Marshall and the “Plan”

by Larry I. Bland (Marshall Foundation)

Marshall’s Worldview in Early 1947

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May observed in their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (1986), that Marshall had developed the habit of “seeing time as a stream”: that is, of applying a consciousness of past problems, ideas, and solutions to the present rather than seeing every current problem in isolation and thus as new and unique (pp. 247-28). Marshall was not a scholar of military or political history, but he read widely and was excellent at extracting accurate lessons from his reading and from his own experience. In many respects, Marshall sought during World War II to avoid the mistakes he had witnessed in World War I and its immediate aftermath.

Consequently, Marshall was increasingly disturbed after the autumn of 1945 at what he considered the disintegration of American military power rather than the careful demobilization and reorganization for which he had planned since 1943. As he said publicly several times in the latter half of 1945, the United States courted disaster for itself and the world if it again fell “into a state of disinterested weakness” and failed to fulfill its international responsibilities for aid and assistance in postwar economic and political reconstruction. (See his October 29, 1945, speech to the New York Herald Tribute Forum and his November 18, 1945, speech to the Salvation Army National Convention in Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens, eds., The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 5, “The Finest Soldier,” January 1, 1945-January 7, 1947 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004], pp. 336-43, 357-63.)

These could have remained the departing sentiments of a fading-away old soldier. Indeed, in late November 1945, Marshall longed to retire after forty-four years of active duty, but President Truman needed Marshall’s prestige and skills to attempt to mediate the Chinese civil war and (as Marshall knew by early 1946) thereafter to take over from James F. Byrnes as Secretary of State.

Marshall’s failure in China was not a result of his lack of negotiating skills but of the determination of both sides to seek a military solution to China’s problems. Marshall considered the Chinese Communist Party ruthless, dedicated Marxists who seemed to count on and encourage China’s economic collapse as a way of furthering their objectives. What particularly pained him, however, was that Chiang Kai-shek’s government was such a poor ally for the United States. Reactionaries within the Nationalist party presumed that U.S. national interests required it to support the Nationalists, and they thus rejected the domestic reforms that Marshall and other Truman administration leaders considered essential to undermining Communist growth.

Marshall left China on January 7, 1947. He arrived in Washington, D.C., January 20, 1947, the day his nomination to become Secretary of State passed unanimously in the Senate, thanks to the efforts of Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan), the Majority Leader and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.


The Truman Doctrine

By the time Marshall arrived in the capital, Washington leaders were aware of Britain’s growing economic weaknesses, the likely effects that would have in the eastern Mediterranean, and the possibility that the Soviet Union or its surrogates would fill the power vacuum there. Even before the disastrous blizzard of December 1946 to January 1947 had pushed Britain to the edge economically, the U.S. was moving toward helping the Greek government against the Communists. The suddenness of the British notification that it had to relinquish its traditional role in Greece put Washington under the gun to act quickly. (See Howard Jones, “A New Kind of War”: America’s Global Strategy and the Truman Doctrine in Greece [1989].) When the advance version of the British notes were presented on February 21, 1947, Marshall was on his way to Columbia University to receive an honorary degree and then to Princeton on the twenty-second for his first speech as Secretary of State. At Princeton, in the face of the recent elections returning Republican party majorities in both houses that were infused with the rhetoric of tax-cutting, economic nationalism, and government downsizing, Marshall reiterated his 1945 calls for Americans to learn from the lessons of past and assume their world responsibilities as citizens of a great power.

On Monday February 24 Marshall returned to his office and Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson presented the British memos, reports from Athens, and the staff’s recommendations. The situation probably reminded Marshall of the situation in China fifteen months earlier. The staff recommended the unification of all Greek parties (this time excluding the Communists and the extreme right), domestic reforms in government and tax programs, and economic and military aid from the U.S.

By February 27, Marshall’s advisers had written a plan of action, which Marshall read to a White House meeting of congressional leaders and the president. Marshall was well acquainted with all the senators and congressmen and adopted his usual low-key but earnest approach to defending the policy of aid to Greece and Turkey. Using a version of what would later be called the domino thesis, Marshall asserted that a communist victory in Greece would be a disaster. “It is not alarmist,” he said, “to say that we are faced with the first crisis of a series which might extend Soviet domination to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.” Marshall made no call for the defense of democracy everywhere or for an anticommunist crusade, but for containment of Soviet opportunism in the face of British weakness. American assistance would be aimed at boosting Greek public morale through financial and military equipment aid.

Acheson thought that Marshall had failed to put the Administration’s case across and repainted the picture for the politicians with more vigorous strokes and in starker contrasts, an approach encouraged by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg. Acheson asserts in his memoir, Present at the Creation (1969), that only in this way were the congressmen sufficiently impressed to take action (p. 219). This approach cleared the way for more vigorous public rhetoric by the Truman administration. (Congress ultimately appropriated $250 million for Greece and $150 million for Turkey, which was also being subjected to Soviet diplomatic pressure.)

