The Turkish crisis was the watershed. Having summoned up the nerve for confrontation once, it was much easier on the second occasion. The British precipitated the next crisis and a policy consensus that had been gradually taking shape in Washington. Under a tacit division of tasks, Britain was supposed to watch over its traditional sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Virtually bankrupt, the London government suddenly informed the U.S. administration on February 21, 1947, that it was withdrawing from Greece because it could no longer afford to prop up the right-wing government in Athens that was battling Communist-led guerrillas in a civil war. The British also warned that they would be unable to supply the funds Turkey needed for economic and military assistance to buttress itself against the Soviet Union. The response of Dean Acheson, his new superior, General George C. Marshall, now secretary of state, and the president was that the United States would obviously have to step into Britain’s place. At a meeting of the congressional leadership, which Truman convened to persuade them to vote the hundreds of millions of dollars he would need, Marshall gave a rather bland presentation that failed to arouse any enthusiasm. With the permission of the general, Acheson stood up to speak.

At fifty-three years of age, Dean Gooderham Acheson, who was to exercise a commanding influence on American foreign policy in the postwar years, was a handsome, commanding figure. His broad-shouldered, six-foot, two-inch frame was elegant in the three-piece suits he favored. His intense eyes were set off by bushy brows and complemented by an equally bushy but always impeccably trimmed mustache turned up at the corners in the fashion of a British officer of the nineteenth century. He was an American statesman and he was also the Anglophile he looked. His father, the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, was of Scottish and Irish descent and had immigrated to Canada and been educated there at a time when English Canada prided itself on being part of the British Empire. His mother, of similar background, had been shipped off as a girl to be educated in England. At the age of twelve, Acheson had been sent from the family’s home in Middletown, Connecticut, to the Groton School when the place was a conscious replica of an English boys school. (Sophomore year, for example, was not sophomore year. It was “the fourth form.”) To his credit, Acheson, an outspoken, free-spirited man, had rebelled against the rigid discipline of the school, yet more of Groton had probably rubbed off on him than he was aware. He had frittered away his four undergraduate years at Yale as a campus socialite, getting by with Cs (called “gentleman’s grades” in those years), but then the challenge of the law had turned on the engine of his quick and agile mind at Harvard Law School. He had become a protégé of that superlative jurist Felix Frankfurter, then teaching at Harvard, and upon graduation Frankfurter had arranged for him to go to Washington and clerk for another extraordinary jurist with whom Frankfurter was to serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Louis Brandeis.

With the First World War and the growing importance of the federal government, Washington was slowly metamorphosing from a town into a city, and so Acheson had stayed. A highly successful career as an appellate attorney and the prosperity of early partnership in a leading Washington firm followed. Neither was enough for him. Groton had held out an ideal to its boys, public service, an ideal that also happens to attract the kind of man who is drawn by power, who will forsake money and much else for the opportunity to wield authority and take satisfaction from the accomplishments that go with it. In 1941 Acheson had, at the instigation of Franklin Roosevelt, become assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, performing adroitly in helping to create the International Monetary Fund at the Bretton Woods monetary conference of 1944, and then accepted the undersecretaryship of the State Department at the behest of Truman and Byrnes on the death of Roosevelt. His influence had increased after George Marshall had taken over from Byrnes because Marshall, in an adaption of the military line of authority, had insisted that Acheson act as his combined chief of staff and deputy.

A man of no little arrogance, Acheson considered himself highly sophisticated in foreign affairs. Others, including the congressional leaders who were his audience on this fateful day in early 1947, thought the same. This was true where Europe was concerned, but once Acheson got out of Europe, and particularly where Communism and the Soviet Union were involved, he was an intellectual primitive.

At this meeting of the congressional leadership, he was the primitive who flashed fear to these legislators, partly as the shrewd lawyer’s tactic to convince, but also because he believed what he was saying. Over the past eighteen months, he said, Soviet pressure on Iran, the Turkish Straits, and now northern Greece, where the guerrillas were strongest, had brought Moscow to the point where it might break through and penetrate three continents. If Greece fell, “like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties.” Not since Rome and Carthage had the world been so polarized between two powers, Acheson said. This was not a matter of picking up England’s debts, or of being kind to Greece and Turkey. It was the fortifying of free peoples against Communist aggression and thus the safeguarding of America’s own security.

