Wednesday, June 14, 2017

70 Years Ago, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan Set a Bold, New Course for U.S. Foreign Policy That Had Far-Reaching Consequences

by Jim Murray, Department Head, Business, Science and Technology Department

One of the posters created by the U.S. Economic Cooperation
Administration to promote the Marshall Plan

In the spring of 2017, as politicians, pundits, and others debate the United States’ leadership role in world affairs, it is worthwhile to note that it was 70 years ago, in the spring of 1947, that the policies that help shape the parameters of this debate were put into place by the federal government. These policies were created in the midst of the great economic, social, and political upheaval that gripped much of the world in the years following the end of World War II. Emerging from that great conflict as the only major participant not having suffered immense economic and industrial devastation, the United States felt compelled to reevaluate its relationship with the rest of the world. Although much of this reevaluation process was concerned with stabilizing the economies and governmental structures of the afflicted nations, it was also concerned with impeding what many perceived to be the aggressive foreign policy ambitions of America’s former wartime ally, the Soviet Union. It was out of these tumultuous circumstances that the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan arose.

The Truman doctrine was officially enunciated on March 12, 1947, in a presidential address before a joint session of Congress. The specific purpose of President Truman’s address that day was to convince federal legislators to pass a bill authorizing $400 million in aid to the governments of Greece and Turkey, both of whom were experiencing political instability that was due at least partly to communist influence. In broader terms, however, Truman’s speech was a clarion call to the citizens of the United States and the rest of the world, that, moving forward, it would be the policy of the U.S. to intervene in the affairs of any independent nation that was being threatened by authoritarian forces, either from an external source or an internal one. In the 2,204-word address, Truman never mentioned the Soviet Union by name and he only used the term “communists” once, but it was clear to all listeners who and what he had in mind:
The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
By emphasizing the threat of authoritarian forces to the existence of free societies throughout the world, and the constant danger that this threat posed to American interests, Truman was able to galvanize public opinion in support of his policy. Both the war weary citizens of the United States and the budget-conscious members of the U.S. Congress became convinced that the argument being made by the president was valid and compelling enough to warrant, what would become, decades of vigilance and sacrifice. The bill that was eventually designated Public Law 80-75, An Act to Provide Assistance to Greece and Turkey passed both the House and Senate by margins of nearly 3 to 1.

Just a couple of weeks after Truman’s assistance bill became law, the details of America’s new foreign policy were fleshed out further by what would become known as the Marshall Plan. Like the Truman doctrine, the Marshall Plan was first made public in a speech. The speaker was the current U.S. Secretary of State, and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall. The speech took place at the Harvard University commencement exercises on June 5, 1947. Although the speech lasted less than 11 minutes, its message has resonated with American policymakers down to the present day: world peace and prosperity is dependent upon the economic and political stability of individual nations, and the United States, both for the good of all mankind and its own self-interest, has a responsibility to do what it can to help foster this stability. As Marshall put it that day:
Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.
Certainly the tone of Marshall’s speech emphasized goodwill and cooperation, but it also brought with it a warning, much like Truman’s address, directed to the explicitly unnamed Soviet Union:
Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.
It took nearly a year for the details of the Marshall Plan to be put into practice. Following multinational meetings involving several European countries, and months of U.S. Congressional deliberation, the plan was codified as Public Law 80-472, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948, and the Economic Cooperation Act of 1948. The law created the U.S. Economic Cooperation Administration that, between the years 1948 and 1951, coordinated the distribution of nearly 13 billion dollars for the purpose of strengthening the economies of sixteen European nations. In recognition of his leadership and contributions to this historic effort, George C. Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

Prior to World War II, the United States was hesitant to involve itself in the affairs of other countries. However, the global nature of that conflict and the massive and total destruction it wrought persuaded American leaders that, at the conclusion of the hostilities, a major reassessment of the nation’s foreign policy was needed. This reassessment was characterized not only by a desire to see a rebuilt and healthy Europe, but also by a wish to see the power of the Soviet Union held in check. In short, this is what the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan hoped to accomplish. Overall, they were clearly successful in this task.

Then again, the price that was paid for this success is much more open to debate. The 40-year Cold War, which these two policies helped to initiate, resulted in enormous human and material costs for the United States. The Korean War and the Vietnam War, both of which accounted for nearly 95,000 American fatalities, can be traced back to the decisions implemented in the late 1940s. Furthermore, it is estimated that the United States spent almost $4 trillion on its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War years. The C.I.A. was another product of the Truman administration’s foreign policy, and it has certainly generated a fair share of ill will and mistrust both abroad and at home. So, as is the case with most bold political ventures, the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan will forever be open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

Library materials dealing with the end of World War II and the origins of the Cold War are the best place to start in understanding the context in which the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were crafted. Materials concerning the history of United States foreign relations are helpful in providing insight into the impact these policies had on America’s evolving role in international affairs.

There are also several biographies and memoirs available about those individuals who played significant roles in developing and implementing American foreign policy in the immediate post-World War II period. Most prominent among these individuals are President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Especially noteworthy is David McCullough’s Truman, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and Autobiography. Other highly influential government policymakers of the era include George Kennan and Dean Acheson. Acheson‘s memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Departmentwon the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for History.

The historical researcher who wants to delve even deeper should consult the websites of The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum and The George C. Marshall Research Library, both of which contain unique primary and secondary source documents that can be viewed online. The Truman website does a very good job in organizing their documents into easily accessible subject categories, including “The Truman Doctrine and the Beginning of the Cold War” and “The Marshall Plan, 1947-48.”

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