Modern history


The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.... 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 minoritiesor by outside pressures.

MARCH 12, 1947

THERE ARE LIMITS TO THE EXTENT THAT EVEN THE MOST POWERFUL nation can project its influence beyond its borders. In a democracy one of the most important limitations is the mood on the domestic scene, which involves both a general perception of a need to exert influence and a willingness to make the sacrifices required to generate usable military power. In the United States at the beginning of 1947, neither was present. If there was no retreat to isolation as in 1919, there was a popular feeling that America could handle her foreign problems through possession of the atomic bomb. In November 1946 the Republicans had won control of Congress by emphasizing a modified version of Warren Harding’s return to normalcy—demobilization, business as usual, a cutback in the role and spending of the government, and lower taxes. These domestic facts severely restricted the Truman administration’s ability to carry on the Cold War.

By the beginning of 1947 the United States had almost completed the most rapid demobilization in the history of the world. The Army had been cut from 8 million to 1 million men; the Navy from 3.5 million to less than 1 million; the Air Force from over 200 to less than 50 effective combat groups. As General Marshall later recalled, “I remember, when I was Secretary of State I was being pressed constantly, particularly when in Moscow [March, 1947], by radio message after radio message to give the Russians hell.... When I got back, I was getting the same appeal in relation to the Far East and China. At that time, my facilities for giving them hell—and I am a soldier and know something about the ability to give hell—was 1 ⅓ divisions over the entire United States. That is quite a proposition when you deal with somebody with over 260 and you have 1 ⅓.”

Foreign policy and military policy were moving in opposite directions. Truman and his advisers wanted to meet the Communist challenge wherever it appeared, but except for the atomic bomb they had nothing with which to meet it. Stimson and Forrestal, among others, urged Truman to stop the demobilization process by dramatically warning the nation about the scope of the Soviet threat. In January 1946 Secretary of the Navy Forrestal advised the President to call in “the heads of the important news services and the leading newspapers ... and state to them the seriousness of the present situation and the need for making the country aware of its implications abroad.” Throughout 1946 he pressed Truman, but the results were meager, for Truman wanted a balanced budget and was enough of a politician to realize that the public would not support higher taxes for a larger military establishment.

Simultaneously, with the decrease in military force there was an increasing fear in Washington of the scope and nature of the Soviet threat. In a speech at the National War College in mid-1947, William C. Bullitt of the State Department summed up the attitudes then dominant in Washington. “The Soviet Union’s assault upon the West is at about the stage of Hitler’s maneuvering into Czechoslovakia,” he asserted, which immediately linked Stalin with Hitler. “The final aim of Russia is world conquest,” which outlined the scope of the problem. The Soviet method, however, differed from Hitler’s and was potentially more dangerous. Because of the American atomic monopoly, the Russians would not inaugurate large-scale war but would rather avoid armed conflict while advancing their aims through internal subversion.

Since the challenge was worldwide, it had to be met everywhere, at once. As one step Bullitt advocated a “European Federation of Democratic States” in order to “face up to Russia.” He was thinking primarily in terms of a military organization, under American leadership, supplied with American arms. Meeting the Russian threat by arming Europeans was in practice a continuation of the wartime policy of lend-lease. Another part of the response was to provide economic and technical aid to threatened nations. There was general agreement in the American government that Communism thrived on chaos and poverty; the way to respond to it was to promote stability and prosperity through economic aid.

At the end of 1946 most discussion of the optimum American response to the Soviet challenge revolved around three possibilities: build up America’s own military resources; send military aid to threatened nations; give economic and technical assistance to needy peoples. These proposals were not mutually exclusive, and most officials wanted a combination of the three, with an emphasis on one. All rested on Bullitt’s assumptions about the nature of the threat, and all would cost money.

