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Start of the Cold War - The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

Read about the US's early attempts to contain communism through economic and military aid.


  • In 1947, President Harry S. Truman pledged that the United States would help any nation resist communism in order to prevent its spread. His policy of containment is known as the Truman Doctrine.
  • The Truman Doctrine demonstrated that the United States would not return to isolationism after World War II, but rather take an active role in world affairs.
  • To help rebuild after the war, the United States pledged $13 billion of aid to Europe in the Marshall Plan.

The Truman Doctrine

The world was in flux in the aftermath of World War II, and political upheaval reigned in many countries. Already wary of communism thanks to George Kennan's Long Telegram, the US government was dismayed when a number of countries in Europe and Asia adopted communist governments in the late 1940s.
When the United Kingdom notified the United States that it could no longer afford to fight communist insurgencies in Greece and Turkey, US President Harry S. Truman issued what would become known as the Truman Doctrine: a promise that the United States would do whatever was necessary both economically and militarily to contain the spread of communism around the world.
Painting of Harry S. Truman during his time in office. Truman is seated on a chair in front of an outdoor landscape with the US Capitol Building in the background.
Official White House portrait of Harry S. Truman, painted by Greta Kempton, 1945. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
With this step, the United States signaled that its role on the world stage would not conclude after World War II, ending a century and a half of isolationist foreign policy in America.
During Truman's presidency, the Truman Doctrine would result in another conflict in Asia, this time in Korea, as the US government attempted to prevent the unification of Korea under a communist government. Truman's policy would continue to drive American interventions through the 1980s.1

The Marshall Plan

One of the most pressing problems in the immediate aftermath of World War II was the reconstruction of Europe. The war left a swath of destruction that crippled infrastructure and led to massive food shortages in the winter of 1946-1947.
The US government feared that a hungry, devastated Europe might turn to communism (as China would do in 1949). To stabilize the European economy, US Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a plan to provide Europe with $13 billion in economic aid.
The Marshall Plan proved enormously successful, helping to rehabilitate European nations that accepted the aid. It also provided a boost to the American economy, since Marshall Plan funds were used to purchase American goods.2

What do you think?

Why did the United States end its long history of isolationism after World War II? Would it have been possible for the US to return to an isolationist foreign policy?
What were the benefits and potential pitfalls of Truman's offer to support any country trying to resist communism?
Which was more successful in combatting the spread of communism: economic aid or military force?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user hansonkye6
    So if Communism could help fix Europe's problems why was the U.S.A. against it? Doesn't make sense to me, can someone explain?
    (33 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Great question! I think there are two major reasons that the U.S. was afraid of the spread of communism: 1) The U.S. was committed to democracy and "self-determination," or the right of citizens to determine their own form of government. They believed that communism was too totalitarian and wouldn't let people choose government. 2) The U.S. is a capitalist country, and so its prosperity depends on having people buy its products all over the world. In communist countries, there is no private property, so it cuts people off from buying products. The more communism spreads, the fewer people there are to buy products, thus undermining capitalism.
      (82 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    How come instead of the policy of "Containment", the U.S. didn't try an "Open Immigration" policy instead? Offering all the struggling peoples of the world the option to just immigrate to the U.S. instead of ending our "isolationist". but non-interventionist policy that had been both morally and economically superior to all the other nations foreign polices?

    After all, this is the country of Emma Lazarus' great poem written upon the Statue of Liberty...

    "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these the homeless, tempest-tost to me..."
    (9 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
      Emma Lazarus' great poem is not the law of the land LOL

      Just as the Declaration of Independence, including the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", is also not the law of the land either ;)

      Seriously, the U.S. Constitution, and any federal laws, regulations, and U.S. Supreme Court cases stemming therefrom, are what determines our government and policies, and often they are in conflict with the noble aspirations (or the American myth) of the United States.

      As to your question, Jeff, the United States has always been ambivalent regarding immigration. Although the U.S. was colonized, founded, and expanded by immigrants, once those immigrants and their progeny became "Americans", many wanted to protect their own economic turf, that is, jobs and wages.

      Thus, both in the past and currently, many immigrants and their progeny wanted to "shut the door behind them", sometimes out of economic considerations, whether a rational approach to keep their own wages high and to reduce competition for jobs in the U.S., or an irrational approach to selfishly keep their wages and jobs to themselves and not allow "immigrants" to take "their" wages or jobs.