(Truman, Marshall, Acheson, the congressional leaders at the meeting, and everyone else in Washington had no way of knowing that Stalin was not backing the Communist-led guerrillas in Greece. In 1944, in a cynical agreement with Churchill dividing up Eastern Europe, he had promised Britain a free hand in Greece because he did not regard the Greek Communist cause of sufficient importance to Soviet interests to warrant the trouble with his former allies that was now, in fact, being aroused. Tito, the Yugoslav leader, was sustaining the Greek guerrillas in defiance of Stalin because he did not want a right-wing Greece on his southern border. He was later to change his mind and abandon them to defeat. The dispute was the first in an increasingly bitter process of estrangement between Tito and Stalin that led to their open break in 1948.)

After a long silence that followed Acheson’s exhortation, Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, told the president that if Truman spoke like this to Congress and the country, the House and Senate would vote him the money. Truman did so in a dramatic, if less hyperbolical, speech, drafted by Acheson, to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. He asked for, and got, $300 million in military and economic aid for Greece (a military advisory mission was to be sent to reform and reequip the Greek army and direct it in a counterguerrilla campaign) and $100 million for Turkey. The president summed up his speech with a call to action that was henceforth to be known as the Truman Doctrine. “I believe,” he said, “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.” There was no need for him to define who these armed minorities and outside pressures were. What was significant about the statement was its universal application. The president’s pledge was not confined to Greece and Turkey. He was declaring that the United States would come to the aid of any nation, anywhere, that was threatened by Communism.

What Truman and Acheson and others in the American leadership who thought like them were doing was laying down the moral and intellectual foundation for a new American world system. Acheson reflected their thoughts (and his ego) in the title of his memoirs, Present at the Creation, and in its dedication, “To Harry S. Truman, ‘The captain with the mighty heart.’” The appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who had, with the assent of the French, delivered Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich in 1938, was always in the back of their minds. Now that it was their turn to lead, they were not, like the Europeans, going to lose the peace gained by their victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan through similarly weak behavior toward Stalin and the forces of “International Communism.”

Acheson had in his cultural heritage the stabilizing model of the British Empire when the Royal Navy had dominated the seas and “Pax Britannica” had ruled nearly a quarter of the earth’s landmass and peoples. The “Pax Americana” that he and Truman and their associates intended to create was not, however, going to be an exploitative system akin to British and European colonialism. Outright colonies were unacceptable to the American political conscience. The one formal colony the United States had possessed, the Philippines, wrested from Spain at the turn of the twentieth century, had been given its independence in 1945. What the United States sought were surrogate governments friendly to American power, free to run their internal affairs as they wished as long as they agreed with Washington in matters of foreign policy. The goal was to contain Communism worldwide by forming as many non-Communist countries as could be persuaded into a system of nations protected by American military might and nourished by American economic and technological prowess.

With a policy consensus reached, the pace quickened. The winter of 1946–47 was a grim season in Europe, a postwar nadir. The economies of Britain, France, and Italy were crippled by inflation, strikes, and worn-out manufacturing equipment. The German population was barely surviving on foodstuffs shipped in by Britain and the United States. To make matters worse, the winter was one of the coldest on record, consuming supplies of coal and power. George Marshall went to Moscow in March 1947 for another meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, the venue that had originally been created to negotiate a postwar settlement. The conference quickly stymied over the ever-present and never resolved issue of German reparations to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt had agreed at Yalta that the Germans should be forced to pay $10 billion in reparations for the ruination they had caused in Russia. The British had always been opposed because they assumed that a bricks-and-cinders Germany would never be able to meet the burden and that it would be shifted to them to keep the Germans from starving. The American position also gradually changed to one of opposition after Truman inherited the presidency. By 1947, no matter how persistently Molotov might read off the list of devastated Russian towns and cities, no one in Washington or London wanted to do anything to strengthen the Soviet Union.