The Republican Congress controlled the money and it saw no pressing reason to spend it on any of those courses. Neither did a majority of the American people. In January 1947 there was a popular feeling that postwar tensions with the Russians were easing, based primarily on the completion of peace treaties signed by the Big Three with the Eastern European countries that had fought alongside Hitler. These treaties constituted a practical recognition by the United States of the Soviet sphere of influence in East Europe, for they were signed with Communist satellite governments. Robert Taft, a prominent Republican in the Senate and leader of the drive for economy in government, expressed the current mood when he objected to any attempt by the administration to divide the world into Communist and anti-Communist zones, for “I do not want war with Russia.” The Democrats accused Taft—and other Republicans who resisted joining a crusade against Communism—of isolationism, but despite the negative connotations of the label there was no denying that a majority of the American people did not want to embark on a crusade.

To obtain the economic and military resources to carry out an aggressive foreign policy, Truman had to convince Americans of the reality and magnitude of the Soviet threat. To do that, he needed a dramatic issue. Greece stood near the top of the list of potential trouble spots. Great Britain had been supporting the Royalist government there, but a severe storm in January 1947 had raised havoc with an already weak British economy and underscored the impossibility of Britain’s continuing to play a leading world role. As early as September 1946, the American government had quietly prepared programs for military aid for Greece. In January 1947, the State Department began intensified planning to provide military aid. The United States was prepared to move into Greece whenever the British pulled out.

In January 1947, Secretary of State Byrnes resigned; his successor was General Marshall. Marshall’s first task was to prepare for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow to begin on March 10, and he was spending most of his time on the German problem, the main issue on the agenda of the Moscow conference.

While Marshall prepared for Moscow, events in Greece rushed forward. In January 1947, Truman sent the Greek government an offer to provide advisers and funds for a program of economic stabilization. The Greek government had already complained in the United Nations that the insurgents were receiving outside assistance, and a UN mission had gone to Greece to investigate. Truman had sent his own agent to make a report. The damaged British economy, meanwhile, made it increasingly doubtful that Britain could maintain its 40,000 troops in Greece. On February 3, the American ambassador in Athens reported a rumor that the British would be pulling out soon. On February 18, Truman’s personal representative in Greece cabled that everything pointed to an impending move by the Communists to seize the country, and two days later the American Embassy in London reported that the British Treasury could give no further aid to Greece. The stage was set.

On February 21, 1947, the British, ambassador to the United States informed the State Department that London would no longer provide aid to Greece or Turkey. Britain would pull out by the end of March. To Secretary Marshall this “was tantamount to British abdication from the Middle East with obvious implications as to their successor.” Within five days the State Department had consulted with the War Department, held meetings of its own, and was ready to move. Under Secretary Dean Acheson took the lead, as Marshall was busy preparing for the Moscow conference. On February 26 Truman, Marshall, and Acheson met to discuss the result of the studies of the experts.

Acheson made the presentation. He emphasized that if Greece were lost, Turkey would be untenable. Russia would move in and take control of the Dardanelles, with the “clearest implications” for the Middle East. Morale would sink in Italy, Germany, and France. Acheson was describing what would later be called the domino theory, which held that if one nation fell to the Communists, its neighbors would surely follow. In this case, Acheson said one rotten apple would infect the whole barrel. Put in those terms, the administration had no choice but to act vigorously and quickly. Truman felt, he later told his Cabinet, that “he was faced with a decision more serious than had ever confronted any President,” which took in quite a lot of ground and was in any case overly dramatic in its implications, for it implied that he was tossing in bed at night trying to deride what to do. Actually, he had long since made the decision and the real task was to sell the program to Congress.

On February 27 Truman called in the congressional leaders. He concentrated on Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican “isolationist turned internationalist” who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was one of architects of the bipartisan foreign policy. Truman described the Greek situation in dark terms, then said he wanted to ask Congress for $250 million for Greece and $150 million for Turkey. Most, if not all, of what he said was news to the Congressmen, but the way in which he outlined the issues, coupled with Vandenberg’s support for the policy, won them over.

During the following weeks, the State, Navy, and War departments worked out the details of the aid program while Vandenberg and the other congressional leaders built support in Congress for the new policy. Not until March 7 did Truman go before his Cabinet to explain developments; there, perhaps unexpectedly, he found some opposition. Although Forrestal wanted a full mobilization for the struggle with the Russians, others were not so convinced. The Secretary of Labor objected to pulling British chestnuts out of the fire. Someone wondered if it was good policy to support the corrupt, inefficient, right-wing Greek government. Most of all, however, the Cabinet was concerned about the way the public would receive such a sharp break with America’s historic foreign policy, especially as it promised to be so expensive. As Truman laconically put it in his Memoirs, “There was considerable discussion on the best method to apprise the American people of the issues involved.”

