With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
World War II transformed geopolitics unlike anything before or since. It led to the United Nations, the Cold War, NATO, the Space Race, and other hallmarks of the last 70 years. At the middle of all these events stood the United States, a country that, a few decades earlier, prided itself on being far from the middle of anything.
It may have been inevitable that the increasingly powerful U.S. would integrate itself into the world, but World War II accelerated the process. To be sure, the shift started earlier; the Roosevelt Corollary stretched America’s legs and the First World War showed how the U.S. could contribute to world affairs. However, the Second World War — and the decimated Europe it left behind — allowed, and perhaps forced, America onto the world stage.
It hasn’t exited since.
Even before the Second World War ended in the summer of 1945, world leaders worked to ensure there would not be a third. Before FDR’s April death left Truman the presidency, Roosevelt and Churchill advanced plans for a group of post-war, organized, “united nations” that would work together to diffuse any simmering conflicts before they exploded. The war in Europe ended in May, and then, thanks to two Truman-ordered atomic bombs, the Pacific theater drew to a close in August. World War II was over.
Two months later, the United Nations had a charter and 50 countries. Included in the group were the five most powerful victorious nations — the U.S., the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. They created a powerful “security council” to monitor the world and maintain its peace.
Meanwhile, the U.S. seemed to be the only superpower on the planet, and things were looking up. The world organized around it. Germany and Japan were safely occupied by the Allies. Thanks to the war, America had the world’s strongest economy, massive navies in both major oceans, it was left relatively pristine compared to a devastated Europe, and it was the only country with nuclear weapons. As evidence of America’s new prominence, San Francisco hosted the first meeting of the U.N.. America and the world were intertwined like never before. The dream of Woodrow Wilson was finally a reality.
Quickly, however, a new foe emerged — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. World War II’s circumstantial, anti-Axis alliance between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. quickly cooled into the iciest feud of the post-war era — the Cold War. The Soviet Union became a gargantuan rival for the United States. No country in the world matched its size. Its army was enormous. Its technological power seemed to match America’s, too. By the end of the 1940s, the U.S.S.R. had had developed a nuclear bomb of its own. The world now had two superpowers.
Scariest, perhaps, for Americans, was that in addition to these strengths, the culture of the Soviet Union stood oppositional to the democratic, capitalist culture of the United States. Its leader, Joseph Stalin, ruled with an iron fist, and his country espoused communism. Government programs, shrouded in secrecy, developed rockets, trained engineers, unleashed spies, and looked to expand Russian reach. The Soviet Union was America’s dark mirror, diametrically opposed in so many ways, yet still strangely familiar.
Unwilling to risk a nuclear confrontation, the Truman Administration devised a plan of “containment.” The U.S. would work with its Allies to keep at bay the spread of communism. To do so, an enormous amount of money, manpower, and resources was needed across the globe, and it fell to the U.S., with its dominant military and economy, to provide most of each. Stopping the spread of communism became the top foreign policy priority of the United States. The Truman Doctrine was born.
And guess how the President sold his globetrotting doctrine to the American people. The same way Wilson and the Roosevelts (band name, called it) sold their own initiatives: the three themes that justify American intervention.
Theme 1) The national interest. Truman pitched his doctrine in a March, 1947 speech to Congress, explaining that, “The gravity of the situation which confronts the world today necessitates my appearance before a joint session of the Congress. The foreign policy and the national security of this country are involved.”
Though most of the speech speaks to specific political and economic problems in Greece and Turkey — problems that might trigger the rise of communism in both — the two countries act as stand-ins for a larger picture. Both nations mired in deplorable economic and political situations. These weaknesses, President Truman argued, could be exploited by an expansionist and opportunistic Soviet Union. “The seeds of totalitarianism,” the President warned in his speech to Congress, “are nurtured by misery and want. . . . The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. . . . Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.” If suffering, impoverished, war-torn countries turned to communism out of desperation, the Soviet sphere of influence would grow. That would mean more communist allies, influence, soldiers, and resources, which would give the Soviet Union the advantage ahead of a potential super-conflict between the superpowers. Truman insisted on stepping in before that could happen.
Theme 2) Supporting democracy and protecting the weak. In his speech to Congress, he declared his support for those who desire liberty and freedom, stating “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.” The President asserted that the U.S. “must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”
Truman also made plain the dichotomy that existed in the post-war world. “Nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” the President explained. The first way of life, he explains, is that which the U.S. embodied. The American way of life is based upon “the will of the majority,” and it has “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 that which is represented by the U.S.S.R., where “the will of a minority” is “forcibly imposed upon the majority.” Truman alluded to Stalin’s reliance on “terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.”
With these opposing views established, President Truman clearly aligned the United States on the side of the good guys. A world of weak, war-ravaged nations that could potentially turn to the Soviet dark side — anti-democracy, anti-capitalism, anti-America — so the U.S. must step in to protect American values.
From themes 1 and 2 came the Marshall Plan in 1948. Named after Truman’s Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the Marshall Plan offered economic assistance to struggling, war-battered countries in order to curtail the Soviet Union’s quest to expand its influence; countries economically aided by the U.S. would be unlikely to spurn the hand that fed them by turning to the Soviets. Through the Marshall Plan, Greece and Turkey got the economic influx and political stabilization they needed.
Theme 3) The United States feels it has an obligation to provide law and order. Theodore Roosevelt’s “international police power” never fully manifested until President Truman. When pressed by an adviser who pondered why it was America who had to help others and enforce liberal policies abroad, Truman responded, “In order to carry out a just decision,” Truman explained, “the court must have marshals. . . . [It] has been found necessary to employ a sheriff.”
The occupants of the Oval Office steadily realized that, as has been echoed from the French Revolution to Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, with great power came great responsibility. The Truman Doctrine clearly identified the U.S. as the world’s responsible, meritorious, patriarchal, and order-providing police. With one fell swoop of a foreign policy, Truman not only hit on all major themes that his predecessors used to justify American intervention, but he set up decades of foreign policy as well.
The sixth and (hopefully) final part of this series will take a look at those decades.