The Truman Doctrine

In a speech delivered before Congress on March 12, 1947, President Truman said these words which shaped the next 50 years of national history:

… 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.

It would be very interesting to look at how the Truman Doctrine was (and was not) applied throughout the world at various times during and after the Cold War. American involvement in places like Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq show us both the promise and the peril of such a commitment. Our actions – and lack of actions – in Africa and South America are also a part of that history. It is a costly doctrine, inconsistently applied in a complex world. I wonder, though, what policy those who oppose the Truman doctrine on its face offer as an alternative: that free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures can drop dead?

President Truman spoke his words in the context of struggles that Greece and Turkey were then experiencing. It is unfair to quote his words in isolation from their context in the speech, which called for international support of self-determination and economic – not military – assistance.

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. . . .

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 full text of the speech is available at the Avalon Project and related documents have been published on-line by the Truman Library.

When and how to become involved in the struggles of others is a difficult question that doesn’t always offer clear, easy answers. It’s usually a tough call and the decision doesn’t always work out as intended.

Those who oppose any intervention in foreign struggles sometimes point at the innocent who suffer as an unintended consequence of U.S. action and say, “Look at the pain you are causing.” I’ll accept that responsibility, if those who demand that we do nothing will accept responsibility for the ongoing suffering of those we refuse to help. Every choice has its costs.