By: Harry S. Truman
Date: March 12, 1947
Source: Truman, Harry S. "President Harry S. Truman's Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947." The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School. Available online at http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/trudoc.htm; website home page http://www.yale.edu (accessed March 18, 2003).
About the Author: Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) was president of the United States from 1945 to 1953. Born in Missouri, he held a seat in the U.S. Senate before becoming vice president during the last term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933–1945). When Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, Truman became the thirty-third president of the United States. He remained in the White House until 1953. Truman is best remembered for his decision to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese in World War II (1939–1945), his opposition to Soviet expansionism across the globe, and his precedent-setting Truman Doctrine.
On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman addressed a joint session of Congress to request immediate economic and military aid for the governments of Greece and Turkey. At the time the Greek government was threatened by communist rebellion, and Turkey was endangered by Soviet expansion in the Mediterranean area. Great Britain faced severe financial challenges caused by heavy human and materiel losses in World War II and could not continue providing assistance to Mediterranean countries that struggled to withstand internal instability and external pressure from the Soviet Union. Other nations of the West agreed with Great Britain's assessment that these nations were in danger of falling to the communists, but they were likewise unable to assist. Truman stated that the duty of providing aid therefore fell to the United States.
Truman deliberately referred to the recent world war in his appeal to Congress. He noted how the United States fought Germany and Japan, governments that tried to coerce other nations against the will of their people. Then he explained how the United States could once again fight coercion by helping Greece and Turkey to remain free and self-ruling. Truman's speech was ironic because the Soviet Union had been a U.S. ally during the war, and it was the Soviet Union and its practice of communism that now presented the perceived threat to Greece and Turkey. Irony aside, however, Truman's speech convinced Congress to intervene in the Mediterranean and provide approximately four million dollars in assistance to Greece and Turkey.
Truman's speech had lasting impact in four primary ways. First and most obviously, the speech had its desired effect; Congress appropriated funds to aid Greece and Turkey. Second, in the bigger picture, the specific request for this assistance set a precedent known as the Truman Doctrine. This doctrine held that it was the duty of the United States, based on both philosophical principle and political self-interest, to support free peoples across the world who resisted communist domination. For Truman's purposes, "free peoples" did not necessarily mean democracies or republics, but rather any state with Western, anticommunist sympathies. The U.S. government later used this doctrine to justify U.S. intervention in Korea (1950–1953) and Vietnam (1964–1975), among other places.
The third impact of the Truman Doctrine was the establishment of a pattern of U.S. financial aid to other countries. Before the war, the United States was one actor among many on the world stage. Afterward it emerged as a leading nation, largely because its economy had survived and even thrived on the war effort. The precedent of extending financial assistance to other nations opened the door for other policies such as the Marshall Plan, which provided economic help for European nations rebuilding after the war.
Truman's position had a fourth impact as well: The United States took over the job of helping struggling countries, a task previously shouldered by Great Britain and other Western nations. The Truman Doctrine also set up the United States as the chief opponent of the Soviet Union politically, economically, and militarily in the postwar world. This opposition between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union defined the Cold War era, which was characterized by proxy wars across the world, the competition to reach and conquer space, and the nuclear arms race until its conclusion in the late 1980s.
Primary Source: "President Harry S. Truman's Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt from Truman's speech, he explains the situation in the Mediterranean and calls for U.S. aid to Greece and Turkey. Truman argues that the United States has a duty to assist free peoples resisting coercion from other nations, thus setting the policy precedent known as the Truman Doctrine.
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Congress of the United States:
The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of the Congress. The foreign policy and the national security of this country are involved.
One aspect of the present situation, which I wish to present to you at this time for your consideration and decision, concerns Greece and Turkey.
The United States has received from the Greek Government an urgent appeal for financial and economic assistance. Preliminary reports from the American Economic Mission now in Greece and reports from the American Ambassador in Greece corroborate the statement of the Greek Government that assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation.
I do not believe that the American people and the Congress wish to turn a deaf ear to the appeal of the Greek Government.…
As in the case of Greece, if Turkey is to have the assistance it needs, the United States must supply it. We are the only country able to provide that help.
I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey, and I shall discuss these implications with you at this time.
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.
To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.
The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.
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.
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.
I believe that 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.
I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.
The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred. But we cannot allow changes in the status quo in violation of the Charter of the United Nations by such methods as coercion, or by such subterfuges as political infiltration. In helping free and independent nations to maintain their freedom, the United States will be giving effect to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East.
Moreover, the disappearance of Greece as an independent state would have a profound effect upon those countries in Europe whose peoples are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedoms and their independence while they repair the damages of war.
It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.
Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.
We must take immediate and resolute action.
I therefore ask the Congress to provide authority for assistance to Greece and Turkey in the amount of $400,000,000 for the period ending June 30, 1948. In requesting these funds, I have taken into consideration the maximum amount of relief assistance which would be furnished to Greece out of the $350,000,000 which I recently requested that the Congress authorize for the prevention of starvation and suffering in countries devastated by the war.
In addition to funds, I ask the Congress to authorize the detail of American civilian and military personnel to Greece and Turkey, at the request of those countries, to assist in the tasks of reconstruction, and for the purpose of supervising the use of such financial and material assistance as may be furnished. I recommend that authority also be provided for the instruction and training of selected Greek and Turkish personnel.
Finally, I ask that the Congress provide authority which will permit the speediest and most effective use, in terms of needed commodities, supplies, and equipment, of such funds as may be authorized.
If further funds, or further authority, should be needed for purposes indicated in this message, I shall not hesitate to bring the situation before the Congress. On this subject the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government must work together.
This is a serious course upon which we embark.
I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious. The United States contributed $341,000,000,000 toward winning World War II. This is an investment in world freedom and world peace.
The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than 1 tenth of 1 per cent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain.
The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive.
The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.
If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.
Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.
I am confident that the Congress will face these responsibilities squarely.
Jones, Howard. "A New Kind of War": America's Global Strategy and the Truman Doctrine in Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
McGhee, George Crews. The U.S.-Turkish-NATO Middle East Connection: How the Truman Doctrine Contained the Soviets in the Middle East. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Rossides, Eugene T., ed. Truman Doctrine of Aid to Greece: A Fifty-Year Retrospective. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, 1998.
Ivie, Robert L. "Fire, Flood, and Red Fever: Motivating Metaphors of Global Emergency in the Truman Doctrine Speech." Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 1999, 570–591.
Shogan, Robert. "Truman Doctrine Holds Lessons, Cautions for Today's Leaders." Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1997, A5.
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Available online at http://www.trumanlibrary.org/ (accessed May 1, 2002).