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  • Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms
  • Ira Chernus
Denise Bostdorff , Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine: The Cold War Call to Arms. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008. xii + 193 pp. $17.95.

"The making of words is indeed an act, not a business distinct from the hard, behavioral part of politics," Daniel Rodgers has written. "Political talk is political action of a particular, often powerful, sort." This might well be the motto of Denise Bostdorff, a fine representative of a group of scholars who deserve much more attention than they often receive: scholars of rhetoric who have turned their skills to illuminating the verbal dimension of the Cold War.

As Bostdorff points out in her introduction, policymakers respond to reality as they see it, and the way they see it depends largely on the way they describe it and hear it described by others. Hence, there is no way to separate the verbal from all the other dimensions that make up the full picture of Cold War history.

Proclaiming the Truman Doctrine offers a detailed study of one crucial moment in that history, 12 March 1947, when a less-than-healthy President Harry S. Truman stood before Congress and pronounced what Bostdorff calls his credo: "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."

Truman used these words to build support for his plan to give several hundred million dollars to the governments of Greece and Turkey, helping them to stave off opponents who the administration believed were Communists. The third point of Truman's credo, "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid," masked the true aim: giving massive military aid.

Bostdorff sets the stage for this policy in her first chapter, tracing the gradual emergence of Cold War tensions from 1945 to 1947. Historians will not find much new here, though no doubt some will find points to disagree with. But all should appreciate her skillful demonstration that speeches and other public words played a central role (in interaction with other factors) in raising ColdWar tensions. The words of others could be all the more influential, Bostdorff notes, because Truman remained so ambivalent and thus relatively silent.

Bostdorff then reconstructs the bureaucratic processes that gave rise to the speech, showing it as the culmination of "a concerted crisis campaign" (p. 13) orchestrated by the newly influential public relations units within the State Department. [End Page 121] Francis Russell, director of the department's Office of Public Affairs, deserves much credit for developing the central passages in the Truman Doctrine speech.

As Bostdorff reconstructs key meetings among Truman, his advisers, and members of Congress, she challenges some widely held views. Dean Acheson played a less decisive role than has been assumed, she argues. Because Senator Arthur Vandenberg's famous advice to Truman to "scare hell out of the country" appears in only one source—Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade—and After: America 1945-1960 (New York: Vintage, 1961)—no one will ever know whether he actually said it.

The center of the book is a lengthy reading of the text itself, showing how a scholar of rhetoric can tease out subtleties of wording and phrasing that others might easily miss. Most illuminating is the analysis of a cluster of metaphors, all combining to reinforce the image of the "free world" as a container that had to be protected against change. Containment was largely a verbal process of promising "security from the fears of chaos, disease, and violation" (p. 130).

But, as it turned out, such words merely compounded the sense of insecurity. "The Truman Doctrine speech must be judged unwise," Bostdorff rightly concludes, because it "heightened Americans' fears" (pp. 151-152). The speech also laid the groundwork for the Marshall Plan, she argues, and the combination of the two stoked Soviet leaders' fears and thus their assertiveness, which in turn ratcheted up U.S. fears. Europe was divided into...