When Marshall went to see Stalin shortly before returning home, he noticed how markedly the Soviet dictator had aged—he seemed to have shrunk in his clothes. Stalin said there was no reason to give up trying to resolve such issues as reparations. Difficult matters required time and patience. The evidence indicates that Stalin meant what he was saying, that he hoped to hang on and one day obtain the reparations. Marshall, however, interpreted Stalin’s admonition for patience as a ruse. While the United States patiently temporized, conditions in Western Europe might deteriorate to the point where a miserable and disillusioned electorate would vote the local Communist parties, particularly large in France and Italy, into power. And whether or not Stalin was attempting to gull him, Marshall was probably correct in his judgment of where Western Europe was headed. On the way back to Washington, he decided that something drastic had to be done. Acheson had been thinking along the same lines.

That something was the stroke of genius and statesmanship that became known as the Marshall Plan. The United States proposed to donate billions of dollars, $13 billion in all as it turned out, to rebuild completely the economies of Europe and create an environment in which capitalism would thrive. Marshall announced the plan in a speech at the Harvard University commencement on June 5, 1947. To appear evenhanded, he invited all European nations to participate, implicitly including the Soviet Union. He and others in the administration were reasonably certain that Stalin would refuse the offer, because he would reject permitting American engineers and other specialists to move freely about the Soviet Union supervising the projects to make certain the aid was being properly utilized.

Stalin reacted with extreme alarm. He saw the plan as a declaration of economic warfare to undermine his East European security corridor. The command economy he had fashioned was useless in these circumstances. There was no way he could gather sufficient resources to compete with reconstruction on an American scale. His fear for his empire was confirmed when the coalition government in Czechoslovakia, dominated by the big Communist Party under Klement Gottwald, the prime minister, decided that it would take part. The Poles under Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Party general secretary, were willing to join as well. Gomulka was attempting to navigate an independent course, a “Polish way to socialism.” This would entail no collectivization of agriculture and freedom for small entrepreneurs to continue to do business. He also needed American largesse to rebuild his wrecked country. (Eighty percent of Warsaw was still in ruins in 1947 and 30,000 Jewish corpses awaited proper burial under the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto.) Gomulka quickly backed off at Stalin’s displeasure, but the Czechs had already announced that they would accept. Stalin summoned Gottwald and Jan Masaryk, the non-Communist foreign minister and son of Thomas Masaryk, the principal founder and first president of the Czechoslovak republic, to the Kremlin and angrily ordered them to reverse course publicly and renounce participation.

The Marshall Plan was a colossal success in Western Europe, an act of generosity, if also self-interest, that was without precedent in history. Entire factories were shipped over from the United States and reassembled in place. The price was to divide Europe into two hostile blocs. The “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill had first denounced in his speech at Fulton, Missouri, in early 1946 was now truly rung down by Stalin all along the perimeter of Eastern Europe. As he aged, the Soviet dictator seemed to grow more paranoid. The remnants of the coalition regimes he had permitted in Eastern Europe as facades to please his former wartime allies were swept away. Beria’s secret police terrorized non-Communist politicians. Any Communist figures in Eastern Europe suspected of deviating from the Moscow line were also eliminated as Stalin’s minions arrested, tortured, shot, and hanged. Gomulka was to be purged for the sin of “national Communism,” but he escaped with his life. The curtain also came down on the precarious neutrality that the non-Communist Czech political groups had been attempting to preserve because of the exposed geographical position of their country, which shared borders with the USSR, Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet occupation zone in eastern Germany. Stalin encouraged the Czech Communists to take full power in February 1948. The takeover was facilitated by the Czech Party’s wide public support. The Czech people remembered how Britain and France had delivered them to Hitler at Munich and tended to look to the Soviet Union as a protector. That did not spare Czechoslovakia from Stalin’s terror. Jan Masaryk was not as fortunate as Gomulka. The story put out by the regime was that he committed suicide by leaping from a small bathroom window in his living quarters in an upper story of the Foreign Ministry. The probable truth is that he was first murdered and then thrown out the window. In 1952, Czechoslovakia was also to experience one of the worst of the show trials Stalin had a penchant for arranging, with their macabre stagecraft of preposterous accusations of spying and plotting and false confessions elicited by torture. Eleven leading Czech Communists, including the Party’s general secretary, Rudolf Slansky, were among those condemned and hanged.

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