Helping a Continent Be Strong and Free

Episode 54

Ray Notgrass: On today’s Exploring History podcast, I'll talk about a time when the United States helped a continent be strong and free.

Titus Anderson: [music in background] Welcome to Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History.

Ray Notgrass: Millions of people did not have enough to eat. Farmland, factories, roads, and bridges were destroyed. Millions were unemployed. Many feared an imminent threat of foreign invasion. And these were the crises in the nations that had WON the recent war.

Europe had not fully recovered from the Great War of 1914-1918 when a second world war engulfed the continent from 1939 to 1945. The Nazi onslaught, followed by the conquering Allied invasion, resulted in economic chaos across the length and breadth of Europe that continued into 1947.

The two world wars destroyed a large part of the Europeans' ability to farm, work, and trade. The people of the victorious Allied nations wanted desperately to resume their normal lives, but they lacked the resources to do so. For example, the standard of living (the availability of goods and services) in France after World War II was about half of what it had been before the war. Industrial production in Italy after the war was about one-fifth of what it had been before the war; agricultural output there was one-half of prewar levels (Italy had been an ally of Germany at the start of the war, but it surrendered in 1943 and joined the Allies). The agricultural harvest of 1947 in Europe was particularly poor and left people even more desperate for food. At one point, officials in France estimated that the country only had about a five-month supply of bread.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0527-0001-753, Krefeld, Hungerwinter, Demonstration.jpg
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0527-0001-753 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

This photo shows people in Germany during the difficult winter of 1946/1947. The sign reads "We want coal. We want bread."

In addition to all of the economic hardships, political questions simmered. For instance, American, British, French, and Russian military forces occupied and controlled defeated Germany; but the Allied nations had no long-term plan for what would happen there.

Many European political leaders and much of the general public in Europe thought that Germany should somehow pay for starting another war that resulted in so much suffering, death, and destruction. However, history taught that "making Germany pay" would cause more problems than it would solve. The victorious nations in World War I had required Germany to pay dearly after that conflict. The Treaty of Versailles that had ended that war had placed the blame for the war fully on Germany, stripped Germany of its military forces, and forced Germany to pay reparations (payments of money) to the victorious nations. The burden of these payments had helped prevent Germany from recovering economically after that war. Germany eventually was unable to pay the reparations, and the victorious nations cancelled them.

A large number of Germans deeply resented this punishment. Adolph Hitler played on this resentment to justify his seizure of power and his aggression against other countries. Harsh treatment of Germany after this second world conflict might result in yet another conflagration. But how could the nations of Europe recover and not live in fear of another invasion?

In addition to these realities in Europe, a new factor had emerged in the geopolitics of the continent. Geopolitics refers to the influence of geography on political activities. To the east of Europe lies Russia. In 1917 Communists had seized power in Russia and neighboring countries and had set up the world's first Communist government, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), also called the Soviet Union. The country was sometimes called Russia because that country was by far the largest part of the U.S.S.R.

The Soviets had joined the Allies against Germany in the second war, not because of any Russian commitment to freedom and democracy but because the Soviet Union feared being attacked by Germany and saw an opportunity to expand its power by conquering nations that Germany had previously seized. During and after the war, the Soviets had in fact taken over European nations to its west, including Poland, Hungary, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the eastern part of Germany. This was the line of countries that in 1946 Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain. Communists had openly expressed the goal of world domination. Many people feared that the weakened nations in western Europe might be vulnerable to Soviet conquest as well. Once an ally, the Soviet Union had become the new enemy.

Communist political parties had already gained strength in France, Britain, and other European nations. In some countries, an alarming number of Communists had won election to the national parliament. Germany had taken over Greece in 1941; when the Nazis withdrew from Greece, Greek Communists threatened to take over. Only assistance from the United States had helped Greek military forces defeat the Communists. The possibility of Communist takeovers in other European countries was no mere theoretical possibility. It had already happened in eastern Europe. Might it also happen in France, Britain, and other countries in western Europe?

World geopolitics were in a period of change and instability. Great Britain had suffered tremendously during the war, and it was no longer able to support its extensive world empire. The crisis in Greece had arisen because Britain could not provide continued assistance to the free government there. After years of turmoil, India, the "jewel of the British Empire," became independent in August of 1947. The loss of empire meant the loss of many of Britain's trade arrangements within the empire. Only two great powers existed in the postwar world that had the ability to influence significantly what happened in other parts of the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. These two countries had opposite motivations and goals, and Europe lay between them.

