General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

General George C. Marshall: Buying capitalism, democracy and hope.

‘The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.’ General George C. Marshall, ‘The Marshall Plan Speech’, 1947

‘What should I call you, General? Would it be okay to call you ‘George’? ‘No, Mr. President, ‘General’ will be fine.’ This rather splendid snippet of conversation took place between President Harry Truman and General George C. Marshall as the general became the USA’s Secretary of State in 1947. The Secretary of State is a very senior politician, the person given responsibility for foreign affairs, having the same role as the Foreign Secretary in most other countries. Few people have imposed their mark on US foreign affairs in quite the way that Marshall did in just two years from 1947-1949, and for such an important man, surprisingly few people today have really heard of him. This will be an opportunity to at least make people aware of General Marshall and the incredibly important work he did. But, please, don’t expect any passion, laughs or scandal – this is a man who was, apparently, even called ‘General’ by his wife.


General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) – US Secretary of State, 1947-49. The ‘C’ stands for ‘Catlett’ but I suspect no one was brave enough to use this to the General. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Everyone wants peace when there’s a war on but, when it comes, that peace usually brings many problems: refugees, power vacuums, broken infrastructure, a loss of organisation in communities, unemployment, crop failure, illness and many other issues can threaten stability, especially after a major conflict. In Europe after 1945, the aftermath of World War II, the greatest war in history, presented immense challenges for all concerned. Germany and her allies had been forced to surrender and the most powerful country and economy of mainland Europe in 1939 had basically ceased to exist by 1945. Except for the USA, and some of the countries that had been neutral in the war, the damage from the war was impacting on daily life across the globe. Britain could claim victory but it was achieved at a huge cost and, in many people’s eyes, it has never fully recovered from that victory. In Europe, trade had almost ceased, factories lacked resources and energy, markets were no more, and money had ceased to be worth anything. Civil wars and localised disputes erupted or became continuations of the great conflict, plunging many regions into further chaos. Transport systems, power grids, hygiene, water supplies, hospitals, schools and many other essentials of modern life were no longer in place in most countries. Millions of people had been displaced by the fighting and had to make their way home across the continent, walking for hundreds of miles, finding food where they could, sleeping when they could. In the first years of peace, Europe hovered on the brink of collapse. But it was not only Europe which faced the most uncertain of futures as the whole world had been drawn in to this war; chaos was found across the globe and a new world order was needed.

It’s almost impossible to say how many people died in World War II. Estimates for the total vary between 45 million and 72 million, but a figure of around 58-60 million people is often used. Based on that estimate, it means that about 30 000 people had died every day for the six years of the war. In other words, about 10 times as many people died on every one of those 2000 days of fighting as died on 9/11. Every death is a tragedy but this went into numbers never seen before. It impacted on countries across the globe in an unprecedented manner. In Germany, an estimated 7 million people died from a population of 73 million in 1939; in the Soviet Union, between 20 and 30 million people died out of about 180 million. And don’t forget, these are only the deaths: in addition there were the wounded, the bereaved, the emotionally traumatised, those who lost their education, businesses, homes and so on. The peace had to be lived by people who had suffered on an unimaginable scale.

The damage done in a material sense was highlighted by the extraordinary impact of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and also in the more conventional but extraordinary struggles for Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht assaults on the USSR’s three major cities had a devastating impact on those cities and the whole country, holding it back many years in its development, especially when compared to the relatively light casualties of the USA (about 400 000 deaths) and the negligible destruction to the country itself. The contrasting wartime experiences of the USA and the USSR, who became the two ‘Superpowers’, would be one of the key factors that shaped the second half of the century.


The shells of buildings in Dresden suggest just a few of the problems facing Europe in 1945. Problems to do with refugees, homelessness, sanitation, employment and transport were clear and urgent. (Author: G. Beyer; Source: here)

So, in 1946-47, Europe was on its knees. In his role with the US army at this time, General Marshall visited many countries and saw the desperate state of the people and their economies. He believed that something had to be done not only to save lives but also, with what was a matter of real concern for the USA, to save the continent of Europe from the clutches of Stalin and the USSR. Communism had reached deep into Europe by May, 1945, with the Red Army having reached the River Elbe in central Germany. Marshall feared that many Europeans would be so desperate that they would seek a solution to the chaos of their lives by turning to the Left, fooled into a rejection of capitalism and democracy by the promise of help and a new way of living under Moscow’s ‘guidance’. He believed something had to be done and done quickly – and only the USA was in a position to ‘save the free world’.

