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The Cold War at 75: It All Began March 12, 1947

by Todd DePastino

President Harry S. Truman addressing a joint session of Congress asking for $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey. This speech became known as the “Truman Doctrine” speech.

Veterans will sometimes say, “Oh, I never served in war, only peace time.” By that, they usually mean the 1950s-1960s, between Korea and Vietnam, or the 1970s-1980s, between Vietnam and Desert Storm. Whenever you hear these periods referred to as “peace time,” it’s good to remember something called the Cold War.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Cold War. Don’t expect commemorations or public events. That’s because unlike most wars, which get hot fast and stop suddenly, the Cold War simmered at various temperatures for decades, but never boiled over to a Third World War. And the Cold War never had a clean start point, no Fort Sumpter or Pearl Harbor moment, when blazing gunfire heralded something dramatically new. Instead, it started with a speech.

On March 12, 1947, President Harry S Truman appeared before both houses of Congress requesting $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, which were fighting Communist challenges. In requesting this aid, Truman—like Woodrow Wilson in 1918—proclaimed a broader vision of the United States’ role in global affairs. The President wasn’t just requesting money. He was, in effect, declaring tacit war against Communist forces seeking to expand across the globe.

“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” Truman said. He went on:

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.

These words sum up the “Truman Doctrine” and, for my money, mark the Cold War’s start. (If you know students who need a good history research project, point them to the 500+ pages of documents on the Truman Library’s website relating to the Truman Doctrine).

Willard Combes, “Truman’s program stuffed into Joe Stalin’s pipe,” 1947 https://www.loc.gov/item/2016679945/.

Americans forget how difficult it was to rally the nation around a global conflict so soon after World War II. After V-J Day, the country withdrew back to something close to the Isolationism that had prevailed before the war. With the Armed Forces cut to ten-percent of its wartime peak, defense spending similarly pared back, and the nation hungry for consumer goods denied them in wartime, there simply wasn’t a popular will for new military commitments overseas.

Neither was there legislative interest in them. Today, we remember Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech of March 1946 as prophetic. But at the time, it was a flop. Truman’s mere presence in Churchill’s audience was enough to hurt his party’s performance in the Congressional elections that fall. The Republican Party would later fully back the Cold War, but in 1946 the prospect of hiking taxes and spending to promote America’s foreign entanglements seemed foolhardy to the GOP.

Then, on February 21, 1947, Truman’s State Department got a message from Great Britain that forced his hand. The British reported that they were broke and could no longer afford the burden of guaranteeing the security of Greece and Turkey. The former was facing an armed Communist insurgency funded, in part, by the Soviet Union. Turkey, meanwhile, confronted direct pressure from the Soviet Navy looking to gain access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The price tag for picking up Britain’s aid burden to Greece and Turkey was $400 million (over $5 billion in today’s dollars). It was enough money to concern both houses of Congress, which for the first time in decades were controlled by Republicans.

The story goes that Truman called a meeting between his foreign policy advisors and Republican Congressional leaders, including the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI). Truman’s Secretary of State George Marshall pitched Vandenberg on the Greece-Turkey aid bill. Marshall spoke of the need for political stability in a region with valuable raw materials and markets.

Vandenberg responded with a dumbfounded look as if to say, “That’s it? That’s your best argument?” Later someone remarked that Marshall had indeed sounded like a broker outlining an investment prospectus.

Marshall’s talented Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson cleared his throat and asked for permission to speak. This aid, Acheson said, is not about markets and raw materials. This $400 million represents nothing less than the future of world civilization.

Acheson cast the struggle in stark moral terms, not economic ones. “Not since Rome and Carthage has there been such a polarization of power on this earth,” he said. “We and we alone are in position to break up the Soviet quest for world domination. . . . For the United States to take steps to strengthen countries threatened by Communist subversion . . . is to protect freedom itself.”

Vandenberg was enthralled. He turned to Truman and said, “That’s how you sell it.” You have to “scare hell out of the American people.”

Map of Europe, 1947 (Omniatlas)

So, on March 12, 1947, two weeks after the meeting with Vandenberg, Truman spoke before a joint session of Congress to call not just for aid to Greece and Turkey, but for a larger, long-term international commitment to the aspirations of free peoples resisting Communist aggression.

From Truman’s words that day followed everything we remember over the next four decades: the Berlin Airlift, NATO, Korea, the Arms Race, the Space Race, Vietnam, and the countless other tensions and crises that we call the Cold War.

This year, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the war that masqueraded as peace, we call upon our veterans to share their memories of this singular era. After all, they may be your stories, but they’re also our history.

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