American Hubris: From Truman to the Persian Gulf

Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine


The deadly incident on May 17 in the Persian Gulf in which thirty-seven American sailors were killed and the Navy frigate Stark was disabled by an Iraqi missile has again raised the question: What is happening to American foreign policy? Is it merely that we have suffered a series of unlucky mishaps—in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon, and now the Persian Gulf? Or is something seriously at fault with the doctrine that has governed our actions ever since the end of the Second World War?

A series of costly misadventures over several decades cannot be considered a string of aberrations. Something deeper and more troublesome must be at work to account for them. They cannot be blamed on one party or the other; they have afflicted Democratic as well as Republican administrations. Former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick is not wrong to call herself a Truman Republican; the so-called Reagan Doctrine is a variant of the Truman Doctrine—if there is any real difference between them.

This doctrine has been the source of American hubris for forty years and shows no sign of being retired. It is time to reexamine it and to assess what its consequences have been. How did the Truman Doctrine come about in the first place? Where has it led us?


To understand the origin and influence of the Truman Doctrine, it is necessary to go back to what the United States was like in world affairs before 1947.

The United States had begun to consider itself a “world power” only a half-century earlier. The term itself apparently appeared in its original German version, Weltmacht, where it seems to be more at home, in the 1880s. It was first applied to the United States in 1898 as a result of the so-called Spanish-American War, primarily through the acquisition of the Philippine Islands, which was an unintended byproduct of that war. The first American book with the title World Politics came out in 1900.1 The first book with the title America As a World Power appeared in 1907, and another one, The United States As a World Power, the following year.2

The change from a hemispheric to a world power was reflected in the various editions of James Bryce’s celebrated The American Commonwealth. In the first edition published in 1888, Bryce thought that he had to say “but little” about American foreign relations. In the revised edition of 1920, he noted: “Americans have latterly been wont to speak of themselves as having become, through the events of 1898, a World Power.” Mr. Dooley sighed at the time for the good old days before we became “a wurruld power” and “now, be Hivins, we have no peace iv mind.”

The United States may have awakened one day in 1898 to find itself a “world power,” but it was only a beginning. Theodore Roosevelt tried in the next decade to play a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.