That, in my mind was the turning point of U.S. policy, the Greek Turkish aid program. — Harry Truman on the Truman Doctrine of 1947
Truman’s message would oblige the United States to rely on satellites, puppets and client agents about whom we know very little. — Walter Lippmann on the Truman Doctrine
President Truman’s new interventionist foreign policy had to be sold to Americans.
The rationale for America’s departure from an isolationist foreign policy in 1947 was that Greece was being overwhelmed by outside communist forces. Only the United States could contain Soviet aggression and save Greece from communism.
But were Greece’s troubles caused solely by Moscow?
They began well before the war and were far more complex than a supposed threat from Moscow and her allies. The “blame everything on Moscow” idea was a mistake that American policy-makers would repeat in other places as America intervened directly or indirectly.
Greece had gone through numerous constitutional crises going back to the 1930s under the Metaxas military regime. They were followed by a German invasion and occupation in World War II. Britain liberated Greece at the end of 1944, considering it within its sphere of influence. Stalin had conceded that in a wartime meeting with Churchill.
After World War II, Greece endured a civil war begun by Greek communists (EAM). But they didn’t need Moscow’s approval. They opposed the Greek monarchy and local right-wing forces. EAM, probably without notifying Moscow, according to several historians, started a revolt in 1944. The civil war was complicated by local and regional elements, including communist guerrillas trained in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania.
Yet Stalin, an opportunist who looked for cheap victories, didn’t want war with a major power. So he told communist allies to stop making trouble in Greece. It is debatable whether the EAM had Stalin’s approval when the revolt began.
“As for Greece,” wrote William Taubman in <em>Stalin’s American Policy,</em> “the consensus among historians is that Moscow did not order the latest communist uprising.” Still, Taubman adds, the Soviets weren’t initially upset. But they called for an end once the Americans insisted Greece was within their sphere of influence.
Indeed, Stalin warned his Yugoslavian allies that the Americans and British wouldn’t let Greece fall into the communist camp. He understood that Truman, an avowed opponent of America’s “isolationist” foreign policy, believed that America in 1947 must assume world responsibilities. And selling the Greek policy to Americans was the first test of the policy that would be announced in a speech to Congress.
“I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities by outside pressure,” said the president in the March 1947 address that launched the Truman Doctrine, a doctrine that would lead to NATO and NSC-68.
The Truman Doctrine’s origins
Truman’s controversial speech to Congress was intended, wrote Arnold A. Offner in <em>Another Such Victory,</em> as the “opening gun” in a campaign to “make the American people realize that the war wasn’t over by any means.” Yet that was not the language of George Kennan, the author of the containment doctrine on which Truman’s new policy was supposed to be based. Offner traced that phrase to presidential counsel Clark Clifford.
Who was Clark Clifford?
He was a high-powered Washington lawyer insider who had helped draft the Truman Doctrine speech. He defended its frightening language: “The president had no choice but to dramatize the situation with a broad and dramatic statement if he wanted Congressional approval; but clearly he did not intend it as a blank check,” he wrote in Counsel to the President.
Intentionally or not, the Truman Doctrine — “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities by outside pressure” — led to many more commitments. It led to funding the French empire in Southeast Asia. After that there was NATO in 1949, embodying a promise to protect most of Western Europe. Later the promise would be expanded.
By the 1950s, the United States’s military commitments had grown to dozens of countries and eventually covered most of the world. But they began with Greece and Turkey, despite the assurances of a presidential aide that the first commitments were not “a blank check.”
Clifford was not a Soviet specialist with the background of a Kennan or a Charles Bohlen, veteran foreign service officers who had served in Moscow. He was a political wheeler-dealer, the ultimate Washington insider. (As a lawyer to the Kennedy family, he later helped Ted Kennedy when he was caught cheating on a Spanish test at Harvard.) Nevertheless, he had written a report on Russia in 1946 that would become one of the precursors of the Truman Doctrine.
The report was so dangerous that the president demanded that all copies be locked up. Clifford’s Soviet report said the United States should prepare for “atomic and biological warfare.” It also called for the United States to defend “all democratic countries which are in any way menaced or endangered by the USSR,” according to Walter McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State.
The 1947 speech to Congress, Truman later wrote, kept Greece from becoming a Soviet satellite.
“If we were to turn our back on the world, areas such as Greece, weakened and divided as a result of war, would fall into the Soviet orbit, without much effort on the part of the Soviets,” he wrote in his memoirs, Years of Trial and Hope, 1946–1952.