      It's sad, but that's how people, including the progeny of immigrants, act and think.
      (24 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Coulter Gill
    Was Russia an extreme communism , because at the first they were actual communism , which basically means that everyone was equal , but then Stalin took over, and so he basically broke the communism doctrine when he was above everyone else or what?
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user joicewhx
      OK, very good question. Communism is actually a long term goal. Communism, in some degrees, is impossible to realize. Many socialists have taken many many experiments in the history, like they built a society in a small island and see if this society could realize communism. But no, it is actually impossible. The communism, like you mentioned is the equality in a whole society. So how could that be possible? Only when there are enough resources, enough material resources, when people do not have any desire in possession, when they could simply get anything they want, could communism come true. So what Soviet Union was, precisely, Socialism, which is the previous stage of communism. Socialism refers to the society that there are not "enough" resources so that the equality could not be fully realized. Many, many countries have tried to develop socialism, but the result was really terrible. Most of them became capitalism at last, and either way they became really extreme like Nazi. So, as it turns out, communism is just a dream to human society.
      (9 votes)
  • starky seed style avatar for user Kamryn Cooley
    So, I have a question- so there are many things that are good for the economy such as socialism being a part of communism. Equal pay for everyone sounds like an amazing thing to me. So, why haven't we converted to that system yet? Wouldn't it also decrease inflation?
    (2 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Stephen White
      If you look at socialist and communist nations such as Russia, Venezuela, China, North Korea and others, you will find that their economies are mostly terrible.

      When socialist and communist governments force things like equal pay on people, then the people usually start to wonder why they bother even going to work if all of their expertise in some field will only earn them the same as the taxi driver or the street sweeper. They suddenly have no incentive to work hard or advance in their fields because there will be little or no benefit.

      Socialism and communism are great concepts but ONLY when they are done voluntarily by the people themselves. (sharing what you have with others - or receiving something from others because of your poverty) When socialist and communist governments demand that you share what you have by using force, it's no longer much fun, and those who receive will become lazy because they know they don't have to work to get what they want.

      Socialism always leads to Communism, and there are plenty of examples of nations that have murdered their citizens by the tens of millions, and created much poverty and despair with these forms of government.

      It would be important to remember that the government that can give you everything you want needs to be powerful enough to take from you everything you have.
      (8 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Gabe Crain
    Why was the United States so concerned with the spread of communism, outside of the scope of the Soviet Union? How is the political model of communism any less sound than the model of capitalism and a democratic republic?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      This could compare to "Why were the British so concerned about the spread of the French empire?" So, the answer to your first question is one of imperial power vs imperial power, and has little to do with ideology.

      As for the second, debates could go on for a long time about the relative merits of each of these two deeply flawed political systems, so maybe the answer is to look to the results of where they've been tried. Capitalism has failed in many, many places. Communism, likewise, has been widely tried, and apart from stunning successes like the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, has been bent in a capitalist direction or completely replaced in most others.
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jaisen Roa
    What set the Truman and Roosevelt administrations apart regarding communism? I presume it's that Truman took a more active approach with his Doctrine?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Remember that each administration lived, moved and had its being in different political and cultural contexts. The Roosevelt administration existed during a time when the economy, which had been run by republicans under hyper-Capitalist principles, had crashed. Communists were not perceived as a major threat at that time. The Soviet Union was an ally against fascist Germany.

      By the time that Truman was president, the US Economy had recovered. The Democrats had been in office for many years and were beginning to look stale. Truman was, by no means, pro-Communist or pro-Soviet, but the legislative branch was once again in the hands of the Republicans, and international communism was considered a valid gthreat to "The American Way." Truman's own anti-communism was part of the political environment within which he served as the American president.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Odessa L.
    Are the Truman Doctrine and the containment policy the same thing?
    (2 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Stephen White
      They were very similar.

      The Truman Doctrine was designed to support any non-communist nation that was under siege by a communist nation.

      Containment was designed to stop the enlargement of an enemy (in this case communism), but perhaps not necessarily because of an attack on a non-communist country.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 4804345312
    how would communism help fix the Europe
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The war had physically destroyed much of Europe.
      A system was needed to help fix it.
      In Western Europe, the system chosen was "socialist democracy". It worked very well in Germany, Italy, France, the UK and the Benelux countries.
      In Eastern Europe, the system chosen was "Planned Economy Socialism". It didn't work as well, but even for that, Europe as a whole rose from the devastation of the war.
      (4 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user rm50017
    How did communism even form?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Giavonna
    Why was there so much fear from the United States about communism spreading in Western Europe after the war in 1946-1947?
    (3 votes)
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