President Harry Truman (Library of Congress photo).
By Denise M. Bostdorff
President Joe Biden faces an aggressive Russia waging war to expand its borders. He has rallied Americans to support Ukraine as it resists a devastating Russian attack. But Biden has also been careful not to intensify enthusiasm for entering that conflict, which could have horrific consequences, including nuclear war.
He’s not the first U.S. president to face the challenge of mobilizing a nation to support – but not join – a war about democracy that carried the potential for wider conflict. In 1947, President Harry Truman was in a remarkably similar position. And he handled it in a remarkably similar way: with plain words and a direct appeal to Americans to support another nation’s independence, while simultaneously avoiding language that could spark further conflict.
As a scholar of presidential rhetoric who has written a book on what’s known as the Truman Doctrine speech, I’m interested in how presidents use language to attain goals in similar high-stakes situations. Strategies can be repeated.
We can better understand Biden’s response to Ukraine by looking at how Truman responded to problems in Greece just after the end of World War II.
Growing fears of Soviet threat
The relationship among the allies of Great Britain, the USSR and the U.S. was never free of strain, but tensions grew toward the end of World War II, just as Truman became president.
In 1945, the USSR unilaterally moved Poland’s boundaries westward by 150 miles, annexing the territory and installing a pro-Soviet government. The USSR also dominated the governments of other countries it occupied, like Bulgaria and Romania.
Truman said nothing negative about the Soviets publicly, but his apprehension grew in the spring of 1946 when Soviet troops initially stayed in Iran after the scheduled deadline to leave, prompting concerns that they wanted to seize Iranian oil. In August of that year, the USSR proposed joining Turkey in defending the Black Sea straits, the conduits to Mideast oil connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
Simultaneously, as Soviet behavior began giving Truman pause, messages from inside and outside the administration escalated fears over Soviet intentions. George Kennan, the acting U.S. ambassador in Moscow, warned in February 1946 that the Soviets were “committed fanatically” to the global triumph of communism. His analysis circulated extensively within the administration.
In March 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke in Fulton, Missouri, where Truman introduced him. Churchill declared an “iron curtain” of communism had descended across Central and Eastern Europe with one exception, Greece, which Great Britain continued to aid in its fight against a communist insurgency.
Churchill warned against appeasement and recommended an alliance between English-speaking peoples of the British Commonwealth and the United States.
While Congress and U.S. media responded in different ways, some supporting Churchill’s perceptions of the Soviets and others criticizing his attacks on an ally, public opinion overwhelmingly opposed Churchill’s proposal. Americans did not want to hear another call to arms, especially from a nation often perceived as a colonial bully.
In September 1946, another internal Truman administration analysis, “American Relations with the Soviet Union,” described a hostile USSR and recommended the U.S. “assist all democratic countries … endangered by the USSR” through primarily economic means; but it also insisted the U.S. “be prepared to wage atomic and biological warfare” to deter Soviet aggression. Out of fear over volatile reactions from both administration and Kremlin officials, Truman confiscated all copies of the report.
Amid a growing U.S. government consensus about a Soviet threat, Great Britain – devastated by war and bitter winter storms – informed the State Department in February 1947 that it could no longer support the increasingly threatened democratic government of Greece. U.S. intelligence believed communist Greek forces trying to overthrow the government were part of a possible “Soviet-inspired plan to dominate all of the Balkans.” To contain communist expansion, the British urged the U.S. to assume its role aiding Greece.
Truman was ready to assist with reconstruction funds and military equipment. But his March 12, 1947, Truman Doctrine speech had to convince a war-weary nation to support aid to Greece yet also reassure both Americans and European allies that he was not embarking on war. Nor did Truman want to unnecessarily provoke the Soviets.
Crisis and reassurance
President Truman achieved his objectives by promoting a sense of urgency about helping Greece and also reassuring the public that this act would not lead to war.
He used crisis language to depict Greece as victimized by sinister forces. According to Truman, “armed men, led by Communists” threatened the “very existence of the Greek state.”
Truman also elevated the importance of Greece. In the speech’s most famous passage, he asserted the U.S. must “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” If the U.S. did not aid Greece, Truman warned, its inaction would undermine “world freedom” and “endanger the peace of the world.”
Nevertheless, Truman wanted to avoid having the crisis escalate into demands for war or military responses from opponents. Truman never mentioned the USSR by name and referred to communists only once and communism not at all.
He stressed assistance would be “primarily … economic,” and he downplayed the military aid involved, which was substantial.
Truman’s words reassured listeners who were concerned about war and clarified U.S. intentions for foes.
Finally, the president heightened his credibility through a plain style that conveyed a realistic view of the world.
Truman spoke of being “frank” and offering “common sense.” This straightforward style, combined with unpolished delivery, gave the impression of forthrightness.
Afterward, telegrams flooded the White House in favor of helping Greece. Media coverage was also supportive yet reflected anxiety about the risk of a wider conflict. Reactions in Congress were more mixed, but a majority in both parties would approve aid to the Greek government, aid that helped the government defeat its communist adversaries.
Biden echoes Truman
Seventy-five years later, Biden has used a similar approach: matter-of-factly detailing Russian attacks on “Ukraine’s right to exist” and declaring “the right of … countries to choose their own destiny.” He has emphasized “powerful economic sanctions” and limited “security assistance” while tamping down calls for no-fly zones that might lead to wider war.
Biden has also refrained from comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the communist USSR’s acts after World War II. By avoiding any negative references to communism – however tempting the analogy for a domestic audience – he also avoids provoking China, a communist nation, into assisting Russia with the impact of economic sanctions.
There are, of course, profound differences between the conflicts in Greece and Ukraine. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for instance, has proved a far more sympathetic figure than Greek Prime Minister Constantine Tsaldaris, who was widely viewed in diplomatic circles as a fool. But the way two U.S. presidents used language to ask Americans to defend democracy through intervention in a foreign conflict shows the power of a leader who speaks plainly – and who sets clear limits on that intervention.
Denise M. Bostdorff is a professor and chairperson of Communication Studies at The College of Wooster. She wrote this piece for The Conversation, where it first appeared.
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