Early Cold War: 1945–1962

Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and Berlin Airlift

Truman Doctrine

The purpose of the Truman Doctrine was to support faltering free countries who resisted communism.

In February 1947 Great Britain informed the United States it could no longer provide aid to the eastern Mediterranean countries of Greece and Turkey. The United States had been monitoring the economic and political conditions in both countries as there was concern they would fall under Soviet influence. World War II had left the Soviet Union in a severely weakened state. The country had suffered many civilian casualties, was depleted militarily, and feared the rise of yet another militaristic Germany. Thus, as a way to reassert its dominance after the war, the Soviet Union followed an aggressive policy to expand communism, particularly in Eastern Europe.

On March 12, 1947, following a series of meetings with congressional representatives and State Department officials, President Harry S. Truman addressed a joint session of Congress and made an unprecedented request. He asked Congress to authorize $400 million for military and economic aid for Greece and Turkey. Truman said the United States must "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures." The principles Truman outlined became known as the Truman Doctrine. This foreign policy stated the United States would oppose Soviet aggression by aiding those free countries resisting communist control. The Truman Doctrine led to the Marshall Plan, a plan to rebuild the economies of war-torn Europe. The Truman Doctrine established an American foreign policy that relied on economic assistance. This became America's foreign policy for decades.

Truman's speech was based on the circumstances in Turkey and Greece. But since 1946 it had become clear to Truman that it was not possible for the United States, a democracy, to have a lasting and peaceful postwar relationship with the Soviet Union, a totalitarian regime. The Soviet Union was trying to extend communism into European countries devastated by the war. Eastern European countries were becoming increasingly controlled by the Soviet Union. Truman argued the United States had to take action against the spread of totalitarian regimes because these regimes, he said, "undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States." The Truman Doctrine committed the United States to assist free nations struggling against communism. This was a major change in American foreign policy. Until the Truman Doctrine, the United States did not have a tradition of intervening in European and Asian struggles. But the end of World War II brought immense changes to international relationships and alliances.

Marshall Plan

The Marshall Plan was a program designed to help European countries rebuild after the destruction of World War II.

Known officially as the European Recovery Plan, the Marshall Plan was named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who proposed the foreign aid program in 1947. The Marshall Plan was a U.S. program of massive financial aid to European countries devastated by World War II. The goal of the program was to rebuild the economies of European countries in order to create conditions in which democratic governments could develop. The program offered financial aid to all European countries, including those under Soviet control. But the Soviet Union refused to participate in the plan and called the plan the beginning of a division between the East and West.

In 1948 Congress established the Economic Cooperation Administration, and the work of the Marshall Plan began. For the next four years, the United States gave countries in Western Europe some $13 billion worth of aid. All the aid under the plan was economic—it did not include any military aid. The money helped establish financial stability, restore agricultural and industrial production, and increase trade. Most of the aid was given in direct grants, but some was given as loans. The Marshall Plan drew on the successes of the New Deal (1933–39), a domestic plan implemented under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to provide economic relief during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 through about 1939. Initially, to coordinate the Marshall Plan in Europe, 16 European countries formed the Committee of European Economic Cooperation and suggested a recovery program. Later, the permanent Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) replaced the Committee and admitted West Germany to the organization. This European organization helped abolish trade restrictions among its members and dispersed resources. It also established a system of frequent consultations on common economic issues that cropped up during Europe's economic recovery. In addition the Marshall Plan helped the American economy. The money went to buy food and goods from the United States, which had to be shipped from the United States to Europe on American merchant ships.

The result of the program in Western Europe was a success. It initiated recovery and built economic cooperation among European countries that helped pave the way for today's European Common Market. It also satisfied many Americans. On one hand, it satisfied those who wanted U.S. foreign policy to be openhanded and somewhat idealistic. On the other hand, it satisfied those who insisted U.S. foreign policy be based on practical rather than moral principles. The Marshall Plan rebuilt economic vitality in the region and fed and sheltered the homeless while undermining the spread of communism in Europe.

Recipients of the Marshall Plan, 1948-51

After World War II, most western European countries received aid under the Marshall Plan as a way to combat communism and the spread of Soviet influence.

Berlin Airlift

The Soviet Union blocked the Allied powers' access to Berlin. In response, the Allies organized the Berlin airlift.

As the Soviet Union's cooperation with its western allies greatly diminished, it became increasingly difficult for the Allied Control Council to effectively administer occupied Germany. A wide division between the Soviet Union and the western allies was evolving. The Berlin airlift in 1948 was the first international crisis of this division. The divided city of Berlin was the battleground of the crisis that was, in effect, developing into a cold war. Located within the Soviet zone, each of the three western Allied powers—Great Britain, France, and the United States—controlled a sector in western Berlin, while the Soviets controlled the city's eastern sector.

Berlin had been bombed into rubble during the war. Immediately after the war, food and supplies were regularly supplied to Berliners through road, rail, and waterway routes from the Allied western zones. However, this arrangement quickly changed. In early 1948 the western Allied powers united their occupied zones for administrative purposes into an area called Trizonia. The Soviet Union in response withdrew from the Allied Control Council. In early June 1948 the western Allied powers established a single West German currency. Stalin objected to the unified currency and its circulation in western Berlin by refusing to accept it. In retaliation, on June 24, he established a blockade, the isolation of an enemy area to prevent passage of people or supplies. Stalin closed all rail, road, and water routes between western Germany and Berlin. He also announced the cessation of the administration of Berlin by the four powers, claiming the western Allies no longer had any rights in their Berlin sectors. In response, on June 26, 1948, the United States and Great Britain began the Berlin Airlift, known as Operation Vittles, to provide food, fuel, and other necessary supplies to Berliners. The Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, but Operation Vittles continued until September 30, 1949. The Soviets ended the blockade because of the counterblockade the western Allies imposed against Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. Operation Vittles became a symbol of the U.S. commitment to oppose Soviet expansion. It also solidified the division of Europe between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. Up to this point, the division between East and West Germany had remained one based on politics and a display of military might. In 1961, however, a wall was erected to prevent residents of East Berlin from escaping into West Berlin. The "Berlin Wall," as it came to be known, now had a physical barrier that further reinforced the division between East and West.

Operation Vittles

Dates of operation Began: June 26, 1948
Blockade ended by Soviet Union: May 11, 1949
Operation Vittles ended: September 30, 1949
Amount of supplies airlifted 2,323,738 tons of food, coal, medical supplies, machinery, and other supplies
Dollar values of supplies airlifted $224 million
Number of flights made into Berlin Over 270,000
Obstacles to flight Storms, fog, Soviet fighter aircraft

Berliners watch a plane with food and other supplies land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport in 1948. The airlift provided aid to the beleaguered city, located in the Soviet zone.
Credit: U.S. Air Force