During World War Two, many of Europe’s largest industrial centers were destroyed in both Axis and Allied nations. The continent also faced agricultural challenges and large swaths of the continent were on the verge of famine. These dire circumstances provided the United States an opportunity to exert the might of a nation that avoided almost any damage on the home front. Secretary of State George C. Marshall planned, fought for and executed what came to be known as the Marshall Plan. Formally known as the European Recovery Plan, the Marshall Plan set out to encourage free trade and cooperation between nations in Europe by removing trade barriers and reconstructing industries across the continent. The primary tool of the Plan was the $15 billion allocated to numerous nations to be used at the discretion of the nations leaders with some restrictions. On June 5, 1947 the details of the plan were drafted at a meeting of the participating European nations. Aide was also offered to the Soviet Union and some of its allies, but they refused in order to limit the impact of the United States over the Communist world. The spread of American aide and with it, American influence across Europe, is often referred to as the start of the Cold War.
Even if the Marshall plan was not the start of the Cold war, it certainly framed the USSR as the enemy of the United States. Not long before the signing of the Marshall Plan by Harry Truman, the Truman Doctrine, the early stages of Domino Theory had converged to draw the United States in to the Greek Civil war. The Truman Doctrine saw the necessity of the limiting Soviet influence in Greece and Turkey and domino theory suggested that if Greece were to fall in to the hands of the Greek Communist Party Turkey would follow suit. Once aide began to flow from the United States into Greece, the necessity of a victory over communism only increased. After Stalin openly condemned the Greek Communist Party and their role in the descent of Greece in to civil war, The United States could claim a first victory for the Truman doctrine, Domino Theory and the Marshall Plan. This initial boost of confidence cemented the concept of intervention in wars involving Communist factions in order to prevent further spread of the economic dogma being pushed aggressively by the USSR and compounded by the domino effect such a spread can have on surrounding nations. This type foreign policy had lasting impact not only on the Cold War but on the foreign policy challenges being faced today.
In June of 1950 the Communist Korean People’s Army crossed in to South Korea signaling that start of the Korean War. President Truman was left with no choice as the tacitly Chinese backed North Korean forces drove further to the south and began to threaten the South Korean capital of Seoul. After the United State’s began to make meaningful strides towards defeating the communist forces China more aggressively intervened in the fighting, providing the Communist Korean People’s Army territory from which to resupply and launch strikes on UN and United States lines. The United States could not cross in to China for fear of sparking a third world war and were eventually driven back to the 38th parallel and forced in to a stalemate that still exists today. This mixed bag of successes and failures in the Korean peninsula has had a lasting impact on the foreign policy challenges facing the United States and still exists today. George W. Bush went as far as to call North Korea a member of the new “Axis of Evil” in 2002. (Bush 2002)
The United States’ problem with communist expansion in Asia did not end with the resolution of the Korean War. The United States began limited intervention in Vietnam as early as 1950 to limit the spread of communist forces, but following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, American troop levels increased eight fold to 184,000. After almost twenty years of intense fighting and more than 53,000 dead Americans the war in Vietnam had largely been a failure punctuated by the fall of Saigon in 1975. This failure was expedited thanks in large part to logistical, material, and intelligence support provided by China and the Soviet Union to the Viet Cong. While the military and foreign policy impacts of Vietnam were great, many of the most meaningful outcomes were felt at home in response to the unpopular war. The war in Vietnam activated the student population of the United States in a way that had not been seen before and this political engagement was accelerated by the Kent State Massacre. Civil rights leaders also expressed opposition to the war citing that African-Americans were no equal to whites so they should not be drafted to fight for a cause largely dictated by white men. Muhammad Ali risked his career and jail time by openly opposing being drafted. These currents of social and political activism were key to major civil rights advancements that came after the war.
As the Cold War marched on with varying points of escalation and de-escalation, one of the more consequential wars fought in the name of containment would be the Soviet-Afghan War that began in 1979. After the murder of the American ambassador to USSR friendly tensions between the United States and the Afghan Government were near a breaking point. Ronald Reagan’s slight modification of the Truman doctrine (the “Reagan Doctrine”) mandated that when Pakistan asked the US to arm and finance the Mujahedeen the CIA would be there to provide assistance. The massive support provided eventually led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces making the operation an expensive success. The power vacuum left by Soviet withdrawal combined with the influx of high end weaponry provided by the US combined to bolster Islamic forces in the region including Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. These al-Qaeda and Taliban factions supported by local tribal leaders would go on to enact some of the most violent acts of terror in world history and leave a lasting impact on the United States through the attacks on September 11 and the ensuing decades long War on Terror.
While Truman and Marshall surely could not have imagined the impact that their policies would end up having on the world, their collective influence is undeniable. Throughout the Cold War iterations of these policies led to various turning points in American history many of which have had consequences still being felt today. Despite the varying degrees of success with which the policies were applied, the United States was able to come out the victor of the Cold War in the near term. Whether or not the consequences of the policies that led to this short term victory will be worth the victory itself is a question that still looms large, especially with the increasing appearance that the Cold War never really came to an end.