Truman Doctrine: the 33 seconds that sealed the start of the Cold War 75 years ago

In a packed House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, the 33rd president of the United States, Harry Truman, with his 62 years, round glasses, dark suit and striped tie, opened the black loose-leaf folder from which he liked to deliver his speeches .

He took a sip of water, looked around the room at his audience, and held on to the podium.

“The gravity of the situation facing the world today requires my appearance before a joint session of Congress. The foreign policy and national security of this country are involved.”

It was March 12, 1947.

Just two years earlier, a sense had been created that America’s national security had been secured by victory against Hitler’s Germany.

But on that occasion, the president described a more insidious threat.

The Truman Doctrineas the speech became known, urged the United States to commit to containing communism and the Soviet Unionhis ally in World War II.

Although the origins of the Cold War are complicated and much debated, and certainly the Truman Doctrine did not cause it, some historians consider that to be the moment it was declared.

Why did fear so quickly replace hope?

What had changed?

Do not a loteitherAccording to award-winning historian Melvyn Leffler, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and author of several books on the Cold War and American foreign policy: relations between the West and the Soviet Union were tense from the very conception of the latter.

“USA, UK and France intervened in Russia in 1917, 1918, 1919”.

“Throughout the war there was tension about opening a second front in Western Europe. Stalin wanted it to open in 1942, and of course it didn’t happen until 1944.”

Getty Images
Caricature from the time of Stalin in distress due to the effect of the ‘Truman Doctrine’.

“Also, the Americans and the British developed an atomic bomb and kept it a secret from Stalin, who had his spies inform him, while the Americans knew they were being spied on.”

“But the imperative of defeating the Axis, Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan took precedence over all other considerations.”


As soon as the war was over, the priority of US policymakers was to ensure that no adversary ever again had the prospect of gaining control of the resources of Europe and Asia.

“The great fear in 1946 and 1947 was not that Stalin’s USSR would engage in open military aggression,” Leffler clarifies.

“The great fear was that he might exploit the social ferment and political turmoil that existed in post-war Europe, not just in Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe – where he had troops – but but throughout the south and west of Europewhere the communist parties competed for power with great success in Italy and France, ”said the historian in BBC The Forum.

Added to this, the communists were waging a civil war in China, and the prospect of their winning meant that Stalin would be able to project their influence throughout East Asia.

And the prospect was even more terrifying when applying what became known as “the domino theory”, which permeated US foreign policy for decades, according to which the “fall” of a non-communist state to communism would precipitate the fall of non-communist governments in neighboring states.

war of words

In addition to a myriad of behaviors that upset each side, there was a profusion of words that were tracing the path to the Truman Doctrine.

Stalin voting

Getty Images
Stalin gave his speech on the eve of the 1946 Soviet Union legislative elections.

On February 9, 1946 in Moscow, Stalin, in his first major postwar speech, raised the specter of another great warlatent in what he called the “capitalist world economy system”.

He declared that more “military catastrophes” were inevitable because there was no way for countries to act through “coordinated and peaceful decisions.”

“The irregular development of the capitalist countries leads over time to serious conflicts in their relations and the group of countries that consider themselves insufficiently provided with raw materials and export markets try to change the situation and turn things in their favor with the force of arms.”

Therefore, the USSR would have to devote its resources and energies in the coming years to developing basic industries to the point of being armored “against all contingencies”.

the long telegram

“Many American officials, including Truman, paid no attention to it. However, others saw this speech as almost a declaration of World War IIIDenise Bostdorff, professor of communication studies at The College of Wooster, Ohio, USA, told BBC The Forum.

Stalin said, for example, “that he wanted to finance science in order to surpass the achievements of science outside the country. And what this concerned audience heard was that he wanted an atomic bomb. And when he said that the USSR would triple its steel production, those US officials and some media took it to mean that he was preparing for a conflict with the West.”

The US State Department, responsible for foreign affairs, asked its embassy in Moscow for an analysis of Soviet expansionism and global intentions.

The response of the then relatively unknown diplomat George Kennan it was explosive.

George Kennan

Getty Images
Kennan would go on to be one of the group of foreign policy elders known as “The Wise Men.”

“Kennan dictated an 8,000-word telegram, in which he constantly used metaphors: andl communism it was What a illnessviolating the integrity of the body and destroying it from within”.

“He was also worried about the possible penetration of the communists in the unions, the civil rights organizations, the cultural groups and, in that case, again the enemy is within and penetration almost connotes rape“.

He warned that Soviet policies assumed Western hostility and that Soviet expansionism was inevitable. Moscow, in his view, would only be deterred by vigorous opposition, be it political or military. He recommended a policy of “long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment.”

The one known as “the long telegram” was widely circulated and silenced other types of more rational analysis.