The State Department, meanwhile, was preparing a message for Truman to deliver to Congress and the nation. He was unhappy with the early drafts, for “I wanted no hedging in this speech. This was America’s answer to the surge of expansion of Communist tyranny. It had to be clear and free of hesitation or double talk.” Truman told Acheson to have the speech toughened, simplified, and expanded to cover more than just Greece and Turkey. Truman’s strategy was to explain aid to Greece not in terms of supporting monarchy but rather as part of a worldwide program for freedom.

George Kennan saw one of the revised drafts. Kennan had risen in prestige and power in the State Department since the end of the war and Marshall had just named him head of a new Policy Planning Staff. His rise was due in part to a seven-thousand-word telegram which he sent from Moscow, warning of the Soviet Union’s postwar intentions. The warning was well received. Truman read it, and Forrestal had it reproduced and made it required reading for thousands of senior officers. Kennan’s analysis provided the intellectual justification for a policy of containment, and Kennan was widely understood in Washington to be the father of that policy.

Despite all this, Kennan was upset when he read the speech Truman was to deliver to the Congress. First, he saw no need for any military aid to Turkey, where no military threat existed. So too in Greece—Kennan was all for helping the Greek government but thought it should be done through political and economic aid. In his view the Soviet threat was primarily political. Kennan was also upset at the way in which Truman had seized the opportunity to declare a worldwide, open-ended doctrine, when what was called for was a simple declaration of aid to a single nation. Truman was preparing to use terms, Kennan later remarked, “more grandiose and more sweeping than anything that I, at least, had ever envisaged.” Kennan protested, but to no avail. He was told that it was too late to change the speech.

The point Kennan had missed was the need to rally the public in support of a policy that broke sharply with America’s past. Kennan was not a politician—in fact, he had hardly been in the United States through most of his adult life—while Truman was the expert on domestic politics. Like the President, Kennan wanted to stop the Communists, but he wanted to do so in a realistic way, at little cost, and with minimal commitments. Truman realized that he could never get the economy-minded Republicans—and the public that stood behind them—to shell out tax dollars to support the King of Greece. Truman had to describe the Greek situation in universal terms, good versus evil, to get support for containment.

At 1:00 P.M. on March 12, 1947, Truman stepped to the rostrum in the hall of the House of Representatives to address a joint session of Congress. The speech was also carried on nationwide radio. Truman asked for immediate aid for Greece and Turkey, then explained his reasoning: “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.”

The statement was all-encompassing. In a single sentence Truman had defined American policy for the next generation and beyond. Whenever and wherever an anti-Communist government was threatened, by indigenous insurgents, foreign invasion, or even diplomatic pressure (as with Turkey), the United States would supply political, economic, and, most of all, military aid. The Truman Doctrine came close to shutting the door against any revolution, since the terms “free peoples” and “anti-Communist” were thought to be synonymous. All the Greek government, or any dictatorship, had to do to get American aid was to claim that its opponents were Communist.

It has often been noted that Americans expect their wars to be grand heroic crusades on a worldwide scale, a struggle between light and darkness with the fate of the world hanging on the outcome. The Truman Doctrine met that requirement. At one of the meetings between the President and the congressional leaders, Vandenberg had warned Truman that if he wanted the public to support containment, he would have to “scare hell out of the American people.” Truman did. He painted in dark hues the “totalitarian regimes” that threatened to snuff out freedom everywhere. The time had come, he said, when “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” Truman had struck a responsive chord with the majority of his countrymen. As they had done on December 7, 1941, so again on March 12, 1947, the American people rallied behind their leader in a cause that transcended national, economic, social, and military interests: the cause of freedom itself.

On May 15, 1947, Congress appropriated $400 million for Greece and Turkey. By later standards the sum was small, but nevertheless America had taken an immense stride. For the first time in its history, the United States had chosen to intervene during a period of general peace in the affairs of peoples outside North and South America. The symbolic act could not have been more significant. The commitment had been made. It would take years to persuade Congress and the public to provide all the enormous funds needed for the new policy, but having accepted the premises of the Truman Doctrine, there would be no turning back.

