The Truman Doctrine
and the Greek Civil War

excerpted from the book

Intervention and Revolution

The United States in the Third World

by Richard J. Barnet

World Publishing, 1968, paperback edition


In the name of the Truman Doctrine the United States supplied the military and economic power to enable the Greek monarchy to defeat an army of communist-led insurgents in 1947-49 and won a victory which has become a model for U.S. relations toward civil wars and insurgencies. Almost twenty years later the President of the United States was defending his intervention in Vietnam by pointing to his predecessor's success in Greece. The American experience in Greece not only set the pattern for subsequent interventions in internal wars but also suggested the criteria for assessing the success or failure of counterinsurgency operations. Greece was the first major police task which the United States took on in the postwar world. One of the most important consequences of the American involvement in Greece in the 1940'S was the development of new bureaucracies specializing in military assistance, police administration, and economic aid, committed to an analysis of revolution and a set of responses for dealing with it that would be applied to many different conflicts in the next twenty years.

When President Truman announced the decision to help the Greek monarchy win the civil war, he stressed that the commitment was prompted by the "terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by communists.'' The United States was to use its power to put down violence. But, clearly, violence itself was not the issue, for throughout 1946, according to correspondents of the London Times and other U.S. and British papers, the Greek government itself had been carrying out mass arrests, tortures, beatings, and other retaliation against those who had been on the wrong side of the earlier civil war that ended in January, 1945. The foreign minister had resigned in early 1946, charging "terrorism by state organs." In Greece, as elsewhere, the violence of constituted authorities, however oppressive their rule, was judged by one criterion and the violence of insurgents by another. President Truman alluded to the corruption and brutality of the Greek government by conceding that it was "not perfect." But while the fascist character of the government genuinely bothered some members of the U.S. government, most National-Security Managers shared the judgment of former Secretary of State James Byrnes: "We did not have to decide that the Turkish Government and the Greek Monarchy were outstanding examples of free and democratic governments."

Two ... ideas which had been crucial to the development of official thinking in important parts of the national security bureaucracy were carefully excised from the Truman Doctrine message as it made the circuit of government in successive drafts. One was that the struggle in Greece was part of a global battle between economic systems. Six days before the Truman Doctrine message, the President had delivered a speech at Baylor University in Texas in which he declared that the United States was "the giant of the economic world," with the responsibility for setting "the future pattern of economic relations." Posing the fundamental split in the world between "free enterprise" and "planning," he strongly implied that the one led to peace while the other meant war. Two days before the President's scheduled appearance before Congress, C}ark Clifford came to Acheson with a revision suggested in the White House to the effect that "continued chaos in other countries and pressure exerted upon them from without would mean the end of free enterprise and democracy in those countries and that the disappearance of free enterprise in other nations would threaten our economy and our democracy." Acheson opposed the insertion of this ideological language on the grounds that it might embarrass American relations with the Socialist government of Great Britain. But a number of major advisers in the administration attached considerable importance to this point.

If Clifford's articulation of the economic conflict was too ideological for Acheson's taste, his second suggestion smacked too much of realpolitik; Clifford wanted a reference in the speech to Greece's strategic importance and to "the great natural resources of the Middle East." When British Marshal Montgomery had asked the U.S. chiefs of staff in the fall of 1946 what value they attached to Middle Eastern oil, "their immediate and unanimous answer was-vital." Forrestal was almost obsessed with the strategic importance of the area to the United States. But the State Department concluded that it would create an unfortunate impression if it appeared that the enunciation of the American Responsibility had something to do with oil. The administration anticipated enough problems in distinguishing the new American relationship to the Mediterranean from Britain's imperial role. As it was, Acheson was asked some pointed questions in the hearings about possible connections between the President's dramatic announcement of America's new "responsibility" for the Eastern Mediterranean and the authorization two days earlier of the trans-Arabian pipeline. Acheson replied that there was none. The charge made by leftist critics and a few disappointed British imperialists that the Truman Doctrine was principally a piece of petroleum diplomacy is a serious distortion. Nevertheless, there is no doubt, as Stephen Xydis observes in his exhaustive study of the relevant documents, that one motive for the United States' intervention was to stabilize the area so as to "contribute to the preservation of American oil concessions there."

While the final version of the Truman Doctrine avoided these pitfalls, it was couched in a rather strident, global rhetoric which drew a good deal of criticism. Offering a Manichaean view of world politics, the President once again invited Americans to join a moral crusade. But this time it was a crusade against revolution as well as outside aggression.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

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 the minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression of controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe 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 press and the public immediately grasped that the Truman Doctrine was a watershed. The Washington Post clearly heard what the President was saying, and they thrilled to it. "He was asking America to be Atlas, offering to lead his country in that tremendous role." "The epoch of isolation and occasional intervention is ended," was the exultant judgment of The New York Times. "It is being replaced by an era of American Responsibility." The next day the Times put the message even more clearly: "A new and positive foreign policy of worldwide responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order."

When the Truman Doctrine was launched, some members of the State Department believed that a massive infusion of American power and money could establish a stable, moderate, reasonably democratic government and that the military operations should be regarded as instruments to set up the preconditions for bringing about political and social change. But by 1943 it had become clear that the military and political goals were incompatible. In supplying weapons and characterizing the struggle primarily as a Hitler-like fifth-column operation rather than as a conflict among Greeks over the sharing of political and economic power, by stressing the external rather than the internal aspects of the problem, the United States strengthened those forces in Greece with the least interest in reform.

For the next twenty years the Greeks struggled to solve the staggering economic and social problems that had led to the bloody civil war. Despite massive U.S. economic and military aid the Greek government has remained unable to feed its own population. In his exhaustive review of contemporary Greek economics and politics, Les Forces Politiques en Grece, Professor Jean Meynaud documents the continuation of economic stagnation and political chaos in Greece. Despite improvement in the economy, the same basic conditions of the forties-widespread poverty, illiteracy, shortage of foreign exchange, repressive and ineffective government-remained in the sixties, leading to a series of constitutional crises and, most recently, to a particularly brutal and backward military dictatorship.

The United States continued to be deeply involved in Greek politics. For over one hundred years it had been traditional for Greek politics to be dominated by a foreign power, for the most part, Britain. Now the United States assumed that role. Just as there had been a "British party" in the nineteenth century, there was now an "American party." The U.S. ambassador, especially John Peurifoy when he held the post immediately after the civil war, habitually intervened in Greek affairs, as, for example, when he openly supported Marshal Papagos for premier against a rival faction. U.S. military attaches built close relations with segments of the Greek officers corps. Greek politicians charged in the Parliament that the Greek Central Information Agency, outfitted with American equipment and financed by the United States, had become in effect an arm of the CIA, carrying out such missions as the Americans directed. From 1944 to 1964 the United States gave Greece almost four billion dollars, of which a little over two billion dollars was in military aid and most of the remaining sums were to cover current budget deficits and to support agriculture. In the 1960's exports to the United States declined. Although private U.S. capital had flowed into Greece from such U.S. companies as Esso, Reynolds Metal, Dow Chemical, and Chrysler, and large sections of the economy are effectively controlled by U.S. capital, the financial health of the country remains precarious. Two decades of U.S. aid and a dominant American role in Greek politics and economics have averted or, as it now increasingly appears, postponed revolution and civil war, but they have not brought the country much closer either to a just and workable economy or to a stable political structure.

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