By previous agreements made by the ‘Big Three’ during the war, the USA, the Soviet Union and Britain had decided that Moscow was to have a large element of influence and control in post-war Europe. Germany and Berlin (as with Austria and Vienna) were to be divided following the agreements signed at the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945. Europe itself was to be divided into two spheres of influence with the USSR taking control of the East as its share of the spoils of war. The countries of Western Europe were to remain independent but their security and stability could not be guaranteed if they disintegrated economically and fell into political and social chaos. These were bleak times for millions who had to rebuild their lives in the wake of the war and concerns reached across the Atlantic Ocean to Washington and the White House.

Despite the urgent hardship facing many people, General Marshall’s greatest fear was that, left to its own devices, Western Europe would fall to the influence of Moscow. He believed that this could be forced by a desperate short-term need for survival, so the challenge for the USA was to deliver a huge amount of aid in a very short period of time. The finance, logistics and organisation involved in meeting this challenge was unprecedented in the modern world but it had to be attempted for the cost of doing nothing did not bear thinking about. The USA desperately needed its former allies and other rich countries in Western Europe for trade, as much as anything else, so it was imperative that US politicians did not choose isolationism as they had done after World War I. Marshall was the man who would persuade President Truman to adopt the greatest package of economic aid in history.

The decision to follow Marshall’s plan would have far reaching consequences. The dominance and economic power of the USA in the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the events of the two World Wars. The world is like it is today in large part because of what was agreed, the ‘Marshall Plan’ and ‘Marshall Aid’, the money that flowed from the plan. The aid was the money which delivered the goals outlined in the plan; like a giant life support system, Western Europe was first kept alive and then helped to recover because of Marshall’s vision, Truman’s understanding and the USA’s economic power. The Marshall Plan drew the USA into world affairs in a way it had never done before, shaping the Cold War and setting agendas which are still alive today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. George Marshall never planned to put MacDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC on every High Street and in shopping malls around the world but that, too, would become major consequences of what he proposed in those meetings with Truman. Rarely has such an apparently dull man brought about such massive change.


The raising of the Communist ‘Red Flag’ over the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin marked the arrival of Communism in the very heart of Europe. Mikhail Minin, the man who raised the flag, only died in 2008 at the age of 85. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

When the ‘Marshall Plan’ (or the ‘European Recovery Programme’ to give it its proper title) was introduced, though, it was part of the West’s longer term understanding of political tensions which existed with Moscow. Two of ‘The Big Three’, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and US President, Franklin Roosevelt, had long been concerned about the possibility of the growth of Communism into Central Europe after the war. They had desperately needed the USSR as an ally during World War II but, as peace loomed, the presence of Red Army troops so far towards the West was a matter of grave concern. During the final months of the war, Churchill had encouraged western forces to drive as far to the East as possible, so as to reduce the area under Stalin’s control when the war ended. In 1946, Churchill went to the USA and delivered his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech about the fall of the ancient territories of Eastern Europe to Soviet control. The map of the world had been redrawn and one hell of a lot of it looked ‘Commie Red’ to Washington’s eyes. In an attempt to grasp what Stalin and the USSR was likely to do, President Truman, who had little experience of foreign affairs, contacted the US Embassy in Moscow. He requested that someone should give him an understanding of Soviet foreign policy and their likely plans for the coming years. He little bargained for the reply he got from one George Kennan (pronounced ‘Kee-nan’). His reply would become one of the most important documents of the 20th century; it would have made a very short book but those 8000 words made for a mightily important document, known as ‘Kennan’s Long Telegram’.

The ‘Long Telegram’ attempted to explain Soviet policy by giving a short lesson in Russian history. Kennan believed a brief answer which looked only at recent events would be both inaccurate and misleading, so he looked back over several centuries to the Tsars and the creation of the Russian nation itself. Stalin himself often spoke of regaining territory held by the Tsars of old, comparing himself with Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible far more than with Lenin. Kennan spoke of the many cultures, nationalities, languages and religions in the largest country on earth. He spoke of the struggle for unity that the Tsars had fought over the years and the threats they had faced on their long borders. Kennan pointed out that the Tsars had tried to create unity by creating a sense of fear amongst the people by highlightingthe fear that other nations, especially those in the West, were determined to destroy them. Regular invasion threats had been met by force which had moulded the nation and strengthened the hand of the House of Muscovy (Moscow) which had come to rule the Russian peoples. Kennan pointed out that the Communist system took a similar approach to that of the Tsars. By creating a sense of threat, it was able to enhance its own position at the centre (leading and protecting the nation) and encouraging the people to keep pushing at its own borders, trying to repel others by expanding its own lands. This expansionism had to be met by consistent, clear and firm resistance, a sort of containment; this was the key message of the ‘Long Telegram’.