Simultaneously with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, the Moscow Council of Foreign Ministers failed. Positions on Germany had hardened. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets had any intentions of working toward a peace treaty with Germany and German reunification, except on their own terms, which they knew in advance were unacceptable to the other side. All anyone could do at Moscow was issue propaganda.

The immediate situation in Europe was acute. When Marshall returned from Moscow, he reported that “the patient [Europe] is sinking while the doctors deliberate.” “Agreement was impossible” at Moscow, Marshall reported in a radio talk to the nation on April 28, because the Soviet proposals “would have established in Germany a centralized government adapted to the seizure of absolute control.” As General Clay later put it, “The principal result was to convince the three foreign ministers representing the Western Powers of the intransigence of the Soviet position.” This, in turn, “led them to work more closely together in the future,” which meant it speeded the process of unifying the Western zones and bringing western Germany into the budding alliance against the Soviets.

While in Europe, Marshall had been shaken by the seriousness and urgency of the plight of Western Europe, where economic recovery from the ravages of war had been slow. Total economic disintegration appeared to be imminent. The Secretary of State’s discussion with the Russians, according to Kennan, “had compelled him to recognize, however reluctantly, that the idea of approaching the solution to Europe’s problems in collaboration with the Russians was a pipe dream.” Stalin, Marshall had concluded, wanted the European economy to come crashing down.

The Truman Doctrine had cleared the way for a massive American aid program to Europe. Marshall ordered Kennan and the Policy Planning Staff to draw one up. Round-the-clock meetings began. The general aim was to revive the economy of Western Europe, which was imperative for both economic and military reasons. As Acheson explained, American exports were running at $16 billion a year, imports at less than $8 billion. Most of the exports went to Europe. If the Europeans were to pay for them, they had to have dollars, which they could only get by producing goods America could import. Otherwise, America’s export market would dry up. Militarily, only with a healthy economy could Europe support the troops necessary to stop the Red Army.

The key was Germany. To get European production rolling again, Germany’s coal mines and steel mills had to be worked at maximum capacity. Kennan emphasized this point, saying, “It is imperatively urgent today that the improvement of economic conditions and the revival of productive capacity in the west of Germany be made the primary object of our policy ... and be given top priority.” It would have been absurd to expect the Russians to cooperate in the revival of Germany without themselves controlling the Ruhr, and indeed Kennan had no such expectations. The problem was that if the United States went ahead on its German program, the division of Europe would be complete, and responsibility for the split would rest with the United States.

There would be no progress in Europe without including Germany, and there could be no improvement in Germany without antagonizing the Russians. What to do about the Soviets thus became a prime consideration. Kennan insisted that the United States should “play it straight” by inviting the Russians to participate in any Europe-wide recovery program. “We would not ourselves draw a line of division through Europe.” He recognized the dangers. “What if,” he himself asked, “the Russians spiked it” by accepting the invitation and “trying to link it to Russian participation in the administration of the Ruhr?” Kennan’s answer was straightforward: “In that case I think we can only say ‘no’ to the whole business as pleasantly and firmly as we know how....”

Even in making an offer to the Russians, Kennan wanted strict controls. He insisted that the Russians would have to open their economic records for American scrutiny, and he wanted the East European economy integrated into that of Western Europe. Despite Marshall’s famous sentence stating that the policy was “directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” in fact Kennan and the State Department did not want Soviet participation and did all they could to prevent it while making it appear that a genuine offer was being made.

Kennan applied the same formula in a more general way to the Soviet satellites. Insofar as they were free to accept the American offer and integrate their economies into those of the West, Kennan was willing to offer them aid. He insisted, however, that it be done in such a way that they would “either exclude themselves by unwillingness to accept the proposed conditions or agree to abandon the exclusive orientation of their economies.”

