The Post-Truman Doctrines
The Truman Doctrine became a foundation around which our entire foreign policy was built. The rhetoric of Truman and his successors continued to use the three themes that justified intervention: 1) promoting the national interest; 2) helping the good guys; and 3) dutifully defending law and order. Our presidents divided the world into free governments and totalitarian ones, democracies and the enemies of democracy, lovers of liberty against those who opposed it.
Last century that meant fighting communism. Now it means fighting terror.
Starting after World War II and lasting through the Cold War, the containment of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence justified American intervention across the world. The commanders-in-chief that followed President Truman felt compelled to continue his foreign policy, but as presidents of republics they still had to sell the American people on that policy. Thanks to the justifications used by earlier presidents in the shift from isolationism to interventionism, the ground was softened and the seeds were planted. All our chief executives had to do to was add a little water.
Truman’s successor, President Eisenhower, successfully harvested from these fertile rhetorical fields. As the highest ranking officer in Europe during World War II, he had firsthand experience fighting the enemies of liberty. From his inaugural address, our 34th president echoed the Roosevelts, Wilson, and Truman. Channeling Theme 3, Eisenhower declared that, “Destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility for the free world’s leadership.” Like FDR and Truman, he saw clear battles lines across the globe, using Theme 2 when describing “Freedom . . . pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark.” As the Cold War continued into his second term, he extended the Truman Doctrine, which centered on Greece and Turkey, with a doctrine of his own, which focused on the Middle East. Again under the premise of containing communism, Eisenhower argued that the U.S. should fund and otherwise help any Middle Eastern nation that requested help in the face of “overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.” To allow extended Soviet reach would work against the American interest, and Theme 1 justified intervention to resist that.
The next ten presidents picked from the same themes. Our 35th, John F. Kennedy, announced to the world that America would be relentless in its quest to promote liberty. At his inauguration, he sent a message to the enemies of freedom: “Let every nation know,” he warned, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Kennedy positioned America in “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” Then, his doctrine expanded Truman and Eisenhower’s ideological battlefield, this time to Latin America, where intense poverty made Latin nations susceptible to communist takeovers. Most notably, he resisted Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba, including 1961’s Bay of Pigs invasion.
Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy’s policies continued beyond their terms. President Lyndon Johnson’s doctrine reasserted the U.S. opposed any Latin American nation turning to communism, and in 1965 he even invaded the Dominican Republic to protect it from such. In addition to these interventions in the Americas, each of these post-World War II presidents, from Truman to Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, fought wars in east Asia to contain communism. Korea and Vietnam hosted proxy conflicts for the larger rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Though Congress pushed President Gerald Ford to withdraw American support from Vietnam in 1975, he still worked to preserve the doctrines of his predecessors. During a period where Congress, as a result of unpopular overseas interventions, wanted to withdraw the country from foreign affairs, Ford insisted on remaining. He continued American presence in southeast Asia. When Congress voted to cease aid to Turkey, Ford, channeling his inner Truman, vetoed. Ford also attended the first G7 summit (now the G8) of the world’s leading economic nations, explaining, “We live in an interdependent world and, therefore, must work together to resolve common economic problems.”
Following Ford was Jimmy Carter, and his doctrine renewed the focus on the Middle East, a region to which the Soviets were getting suspiciously close after their incursion into Afghanistan in 1979. “Let our position be absolutely clear,” he warned at his 1980 State of the Union. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter supplemented this warning with a strengthened Rapid Task Force (later CENTCOM) and increased military spending.
American interventionism and the themes that justified it continued into the 1980s. Nearly 40 years after U.S.-Soviet relations devolved into the Cold War, America’s commander-in-chief used the most aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric yet. In a 1983 speech, our 40th president, Ronald Reagan, famously referred to the U.S.S.R. as the “evil empire.” Reagan’s doctrine didn’t think containment went far enough, and it successfully worked to not only contain but contract the Soviet sphere of influence. His VP and successor, George H.W. Bush, presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
But new missions awaited the last superpower standing. One might have thought that once the Cold War ended, the U.S. would retreat from interventionism. That didn’t happen.
Even with the U.S.S.R. gone, U.S. presidents did not downshift to isolationism. Indeed, American foreign policy remained as interventionist as ever, and, like Lincoln did a century-and-half ago, our presidents still considered America as mankind’s best hope. President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address asserted that the US “stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation,” and he boasted of “America’s bright flame of freedom spreading throughout all the world.” His interventions in Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Haiti continued America’s role as world police.
In retrospect, however, the Clinton years can be viewed merely as a bridge between the Cold War, which ended under his predecessor, and the War on Terror, which began under his successor. Less than eight months into George W. Bush’s presidency, America suffered the 9/11 terror attacks.
The response to these attacks included two wars, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives. To execute these sprawling conflicts, the presidents that led them required physical and rhetorical infrastructures. Due to a century of anti-German turned anti-communist interventions and justifications, both were in ample supply.
A few days after 9/11, President Bush ripped pages out of his predecessors’ playbooks. Sounding much like Roosevelt, the President vowed, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Bush also conjured Kennedy’s tactics when he portrayed the dissenting world as promoters of “stealth and deceit and murder.” Bush insisted, like Wilson did, that the United States is reluctant to go to war, as America is a “peaceful” country, but, he adds, it is “fierce when stirred to anger.” Ten days after 9/11, as the President spoke to a joint-session of Congress, he warned every region in the world that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Four months after that, at his first State of the Union, Bush pilfered Reagan’s “Evil Empire” when describing America’s enemies as the “Axis of Evil.”
The pattern was clear, and all themes were used. The U.S. would look out for the interests of itself and other freedom loving nations by spanning the globe and leading the battle against evil itself. Again.
And so we return to where we began. “Make no mistake,” lectured President Obama as he accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history.”
A recognition of history indeed. We’ve seen these messages from American presidents repeatedly, and they cross ideology, party lines, and over a century of oratory. By now, we should not be surprised that Americans are convinced of America’s primacy, greatness, and responsibility to intercede. Our presidents kept telling us it was true.
Now, President #45 finds himself sitting in the same office of these predecessors — not just the 11 presidents discussed today, but also the titanic ones before them: Truman, Wilson, and the Roosevelts. Despite a year of campaigning against interventionism, the echoes of their voices swirling around that oval office have apparently overwhelmed him.
When he sent those 59 Tomahawk missiles to Assad’s airfields, his ensuing speech imitated those who came before him. He started with Theme 2 — we protect the good, weak people of this planet that need our help:
“My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
He then pivoted to Theme 1 — that it’s sometimes in America’s interest to intervene in faraway places:
“Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. . . . Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
And closed with Theme 3 — we are the necessary leaders of civilization’s resistance:
“Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also, to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. . . . we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.”
For better or worse, when it comes to foreign policy, perhaps even Donald J. Trump is not immune to the pressures of history and the demands of American leadership. Maybe, like Obama before him, he’ll even win a Nobel Prize.