Recently, I gave my second lecture in The Islamist Entanglement series, entitled “America and the Middle East.” In that class, I explained the importance of the Truman Doctrine in relation to America’s involvement in the Middle East, and I was asked by one of the students, “Was the Truman Doctrine rational, given the context (of the Cold War)?”
My answer was “no.”
The Truman Doctrine was a blanket commitment to combat communism, wherever and whenever it might arise. In philosophical terms it was a “moral imperative,” or context-less absolute, not unlike a religious commandment. Acting according to it, in much the same manner as one might try to adhere to a religious code, every subsequent president failed to properly perceive where America’s self-interest really lay and directed the country’s resources in ways that while opposing communism actually harmed America both in the short and long term.
For those who need a refresher, the Truman Doctrine, was a statement of American foreign policy enunciated by President Harry Truman in 1947:
“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.”
The immediate context for this declaration was an indication from Great Britain that it was withdrawing from its assumed custodial role in Greece. After WWII, a Communist insurgency threatened the government that the British had helped to install after retaking Greece from the Axis powers, but Britain could no longer do anything about it. It was retreating from its “imperial overreach.” Equally important was the fact that Britain would no longer act to sustain the Turkish government, which was under immediate expansionist pressure from the Soviet Union.
Thus it seemed that the takeover of Eastern Europe by communism might be aggravated by a wave of communist expansion on Europe’s periphery, through which the Balkans would also be absorbed, and further threats to Mediterranean Europe might materialize. All of Europe appeared ready to collapse.
Also significant was that the Soviets had delayed their withdrawal from Iran, which had been occupied by the Allies during the war as a Lend-Lease corridor, and that China was engulfed in a civil war involving a communist threat. The impact of FDR’s decision to support the Soviet Union during the war was now beginning to haunt America. Communism seemed poised for a massive set of gains just as fascism had been overcome.
Truman’s interpretation of these threats was summed up in the following way:
“…totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States…”
This was the critical line of Truman’s policy statement. It made the all important connection between the broad abstraction of “international peace” and the obvious need to defend America’s interests. Based upon this reasoning, America took it upon itself to lead the world in a defense against communist expansion. For a period of over 40 years–the Cold War of 1947-1991–it attempted to act upon Truman’s premise that “international peace” and America’s interests were one. The core of his belief, and the essential nature of the policy, however, was the moral duty to support “free peoples.” (Notably, the question of what constitutes “free peoples,” and any allowance for the idea that there could be a legitimate distinction made between “free peoples” quite willing to adopt communism and “free peoples” willing to fight to their last breath for freedom, were never considered.)
Viewed from a 1990s perspective, it seemed as if the Truman Doctrine succeeded. The Berlin wall fell. The Soviet Union ceased to exist. Former Warsaw Pact countries became democracies and began to join NATO.
But one does not judge the character of an era or the validity of its driving philosophy merely based on what immediately follows it. Indeed, it was all too easy in the post Cold War euphoria to allow the main failure of the Cold War–that of the Soviet Union–to conceal a lesser failure–that of the proper defense of America’s interests. From today’s vantage point, it is easier to be objective.
Before addressing the question of the Truman Doctrine itself, let me say that this whole issue might well have never emerged. In my view it would have been entirely proper for the United States to preemptively use nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet Union anytime after WWII (while we still had overwhelming military superiority)–just as it is entirely proper for Israel to wipe Iran off the map today. In other words, on a fundamental level, I view it as morally justified for a free country to destroy an oppressive regime that threatens it. Of course, had this been done, then the Truman Doctrine would never have arisen. There would have been no communism to contain.
Accepting that nobody at the time, except maybe General MacArthur, would have been willing to “push the button,” let us assume that rather than act preemptively, the United States chose merely to assume a strong defensive posture, the question is did the Truman Doctrine contribute or detract from it, and from the promotion of America’s true interests?
There are two ways of finding a proper answer to this question which must be used in tandem. One is to closely analyze the containment record, and its impact on America during the Cold War. The other is to integrate the Cold War into the context of its historical consequences, which are now apparent.
By examining the Korean War, as a first major proxy war against communism, we observe American casualties totalling 35,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. Observing the longer term effects of the conflict, we see the establishment of an ideological fault line along the 38th parallel, and the continuing existence of a regime that survives through nuclear extortion to this day, and which may yet choose to supply nuclear weapons to terrorists who wish to target the United States.
Was there a positive outcome that justified this loss of American lives in Asia, and mitigates the problem of the remaining threat? Well, there is the emergence of South Korea, a strongly Western country and important trading partner. But it still requires a continual American military commitment for its defense, at significant cost, and with few thanks. Also, no end seems to be in sight in this scenario. At best, the jury is thus still out on this one.
Also inconclusive is the question of Taiwan, which may yet be reabsorbed by China.