A final aim of Kennan’s Policy Planning Staff was “to correct what seemed to us to be the two main misimpressions that had been created in connection with the Truman Doctrine.” These were the notions that America’s foreign policy was a defensive reaction to Communist pressure, and that the doctrine was a blank check to give aid to any area of the world threatened by the Communists. Truman was more nearly correct, however, in stating that his doctrine and the Marshall Plan “are two halves of the same walnut.” The emphasis in Greece and Turkey was military, while initially in West Europe it was economic, but both were designed to contain the Soviets.

On June 5, 1947, speaking at Harvard University, Marshall announced the new policies. The general proposals, like the man himself, were high-minded. He recognized the Continent-wide nature of the problem. Marshall recalled the disruption of Europe’s economy because of the war and the destructive rule of the Nazis. Europe could not feed itself, so it was using up scarce foreign credits to buy food. If the United States did not provide help, “economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character” would result, with serious consequences for the American economy. The assistance should not be piecemeal but “should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative.” He asked the European nations to gather themselves together, draw up a plan, and submit it to the United States.

The reaction in Western Europe was enthusiastic. Even traditional fears of Germany quieted. Although Marshall had made it clear that “the restoration of Europe involves the restoration of Germany,” the French were anxious to go ahead, for the Marshall Plan tied Germany to Western Europe generally and offered vast sums to everyone. French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault began meetings in Paris. He neglected to invite the Russians to participate, but pressure from the powerful French Communist Party made him change his mind. On June 26, Molotov arrived in Paris with eighty-nine economic experts and clerks, which indicated that the Russians were seriously considering the proposal, as indeed they had to. As the American ambassador to Moscow, General Walter B. Smith, said, “They were confronted with two unpalatable alternatives.” They were afraid of a Western bloc and realized that “to refrain from participation in the Paris Conference would be tantamount to forcing the formation of such a bloc,” On the other hand, if they joined up, “they would create the possibility of a certain amount of economic penetration by the western democracies among the satellite states.”

Molotov spent three days at the conference, most of it on the telephone talking to Stalin in Moscow. He finally proposed that each nation establish its own recovery program. The French and British refused. They insisted on following the American line of making the program Europewide. Molotov angrily walked out, warning that a revived Germany would dominate Western Europe, and that the plan would divide “Europe into two groups of states.” He returned to Moscow, where within a week the Soviets announced a “Molotov Plan” for their satellites. The Poles and Czechs, who had wanted to participate in Paris, had to inform the West that they could not join the Marshall Plan because “it might be construed as an action against the Soviet Union.”

All that remained was for the Western Europeans to work out the details of a plan and for the American Congress to accept it. At the end of August, the sixteen Western European nations represented at Paris presented a plan calling for $28 billion over a four-year period. After thorough examination the Truman administration accepted the program and Truman presented it to Congress on December 19, although he reduced the proposed amount to $17 billion.

Despite the reductions, the plan faced a hostile Congress, and 1948 was a presidential election year. Some Republicans did not want to give Truman a major diplomatic triumph or throw American dollars away. They called the plan a “bold Socialist blue-print,” and a plain waste of American money. But Vandenberg ardently championed the bill. In presenting it to the Senate, he called it a “calculated risk” to “help stop World War III before it starts.” The area covered by the plan, he declared, contained “270,000,000 people of the stock which has largely made America.... This vast friendly segment of the earth must not collapse. The iron curtain must not come to the rims of the Atlantic either by aggression or by default.” Administration witnesses before congressional committees considering the plan underscored Vandenberg’s emphasis on containment. They pointed out that a rejuvenated Europe could produce strategic goods that the United States could buy and stockpile, preserve Western control over Middle Eastern oil supplies, and free Europeans from economic problems so they could help the United States militarily.

Indeed, as Walter LaFeber has pointed out, the plan offered all things to all people. Those who feared a slump in exports and a resulting depression within the United States could envision a continued vigorous export trade; those who thought Communist expansion would result from economic chaos saw salvation in an integrated, healthy European economy; those who thought the real threat was the Red Army were delighted by the prospect of reviving Germany and then rebuilding the German army. For the humanitarian the plan offered long-term aid to war-torn Europe.

