In this video segment on the Cold War adapted from American Experience, examine archival photos, interviews, and newsreels to learn about Harry Truman's efforts to oppose the spread of Communism in the years immediately following World War II. The creation of a Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe and the escalating threat of Soviet dominance to other countries in the region led the president to propose a strategy premised on the division of the world into free and totalitarian factions. This strategy, later called the Truman Doctrine, became part of a Cold War that would pit the United States and the Soviet Union against each other for the next four decades.
Much of Europe was in ruins at the close of World War II, and conditions remained chaotic in the following months and years. In an effort to extend its defensive perimeter and expand the scope of Communism, Josef Stalin had seized upon the situation to impose satellite governments on the Soviet Union's Eastern European neighbors, creating what Winston Churchill described as an "iron curtain" dividing the continent. Carrying the strategy further, the Soviet Union supported Communist uprisings in Greece and Turkey.
By 1947, these developments, together with Communist insurgencies in China and North Korea, led many Americans to view the Soviet Union as the head of a monolithic movement bent on world domination. George Kennan, deputy head of the U.S. Mission in Moscow, advised a policy of "containment" in which the United States would reinforce its support of Western European allies to block the spread of Communism. Moreover, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson argued that Soviet success in Greece and Turkey would inevitably lead to the fall of other European governments. The challenge for the president was to persuade a public that had been exhausted by the war and a Republican Congress elected on a platform of reducing taxes and government spending to support what would be costly efforts to oppose the Greek and Turkish insurgencies.
Truman and Acheson persuaded Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, formerly a leading isolationist and a prospective challenger to Truman in the upcoming 1948 elections, to back the president's policy; but Vandenberg warned the White House that the public would have to be "scared" into supporting such a measure. Truman's response was an address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, in which he stressed the division of the world into totalitarian and free spheres. The speech secured speedy appropriation of funds and articulated what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine of protecting and spreading freedom throughout the world.
The Truman Doctrine launched the Cold War policies of the U.S. government and quickly generated the enactment of the Marshall Plan to aid in Europe's reconstruction and the creation of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), all in 1947, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. As NATO gained strength and West Germany was fortified, the Soviet Union then formalized its relationship with Eastern Europe in the Warsaw Pact. Developments in Yugoslavia and later China would prove that Communism was not monolithic. Despite "hot wars" in Korea and Vietnam and crises in Cuba, the Middle East, and Africa, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the next 40 years of international relations.
NARRATOR: Europe was devastated. The war had left a continent in ruins. As poverty and starvation spread, chaos threatened to overwhelm the western democracies. Some feared the election of Communist governments; others Stalin and the Red Army. When the war ended, the president, like most Americans,had clung to the hope that Stalin would not impose Communism on eastern Europe. But Truman's optimism dwindled as he saw Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany fall behind a Communist iron curtain.
WALTER LAFEBER: I think at this point Truman begins to see Stalin as an expansionist dictator and believed that the only thing that the Soviets understand, as he says, is strength, not negotiations.
NARRATOR: The turning point came in Greece and Turkey. In a civil war in Greece, Greek communists threatened to topple the monarchy. In Turkey, the Soviet Union was demanding control of the strategic Dardanelles Straits. Two local conflicts would become the catalyst for a worldwide struggle against Communism. Truman would have to convince Congress that a crisis in two far-away countries threatened the security of the United States, that 400 million dollars in military aid was needed to save Greece and Turkey.
WALTER LAFEBER: Truman had to go to this Republican Congress that had gotten into power in the elections of 1946 by promising to cut taxes and to cut aid overseas and get $400 million dollars. The question was, how did you do this?
NARRATOR: Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson had the answer.
LAFEBER: What Acheson said was, if the Soviets could win in Greece and in Turkey, then there would be Soviet pressure on Italy, there would be pressure on Western Europe and pretty soon the United States would be standing alone.Senator Vandenberg, who was a leader of the Republicans, said, "If you can get that kind of a view across to the American people,we'll support you."
LAFEBER: There was the story that Vandenberg said to Truman, "Mr. President, you're going to have to scare hell out of the American people. "Whether or not Vandenberg said that,that's exactly what Harry Truman did.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: President Harry S. Truman comes before a joint session of Congress to make a momentous announcement.
TRUMAN: 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. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.
LAFEBER: Truman, the Midwestern politician, understood exactly how you sell these kinds of things to the American people, because what he did was to give a definition to the world that Americans could understand and which they could become committed to because what Truman said was, "The world is essentially now divided in two. "On one side are totalitarian and the enslaved peoples. On the other side are the free peoples." He then looked at the Republicans and said, "Which side are you on? "If you are on the side of the free peoples, give me the $400 million dollars." That put the Republicans in a terrible, terrible position, which is exactly, of course, what Acheson and Truman had in mind. And Truman got his $400 million within a matter of weeks.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: President Truman signs the bill for $400 million aid to Greece and Turkey.
NARRATOR: The President had committed Americans to a battle against communism all across the world. The policy became known as the Truman Doctrine.
LUCIUS BATTLE: I wondered how far-reaching this was going to be. What does it really mean? This is a sweeping, sweeping decision. Asking for an open-ended faith in a policy of protecting the free people and bringing freedom where it didn't exist. And it was awfully hard to know exactly where those limits were.
NARRATOR:The president would resist Communist aggression abroad. He had issued a declaration of cold war.
LAFEBER: I think Truman's great contribution to American politics was to figure out how to get Americans to commit themselves to a war which was cold rather than hot,a war which had not been declared, a war which is extremely complex, and yet which Truman defined as a rather simple war between the enslaved and the free peoples.
NARRATOR:The Cold War had begun, and it would last for the next half century.
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