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Truman Doctrine Holds Lessons, Cautions for Today's Leaders

National Perspective / HISTORY

Bold decision to counter Soviets bolstered the West for decades. But situations like that in Bosnia may not warrant such a commitment, scholars say.

March 11, 1997|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was late on a wintry Friday afternoon when Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson got the bad news from the British. Two official documents informed him that His Majesty's Government, its economy crippled, could no longer continue aid to Greece and Turkey, leaving both countries vulnerable to communist conquest.

"They were shockers," Acheson wrote later of the British messages. He quickly passed the word to the White House, and within three weeks President Harry S. Truman responded to the crisis. Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of his proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, a speech to Congress that pledged U.S. support for Greece, Turkey and other nations threatened by communism.

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It was a decision that fully engaged the United States in a face-off with the Soviet bloc, and changed the course of history.

"It was the opening shot in the Cold War," said Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby; the beginning of what President John F. Kennedy would later call "a long twilight struggle" that would continue until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet at the time, few Americans grasped the full significance embodied in the spare prose of Truman's message to Congress.

"I only noticed the headlines," recalls Eugene Rossides, who now heads the American Hellenic Foundation, the sponsor of a conference opening Wednesday at which scholars and diplomats will commemorate Truman's momentous action.

Back in 1947, a 19-year-old Rossides had other things on his mind, notably quarterbacking the Columbia University football team that stunned the sports world that fall by upsetting an Army team undefeated for 32 consecutive games.

It was two years later, at a lecture by a former State Department official, that the importance of the Truman Doctrine was driven home to Rossides. "He had a map that showed if [then-Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin took over Greece and Crete, he would control the Eastern Mediterranean and have a stranglehold on Persian Gulf oil," Rossides said "Then I realized what the Truman Doctrine meant--the containment of communism."

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When Truman made his bold move, nearly two years after V-E Day, most of Rossides' fellow citizens were striving to refocus their lives on peacetime concerns. That was the theme of two motion pictures: "The Best Years of Our Lives," which won the Oscar for best film that turbulent week in March, and another that opened the same week, "It Happened in Brooklyn," which chronicled a nostalgic former GI (played by Frank Sinatra) who comes home to his beloved Flatbush.

In a more practical vein, relief at the end of wartime shortages was soured by dissatisfaction with rising prices. "People talked endlessly of how much more they had enjoyed on much less before the war," reported Time magazine.

In the face of this introverted mood, Truman had to consider whether to ask the war-weary citizenry for a new commitment to arrest the Red Tide, which already had swept across Eastern Europe. Nor could he be confident of the success of his proposal--all that was certain was that it would involve high risk and high costs.

Although Truman did not lack for guidance from his top advisors, who included Secretary of State George C. Marshall, his choice of a course to follow ultimately was a highly personal decision. "He had the whole foreign policy establishment packaging the proposal for him," said Hamby, a Ohio University historian. "But he's the guy who would have to go up to Capitol Hill to sell the package."

In some ways, it was an unfavorable time for Truman to take on such a challenge. Only a few months before, his party had taken a beating in the 1946 midterm elections, which left the Republicans in control of Congress. But once he decided his doctrine was the right thing to do, he was undaunted by the political handicaps he faced.

"I don't know any president who matched Truman in decisiveness," said retired Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, then a 32-year-old Pentagon colonel, later a NATO commander.

Did Truman pause to poll public opinion, as many of his successors would have done? "Hell no," said George Elsey, a White House aide who helped draft the president's message to Congress. "He didn't believe in polls. He would do what he thought was right and what the facts warranted. He figured the polls would have to catch up with him."

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But the Truman administration did engage in one tactic much in use nowadays--spin. Anticipating a crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the State Department gave background briefings to such influential columnists as Joseph Alsop of the New York Herald Tribune and Arthur Krock of the New York Times. They, in turn, began making the case that the U.S. would need to act boldly to stave off the looming Soviet threat.

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