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The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, to 1948

In Stuttgart in early September 1946, the U.S. Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, announced a changed policy concerning Germany that also annoyed the Soviet Union. Byrnes spoke of returning to the German people a centralized government and helping Germany recover economically, and he suggested that for the sake of fairness Germany's eastern border might be readjusted, returning to Germany some of the lands given to Poland. The Soviet Union remained focused not on Germany's economic recovery but on receiving more reparations. And France was also unenthusiastic about a German recovery.

The winter of 1946-47 aggravated Europe's miseries. Hunger was accompanied by economic stagnation, inflation and political unrest. An economic crisis in Britain led the British government to ask the United States to assume the burden of overseeing affairs in Turkey and Greece, seen as a bulwark against Communist expansion southward. In Greece, a communist led insurgency was taking place, and the Soviet Union had been demanding that Turkey allow it military bases on the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The Turks had refused and the Soviet Union responded with a proposal for group control of the straits by the Soviet Union, Ukraine (part of the Soviet Union), Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. This would have given the Soviet Union domination of the Straits. An international agreement (the Montreux Convention) allowed merchant shipping of all nations and the warships of the Black Sea nations passage through the Straits, but anti-communist strategists remained concerned about the expansion of the Soviet Union's power and influence.  

In January 1947 the US and Britain merged their zones of occupation. In March, Truman responded with what became known as the Truman Doctrine, designed to contain communism. A grand strategy in foreign policy had been devised by the US State Department, created by the experienced diplomat George F. Kennan. He had been stationed in Moscow beginning in 1944, second only to the US ambassador there. He had interacted with Russians and with Soviet officialdom and knew of the hostility to the West that Stalin was supporting. He disliked it, and he disliked talk of an inevitable war with the Soviet Union that could be heard among some in the United States. His strategy was for a long range containment of Soviet power that called for patience and the avoidance of war if possible.

Truman faced a Republican Congress, the Republicans having gained a congressional majority in the 1946 elections. Truman asked Congress for military aid for Turkey and for Greece. He spoke tough about the dangers of communism, believing as did an advisor or two that in order to get Congress to loosen its hold on the nation's purse strings it was necessary to scare people regarding the dangers of communism.

In June, 1947, Truman and his new Secretary of State, George Marshall, began pushing what was called the European Recovery Program, which would become known as the Marshall Plan. The purpose of the plan was to create economic cooperation among the states of Europe, to stimulate economic growth in Europe, to create hope and diminish the appeal of communist arguments among Europeans.

The Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, welcomed the plan, arguing with his colleagues that everyone wanted reconstruction. But Stalin was suspicious. He described the plan as a ploy by Truman. "They don't want to help us," he said. "They want to infiltrate European countries." But he agreed to Molotov discussing the plan with Western diplomats.

Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia agreed to join in the U.S. plan for economic help, and Stalin recoiled, fearing the influence it would give the capitalist West in these countries. On 3 July 1947 in the middle of his discussions with Western diplomats, Molotov switched positions. He followed Stalin and accused the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps.

communists poster

Czechoslovak workers' May Day poster with hammer and sickle.

Czechoslovakia still had a coalition government, with a third of its cabinet Communists, reflecting the third of the vote that Communist candidates had won in 1946. Czechoslovakia's president, Eduard Beneš, was a liberal. Its prime minister, Klement Gottwald, was the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Angry with the Czechoslovak government, on July 9 Stalin summoned Gottwald and a Czechoslovak delegation to Moscow. They returned to Prague on July 11, and soon after it was after a government meeting it was announced that Czechoslovakia would cancel its decision to join the Marshall Plan. Czechoslovakia's foreign secretary, Jan Masaryk, was distraught. "I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state," he said, "I returned as a Soviet slave." note9

With Stalin against the Marshall Plan, communists in Western Europe led street demonstrations against it. France's Communist Party made a bid for power. The labor unions it led went out on strike, calling for united action on the Left, for a 25 percent increase in wages and more bread. Millions supported the strike and through the autumn France remained economically paralyzed. The more conservative leadership of France's government expelled the government's Communist ministers.

In September, in response to the Marshall Plan, the Soviet Union organized an international organization called the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). Its invited members were the communist parties of France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. The Communist Party USA was eager to join but it was not invited. The Soviet Union's members proclaimed that the world had divided into two camps, one devoted to socialism and democracy and the other to reaction and war. The US was described as imperialist and the Marshall Plan as an attempt to revive a German industry controlled by US financiers. Communist Party representatives were urged to give up nationalism in favor of internationalism and were invited to confess their previous mistaken tactics. Yugoslavia, meanwhile, discovered that from the Soviet Union it could not get the machinery it wanted. Instead, it was receiving bad quality consumer items at a price well above retail prices in Western Europe.

In December in France a passenger train derailed, killing twenty people. It was seen as the work of saboteurs supporting the labor strike. Public opinion was swinging against the strike. People were tired of it. A settlement was reached, labor winning a rise in wages but less than the twenty-five percent originally demanded. The US told the French that no Marshall Plan aid would be forthcoming until the threat from communists within France had ended. And in France, communist influence was on the decline. But, in Russian occupied Romania, communist domination of the government had increased. In December Romania's King Michael was forced to abdicate.

Also in December, President Truman submitted the Marshall Plan to Congress. Week after week the debate in Congress dragged on. This was a Republican Congress, the first since the days of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. A significant number in Congress balked at pouring billions of dollars into "a bottomless pit of wasteful altruism." But then events in Czechoslovakia produced a change of heart.

Czechoslovakia had been suffering from especially bad harvests and unrest. Masaryk had appealed to the US for aid but had been told that a loan would not be forthcoming until Prague changed politically. The Soviet Union promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain to prevent starvation. With the arrival of the deputy foreign minister of the Soviet Union to oversee the grain delivery the government's non-communist ministers resigned, hoping to force an early election. In February, 1948, the Czechoslovak Communist Party organized street demonstrations and worker assemblies in factories. Units of communist-led armed factory workers marched. President Beneš feared civil war and allowed the communist Gottwald to form a new government. From being a minority within a coalition government, the Communists became the government.

Headlines in the United States screamed takeover. The Secretary of the Navy proposed steps to prepare Americans for war. President Truman spoke to a joint session of Congress, blamed the Soviet Union for the takeover in Czechoslovakia and called it "a ruthless action." He called on Congress to pass the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of a universal military training and a Selective Service (conscription) bill. On April 3, Congress approved 5.3 billion for the Marshall Plan.

In mid-April, 1948, sixteen European nations signed onto the Marshall Plan – now called the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). Not joining were Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Albania – places where Communists had considerable influence. Finland did not join either, wishing to avoid antagonizing the Soviet Union.

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