And so begins the story of the Truman Doctrine, what Joe Scarborough frames in his bold and highly readable new book, “Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization,” as “a profound transformation of America’s conception of itself and its role in the world” and one that would make Truman “the greatest foreign policy president of the postwar era.”
Scarborough — whom readers may recognize as a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a former Republican congressman from Florida and a contributor to The Washington Post — arrives with a book on the Truman Doctrine at a wise time. There is a saying among people who write about presidents: It’s a good time to be in the Truman business. As divided as Americans are politically today, Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that Truman set a benchmark for character in the Oval Office. Why? If Scarborough’s book answers one question tacitly, that is it.
On the day Marshall first briefed Truman on Greece and Turkey, he spelled out the situation to the president in dire terms. He feared that if the Soviets could move into those two countries, other parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia would be next. Truman agreed that the United States would have to step in and support Greece and Turkey. The usual policy of staying out of foreign conflicts unless absolutely necessary was becoming an anachronism. They would be committing to a new policy, in Truman’s words, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
The idea was to use dollars instead of soldiers to combat communism, through handouts to foreign governments that would, in theory, help establish and maintain free democratic societies. There was no telling if it would work. There was a good chance the policy would engage the Soviet Union in an ideological war of nerves that could spread globally. However, the consequences of inaction were even more terrifying. As Scarborough puts it: “It was time for the American president to lead the world in its fight against communism. But would Harry Truman dare to engage in that historic struggle? And if he did, would Americans follow?”
One reason the Truman Doctrine proved hard to sell was its name. Few Americans could believe that such a momentous shift in foreign policy would issue from an administration as weak as this one was at the time. Truman had been an obscure vice president who came to office when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945. The mild-mannered Missourian had never been elected president. He didn’t even have a college degree. He was, by most accounts, a poor orator. He had been humiliated by a Republican landslide in Congress in the 1946 midterms, and he was expected to get clobbered in the 1948 election.
Ultimately, the wisdom of the policy showed through, and Truman signed it into law on May 22, 1947, in the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. Scarborough then skillfully takes the story where most books on the Truman Doctrine don’t go. He follows the money trail — the nuts and bolts of how the doctrine was implemented, how it was made to be successful on the bloody battlefields of Greece’s civil war and how it became the backbone of America’s ideological fight against the Soviets for decades to come. One inspiring side story is how, in a highly partisan era, Democrats and Republicans came together to present a united front to the outside world, showing that partisan politics ends at the border and that country should always come before party or personal agendas.
There are warts to this story. Foreign policy experts feared early on that the Truman Doctrine could eventually lead the United States into war. “What worked in the fields of Europe,” Scarborough writes, “led to calamitous consequences in the jungles of Vietnam.”
Ultimately “Saving Freedom” illuminates just how high the stakes can get in Washington and how decisions can have consequences that ripple through generations. The author is at his best when he uses his personal experience in Washington to bring nuance to his historical viewpoint. He ends with a reminder that, in some ways, we are back where we started — wondering where to go from here and hoping we have visionary leaders to show us the way. “Americans have spent the past decade questioning their country’s role in the world,” Scarborough writes. “But history races forward still, predictably mocking those of us who try to predict its next move.”
Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization
By Joe Scarborough
257 pp. $29.99