- Historic Sites
Lifeline To A Sinking Continent
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Truman deserves the ultimate credit for approving the plan. George Marshall had gained immense stature at home and abroad as the U.S. Army chief of staff during the war, and Truman insisted that it be referred to as the Marshall Plan instead of the Truman Plan, as some suggested. As the President told an aide, Marshall was “the greatest living American,” and a program bearing his name rather than Truman’s would do “a whole hell of a lot better in Congress.”
The most worrisome aspect of Marshall’s proposal was how the Soviet Union would respond. Those who collaborated on the speech agreed that the United States should not bear responsibility for further dividing Europe by restricting the offer to nations outside the Soviet bloc. Soviet conduct thus far, however, raised the fear that Russia might participate in the program only in order to sabotage it. Moreover, anti-Soviet attitudes among the public and in Congress ran strong enough to doom appropriations for any program that assisted Communist nations.
The Soviets soon revealed their intentions. Bevin and his French counterpart, Georges Bidault, invited Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov to meet with them in Paris in late June. Molotov raised an immediate objection to the idea of an integrated program, saying that each nation should decide on its own priorities. He furthermore demanded that the United States declare how much money it was prepared to make available and guarantee its appropriation by Congress. When the British and French replied that they intended to follow the cooperative approach suggested by Marshall and that no prior guarantee of legislative action was possible in a democracy, Molotov bitterly denounced the program as an imperialist plot and returned to Moscow. This was not bad news. “He could have killed the Marshall Plan by joining it,” an American official later observed.
Following Molotov’s departure, Bevin and Bidault issued invitations to nearly all the European nations to a conference on economic cooperation. Spain was excluded because of its pro-German sympathies during the war, Germany because it was occupied by the Allied powers (it would be eligible for aid, however, because its recovery was deemed crucial to European recovery), and the Soviet Union for obvious reasons. Some members of the Soviet bloc responded favorably, but Moscow prevented them from attending. Delegations from sixteen nations met in Paris on July 12 to begin deliberations. Although the United States did not formally participate, various American officials such as Clayton served as conduits from Washington.
The conference was marred by a great deal of bickering when it first got under way. Some nations were reluctant to give up control over their currencies and trade to the kinds of joint agencies the United States insisted were necessary for rehabilitation. The British were—as today —wary of becoming tied too economically to the Continent and wished to retain what they called their “special relationship” with the United States. The French sought arrangements that would expedite their recovery at the expense of Germany, which they wished to keep weak.
MOSCOW WOULDN’T LET Soviet bloc nations attend; France wanted to be rebuilt at the expense of Germany; and—as today —Britain feared being economically tied to the Continent.
The severity of conditions in Europe ultimately compelled the participants to resolve their differences and reach general agreements that would be worked out in more detail later. Drought during the very months the negotiations were being held ensured that crop shortages would make the situation even worse than the one Marshall had described at Harvard. The conference’s General Report, signed on September 22, expressed alarm over what would happen if matters were allowed to drift: “Life in Europe will become increasingly unstable and uncertain industries will grind to a gradual halt for lack of materials and fuel, and the food supply of Europe will diminish and begin to disappear.”
The U.S. Administration moved ahead on two tracks during the autumn of 1947. While officials made countless speeches to gain support, Truman appointed several committees to determine what resources the United States could make available for the program and to assure the public that it would not disrupt the American economy. The most important of these, the President’s Committee on Foreign Aid, was headed by Secretary of Commerce W. Averell Harriman and consisted of prominent representatives from business, labor, and agriculture. The committee reported on November 8 that the United States “has a vital interest—humanitarian, economic, strategic, and political”—in European recovery. It recommended appropriations of between $12.7 and $17.2 billion over the next four years. Meanwhile, Truman called a special session of Congress, in which he asked for $597 million in immediate aid to prevent France, Italy, and Austria from going under. Congress approved $522 million.
On December 19 he sent a message to Congress asking for approval of the Marshall Plan. “We must decide,” he stated, “whether or not we will complete the job of helping the free nations of Europe to recover from the devastation of war.” In addition to his humanitarian appeal, Truman emphasized that the American economy would benefit by European recovery and that continued dislocation would bolster Communist parties, which were already strong in some of the European nations. He asked for a total of $17 billion over a four-year period beginning in 1948.