Study Guide

Truman Doctrine

By Harry Truman

Truman Doctrine Introduction

What do flying, laser vision, telekinesis, and the U.S. of A all have in common?

Easy—they're all superpowers.

Like Spider-Man's Uncle Ben once famously said, "with great power comes great responsibility." And not only is Uncle Ben's mantra a good general rule to live by, but it's also a driving force behind a major piece of American foreign policy known as the Truman Doctrine.

In 1947, President Harry Truman went before a joint session of Congress (which means that both the Senate and the House of Representatives were there) to give a speech that pretty much no one else at that time had the guts to give. According to Truman and his advisors Dean Acheson, Clark Clifford, and George Elsey, it was the responsibility of a great nation like the United States to support and defend democratic countries resisting subjugation by non-democratic foreign or internal aggressors.

In other words, if a country that believed in democracy were to be invaded by another country or threatened by a group that believed in something other than democracy (oh, say communism, for example), the U.S. would step in to help that country's fight against the non-democratic bully.

So yeah, with great power like the power the U.S. held in 1947 after the allied victory in World War II, came great responsibility. 

At first glance, the TD reads like a superhero coming to the rescue of a helpless country/damsel in distress while a super villain tries to take over the world. And actually, the real plot of this story isn't that far off: Truman's speech is a direct response to a series of communist-supported takeovers in struggling countries like Greece and Turkey. It's also a response to a series of aggressive political moves taken by the Soviet Union in an attempt to spread communism around the world (cue evil laugh).

However, the effects of Truman and his doctrine reach far beyond 1947. Turns out, the TD is one of the defining pieces of Cold War foreign policy in the twentieth century, and has significant ties to both the Korean and the Vietnam War. (Plus, the idea of the U.S. sending aid to democracies-in-training, such as those in the Middle East, is still a hot topic in Washington today.)

By 1947, everything about the Cold War was "super": super bombs, super spies, and what a foreign policy professor described as "super powers"—countries like the United States and the Soviet Union who could make political decisions that would have a truly global impact—dominated both governments' and peoples' ways of thinking.

Behind the jargon, underneath the political mask, the Truman Doctrine is just your friendly neighborhood foreign policy statement looking to define the place and role of the United States in a new, global "super" era.

  

What is Truman Doctrine About and Why Should I Care?

Why should you care about a speech given by a guy whose middle name was just "S"? (Seriously—dude's middle initial doesn't stand for anything. It's just an "S.")

It's a fair question.

Turns out, as is the case with a lot of things we tend to not care about but really should—you know, like eating our vegetables or showing some restraint on how many episodes of Dr. Who we can watch in one sitting—the Truman Doctrine is good for your intellectual health/understanding of the world you live in today.

As a declarative statement of foreign policy, the TD established a precedent in which the U.S. would be obligated to send military or economic aid to countries fighting for a democratic government. Think of a mama bear promising to protect her democratic cubs and mark her territory against a shotgun-wielding park ranger named the Soviet Union.

Any time those cubs have been in trouble, or presumed to be in trouble, the U.S. has stepped in to offer protection and keep its Truman-authored political promise. This is what happened with both Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s/'70s, when both countries split between "pro-democratic" and "pro-communist" forces.

And today, strained relations with North Korea as well as the controversial legacy of Vietnam are still as much a part of our daily political conversations as Kanye running for president.

The TD has also had a more recent impact on U.S. foreign relations. From NATO's occupying Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks to the current debate on how involved the U.S. should become in countries like Syria after the Arab Spring Revolts of 2011, the idea of aiding democratic countries around the world as a way to oppose non-democratic regimes is still a popular foreign policy and political strategy.

So, whether you agree with the tumultuous history of American foreign policy in the Cold War or not, there really is no policy (or "A" on your Cold War History Test, for that matter) without the Truman Doctrine.

Truman Doctrine Resources

Websites

Harry S Truman Library
The first stop for all things Harry. Want to know what Truman liked to eat, or why a bowling alley was put in at the White House in 1947? Have an essay to write and need some juicy primary sources? The Truman Library & Museum website has it all.

"President Roosevelt is Dead"
Check out the New York Times' collection of articles detailing the death of FDR and almost daily coverage of Truman's presidency. (A.k.a. more primary sources for that upcoming research paper).

Get This Book
Click this link for a synopsis of Truman, David McCullough's definitive biography of Truman and one of the major texts that has influenced our understanding of the former president today. Seriously, get this book—it's good. Plus, it also happens to be over 1000 pages so anyone who sees you with it will automatically know you're smart.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure
Truman is no longer president, goes on a road trip thinking nobody will recognize him, gets caught speeding, and sasses almost everyone he meets.

Clifford and Elsey, Elsey and Clifford
If you've gone through this entire module, you'll see that we almost never stopped talking about a document called the "Clifford-Elsey Report." Here's a link to the text of the report, because we know you're just dying to read more about it.

Movie or TV Productions

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
See Stanley Kubrick's classic black comedy on Cold War hysteria, mutual assured destruction, and how to get away with risqué puns in a film. Any cultural history of the Cold War is incomplete without a Strangelove reference.

Truman
A 1995 made-for-TV movie starring Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan from Forest Gump) as Truman. Based on that really long biography of Truman we mentioned above under "Websites." Good option if you want to buy the book, casually have it sitting out when your friends come over, and give them a summary that fools them into thinking you've read all 1,117 pages.

Video

1948 Democratic Acceptance Speech
Hear Truman's "Plain Speech" style with your very own ears. See him stick it to "failed promises" of the 80th Congress. (Particularly at around 17:25 to 21:00)

How about a Mini-Bio?
Here's a nice little mini-bio of our 33rd President. Included: The Truman Doctrine.

Audio

What's That? More Truman, You Say?
Actually hear Truman give his address (the Truman Doctrine speech) to Congress.

Images

Man of the Year
Time Magazine named featured Harry Truman on the cover of their Dec. 31, 1945 "Man of the Year" issue.

The Iron Curtain
The red line on the map represents the areas of Eastern Europe under Soviet control at the time of the speech.

Map of Eastern Europe with Greece and Turkey
Red = Bad. Blue = Good. Notice what would happen to the amount of red on the map if Greece and Turkey were to go from blue to red. (Yugoslavia and Albania would soon become red too).

Harry S Truman
One of Truman's more popular, presidential portraits. He just looks like someone you wouldn't want to argue with, doesn't he?

Cabinet Buddies
Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson (Left), Secretary of State George Marshall (Center), and Harry Truman (Right) talk business. Both Acheson and Marshall would play a major role in setting the tone for U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War.

Harry Truman and Clark Clifford—BFFs
Clifford was one of the closest members of Truman's inner circle. He and Truman had an unlikely—although extremely stylish—friendship. Clifford was also a key player in drafting the Truman Doctrine.

George Elsey
Elsey was an important member in Truman's cabinet and a key author of the Truman Doctrine.

May The "S" Be With You.
This picture of Truman as a Jedi just makes us laugh.