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The Truman Doctrine: Address to a Joint Session of Congress
By Harry S. Truman, President of the United States
Reviewed by David K. Schneider, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Text: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/trudoc.htm

In his July 8 “Spoken Word" piece, Francis P. Sempa reminds us of the wisdom of John Quincy Adams' July 4, 1821 oration on U.S. foreign policy. But his review also brings to mind another seminal speech with a contrary message for the present, Harry Truman's Address to a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947, in which he put forth what would become the central argument of the Truman Doctrine:

We shall not realize our objectives… 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.

A few lines later Truman overturns Adams' counsel to be "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," but to be "the champion and vindicator only of her own," and to search not abroad for "monsters to destroy":

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.

Why the difference? Adams spoke of American exceptionalism. His views laid the foundation of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy designed to insulate the United States from intervention by the European empires in the Western Hemisphere. The problem was that the United States at that time did not have the military power to enforce the doctrine - its success depended fundamentally on the power of the British Royal Navy, and on the continuing British interest in keeping its European competitors from dominating the Americas.

Monroe and Adams issued the statement in 1823 after rejecting a proposal by British Foreign Secretary George Canning suggesting a joint declaration to the Holy Alliance that all European intervention in the New World would be prohibited. The genius of the doctrine was as much in its bold assertion of American anti-imperialism, anti-monarchy, and absolute independence, as in its underlying assumption that it would, essentially, be guaranteed by the shield of global stability provided by Great Britain and its naval supremacy.

Truman's argument could rely on no such assumption. The underlying geopolitical fact of the Truman Doctrine is the rapid crumbling of British power after the Second World War. In Truman's view America had to assist Greece because:

The British Government, which has been helping Greece, can give no further financial or economic aid after March 31. Great Britain finds itself under the necessity of reducing or liquidating its commitments in several parts of the world, including Greece.

And in the case of Turkey, Truman argued:

The British government has informed us that, owing to its own difficulties it can no longer extend financial or economic aid to Turkey. 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.

Given the state of British power in both cases, Adams could not possibly have taken Truman's position, and Truman might have been foolish, given the need for American leadership in the world, to take Adams' position. Indeed, by 1947 the United States was deep into its occupation-era reorganization of Japanese politics and society, had led the way towards the Bretton Woods Agreements, and had begun work on what would become the Marshall Plan for European recovery, all policies designed eventually to destroy the monsters of Fascism and Communism.

Neither Truman nor Adams and Monroe could take one of these positions as an abstract principle applicable in all circumstances. George Kennan, even as he argued in favor of American assistance to Greece and Turkey, objected to Truman's speech precisely on the grounds that the formulation quoted above was too universal in its implications. Kennan preferred that the policy be articulated as a specific response to specific conditions.

Perhaps the wise and prudent lesson we should derive from all this is an old and perennial one. In the fourth century B.C., Chuang Tzu was asked whether one should seek to be useful in the world, because it seems that salvation lies sometimes in being useful, and at other times in being useless. Chuang Tzu replied that he would seek to take neither as a permanent position: "I would be now a dragon, now a snake, shifting with the times, never willing to hold to one course only." The wise counsel here is that we should draw on the whole of American diplomatic history, and on the general history of international politics, but always consider the options in the context of what the military classic Sun Tzu's Art of War calls the "dynamic configuration of circumstances."

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