Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Harry S. Truman, The Truman Doctrine, 12 March 1947

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Michael J. Steudeman, University of Maryland

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Social Studies Teachers

Following the cataclysmic warfare of World War II, it may be difficult to engage students in the more nuanced politics of the early Cold War. What better way to transition, then, than through the plain speaking of Harry S. Truman? His penchant for simple prose provides an entry point for discussing three aspects of a changing geopolitical landscape:

  • This speech helped introduce two important ideas that have shaped the way our presidents have argued for foreign policy: direct economic aid and containment.
  • The speech enlivens studies of European geography, providing social and political context for the boundaries on the map—and how they have changed over time.
  • Historically, the speech illustrates the isolationism of post-World War II Americans—and how the Soviet Union came to be seen as a global threat.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.3 – Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether early events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
    • Truman uses a series structure where each claim relies on the one before it:
      1) Greece and Turkey are in crisis. -> 2) If Greece and Turkey fall to Communism, other war-weary European nations will fall. ->3) No other nations or institutions have the ability to help Greece and Turkey. ->4) Therefore, the United States has the responsibility to provide aid to Greece and Turkey. ->5) If we aid Greece and Turkey, they will remain free.
    • As they read, students should follow and critique this line of arguments.


  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.3 – Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections drawn between them.
    • Students should analyze how Truman develops the logic of the Cold War in his speech. The text begins small, set in the localized context of Greece—then gradually moves outward to place Greece in a larger context, to define the risks posed by destabilized countries in Eastern Europe, and to finally develop a description of a world dominated by two types of leadership: freedom based on the will of the majority, and oppression by the minority.


  • ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • While the terms “containment” and “domino theory” are not used in Truman’s speech, this address is widely regarded as the first major presidential articulation of those two ideas. Key pieces of terminology employed by Truman—including “United Nations” “reconstruction,” and “Communist”—play a role in developing these two themes. Additionally, Truman depicts important geographic relationships among countries in Western Europe.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Students should read about the weak economies of many European countries after the war and the growing fear of Soviet influence.
  • Teachers should consult pages 10-11 of Denise Bostdorff’s interpretive essay for helpful commentary on how Truman defines the situation in Greece and Turkey as a crisis through fear appeals.
  • To help students analyze the speech’s arguments, teach them about the series structure: where each claim relies on the one before it. As Zarefsky says, these arguments work like old Christmas lights: If one bulb burns out, the whole string of lights goes out. If the claims work together, though, they can give the argument momentum and improve its persuasiveness.
  • Students should review the lengths Franklin Roosevelt had to take to compel Americans to give up isolationism and enter World War II—even after Pearl Harbor. Have students consider the massive cost of the war and why Americans would feel fatigued about foreign affairs.
  • Though anti-Communist sentiments ran high in 1947, the Soviet Union had very recently been an important ally to the United States in defeating Nazi Germany. Have students consider the Soviet role in World War II and why there would be public confusion about treating the Soviets as an enemy.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • United Nations: Truman recently signed for the creation of the UN. He spends much of his speech justifying why the U.S. should aid Greece and Turkey without the UN’s help.
  • Reconstruction: Students should begin with the context for war-torn Europe, and how many countries have to rebuild not only physical structures like roads and hospitals—but also governments and economies.
  • Totalitarian: Truman implies that the Soviets are “totalitarians” (para. 54), categorizing them with the recently-defeated Axis Powers.
  • Yalta Agreement: The agreement signed by the U.S., Soviet Union, and Great Britain at World War II’s end.

Suggested Timeline and Objectives

Day 1: Defining a Greek Crisis

  • [Read paragraphs 1-14]
  • From the perspective of late-1940s Americans, students will assess Truman’s first claim that Greece needs help.
  • Students will analyze Truman’s decision to focus on Greece by considering its relationship to surrounding nations.

Day 2: America Alone

  • [Read paragraphs 15-32]
  • Students will continue to assess Truman’s argument from the perspective of late-1940s Americans, now focusing on his claim that America alone must come to Greece and Turkey’s aid without the United Nations.

Day 3: Domino Theory

  • [Read paragraphs 33-59]
  • Students will analyze Truman’s logic of the “domino theory” and how it explains the conflict between the Soviet Union and United States.
  • Students will evaluate the entire series structure of Truman’s speech to determine whether late-1940s Americans would support his call to aid Greece and Turkey.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Throughout the speech, students can trace the development of Truman’s series structure in a graphic organizer that connects his major claims with arrows.
  • Paragraph 2: Remind students of the gravity and importance of situations where the president calls a joint session of Congress.
  • Paragraph 7-12: Students should be guided heavily through these particular passages with additional context provided by the teacher. The teacher can define the “militant minority” and “several thousand armed men” more clearly, drawing from context from Bostdorff’s interpretive essay, particularly pages 8-9.
  • Paragraph 12; 27; 41: Students should read these paragraphs alongside a map of Europe in 1947. Ask students why Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia are particularly relevant to Truman’s argument that the U.S. should aid Greece. Similarly, they should later consider the importance of the Middle East in relationship to Turkey in the U.S./Soviet power struggle.
  • Day 2: On this day, students will track Truman’s reasoning that the United States alone is the only nation that can help. To do this, they will need to evaluate Truman’s support for two claims:
    • That it is America’s responsibility to help other nations after World War II;
    • That the U.S. should help those other nations alone, without the assistance of the United Nations.
  • Paragraph 19; 32: In Day 2 pre-reading, students could examine excerpts from the United Nations Charter to determine whether the Greek and Turkish situation would be considered a UN issue. As they read these two paragraphs, they should evaluate Truman’s arguments against UN involvement from the perspective of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses in global disputes.
  • Day 3: On Day 3, students will trace how Truman fits Greece and Turkey into the bigger picture of a world divided by freedom and oppression. In addition to the series structure organizer from Day 1, implement two additional graphic organizers:
    • A T-chart that contrasts the two choices faced by countries (para. 34-36).
    • An illustration of “dominoes” showing how each nation that falls to Communism (“oppression”) falls into the next.
  • Paragraph 33: In this first sentence, have students consider Truman’s use of passive voice. The subject of the sentence—the Soviet Union—is implied. Treating this as the first “domino,” urge students to follow Truman’s reasoning into Greece (para. 41-42) to the rest of Europe (para. 43) to the world (para. 44).
  • Paragraph 46-59: Truman makes the argument for how the U.S. should respond to the crisis he’s defined in the speech. Ask students how Truman downplays the size of his proposal. Discuss how Truman frames this argument in terms of preserving future peace. Would isolationists be convinced by his argument?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Modern comparison. To demonstrate their ability to apply the argumentation concepts explored in this speech, have students analyze the arguments advanced in excerpts from a more recent speech like George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address or John Kerry’s 2013 Remarks on Syria. Have students respond to the following questions:
  1. In what ways do Bush/Kerry’s arguments resemble Truman’s arguments in favor of Soviet containment? (RI.9-10.3)
  2. Does Bush/Kerry follow a series structure? Why or why not? If so, do any of the claims fall short? (RH.9-10.3)
  • Persuading a weary public. Have students adopt the perspective of a U.S. soldier who recently returned from the European Theater of World War II. After years away from home, the soldier is eager to settle down, return to civilian life, and start a family. What about Truman’s address would have made this veteran apprehensive? What about the address would have been compelling and a reason to support Truman? Students should be graded on their ability to:
  1. Assess Truman’s reasoning from the point of view of Americans fatigued with American involvement overseas.
  2. Grapple with specific ideas, terminology, and evidence advanced by Truman in his speech. (RI9.10-3; RH.9-10.4)