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What’s the Context? US President announces the ‘Truman Doctrine’, 12 March 1947

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Truman Doctrine clothed smartly, sat at a desk, equipped with microphones on the table. Ready to record a message
Special Message to Congress on Greece and Turkey. The Truman Doctrine,

The missionary strain in the character of Americans leads many of them to feel that they have now received a call to extend to other countries the blessings with which the Almighty has endowed their own [1]

Seventy years ago, on 12 March 1947, President Harry Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and asked them to vote $400m for financial assistance to Greece and Turkey. The British government, which had been providing economic and military help for Greece and Turkey, said it could no longer afford to do so. On 19 February, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had instructed HM Ambassador to tell the State Department that British financial support for Greece and Turkey would stop at the end of March. Truman’s approach to Congress was based on the belief that without financial support Greece and Turkey would succumb to communist expansion, and that only the United States could prevent the extension of Soviet domination to Europe, the Middle East and Asia

Bankruptcy and bad weather

In the spring of 1947 the British Labour government faced a serious financial crisis, crippling global responsibilities and a deteriorating balance of payments, while the US loan negotiated in 1945 was fast running out. Britain could not produce enough for its own consumption or for export, and was forced to rely on dollar imports while American prices were rising. In addition, the government was committed to an ambitious programme of domestic reform. The situation was already alarming when extreme weather during January and February−the worst since 1880−brought the country to a standstill. Electricity for industry was cut off completely on 10 February, and domestic supplies restricted severely. Transport services were reduced, greyhound racing was banned−even the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3) was suspended. On the day the Truman Doctrine was announced, the House of Commons was in the middle of a 3-day debate during which the Conservative opposition was highly critical of the government’s economic planning.

The global context

The financial crisis affected Britain’s overseas policy and commitments as well. The government did not see its request to the US to pay for Greece and Turkey as an abdication of responsibility, but a reluctant acceptance that ‘financial weakness has necessarily increased the need to coordinate our foreign policy with that of the only country which is able effectively to wield extensive economic influence−namely the United States.’[2] A snapshot of some of the foreign policy challenges the Attlee government faced during the first two weeks of March 1947 shows what they were up against.

  • On 10 March the Conference of Foreign Ministers meeting opened in Moscow, where Bevin and US Secretary of State George C. Marshall continued long-running and frustrating discussions with the Russians over the future of divided Germany, reparations, peace treaties, German level of industry and the Soviet threat to the freedom of Eastern Europe. Talks continued until 24 April but little agreement was reached.
  • En route to Moscow, Bevin travelled to Dunkirk to sign an Anglo-French Treaty of Alliance; then stopped off briefly in Poland where a new communist-dominated government had been elected in what Western powers felt were rigged elections.
  • On 2 March, Martial Law was declared in Palestine after a terrorist attack in Jerusalem; the British mandate was in crisis and had been referred to the UN.
  • On 5-6 March there was a House of Commons debate on India, against a backdrop of inter-communal rioting, following the announcement in February that Britain would transfer power to an Indian government no later than June 1948.
  • Problems remained in implementing the agreement on the fusion of the British and American zones of Germany, where Britain struggled to obtain enough food and raw materials to supply the population in its sector.
  • On 5 March the UK Representative at the UN warned that the Soviet delegate was about to veto a settlement of the Corfu Channel incident when British ships had been damaged by mines off the Albanian coast (it was not settled until 1996).
  • Also on 5 March, the head of the Joint Staff Mission in Washington told the Prime Minister that the US Chiefs of Staff opposed the development of an atomic plant in the UK to develop a British bomb.

Did the British ‘put one over’ on the Americans?

Some complained the British request for help was sprung upon the US government at short notice. But the Minister of Defence had warned Secretary of State Byrnes in October 1946 that Britain’s financial situation meant cutting back support for Greece and Turkey. Byrnes agreed that the US would help in view of the high strategic importance of the Near East. But no concrete US proposals were forthcoming, and in Bevin’s absence at international meetings from October-December 1946, the issue hung fire. Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton told the Cabinet in February 1947 that spending on Greece and Turkey must end in March, and Bevin then approached Marshall. Though some have argued Bevin used the issue to draw the Americans forcibly into the European arena, he was very reluctant, as the recently-published volume of Documents on British Policy Overseas shows, to approach them over Greece and Turkey, and only agreed to do so because of Treasury warnings.

The news that Britain could no longer sustain its responsibilities was shocking to some Congressmen and to the American public, but there was general acceptance that the US had no option and the response was swift and generous. As Dean Acheson told the British Ambassador on 1 March, the US was ‘going over its overshoes’ to meet the British request.[3]The Truman Doctrine, as it became known, was a turning point in US post-war foreign policy, and paved the way for the Marshall Plan, or European Recovery Programme for the rehabilitation of Europe, announced a few months later.


Suggestions for further reading:

Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series I, Volume XI, European Recovery and the Search for Western Security (London: Routledge, 2017)

Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (London: W.W. Norton, 1969)

Robert Frazier, ‘Did Britain Start the Cold War? Bevin and the Truman Doctrine’, The Historical Journal, vol. 27, No. 3, Sept. 1984.

[1] Telegram from the British Embassy in Washington commenting on the Truman Doctrine, 14 March 1947, printed in Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series I, Volume XI, No. 62.
[2] Memo of 12 February 1947, printed ibid., No. 48.
[3] Washington telegram 1311 of 1 March 1947, printed ibid., No. 54.


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