The end of World War II and the devastation experienced by the nations of Europe left it fertile ground for revolution, particularly a communist revolution. The United States became concerned with the spread of communism in the former occupied nations of Europe and this led to the formation of the “Marshall Plan” for Europe’s postwar economic recovery. By 1947, the Soviet Union had reached grand heights of power, with the largest army in the world and effective control over much of eastern Europe. Most importantly, the Soviet Union presented an alternative model to the capitalist, democratic or western way of government and because of this it was an immediate philosophical and material threat to regimes based upon free market principles.
It was during this period that the United States began to fashion itself, under President Truman, as the leader of the ‘free world,’ the bringer of the light of democracy to war ravaged nations of the world. In requesting help for Greece and Turkey, Truman began the policy of intimate U.S. involvement in the postwar economic arrangement in occupied, continental Europe. Secretary of State Marshall, a wartime military leader, planned the U.S. response to the economic predicament facing the continent. George Marshall surmised that the U.S.S.R. was stalling with regard to the postwar settlement, hoping that a deteriorating economic situation would lead to an environment more conducive to indigenous communist revolt that would bring those nations into the Soviet sphere by default.
The “Marshall Plan” was announced at an awards ceremony held at Harvard University. Earnest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, welcomed the Marshall speech because he wanted greater American involvement in Europe to counterbalance the Soviet Union. In theory the “Marshall Plan” was open to nations in the east and the west, thus the Soviet Union could have theoretically participated. Stalin thought that, given the “Truman Doctrine,” the “Marshall Plan” was nothing more than an attempt on the part of the United States to leach away Soviet power and influence, particularly in the ‘people’s democracies’ in the Soviet sphere.
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Soviet intelligence vetted the “Marshall Plan” thoroughly by utilizing its spy network throughout Europe to discern the intentions of the plan and confirmed that the United States did not really want the U.S.S.R. to take part in the Marshall Plan. After the Paris meeting, Molotov accused the U.S. of dividing the world into competing camps; however, the public relations boon for the United States was accomplished because the U.S. did not give off the appearance of being anti-communist.
In Czechoslovakia the government was democratically elected and participation in the Marshall Plan was widely welcomed. Stalin threatened the Czechoslovakian representatives in the Soviet Union and told them to not take part in the “Marshall Plan” because such an action would endanger relations with the U.S.S.R. It may have been intimated that the Soviet Union would have invaded but this is not entirely clear. Sixteen European nations signed up for the “Marshall Plan” and requested some $20 billion in aid. The Soviet Union interpreted the plan as an aggressive act on the part of the Americans and as trying to control the nations who received aid.
COMECON and COMINFORM were direct responses to the “Marshall Plan.” COMINFORM was to export the direct economic model the Soviet Union wished to impose on its allies while the COMECON provided economic assistance to nations within the eastern bloc. Urged on by Stalin, communists in Czechoslovakia overthrew the government and established a new communist regime.
The communist takeover in Czechoslovakia expedited approval for the “Marshall Plan.” Convinced that the Soviet Union was aggressively expanding westward, the U.S. Congress, that had before been ambivalent to the legislation, approved it readily. “Marshall Plan” money was circulated back to the United States in that U.S. industrial goods were sold to Europe and purchased with U.S. money loaned to them under the plan. Greece was in a particularly dire situation after years of civil war and occupation. U.S. aid to Greece included things as varied as loans, farm equipment, and mules for the peasant farmers. French labor strikes in 1948 rocked the French government and stoked government ministerial fear of civil war. Plan aid was predicated on the French government bringing the communists under control which was achieved after the public lost sympathy with the strikers after the derailment of a cargo train.
Yugoslavia had become a communist state without Soviet intervention, leading to a much more independent direction than the other nations of eastern Europe. In 1948 Stalin expelled Tito from the COMINFORM after which Tito turned to the United States for aid. Italian politics were dominated by the popular communists while the government was ruled by the Christian Democrats. The Popular Front was expected to win the elections of 1948 after being formed to counterbalance the right’s influence. A letter writing campaign was undertaken in the United States to get Italians to write their family in Italy to not vote for the communist party in Italy.
The CIA also became heavily involved in steering the election in a particular direction within Italy, aided in large party by the Catholic church especially since the overwhelming majority of Italian society was Catholic. Pope Pius XII, who tolerated the fascists during World War II, excommunicated a slew of communists prior to the critical 1948 elections determining that the communists were openly against Christ. April 14, 1948, the Christian Democrats won a landslide in Italy. On the rest of the continent, the lines between East and West, NATO and Warsaw Pact, were beginning to harden.