Marshall was reluctant to put too militant a public face on the U.S. response to the Greek situation lest all hope of agreement on the treatment of Germany and Austria at the up-coming Moscow Foreign Ministers’ Conference be lost. Moreover, should the Soviet Union be provoked into aggressive action, the United States was not prepared to offer effective military resistance in Europe. Truman and certain of his advisers, however, believed that strong anticommunist rhetoric was essential to the aid bill’s passage, and despite a March 7 note from Marshall in Paris urging some cooling of the rhetoric, Marshal had almost no influence on the final form of the March 12 Truman Doctrine speech. His real influence to this point had been in reorganizing and revitalizing the State Department itself.


Moscow Foreign Ministers’ Conference

As it turned out, the President’s pronouncement appeared to have no impact on the Soviet attitude at the Moscow Foreign Ministers’ Conference. Nevertheless, the conferees meet forty-three times between March 10 and April 24 but found few areas of agreement. More important were Marshall’s frequent discussions with the British and French, smoothing out disagreements and displaying American concern; Marshall also received a dire picture of Anglo-French economic and political problems.

As for the Soviets, Marshall concluded that they had decided to stall in the expectation that the spreading social disintegration would work to their benefit. Their attitude reminded Marshall of the 1944 proposal by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to break up and pastoralize Germany, and when he returned to Washington he reread then Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s vehement critique of the plan. It probably also reminded him of the Communist’s attitude during his 1946 mission to China.

Marshall’s second public address as Secretary of State came in an April 28 national radio speech on the Moscow Conference. Marshall still desired to avoid a rupture with the Soviet Union, but his optimism was rapidly waning. Europe, he asserted, needed American help for reconstruction and economic relief, and there must not be further delay on a German settlement. “Disintegrating forces are becoming evident. The patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate.” He called for bipartisan unity on the reconstruction of Europe.


Decision to Propose a New U.S. Aid Policy

By late April, dozens of public figures and commentators in addition to Marshall were calling for aid to Europe. Studies were already underway in the State Department that would help to lay the groundwork for a new American initiative to restore the balance of power in Europe. But Marshall and his advisers faced countervailing pressures. On the one hand, increasing misery and Communist voting strength in western Europe demanded speed and decisiveness from the Truman administration. On the other hand, domestic politics encouraged the administration to caution. While the reaction to the Truman Doctrine had generally been positive, there was a worrisome undercurrent of opposition to increased foreign aid, and not just from Republican party isolationists. Many Democratic congressmen warned that they would not stand for the presentation of another administration policy fait accompli like the Greece-Turkey aid package. State Department officials went out of their way to avoid any further hints that the United States would seek everywhere to resist communism or the Soviet menace. Marshall himself went to considerable lengths to stroke Senator Vandenberg’s ego and to reassure him that no budget-busting programs were under consideration.

By early May 1947, Marshall had decided upon a low-key approach to proposing American political-economic efforts in Europe. He suggested that he announce a new initiative at one of the graduation ceremonies that he was scheduled to attend. Acheson assured him that nobody paid any attention to what was said at those events, but Marshall knew that European leaders could be tipped off in advance to the importance of what he would say.

Marshall first thought of announcing something at the University of Wisconsin on May 24; that venue had the advantage of bearding the very conservative and hostile Robert McCormick and his Chicago Tribune tiger in their Midwestern den. But key adviser William L. Clayton (Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs) was out of the country, the Policy Planning Staff was just getting started, and Marshall’s advisers could not have drafted a policy statement in time. The next important venue Marshall considered was Amherst College on June 15, but it was quickly evident that the United States could not wait that long. Consequently, Marshall decided upon Harvard University on June 5, as the best time, and hurriedly arranged to receive a long-delayed honorary degree from that institution.

By the end of May, State Department planning was beginning to jell; all Marshall’s advisers were by now agreed that the United States had to launch a massive aid program. They were all too aware of the U.S.’s too-little-too-late response to West Europe’s economic crisis of 1929-31 and that it had contributed to the rise of Adolph Hitler. On May 30, Marshall directed his staff to prepare a draft for a ten-minute talk. To avoid comparisons of the new approach with the controversial Truman Doctrine, Marshall agreed with Acheson’s suggestion that he present the aid issue as a material or technological rather than an ideological problem, and to propose no American-inspired solution.

Marshall’s advisers were generally agreed on two other points: first, European nations had to take the initiative and to coordinate policies; second, the offer was made to all European states in order to avoid the implication that the United States sought to divide Europe into American and Soviet blocs. Nevertheless, it was assumed that the Soviets would never accept economic conditions such as openness, free trade, and American supervision.

The Marshall Plan speech was deliberately low-key and no master plan was enunciated; the speech had just the right degree of vagueness to require European action, yet the right degree of specificity to excite it. In time, the Marshall Plan program that evolved from the planning of the first half of 1947 would be adjudged one of the greatest of America’s foreign policy successes. Harry Truman considered the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan “two halves of the same walnut,” although Marshall did not.

Charles Bohlen wrote a draft of the talk for Marshall based upon a study by George F. Kennan and his Policy Planning Staff and Will Clayton’s memorandum on the seriousness of Europe’s economic plight. Marshall then modified the draft, contributing the insistence that the program come from Europe and be open to all European states willing to abide by the rules. To prevent leaks, neither President Truman nor Marshall’s State Department advisers knew the content of the final version of the speech until after it was delivered, although the text was available to newsmen at the State Department on June 4. Acheson, Kennan, and others dropped pointed hints to various influential British opinion-makers in Washington that Marshall was going to make a statement on foreign aid.