In March of 1947, President Harry Truman described to Congress the situation in Greece. He spoke of "the gravity of the situation which confronts the world today," referring to Greece and also another part of the world, Turkey, which needed help to modernize its economy and raise its people's standard of living. Truman's proposal to give aid to countries that were resisting domination by domestic rebels or foreign invaders came to be known as the Truman Doctrine. Congress soon approved emergency aid to Greece and Turkey. A growing number of people in the United States believed that this country needed to do more to help Europe resist Communist domination.

The goal of United States foreign policy was not the defeat of Soviet Communist and a rollback of their control over countries they had come to dominate. Instead, American policy was one of containment: containing Soviet influence where it existed at the time. The U.S. accepted a balance of power between the two countries and the reality of spheres of influence that each controlled.

Secretary of State George Marshall was a retired U.S. Army general. He had been the Army Chief of Staff, the highest ranking officer in the Army, during World War II. Marshall understood the situation in Europe and all of the dangers the continent faced. On June 5, 1947, Marshall delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. He began by stating "the world situation is very serious." In the speech he proposed a program in which the United States would provide assistance to the countries of Europe, to help the Europeans get back on their feet and to be able to resist the Communist threat. This assistance would include factory parts, food, money, and other items. But Marshall wanted Europeans to take the initiative, develop a proposal, and present it to the United States. His goal was for Europe to return to prewar conditions in four years. Marshall said the program was intended to fight "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."

Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall at The Pentagon.jpg
By Marshall Foundation Archives, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

George Marshall, 1951

In response to Marshall's proposal, representatives from sixteen European countries met in Paris to discuss what they needed. It was the first time that representatives of the nations of Europe had examined the economic condition of the entire continent. However, their discussions did not go smoothly at first. For instance, much of what they did was simply to come up with a list of what they each wanted, which resulted in a proposal of about $28 billion in aid, an amount the United States was unable and unwilling to provide.

In addition, centuries-old geopolitical rivalries among the European nations resurfaced. Would British factories be rebuilt first, or French? When would factories in Allied-controlled Germany receive help? Would Germany be able to resume steel production, or would the other Europeans nations keep Germany at a weakened level while they rebuilt and rearmed? The European nations and the United States invited the Soviet Union and the Soviet-controlled countries in Eastern Europe to take part, but the Communists refused to participate, as everyone in the West thought they would. The Soviets charged that the American proposal was just a way for the U.S. to extend its "imperialistic" control over Europe.

Congress refused to approve the Europeans' initial proposal. One factor in the deliberations of Congress was that in 1946 the Republican Party had gained majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since 1932. Many Republicans opposed sending additional assistance to Europe. They thought that the United States had been involved enough in international affairs, and they wanted to turn their attention to long-neglected needs within the U.S. itself.

A geopolitical reality for the United States was that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had protected this country from the extensive physical destruction and loss of life that Europe and Asia had suffered. The U.S. lost over 418,000 military and civilian personnel because of the war, but the loss of life worldwide numbered in the tens of millions. American involvement in the war had broken the country's long-standing pattern of isolation from foreign entanglements, and many Americans wanted to see the country return to its previous isolation.

Despite the initial rejection of the European aid request, Congress continued to discuss some form of aid through 1947. President Truman made another speech to Congress in December of that year, urging approval of the package. During this period, many people in the U.S. were becoming concerned that Communist agents were infiltrating the U.S. government and other parts of American society. In late February 1948, an event took place in Europe that made the request for assistance even more urgent. Communist forces directed from the Soviet Union took control of Czechoslovakia. This added yet another country to the Soviet bloc and extended the Iron Curtain even further west. Congress approved the European Recovery Program (usually called the Marshall Plan), and Truman signed it into law on April 3, 1948.

Assistance began flowing to Europe immediately and made a huge difference in specific ways. The U.S. eventually shipped wheat, tractors, cotton, tires, airplane parts, and much more, including materials to rebuild factories, roads, and bridges, as well as some direct financial aid to seventeen countries in Europe. The part of Germany still controlled by the Allies, called West Germany, participated also.

Austria. The Marshall Plan has favored many projects, such as roads, ski-lifts, hotels. designed to increase the... - NARA - 541658.tif
National Archives, Public Domain, Link

This avalanche control tunnel in Austria, financed by the Marshall Plan, encouraged tourism by allowing people to more easily reach a resort during the winter.

