Farewell Address (1953)

Image: Photograph of President Truman conferring in the Oval Office with the man he defeated in the 1948 presidential election, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. 13 September 1951. National Archives and Record Administration.
What does Truman say about the Cold War? Which policies carried out during his presidency does he mention? Why do you think he chooses to bring them up? Why he is optimistic that the United States will triumph over communism? What is communism’s basic failing? What possible ways could the Cold War end?
How does this speech compare to President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address? What are the major similarities and differences? How do other presidents emphasize the cause of worldwide freedom in their speeches (See Kennedy, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Reagan)?

Harry S. Truman’s popularity was at a record low when he delivered his Farewell Address in early 1953 from the White House. The status of the Cold War was a major reason for the outgoing president’s low approval rating. Although Truman was the primary architect of U.S. Cold War policies (See Truman, Marshall, Acheson, and NSC 68), the stalemated war in Korea (See Truman and MacArthur) and Republican calls to replace containment with a “policy of boldness” had taken their toll.

Shrugging off the criticism, Truman called on all citizens to support the new president, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also reviewed the many actions his administration had taken to contain communism: aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and defense of South Korea. As a Cold War document, the speech is much more than a review of the conflict’s first eight years. Truman also expressed his belief that the United States and its allies would ultimately prevail. “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men. With patience and courage, we shall some day move on into a new era.”

Truman’s prediction proved to be accurate. The Cold War’s finish did, in fact, result from “trouble in the satellite states” that caused a change in the way that the Soviet leadership thought about Eastern Europe. This “change inside the Kremlin” spurred further democratization efforts, helping to bring down the Iron Curtain. Although Truman did not live to see the end of the Cold War, he forecast it.


—David Krugler

Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1952-1953 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966), 1197-1202. Available at https://goo.gl/tMr2BL.

My fellow Americans:

I am happy to have this opportunity to talk to you once more before I leave the White House.

. . . I have no new revelations to make – no political statements – no policy announcements. There are simply a few things in my heart that I want to say to you. I want to say “goodby” and “thanks for your help.” And I want to talk to you a little while about what has happened since I became your President. . . .

I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is – not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it – but for the sake of my successor.1 He needs the understanding and the help of every citizen. It is not enough for you to come out once every 4 years and vote for a candidate, and then go back home and say, “Well, I’ve done my part, now let the new President do the worrying.” He can’t do the job alone.

Regardless of your politics, whether you are Republican or Democrat, your fate is tied up with what is done here in this room. The President is President of the whole country. We must give him our support as citizens of the United States. He will have mine, and I want you to give him yours.

I suppose that history will remember my term in office as the years when the “cold war” began to overshadow our lives. I have had hardly a day in office that has not been dominated by this all-embracing struggle – this conflict between those who love freedom and those who would lead the world back into slavery and darkness. And always in the background there has been the atomic bomb.

But when history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the cold war, it will also say that in those 8 years we have set the course that can win it. We have succeeded in carving out a new set of policies to attain peace – positive policies, policies of world leadership, policies that express faith in other free people. We have averted world war III up to now, and we may already have succeeded in establishing conditions which can keep that war from happening as far ahead as man can see. . . .

. . . [I]n early 1947, the Soviet Union threatened Greece and Turkey. The British sent me a message saying they could no longer keep their forces in that area. Something had to be done at once, or the eastern Mediterranean would be taken over by the Communists. On March 12th, I went before the Congress and stated our determination to help the people of Greece and Turkey maintain their independence. Today, Greece is still free and independent; and Turkey is a bulwark of strength at a strategic corner of the world.

Then came the Marshall plan which saved Europe, the heroic Berlin airlift,2 and our military aid programs. . . .

Most important of all, we acted in Korea. . . .

. . . If we let the Republic of Korea go under, some other country would be next, and then another. And all the time, the courage and confidence of the free world would be ebbing away, just as it did in the 1930’s. . . .3

As I have thought about our worldwide struggle with the Communists these past 8 years – day in and day out – I have never once doubted that you, the people of our country, have the will to do what is necessary to win this terrible fight against communism. . . .

Then, some of you may ask, when and how will the cold war end? I think I can answer that simply. The Communist world has great resources, and it looks strong. But there is a fatal flaw in their society. Theirs is a godless system, a system of slavery; there is no freedom in it, no consent. The Iron Curtain, the secret police, the constant purges, all these are symptoms of a great basic weakness – the rulers’ fear of their own people.

In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man.

Last week, in my State of the Union Message to the Congress – and I hope you will all take the time to read it – I explained how I think we will finally win through.

As the free world grows stronger, more united, more attractive to men on both sides of the Iron Curtain – and as the Soviet hopes for easy expansion are blocked – then there will have to come a time of change in the Soviet world. Nobody can say for sure when that is going to be, or exactly how it will come about, whether by revolution, or trouble in the satellite states, or by a change inside the Kremlin.

Whether the Communist rulers shift their policies of their own free will – or whether the change comes about in some other way – I have not a doubt in the world that a change will occur.

I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men. With patience and courage, we shall some day move on into a new era – a wonderful golden age – an age when we can use the peaceful tools that science has forged for us to do away with poverty and human misery everywhere on earth. . . .

And now, the time has come for me to say good night – and God bless you all.

  1. 1. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  2. 2. The Berlin airlift (June 26, 1948 – September 30, 1949) was the supply of food and fuel to Berlin by Allied air forces after the Soviets cut off rail and road access to the city, which was within their zone of control but shared by the Allied powers, in a dispute over the use of the West German Deutsche mark in the city. The airlift succeeded; the Soviets reopened access to the city.
  3. 3. The fear of one country after another falling to communism was popularly called the domino theory, after a game based on vertical tiles that fall in succession.
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.