Still the plan met intense opposition. Senator Taft proclaimed that American money should not be poured into a “European TVA.” Like many of his Republican colleagues, he was deeply disturbed at European steps toward socialism, and he feared that the Europeans might use Marshall Plan money to nationalize basic industries, including American-owned plants. The Republican-dominated Congress would not budge. Committee meetings ground on, with no results.

All in all, 1947 had been a frustrating year for the new foreign policy. In Greece guerrilla warfare raged on despite increased American military assistance to the government. The Chinese Communists continued to push Chiang back. Russia retained her grip on East Europe; indeed, she strengthened it, for immediately after Molotov left the Paris Conference he announced the formation of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), a replacement for the old Communist International, abolished during World War II. In Hungary the Soviets purged left-wing anti-Communist political leaders, rigged the elections on August 31, 1947, and destroyed all anti-Communist opposition. Truman had been forced by the Republicans and the public generally to call off the peacetime drafting of young men into the armed services and demobilization continued, which left the administration with inadequate tools to pursue the policy of containment.

Truman was unable to achieve unification of the armed forces, a proposal designed to make them more efficient and cheaper. In July 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, which provided for a single Department of Defense to replace the three independently run services, gave statutory status to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, established a National Security Council to advise the President, and created a Central Intelligence Agency to gather information and to correlate and evaluate intelligence activities around the world. Truman appointed the leading anti-Communist in his Cabinet, Forrestal, as the first Secretary of Defense, but the act as a whole fell far short of what he, Marshall, and Army Chief of Staff Eisenhower had wanted. They had envisioned the creation of a single armed force, small but efficient, that could move quickly to trouble spots or be expanded rapidly through the draft. Instead they got a loosely federated system with an independent Air Force, and no draft.

The Air Force doctrine was to punish misbehavior through strategic bombing, including the atomic bomb, which made the new service popular with Congress, since massive retaliation seemed a cheap way of providing for national defense. Taft and some other Senators indicated that they were nearly ready to abolish the Army and Navy and concentrate funds on the Air Force. This doctrine, however, did not fit in at all with containment; mass bombardment from the air clearly was not an effective answer to the problems raised in Greece or Hungary or even China. It did appear to be a good way to protect the United States from any mass assault, which indicated that its proponents were retreating to isolation and had not fully accepted the doctrine of containment, with its implication of an active military policy around the world.

The alternative to an American armed force that could stand up to the Communists was one manned by Europeans, but this too had so far failed. The Greek government and army showed scarcely any improvement. In Western Europe, proposing the Marshall Plan had helped to draw a line across the Continent, but the unwillingness of Congress to appropriate money had left the area much too weak to support any sizable armed forces. The last, faint hope of redeeming Eastern Europe through the economic policies of the Marshall Plan had gone aglimmering when Molotov walked out of the Paris Conference. Indeed, the Molotov Plan and the Cominform had made the situation worse.

The Marshall Plan had now become the keystone to containment, and on January 2, 1948, Truman tried to get some action from Congress by dropping the $17 billion request and asking instead for $6.8 billion to cover the first fifteen months of the plan’s operation. He got no immediate response.

Then came the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.

Soviet and American troops had jointly occupied Czechoslovakia after the war. Both sides pulled out on December 1, 1945, although the Soviets kept a number of divisions on Czechoslovakia’s borders. Czechoslovakia was, in addition, caught between Poland and eastern Germany on the north and Hungary on the south, which made Soviet influence there pervasive.

In May 1946, Czechoslovakia held her first postwar elections. The Communists won 38 percent of the vote and Klement Gottwald, who had spent World War II in Moscow, became the Prime Minister. Neither the President, Eduard Benes, nor the foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, were Communist, and both were greatly admired in the West. They tried to maintain a balance between East and West, but in February 1948, Gottwald refused to cooperate with Benes on a plan to reorganize the police and the Cabinet broke up. Gottwald issued an ultimatum for a new government under his power and a Soviet mission flew to Prague to demand Benes’s surrender. On February 25, 1948, Benes capitulated and the Communists assumed control. Two weeks later they assassinated Masaryk.

