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Truman Doctrine

Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World

Gary Helm Darden

Truman Doctrine. 

The Truman Doctrine represents the declaration of President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to contain the spread of Soviet Communism, thus formalizing the United States' commitment to waging the Cold War. The impetus for the policy came when Great Britain, facing a postwar financial and imperial crisis, informed the United States in February that it would discontinue aid to anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey. This prompted a critical U.S. foreign policy debate in which the Truman administration resolved that the United States should fill that vacuum or accept probable Soviet expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although initially established to provide these two countries with $400 million in U.S. economic and military aid, the policy provided a much larger template for a global extension of U.S. power to deter Soviet expansion throughout the Cold War, and thus marked a clear departure from its more isolationist prewar policies.

The postwar world faced a choice between “alternative ways of life,” declared Truman when he announced the doctrine before a joint session of Congress on 12 March. “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,” explained the president. “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.” Critics of the policy, however, questioned those societal distinctions in the United States and among its core allies in Western Europe, as evidenced by the U.S. civil rights movement against racial segregation and disfranchisement, and by the decolonization struggles against the remaining British, French, Dutch, and Belgian colonial empires. Others in the Third World decried the U.S. reliance on authoritarian right-wing regimes to contain their authoritarian left-wing counterparts.

U.S. policy nonetheless took genuine steps to link economic development to political stability, especially the utilization of massive U.S. aid and investment to revive the free market economies of Western Europe and Japan. Foremost was the passage of the Marshall Plan in 1948, which dispensed more than $13 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid to war-torn Western Europe. Military aid, though, remained the largest component of U.S. aid programs after 1950, especially in the Third World where the “hot wars” of the Soviet-American rivalry were most pronounced. The Vietnam War marked the costliest and most controversial application of U.S. containment policy.

Broadening the scope of containment beyond aid, the Truman administration created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the first permanent military alliance for the United States since the Franco-American alliance of 1778–1800. Along with other regional alliances and bilateral defense treaties, the United States by the 1950s had assembled a global ring of containment around the Soviet Union and Communist China. The doctrine remained central to U.S. foreign policy for over four decades due to a durable bipartisan consensus at home and broad allied support abroad.


Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

    Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

      Gary Helm Darden

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