faced between a way of life “based upon the will of the majority” that had free elections and institutions as well as guaranteed protection of individual freedoms, and a way of life “based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority,” where the state is coercive and totalitarian, suppressing individual and social freedoms. The role of the United States in this new world was to contain Soviet expansion by helping nations such as Greece to “become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.” Truman sums up his intentions by stating that “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.” According to Truman, the United States must meet any challenge put forward by the Soviet Union and its desire to expand Communist control, arguing that “there is no other country to which democratic Greece can turn. No other nation is willing and able to provide the necessary support.”

Essential Themes

The Truman Doctrine outlined the ideas that shaped America's foreign policy during the early years of the Cold War, particularly the idea that the Soviet Union needed to be contained and that the United States was the only nation in the world capable of doing so. The United States relied primarily on political and economic means, though the fact that the American military was kept on a permanent war-footing demonstrated that armed conflict was always a possibility. Though Congress approved the aid package that Truman requested for Greece and Turkey, not everyone was convinced by Truman's long-term strategy. Former vice president Henry A. Wallace, who had been the secretary of commerce until he gave a speech in 1946 critical of the Truman administration's foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, thought that cooperation with the Soviets would be far more effective. Others thought the Truman Doctrine too soft and argued that the Soviets would only respect military power in equal measure to its own.

In retrospect, the results of the aid package to Greece and Turkey were ambiguous. Both countries were able to stand firm in the face of the Communist threats they faced, but the aid did not guarantee a more democratic government in either country, as both saw the rise of authoritarian right-wing governments. However, the die was cast, and the Truman Doctrine inspired the Marshall Plan that, beginning in 1948, provided large amounts of financial aid to friendly governments in Europe, with the idea being that when the people of a nation are not economically threatened, they would be far less likely to succumb to Communist propaganda or support an overthrow of their government. The military component of the Truman Doctrine began to take shape with the administration's approval of NSC-68 in 1950, a document that set in motion plans to strengthen the US military as a counterweight to the massive Soviet military.

Though later presidents recast the conflict in ways that suited their own style, the basic ideas contained in the Truman Doctrine formed the basis of the United States' Cold War strategy from the beginning to the end, and the second half of the twentieth century was to be dominated by the global showdown between the two superpowers.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bostdorff, Denise M. Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2008. Print.
  • Jones, Howard. “A New Kind of War”: America's Global Strategy and the Truman Doctrine in Greece. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.
  • Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
  • Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.
  • Pechatnov, Vladimir O. “The Soviet Union and the World, 1944–1953.” The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Origins. Vol. 1. Ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. 90–111. Print.
Categories: History Content