The language of the Truman Doctrine and the future it sketched of open-ended worldwide responsibilities for the United States alarmed many Americans. “Are we to shoulder the mantle of nineteenth-century British imperialism?” asked the San Francisco Chronicle. “Are we asking for a third world war?” But the threat of American military action overseas formed only one pillar of containment. Secretary of State George C. Marshall spelled out the other in a speech at Harvard University in June 1947. Marshall pledged the United States to contribute billions of dollars to finance the economic recovery of Europe. Two years after the end of the war, much of the continent still lay in ruins. Food shortages were widespread, and inflation was rampant. The economic chaos, exacerbated by the unusually severe winter of 1946-1947, had strengthened the communist parties of France and Italy. American policymakers feared that these countries might fall into the Soviet orbit.

The Marshall Plan offered a positive vision to go along with containment. It aimed to combat the idea, widespread since the Great Depression, that capitalism was in decline and communism the wave of the future. It defined the threat to American security not so much as Soviet military power but as economic and political instability, which could be breeding grounds for communism. Avoiding Truman’s language of a world divided between free and unfree blocs, Marshall insisted, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” Freedom meant more than simply anticommunism—it required the emergence of the “political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” In effect, the Marshall Plan envisioned a New Deal for Europe, an extension to that continent of Roosevelt’s wartime Four Freedoms. As a booklet explaining the idea to Europeans put it, the aim was “a higher standard of living for the entire nation; maximum employment for workers and farmers; greater production.” Or, in the words of a slogan used to popularize the Marshall Plan, “Prosperity Makes You Free.”

Bales of American cotton in a warehouse at the French port of Le Havre, 1949. Part of the Marshall Plan aid program, the shipment helped to revive the French cotton industry.

The Marshall Plan proved to be one of the most successful foreign aid programs in history. By 1950, western European production exceeded prewar levels and the region was poised to follow the United States down the road to a mass-consumption society. Since the Soviet Union refused to participate, fearing American control over the economies of eastern Europe, the Marshall Plan further solidified the division of the continent.

At the same time, the United States worked out with twenty-three other Western nations the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which proposed to stimulate freer trade among the participants, creating an enormous market for American goods and investment.

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