The Czechoslovakian coup did two things absolutely necessary for the adoption of the containment policy. First, as Truman noted, it “sent a shock throughout the civilized world.” Americans had regarded Czechoslovakia as a model democracy. Nearly everyone remembered, and discussed, Hitler and Munich. It seemed the same play was about to be performed, ten years later, with new actors. Second, the coup dramatically illustrated the limitations of current American policy, for not only could the United States do nothing to help save Czechoslovakia, it was doing nothing to prevent similar occurrences in the remainder of Europe.

Events now began to rush forward. On March 5, 1948, Clay sent a telegram from Germany. Although “I have felt and held that war was unlikely for at least ten years,” the general began, “within the last few weeks, I have felt a subtle change in the Soviet attitude which.... gives me a feeling that it may come with dramatic suddenness.” The Soviet officials in Germany had adopted a new attitude, “faintly contemptuous, slightly arrogant, and certainly assured.” On March 11, Marshall described the situation as “very, very serious.” Three days later the Senate endorsed the Marshall Plan by a vote of sixty-nine to seventeen.

In Washington, London, and Paris, there was a real war scare. In Europe, France, Britain, and the Benelux countries held a series of meetings in Brussels and on March 16, 1948, signed the Brussels Treaty, pledging mutual defense arrangements. In the United States, Averell Harriman warned: “There are aggressive forces in the world coming from the Soviet Union which are just as destructive in their effect on the world and our own way of life as Hitler was, and I think are a greater menace than Hitler was.”

On March 17, Truman, noting “the grave events in Europe ... moving so swiftly,” canceled an engagement in New York and instead went before Congress. The President declared that the Soviet Union was the “one nation” that was blocking all efforts toward peace. America must, he said, meet “this growing menace ... to the very survival of freedom.” He welcomed the Brussels Treaty and promised to extend American aid to the signatories “to help them to protect themselves.”

Truman asked for an immediate favorable vote in the House on the Marshall Plan, but that was only a beginning. He also wanted a resumption of selective service. Even after the Czech coup, however, Congress was not willing to respond wholeheartedly to a call to arms. The House gave Truman the Marshall Plan on March 31 (although it appropriated $4 billion, not the $6.8 billion Truman had requested), but it refused to resume the draft.

The Czech coup had another immediate result with immense long-range consequences. At the end of the war, Truman had abolished the OSS, on the grounds that a Gestapo-like organization was incompatible with American traditions and values. In 1947, Truman had agreed to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as part of the National Defense Act of that year, but the CIA was not given authority to carry out covert operations abroad. It was restricted to gathering and analyzing intelligence. After the Czech coup, Forrestal set about raising money from his Wall Street friends to create a private clandestine organization to carry out covert actions abroad. Allen Dulles, deputy director of the new CIA, insisted that his organization had to have exclusive control of any such activities. In June 1948, the Truman administration authorized the CIA to engage in a broad range of covert operations directed against the Soviet Union and Communists elsewhere, including political and economic warfare and paramilitary activities.

The immediate fear was the upcoming election in Italy. The Communist Party was strong there, and thanks to the Russians it had plenty of money to spend in the campaign. The CIA countered by placing a few million dollars in the hands of the anti-Communist Christian Democrats, who ended up winning the election. This result, quite naturally, delighted the CIA and impressed the administration. To have kept Italy out of Communist hands for a relatively minuscule amount of money was a great bargain.

The CIA was off and running, to the eventual dismay of the two men most responsible for giving it a covert mission, Kennan and Truman. Kennan had thought that the CIA might intervene in an occasional European election; in 1975 he confessed to a congressional committee, “It did not work out at all the way I had conceived it.” And in 1963, Truman himself had said, “I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations.” Truman’s lament was disingenuous, however. He wanted to contain the Communists, and like his successors, he found it convenient to turn the unsavory aspects of the job over to the CIA and then not ask embarrassing questions.

Congressional action on the draft, meanwhile, had indicated that the politicians would not use American boys to contain the Russians. The implementation of the policy of containment was still in debate. One of the administration’s promises about the Marshall Plan, however, had been that it would strengthen Europe’s economy to the point where the Europeans could man their own barricades. With invaluable assistance from Soviet actions in Czechoslovakia, the administration had gotten agreement on a policy. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan had set forth some of the details of containment in Europe. The rest could now be worked out. Events in Berlin would help speed the process.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!