By contrast, the jury has most definitely concluded deliberations with regards to Vietnam. Casualties in that war amounted to 60,000 dead and 300,000 wounded Americans. Also, the war caused a tremendous schism in American culture, which hinders its ability to project a common set of values to the world to this day. To make matters worse, as we pan across time, we see the emergence of the Nixon Doctrine, whereby America gave up fighting proxy wars and decided instead to arm countries that might be directly threatened–such as Iran. As a result, if you zoom in close enough you can see that a good number of F-14s and F-15s flying around in the Middle East during the 1970s bear Iranian insignia. And, soon enough, the populace of this “ally” in the containment of Communism would be chanting “Death to America!” in the streets.
What should have been obvious from the start was that Vietnamese communism may have threatened “international peace,” but it never had anything to do with America’s interests. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which emerged from the war, and which aligned with the Soviet Union, was involved in conflicts with Cambodia and China. But its decrepit economy did nothing but put additional strain on the Soviet Union, which funneled financial, military and administrative aid its way in order to continually prop it up. This sapped Russia’s always declining vigor, and contributed further to Communism’s fall.
As for the consequent arming of Iran, although it may seem like a reaction against the Truman Doctrine, it really only altered the means of implementing it. America remained committed to “free peoples” whose connection to our national interests were negligeable, if not entirely imaginary.
Let us look at one more critical episode: America’s handling of the Suez Crisis of 1956. In that year, Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took over the Suez Canal, thus seizing what was British and French property. When Britain, France, and Israel responded with an invasion of the Sinai and canal zone, President Eisenhower–who had not been consulted, who thus felt personally insulted, and who feared that such a move would damage Arab nations’ perception of the Western world–demanded that they withdraw. Faced with the threat of losing American aid–established via the Truman Doctrine’s Marshall Plan–Britain had no choice. Its allies were similarly compromised, and forced to back down.
The motivation for the president’s action was further elaborated post hoc–in the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957. In this corollary to the Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower announced that America would help nations in the Middle East resist communist expansion. In the Suez Crisis he had acted with precisely this intent. He humiliated a committed ally (Great Britain) in the name of appeasing a potential ally (Egypt), so that Nasser might choose to align himself with America, and so that the other Arab nations might be drawn to the United States as the more accomodating of the two superpowers.
So what did American accomodation, motivated by Truman/Eisenhower doctrinal thinking, yield for America in the Middle East? The attempt to manipulate its regimes in the name of a broader American goal for some forty years has spawned The Islamist Entanglement–the current debacle with reactionary political Islam. In the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the region’s true aim was to align with “neither East nor West.” It was always to assert its own Islamic character, as was done in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
So the Truman Doctrine failed North Korea and Vietnam, with a terrible cost to America. Further, courting the Middle East during the Cold War created the next major threat to America’s interests, just as courting the Soviets in a bid to stop the Nazis had yielded the Cold War itself.
Shall we say that it was all worth it because of Western Europe’s gratitude, and its defiance of communism? I shall continue to address this question in my series on “Europism,” but I don’t think too many Americans are deluded into thinking that Europeans are enamored with America or that Europe’s growing union is dedicated to freedom. Collectivism still dominates European thinking.
True, there is at least America’s close relationship with Britain and its Commonwealth offshoots Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Were the Soviets ever really going to conquer these countries? If communism had even briefly expanded to encompasses continental Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia by means of voluntary adoption and/or Soviet infiltration, it would have burned itself out so fast that the Cold War would have been a Cold Battle! The evil nature of communism would have been revealed all the more incontrovertibly. And these Western countries, which otherwise drifted towards socialism, would have been forced to defend themselves properly and thus abandon the draining accouterments of the welfare state. So I’m afraid I don’t see it in those cases either.
Finally, do I really need to mention Latin America? We let the communists have Cuba, and we sponsored countless “Western” dictators in place of the oppressive regimes the people there would have preferred to impose on themselves.
Now, before closing the case, I want to return to the Middle East, and indulge in a projection of what could and should have happened there had we allowed communism to expand in a manner consonant with our true self-interest. I submit that it is quite possible that Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan and Pakistan might have been temporarily become communist countries. I submit, however, that this is beside the point, and might even have been a good thing. Just as quickly, others–most notably Saudi Arabia–would have been forced into our arms, and we could have dictated regime change there with as much ease as we did in Japan after WWII. The result would have been secure access to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and the accelerated Westernization of a limited part of the Middle East. The resulting leap in wealth there–for everyone, not just the monarchy–would have proved once again the superiority of capitalism over communism and provided a real prototype for the aggressive secularization of Islam.
In the end, therefore, I don’t think that there is any outcome associated with the Truman Doctrine that could not have been improved upon if the idea of “international peace” and “the security of the United States” had been decoupled, and America had pursued only the latter. Even for those countries who would have suffered as a result of communist aggression, the outcome in the end would have been a much more genuine commitment to democratic republicanism. More importantly, however, hundreds of thousands of American lives would have been spared, and the debacle we find ourselves in today would never have arisen.
(For a more complete record of America’s Cold War record in the Islamic world, listen to my lecture “America in the Middle East,” available separately at a reduced introductory rate!)