George Kennan (1904-2005) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)


George Kennan’s analysis of Stalin, the Soviet leadership and the USSR’s goals made a very deep impression on Truman. His focus on their aggressive intentions and strategies made sense to Truman, an unelected and inexperienced president, who needed to both act decisively and look tough, despite having so little first-hand knowledge of world affairs. Truman was so taken with the analysis provided by the ‘Long Telegram’ that he had copies made for everyone involved in foreign affairs and the principles of it were soon embodied in his ‘Truman Doctrine’. At the heart of this was the idea of ‘containment’, meaning that the USA’s plan was to stand up to any signs of Communist expansion around the world: Soviet backed force would be met with American backed force no matter where it happened. The USA would resist Soviet expansionism and slowly strangle Moscow’s ambitions, a strategy which would mark out the Cold War and set the scene for events such as the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.

Alongside Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram, another crucial piece of thinking shaped US policy and ‘Truman Doctrine’. This was the so-called ‘Domino Theory’ or ‘Domino Effect’, the idea that, as one country fell to communism, it made it more likely that its neighbours would fall too. This was considered a particular danger in Europe, where the war had clearly seen Eastern Europe fall to Soviet influence, and the immediate threat to Italy in the late 1940s was such that it was met with serious CIA intervention. In Washington’s opinion, though, the most significant example of the ‘domino effect’ came in October, 1949, when China, giant neighbour to the USSR and the country with the largest population on earth, fell under the control of Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong. In the White House and other bastions of US political thought, a huge part of the world map was now coloured ‘red’ and it seemed to be growing, sweeping across the globe to reach from deep in Germany all the way across to the Pacific Ocean. There was particular concern that Communism ‘hung’ over India and surrounded the Middle East, which was of increasing significance after the war, not least because of its oil. ‘Truman Doctrine’ would later be redefined by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, amongst others, but its main ideas dominated US foreign policy throughout the Cold War, except for the Nixon years.


One of the many propaganda posters promoting the ‘Marshall Plan’. (Author: E. Spreckmeester, published Economic Cooperation Administration; Source: here)


All of the countries of Western Europe, except for Spain, received aid from the Marshall Plan. Spain was not directly involved (although it benefited indirectly through increased foreign trade) because it was a Fascist dictatorship under Generalisimo Francisco Franco. The Marshall Plan required countries to accept the principles of democracy as well as capitalism in order to receive US Aid. From Germany and France to Greece and Turkey, most countries were more than willing to accept these demands and so ‘get into bed’ with the USA.

The original motivation for the ‘Marshall Plan’, then, was fundamentally linked with ‘Truman Doctrine’. It was seen as vital for the USA’s ‘national interests’ that the devastation of Europe must not trigger chaos and the collapse of the continent so that it fell into the arms of Moscow. The humanitarian need to help people was more than matched by the need to meet economic, political and military challenges. A power vacuum had to be avoided at all costs and only the USA could provide what was needed for European recovery. The US economy was strong in 1945 but Truman had to maintain its growth in the years of peace and that would be more likely if businesses could trade with a strong Europe; security there also eased the potential military threat to the USA for the future. If the whole of the Eurasian landmass (Europe and Asia combined) was under the control of Moscow, then massive markets, people and resources would be lost to the USA. To prevent the fall of Europe to Communism was in American interests and the one immediate advantage they had over Communism was money. This was the rationale and ideology behind the controversial ‘Marshall Plan’.

When General Marshall presented his plan to Harry Truman in 1947, its title was the ‘European Recovery Programme’. Europe was to be supported and restored economically, politically and socially by US money, technology and advisors. The USA had become incredibly rich during the war and was far and away the richest country in the world. It had been largely untouched by the war itself, developing its industry to unprecedented levels. The ‘Marshall Plan’ was fully adopted in 1948 and the first aid was sent almost immediately. In total, 16 European countries received about $13.5 billion of aid between 1948 and 1952 (roughly $120 billion in modern terms). Britain and France were the biggest recipients of money, but the impact on all countries was very significant, none more so than West Germany (and West Berlin) when it received aid after 1949. The impact on recovery in the Allied controlled zones of Germany marked the contrast between the West and the East, as people saw the standard of living rise far more rapidly in the West. This growth brought immediate hope and benefits to the people, something which not only strengthened links between Western Europe and the USA but was also a major factor in creating the flow of people from East Germany to the West during the 1950s, a movement which ultimately led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The USA actually received more money back in trade over the years than it gave out in ‘Marshall Aid’. It was a so-called ‘win-win’ situation for both Europe and the USA. Everyone seemed happy with it, except for the Eastern Bloc, the Communist countries, who did not receive any aid. This was because the ‘Marshall Plan’ had strings attached: each country had to accept two things, namely, capitalism and democracy. In other words, you had to accept US values in order to get their help, something Stalin could not allow in his sphere of influence. Ultimately, the Communist economies never caught up with the West and this economic imbalance going back to the 1940s was a fundamental factor in the collapse of the system in the late 1980s. However, accepting the money would have effectively broken Communism in 1949, so it was a tough call either way.

