Truman Administration (1945–1953), United States National Security Policy

Truman Administration (1945–1953), United States National Security Policy


The onset of the Cold War during the presidency of Harry S. Truman led the executive branch recognize a need to integrate domestic, foreign, and military policies to combat the expansionism of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine set the major goal of the U.S. as opposition to communism anywhere in the world. The Marshall Plan, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the National Security Council (NSC) all served as part of the administration's unified approach to the immense challenges posed by the expansion of communism.

Harry S. Truman took office upon the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. The new president continued with much of the Roosevelt administration's diplomacy, but had always been far sterner than Roosevelt toward the Soviet Union. He also had to plan for a postwar world and the primary concern of the postwar Truman administration was to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression. American officials held that another economic downturn could only be avoided if global markets and raw materials were fully open to all peoples on the basis of equal opportunity. On the other hand, Josef Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union, demanded that the U.S. recognize the Soviet right to control large parts of Eastern Europe. These Soviet satellite states would serve as a strategic buffer against the West that could also be exploited economically for the rapid rebuilding of the devastated Soviet economy. Truman refused to comply with the wishes of the Soviets and the Cold War gradually took root.

By 1946, the administration had become deeply concerned about the consolidation and development of Russian power. One year later, in 1947, Truman issued a declaration that would serve as the guiding force of national security policy for the duration of the Cold War. With the Truman Doctrine, he asked Americans to join in a global fight against communism. He committed the U.S. to opposing totalitarian regimes and supporting freedom, while refusing to place any geographical limits upon this obligation. Several days after the speech, the president announced a loyalty program to ferret out security risks in government. The first such peacetime program in U.S. history, it was so vaguely defined that political ideas and long-ago associations were suddenly made suspect.

The overwhelming fear of communism at home and abroad would convince Americans to support a national security policy that included intervention in the affairs of other countries. The end of World War II confronted the United States with the problem of reconstructing Europe. Most of Europe lay in shatters, with countries too weak to readily rebuild the infrastructure necessary for economic growth. In order to prevent a collapse of the European economy and the ramifications on the economy of America, the Truman administration began a massive economic aid effort. The 1948 Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, offered aid to all of Europe with the provision that the Europeans determine their own needs. Before its end in 1951, the plan prevented poverty and chaos from overwhelming Western Europe. The Soviets, suspicious of American aims, declined to participate.

In order to prevent communist aggression around the world, the U.S. joined with its neighbors to the south in a mutual security agreement. The nations of the Western Hemisphere convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1947 to sign the Rio Treaty for collective self-defense. The agreement provided that an attack upon one nation in the Americas served as an attack upon them all. If two-thirds of the countries agreed to resist an attack, all states must cooperate by sending either troops or supplies. In 1948, the U.S. participated in the formation of the Organization of American States (OAS). The administration hoped that the OAS would eventually assume the mounting responsibilities for solving hemispheric problems, but the U.S. would always play the dominant role.

By 1947, the various means of security planning had fully emerged and ranged from economic planning through diplomatic initiative to application of military force. The missing element was a forum in which to select the appropriate combination of measures for a particular situation. Truman generally relied upon Special White House Counsel Clark Clifford to provide day-to-day coordination. Clifford, dismayed by the disorder among agencies involved in major policymaking decisions, played an instrumental role in establishing the National Security Council in 1947 to give institutional stability to national security policymaking.

Until the advent of the Korean War in 1950, Truman remained unenthusiastic about the NSC. Truman saw the NSC as an effort by Congress to harness the president to the advice of military men. He attended only 10 of the first 55 meetings on the grounds that his presence would inhibit frank discussion and suggest that national policies were made by committee. When Truman did participate in NSC gatherings, the council reached conclusions that matched his known desires and ideological inclinations. The complicated situation in war-torn Korea finally convinced Truman of the value of the NSC as a policy development mechanism.

During the Truman administration, the NSC's main products were policy papers. NSC-20/4 served as the basic American strategic plan from 1948 until 1950. This document saw Russian expansionism as part of a massive drive for world mastery. It stated that the U.S. would not attempt an occupation of the Soviet Union but should be prepared for a negotiated peace. American objectives were set as the reduction of the power and influence of the Soviet Union to the point where the U.S.S.R. could no longer mount a threat to world peace.

NSC-68, the replacement for NSC-20/4, is arguably among the most significant of NSC documents. In it, the NSC argued that in the current polarized climate, a defeat of free institutions anywhere in the world damaged the U.S. This belief defined any threat to the capitalist political system as communist-inspired, not as the result of problems within. NSC-68 shocked the government into greater anti-communist resolution and action, thereby setting the stage for involvement in wars in Korea and Vietnam. It also comprised the final attempt of the Truman administration to define national security policy.

In establishing the national security policy and system that would guide the United States for much of second half of the twentieth century, Truman opened the Cold War. Fear of communism and determination to oppose it at every opportunity led to the U.S. involvement in the Korean War as well as McCarthyism.



Boll, Michael M. National Security Planning: Roosevelt through Reagan. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Crabb, Cecil V., and Kevin V. Mulcahy. American National Security: A Presidential Perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1991.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. The National Security: Its Theory and Practice, 1945–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


White House. "History of the National Security Council, 1947–1997" < > (April 25, 2003).


Cold War (1945–1950), The Start of the Atomic Age
Cold War (1950–1972)
Department of State, United States
Korean War
National Security Act (1947)
NSC (National Security Council)
National Security Strategy, United States

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