“The Pillars of Peace”

A few weeks later, in early March 1946, Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill weighed in on that war of words, when in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, he set forth “certain facts about the position current in Europe.

“From Stettin, on the Baltic, to Trieste, on the Adriatic, an iron curtain has fallen over the continent“.

“Behind it are all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, all these famous cities and their populations and the countries around them are in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subjugated, in one way or another. another, not only to Soviet influence, but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control by Moscow”.

His speech “The Pillars of Peace” led Stalin to accuse Churchill of being a warmonger.

Churchill and Truman on their way to Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill made his famous speech.

Getty Images
Churchill and Truman on their way to Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill made his famous speech.

Stalin was furious!said Vladislav Zubok, professor of international history at the London School of Economics.

“Churchill, who used to be so nice just a few months before, was basically offering a US-UK military alliance.”

“That triggered his extreme suspicion. He called on the Soviet people to produce more steel, and on the Soviet physicists to secretly make atomic bombs, not because he wanted to start World War III, but because he was deeply insecure, and he became convinced that only force would be the guarantee of victory.” .

The Novikov Telegram

Just as the West was trying to get a clearer picture of Soviet intentions in the months and years to come, the Soviets were trying to understand what their former allies were doing.

The Soviet counterpart to the Kennan Long Telegram was the telegram from Nikolai Novikov, the Soviet ambassador to the US, dated September 1946.

He warned that the US had come out of World War II economically strong and bent on world domination.

“US foreign policy, reflecting the imperialist tendencies of US monopoly capital, is characterized in the post-war period by a struggle for world supremacy.

“This is the true meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles: that America has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy – the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, industry and science – are at the service of this foreign policy.

(Left to right) Novikov, diplomat Andréy Vishinsky and Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov at the UN.

Getty Images
From left to right: Novikov, diplomat Andrey Vishinsky, and Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov at the UN in 1946.

Novikov’s telegram reaffirmed the Soviet determination to extend its influence and secure its buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

And it highlighted once again the fear, suspicion and lack of trust between the two sides of the Cold War.

“Scare to death”

On February 21, 1947, the State Department received a message from the British Foreign Office that Britain – financially crippled by its war debt, with a faltering industrial economy and after a brutal winter – would no longer be able to provide aid. military and economic security that it had guaranteed to Greece and Turkey, which would leave a vacuum in a strategically key region.

Nineteen days later, in that historic speech, Truman asked Congress for $400 million in aid for those two nations and asked every American citizen for their commitment to fight communism on all fronts.

What happened in the intervening days was not a sudden and radical reorientation of US foreign policy.

But although the thousands of words already mentioned had been paving the way for what was to come, the Democrat Truman was facing a Republican Congress newly elected, ready to fall back on a more isolationist, already an american public hartor war and anxious for his youngsters to return home.

Furthermore, the US had no tradition of providing economic aid to other countries.

Front page of the New York Times


The president met privately with congressional leaders to gain their support.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former isolationist, told him that Republicans would support him if he publicly defended aid to Greece, which was in a civil war with communist rebels, and Turkey, under pressure from the USSR. to share control of the Dardanelles Strait.

But, Vandenberg added, if he wanted public support, he had to “scare to death to the American people”.


Truman followed the senator’s advice with a speech in which words spoken in 33 seconds of the 19-minute speech formed the core of the argument:

“I believe that the policy of the United States should be to support free peoples who resist attempts at subjugation by armed minorities or external pressures.” “I believe that we must help free peoples to carve out their own destinies in their own way ””I believe that our help should be primarily economic and financial, which is essential for economic and political stability.”

Truman signing the Foreign Aid Assistance Act, which provided a foreign aid program to Greece and Turkey.

Getty Images
Truman signing the Foreign Aid Assistance Act, which provided a foreign aid program to Greece and Turkey.

The fact that Truman was not an eloquent speaker on this occasion played in his favor: he seemed to be telling it like it is, without embellishment, and that made him more persuasive.

But although he received a standing ovation, the support was not overwhelming. In fact, for the next few weeks, there were heated debates.

However, both chambers approved the proposal and on May 22, 1947, Truman signed the bill into law which, he said, was a “warning that the march of the communists would not be allowed to succeed by default”.

In contrast, the “Compendium of the History of the USSR”, the educational text of the Soviet historian Andrey Shestakov, says: “In 1947 President Truman proclaimed the right of the United States to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

The Truman Doctrine fueled the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and shaped US foreign policy for more than 40 years since that war and beyond.

The rhetoric and metaphors used by the actors in the saga that divided the world survive.

“Sometimes we use language and sometimes language uses us,” Bostdorff concludes.

Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC World. Download the new version of our app and activate it so you don’t miss out on our best content.