Europe began a remarkable recovery. People began having sufficient food. French harbors, seventy percent of which had been destroyed in the war, were rebuilt. Tractors, seed, and fertilizer revitalized European agriculture.  Mining and industrial equipment helped put people back to work. Germany produced twice as many cars in 1953 as it had in 1936. One polio victim in France received an iron lung from Denver. Above all else, the Marshall Plan restored the confidence of Europeans that they could endure materially and be free politically. The influence of Communist parties in western European countries fell to insignificance. Communism had nothing that most Europeans found attractive once the people had what they needed to live in freedom and without want.

The United States economy grew also. Europeans were once again able to trade with the U.S. This meant that Europeans sold goods to the U.S., and thus Europeans had the money to buy goods from the U.S. The American economy had begun to recover from the Great Depression during the war through its production of wartime materials, but the increased postwar trade with Europe helped the U.S. economy to grow even more.

The policy of containment limited the Soviet Union's sphere of influence where it was in Europe. However, this did not mean that the Soviets quit trying. Another geopolitical crisis developed in June of 1948. The Soviets controlled East Germany, while the Allies controlled West Germany. In addition, the two sides maintained divided control over Berlin, the German capital that lay completely within East Germany. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets blockaded all land access to West Berlin. In response, President Truman ordered an airlift of all necessities to keep West Berlin functioning and free. The Berlin Airlift continued until May of 1949, when the Soviets lifted the blockade. Thus, the United States defused another confrontation with the Communists.

The Marshall Plan aid program changed dramatically in 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. The U.S. government directed more of its resources to this new war effort, which presented an even more alarming illustration of the Communist threat. European countries also began focusing on military preparedness in case the Soviet Communists moved on Europe. Marshall Plan assistance continued until 1952.

Aid from the United States to Europe under the Marshall Plan totaled $13 million. It wasn't everything that European leaders requested, but it was enough to make a difference. Perhaps the most important effect of the Marshall Plan was that the people of the United States had the opportunity to provide humanitarian aid to those in need, as they have done many times before and since.

Germany remained divided between East Germany, ruled by Communists, and West Germany, which became a free democracy in 1949. The failures of the Communist system eventually led to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989. Germany officially reunited in 1990. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Ten European nations, along with the United States and Canada, formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which coordinated military activities among member nations. NATO stood as a defense against the possibility of Communist invasion of any participating country. The NATO charter says that member countries will see an attack on one member country as an attack on all member countries. NATO has since grown to 29 countries, including some former allies of the Soviet Union.

European countries began to lay aside their rivalries and work together to coordinate trade and production. Trade tariffs were lowered or eliminated. This trend of cooperation eventually led to the creation of the European Common Market in 1957, which became the European Union (EU) in 1993. Most of the EU uses a common currency, the euro. The EU is not a perfect arrangement, and in 2016 Great Britain began the process of withdrawing from it; but cooperation is better than renewed armed conflict, of which Europe had seen plenty in the previous generations.

The Marshall Plan did not directly fight Communism. Instead, it strengthened the nations of Europe, and this helped Europe achieve economic and political stability, which helped Europe to resist Communism. The doctrine of containment lay behind American involvement in the later geopolitical conflicts in Vietnam and Korea, where Communists wanted to extend their control over free areas.

The Marshall Plan redefined geography. The Atlantic Ocean was no longer a barrier to cooperation. The Atlantic Community, which includes countries on both sides of the ocean and is exemplified by NATO, came into existence. The United States and Europe, which once had kept each other at arm's length, began working together for mutually beneficial aims.

Geopolitics, international negotiations, and the deliberations of Congress came together in the Marshall Plan, which addressed a situation that literally involved life and death for multitudes of people and for the nations in which they lived.

I'm Ray Notgrass. Thanks for listening.

Titus Anderson: This has been Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating and review so that we can reach more people with our episodes. If you want to learn about new homeschool resources and opportunities from Notgrass History, you can sign up for our email newsletter at This program was produced by me, Titus Anderson. Thanks for listening!

This episode is based on a lesson from the Exploring World Geography curriculum by Ray Notgrass. Daily lessons guide high school students on a fascinating journey across our planet, focusing on how people interact with the physical world around them and how geography has played a role in history.

Visit Homeschool History for more resources related to the Marshall Plan and the Cold War.

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