The ‘Marshall Plan’ was not the only sign of the USA’s new found interest in the wider world. It ran alongside several other Washington approved initiatives, such as the establishment of NATO (1949), the creation of the CIA (1947), the building of military bases and the massive development of nuclear weapons as a means of strengthening international ties and containing the spread of Communism in the post-war years. They all came under the umbrella of the ‘Truman Doctrine’ and aimed to support and protect all ‘friendly’ countries, especially those which bordered Communism and were seen to be most at risk from ‘infiltration’. This vision led, for example, to CIA action in Italy when the USA put huge efforts in to influencing the outcome of the general elections of 1948 and those for the next 25 years.

Creating the military alliance of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) whereby 14 western countries agreed to collaborate so as to train, fight, develop technology and share information under US leadership, was another huge step towards Washington’s leadership or control of the Western world. It was later matched by the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, whereby the armed forces of the USSR and Eastern Europe were united, and strengthened by the establishment of SEATO (the South East Asian Treaty Organisation) which did the same role as NATO in that region. It was about creating alliances, gangs of countries which would work together for security reasons, pretty much going directly against Woodrow Wilson’s vision as outlined in the ‘Fourteen Points’ at the Treaty of Versailles. With NATO still so active in the 21st Century, it is easy to see this as one of the prime legacies of World War II and the changed role of the USA.

By 1950, within two years of the setting up of the ‘Marshall Plan’, almost every country that received aid was at or near its pre-war level for agricultural production and foreign trade. Remarkably, total industrial production was operating at 15% above its 1939 level. If you consider what had been the damage suffered during the war and the chaos in the immediate post-war years, this was a stunning achievement, creating a lasting recovery which transformed the world. Beyond the statistics, the impact on lives, confidence, expectations and attitudes was equally significant as it tied most Europeans into an ‘American-centric’ world at an unprecedented level. Suddenly, American businesses, music, fashions and tastes came to influence Europe (and the world), flooding in on the back of ‘Marshall Aid’. The growth of multi-national companies and international brands, like Coca-Cola, General Motors and Disney, as well as US control of resources in places as far apart as the Australian outback and Amazonian rainforest, were hugely influenced by the results of the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was also a key element in the creation of modern western society from jeans to rock and roll, computers to 24 hour TV, Facebook to Starbucks. The General’s vision and Truman’s Doctrine were clearly necessary but many would question some of the long term consequences of accepting ‘the dollar’.

The Marshall Plan ran for just four years from 1948 to 1952 but it had a huge impact on Europe, the USA and world affairs. It saved lives, transformed economies and created wealth on an unprecedented scale. It brought Hollywood and the ‘American Dream’ into every village and street in Europe. It hardened the divisions of the Cold War, increased corruption and the power of the media, and allowed countries like France and Britain to hold on to its old status and Empires in ways which were not necessarily healthy. It angered and intimidated Joseph Stalin, leading to a hardening of Moscow’s approach, as seen in the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War. Most of all, it established the USA as a ‘Superpower’ and the leader of the Western world, generating wealth and influence never before seen in one country. It brought the US presidency a level of influence never before held by one man. It helped to foster the ‘homogenisation’ (standardisation) of life around the world in terms of language, music, film, tastes and values which has itself produced a backlash in many cultures and societies, with numerous peoples trying to re-assert their own values, beliefs and identity in response.

The Marshall Plan might appear dull on some levels but few events have played a more significant role in shaping the modern world, a real example of ‘boring but important’. Little could General George C. Marshall have appreciated what he would go on to achieve as he drove around Europe in 1946.


When countries put foreign politicians on their stamps, you know they’re important. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)


Find out more

Books: ‘The most noble adventure’ by Greg Behrman; ‘Democracy and its critics’ by RA Dahl; ‘George C. Marshall’ by Mark A. Stoler;  ‘Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA’ by Tim Weiner;‘George F. Kennan: An American Life’ by John Gaddis; ‘The Cold War’ by John Lewis Gaddis; ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe

Films:‘The Third Man’ (1949), ‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1948) and ‘Germany, Year Zero’ (1947)






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