The Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine

Ishaan Busireddy

The Truman Doctrine and the subsequent Marshall Plan were influential policies that served as an impactful and significant turning point in American history, shifting American interests from isolationism to global intervention and dividing the powers of the world into two main camps: the capitalist and communist worlds.

The Truman Doctrine directly originated from one specific event but also actually developed from a wider global trend. The particular event was the British withdrawal of support from the capitalist Greek government during the Greek Civil War after WWII in 1947. Almost immediately, President Truman delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress on March 12 to request Congress to support the government of Greece against the communist rebels and fund Turkey, which was destined to be negatively affected as a result of the withdrawal of British aid from that nation as well. It was not simply these events that had convinced Truman that the U.S. needed to take decisive action against communist influence on the world stage. Prior to the British withdrawal of support for Greece, the Soviets had betrayed treaties that mandated their withdrawal from northern Iran and rejected nuclear deals. As a result, the Truman administration realized the necessity of countering growing Soviet aggression and feared that a lack of immediate action would only provoke Soviet intervention in Greece and Turkey in favor of Soviet and communist interests. Ultimately, Truman recognized that a communist Greece could lead to a communist Turkey and the political instability of the Middle East as a whole. To justify his sharp break in American isolationist tradition, one laid down by Washington himself, Truman cited the founding fathers’ ideals of promoting freedom and democracy, suggesting that it was America’s duty to protect threatened groups of people across the globe.

The Truman Doctrine was largely successful and prevented the growth of communist influence in Greece and Turkey. However, the U.S. needed to do more to prevent the growth of communism in more areas of the world. Out of these needs, the Marshall Plan was born. The Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, sought to provide aid to Western European nations to help them recover from the destruction brought upon them by WWII and the terrible winter of 1946-1947. The Program was enacted in 1948 and provided more than $15 billion to Western European countries. Although this was a humanitarian aid program, and this type of aid was one of the primary purposes, Secretary of State George C. Marshall was keen on bringing European nations closer to the U.S. economically and politically, particularly with the aim of halting the spread of communism and justifying the successes and benefits of capitalism. The Marshall Plan had wide-reaching implications. First of all, the Plan placed America on a trajectory of increased international intervention at an entirely new level and effectively cemented America’s economic and political global position in opposition to that of the USSR. The Marshall Plan fully convinced Western European capitalist nations and their people that the US was a trustable and dependable ally that they could depend on for economic cooperation and even political protection. And thus, the large communist parties of nations such as France and Italy began to lose traction, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was born, uniting capitalist North American and European nations around their common ideological and military interests. This new alliance was a mutual defense pact that served to guarantee American and mutual Western European protection against communist encroachment. The establishment of such a large and closely-knitted alliance would have been impossible without the US’s further emergence onto the world stage as a strictly pro-democracy, pro-capitalist, and anti-communist superpower that clearly demonstrated its intentions of assisting fellow capitalist nations in need, a development which itself was accomplished by the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.

Within the U.S. and especially other Western nations, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan received mixed reactions, being lauded as great humanitarian, economic, and political successes while also being denounced as a political maneuver in the guise of humanitarian aid. Among those who praised these early American Cold War policies were British historian Richard Mayne who declared the Marshall Plan to be Europe’s “great leap forward (that saved the continent) from imminent economic ruin.” American historian Charles Maier somewhat less enthusiastically approved of the Marshall Plan, saying that the aid served as the “lubricant in an engine -- not the fuel -- which allowed a machine to run that would have otherwise buckled and bind.” These quotes from the two historians suggest that, among those who viewed the Marshall Plan in a positive light, the main opinion, albeit to varying degrees, was that the Marshall Plan was crucial for the economic prosperity of the European people. Yet, figures even as significant as Winston Churchill condemned the Plan, with Churchill in particular declaring that it was “the most sordid act in history,” a statement that was quite hypocritical considering that Churchill was the Prime Minister of the British Empire. Additionally, France passively expressed disapproval by not legalizing the sale, manufacture, and import of Coca-Cola for a period of time afterwards. These views seem to have been influenced by anti-American sentiment. Meanwhile, leftist critics insisted that the plan benefited the US as much as Western Europe, a view that some modern historians share.

In an extent of contrast, views in the Soviet sphere of influence were less diversified, and most individuals who openly voiced their thoughts were vehemently opposed to the Marshall Plan as a guileful plan to promulgate American interests throughout Europe. In fact, the US had actually offered to provide aid to struggling Eastern European nations, including the USSR, as well. However, on the behalf of the entire Eastern Bloc, the Soviets -- wary of promoting and furthering American capitalist interests -- declined the offer. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky sought to officially represent his nation’s perspective on the Marshall Plan in his speech to the UN General Assembly in front of delegates from all over the world. In his speech, Vyshinsky denounces the Marshall Plan as an immoral and illegal attempt to use economic desperation as a key to political pressure by using direly-needed financial aid as a bargaining chip for political influence. This political manipulation, Vyshinsky posits, is an outright rebellion against international law that forbids the violation of the imposition of influence on independent states against their will:

“[The US] has moved towards a direct renunciation of the principles of international collaboration and concerted action by the great powers and towards attempts to impose its will on other independent states, while...using the economic resources distributed as relief... as an instrument of political pressure.”

In addition to political rights, Vyshinsky argues that the US has also alienated the economic rights of sovereign states to decide their economic policies, implying that the US has forced a capitalist system onto Western European nations and “making all of these countries directly dependent on the interests of American monopolies.” Vyshinsky goes on to further denounce the Marshall Plan as a deliberate attempt to divide Europe into “two camps” in order to oppose the “democratic” nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He also explains that reviving German heavy industry in the Ruhr disregards the damage caused by Germany to other European nations utilizing what he viewed as dangerous industrial capabilities. All in all, the Soviets believed, to a degree of accuracy, that the United States utilize the Marshall Plan as an opportunity to influence European political and economic policy to oppose Soviet interests, and therefore viewed the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan as direct threats to the Soviet Union and, supposedly, to the principles of the UN.

Ultimately, the Truman Doctrine and following Marshall Plan were highly influential in Cold War politics for a number of reasons. First, they replaced traditional American isolationism with global intervention. Second, they relieved European capitalist nations economically and brought them closer to the US and each other. And third, they countered Soviet political and economic interests by strengthening American influence in Europe. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were simply the beginning of a new interventionist era in American history, one that we are essentially still living in today. These initiatives introduced the US as serious peacetime contenders on the world stage and paved the way for further American intervention, peaceful, violent, economic, and political. The interventions in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, and many more would not have occurred if it was not for these two initial policies. In fact, these policies brought enough confidence and courage to American policymakers to determine that interventionism was a viable and beneficial political path. In addition, the cooperation needed to form the EU and NATO would never have been possible without the bonds created by the Marshall Plan, and every impact those two organizations have had on the world are therefore an indirect product of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Ultimately, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan interconnected the US, France, Britain, and the USSR through cooperation or conflict and helped shape modern American foreign policy and the political outlook of the world we live in today.