But critics asked whether supporting “free peoples” in Greece and Turkey would inevitably lead to open-ended commitments. Wouldn’t Americans have to support some sleazy governments whose only recommendation was that they were anti-communist?
Some skeptics in 1947 suggested the explicit and implied commitments of the Truman Doctrine were open-ended. They had questions. For instance, the isolationist senator Robert Taft, according to biographer James T. Patterson in Mr. Republican, reluctantly voted for the Truman Doctrine. But he wondered:
– What evidence was there that American national security was threatened?
– How would American policy be directed in Greece?
– Would Congress have much of a say?
Would America allow elections to be held in Greece, and would America accept the results of such an election if they proved unfavorable? Still, the United States, Truman argued in his message to Congress and in his memoirs, had to take the responsibility for saving countries from communism. Without American intervention in Greece, Truman warned of a domino effect.“The success of Russia in such areas and our avowed lack of interest would lead to the growth of domestic communist parties in such European countries as France and Italy, where they were already significant threats,” he wrote in his memoirs.
However, by that logic, any country that had a significant communist party was to be watched by the United States, which quietly intervened in elections in France and Italy. The Truman Doctrine ignored the question of whether it was arrogant for the United States to oppose the judgments of people in other nations. Suppose a people wanted a local communist party, which may or may not agree with Moscow? These were new issues for American foreign policy.
“A veritable transformation”
So Clifford was correct when he wrote of the Truman Doctrine speech that “the president intended the speech to make a historic departure from traditional American foreign policy.” And James “Scotty” Reston, an influential <em>New York Times</em> Washington bureau chief, would write that the new policy amounted to “a veritable transformation of the spirit of the United States government.”
America ultimately sent advisors to Greece. They “came close to combat action in the mountains,” wrote C.M. Woodhouse in Modern Greece. Greece stabilized. But with U.S. aid also came U.S. interference. “It is evident that the critical Greek situation will require very close attention and active U.S. interest,” wrote Loy Henderson, a key State Department official.
Henderson and other Americans started to help choose the members of the Greek cabinet, according to Inside the Cold War: Loy Henderson and the Rise of the U.S. Empire, 1918–1961, by H.W. Brands. Greece’s royalist government, with massive U.S. help, defeated the insurgency. But was the United States helping a nation protect itself or imposing its own will? The Greek government some 20 years later would be overthrown and replaced by a military government. It vowed to be anti-communist and was duly backed by the Nixon administration.
The Truman Doctrine contained elements of economic aid, but it emphasized military solutions to foreign-policy problems. That was a point made by former Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace. He had hoped that more trade between the United States and the Soviet Union would help to reduce tensions, as pointed out in <em>The Rise and Fall of the Peoples’ Century,</em> by Norman D. Markowitz. But Truman disagreed. Even the widely praised Marshall Plan was designed in such a way that American officials expected the Soviets wouldn’t accept it. Americans were relieved when the Soviets did so. The military buildup, on both sides, continued.
The predominance of the military
Clearly the foreign-policy emphasis of the Truman administration was on the military, according to numerous historians. Indeed, Broadus Mitchell, an economist testifying to Congress analyzing the $400 million aid package to Greece and Turkey, said, “Two-thirds of the Greece Turkey aid money was to go toward military aid.”
“The United States,” wrote historian Robert Pollard in Economic Security and the Origins of the Cold War, “adopted a military solution to the Greek problem, substituting the annihilation of the enemy for the reform of the social and economic conditions that had fostered the insurgency in the first place.” Critics of the new foreign policy warned militarization would lead the Soviets to do the same.
“If our unilateral action in arming other nations is provocative of war,” Sen. Harry Byrd warned just before the Truman Doctrine debate, “upon what ally can we depend? If we act independently and arm nations to oppose communism, can we assume that Russia will not follow our lead and establish a counter policy?”
That was an inspired prediction. It came just a few years before the founding of NATO. And Kennan would later say that without NATO, it is “unlikely” that the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets’ version of NATO, would have been formed.
The Soviets, wrote Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, believed that “Washington was aiming at world domination. This is the real meaning of repeated statements by President Truman,” wrote Nikolai Novikov in the Soviet version of Kennan’s Long Telegram, the famous telegram from Moscow that had launched the containment doctrine just after World War II.
The seduction of success
A dangerous precedent was set in the ostensible success in Greece. The United States could and would save countries from communism. That led to the conclusion that U.S. armed forces could do anything. It emboldened those who believed in containment and the Truman Doctrine to go on to new alliances and new interventions. Greece and Turkey were only the beginning.
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).