The Truman Doctrine: containing communism and modernity.

Author:Merrill, Dennis
Position:Harry S. Truman

Addressing a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, President Harry S Truman requested $400 million in military and economic aid for Greece and Turkey. Convinced that both countries faced Communist aggression, the president enunciated a bold new foreign-policy doctrine: "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."

In the pantheon of presidential doctrines, Truman's stands out for its breathtaking modernism. The term "modern" defies easy definition. It is typically thought to refer to the most recent stage in Western history, an age of astonishing technological and economic progress. Anthropologists, however, advance a more expansive view of modernity as a worldwide cultural revolution, a state of consciousness that elevates science, mastery over nature, mass production, mass consumption, and social engineering. Initially linked to the nineteenth century's industrial revolution, it impacted different regions of the world unevenly, bestowing material benefits upon some and relegating others to poverty. By the 1940s, however, global war had fractured empires, and transportation and communications networks connected the world's peoples as never before, complicating the meaning of modernity and reshaping international relations.

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, each keenly aware of the world's growing interdependence, expanded America's international role and ushered in the modern age in U.S. foreign relations. But the Truman presidency was the first to construct, win public support, and successfully implement a modern foreign policy. Unlike the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt Corollary, which focused on the Western Hemisphere, Truman's policy was global in scope. Beyond Greece and Turkey, it underpinned an array of Cold War initiatives: the $12 billion Marshall Plan for European reconstruction, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and an unprecedented peacetime military buildup in the wake of the Korean War. Indeed, it guided America's Cold War policies for four decades--from Berlin and Cuba to Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The speech also struck a modern chord because of its recommended antidote for instability and aggression. Franklin Roosevelt's quarantine against fascism in the 1930s carried global ramifications, but it was based on a reactive policy of denying aid to potential enemies. Truman's prescription centered on a positive program of aid giving to allies, and an ambitious agenda for nation building. The ideology of development is traceable to the early nineteenth century, an age of nascent industrialization and continental expansion. Truman era officials respected those traditions, but drew on Keynesian theory to unleash the power of public financing and internationalize capitalism.

Although it reflected America's faith in progress, Truman's doctrine also betrayed an existential fear of modernity. The historian Frank Ninkovich has explained how U.S. leaders beginning in the early twentieth century grasped the newness of the era. "We are all peering into the future," TR wrote in 1895, "to try to forecast the action of the great dumb forces set into motion by the stupendous industrial revolution." A generation later, another Roosevelt noted that militarism in Europe and Asia threatened the United States. The American people, FDR presciently remarked prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, had "much to learn of the 'relativity' of world geography" and how technology had resulted in the "annihilation of time and space." U.S. officials during the Cold War worried that a faraway political crisis might unleash a cascading, domino-like catastrophe threatening not only U.S. security, but civilization itself.

The Truman administration addressed those fears by fashioning a world order rooted in both a traditional balance of power and a set of forward-looking civilizational values. Woodrow Wilson during the First World War had articulated an international value system based on self-determination and individual freedom, but America's rejection of the multilateral League of Nations defeated his cause. Truman's proclamation came at a moment when U.S. leaders understood that foreign policy making had become a modern, culture-producing activity. Rather than a reflection of precise, strategic thinking, the Truman Doctrine should be viewed as public-policy ritual carefully crafted for a mass audience. Less choosy as to multilateral or unilateral means than Wilson, Truman addressed the meaning of America in a globalized world.

On September 11, 2001, the world seemed smaller and more dangerous than ever when international terrorists used hijacked airliners to inflict unimaginable destruction on the U.S. homeland. The historic distance between the Truman Doctrine and the Bush Doctrine is really not that great. Truman set out to contain communism rather than preempt terrorism, but the tactics deployed for each are similar: eloquent statements of principle, maintenance of military preponderance, orchestration of alliances, military intervention, and nation building, and regime change for America's most recalcitrant enemies. It is instructive that the Truman Doctrine experienced its greatest successes in Europe, where cultural constructions of modernity meshed best with America's. In the cultural mosaic that is the non-Western world, where the contemporary firestorm of terror rages, the Cold War bequeathed a more problematic legacy.

The Soviet-American Cold War arose most immediately from a series of conflicts over security, economics, and ideology. But to comprehend the Truman Doctrine, it is necessary to begin with the nation's inner life. Modernity, the theorist Marshall Berman has posited, carries the promise of economic and technological advance, but also generates an immense sense of cultural loss and instability. Postwar Americans looked forward to the benefits of a robust consumer economy, but worried that affluence might spur cultural decay. They craved national unity, but inspired by A. Philip Randolph and Rosie the Riveter, undertook a divisive reassessment of race and gender relations. They dreamed of unparalleled prosperity, yet dreaded the return of a 1930s-style depression.

In a world shattered by global war and nuclear nightmares, world peace seemed a distant dream. Reflecting on the Nazi killing machine, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Neihbur questioned the optimism of the Christian social gospel and rediscovered moral contingency and evil in human affairs. Billy Graham, America's most popular Cold War evangelist, beginning in the 1940s, carried his message of sin and redemption to major cities across the United States. Denouncing communism as godless materialism, he gained the attention and admiration of the media and U.S. political leaders.

Harry S Truman had confronted the insecurities of the modern age in his own life. During the early twentieth century, Truman's hometown of Independence, Missouri rapidly evolved from a rural county seat to a streetcar suburb of metropolitan Kansas City. Young Harry, a son of the white working class, looked to the city as a place where he would make his fortune, but after a series of ego-deflating business failures he decided to...

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