Did Harry Truman Use Scare Tactics to Get the Marshall Plan Approved?


Mr. Bosworth is an HNN intern. He graduated with a degree in history from Whitman College in May.

On the campaign trail, Vice President Dick Cheney has ominously alluded to the possibility that America would "get hit again" during a Kerry presidency. In return Democrats have accused the Bush administration of engaging in scare tactics when it comes to the War on Terror. But if scare tactics truly are the Bush strategy, he will not be the first American president to use them in order to seize the political advantage.

Harry Truman found himself in a precarious position by the spring of 1948. Senate and House Republicans of the 80th Congress disliked Truman almost as much as they disliked internationalism. Hence, in an election year, Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan to rebuild Western Europe (the European Recovery Plan – ERP) by pouring $5.3 billion in aid into that area sat on the desks of the Republican-controlled Congress. So too did a proposal from the Truman Administration to retain Selective Service during peace time, and a further proposal for the universal military training of American citizens.

In early March, with Marshall’s programs stalled in congress, Marshall and Truman unleashed a series of speeches that raised the possibility of a Soviet-American war. Their scare talk made headlines around the country. On the 10th of March Marshall used the suspicious death of the Czechoslovakian foreign minister to suggest that that country had fallen under a reign of communist terror. On March 17, Truman berated the USSR for “violating” wartime agreements and “obstructing” the United Nations. Meanwhile the administration shared with members of Congress a top secret telegram written by General Lucius Clay, which claimed that within the last few weeks a warlike attitude had come over Soviet officials. As American citizens recoiled in fear of this new war, an equally frightened Senate approved the ERP by a vote of 67 to 17. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Forrestal saw a chance to drastically increase the pentagon’s budget. On March 22, Forrestal proposed an increase of $3 billion in additional military funds.

The scare talk of Truman and Marshall happened to directly contradict incoming intelligence reports. Intelligence gathered by both the CIA and the head of Policy Planning suggested that the Czech coup was not the start of a new Soviet offensive, but rather a ‘defensive reaction’ to the Marshall Plan. The CIA claimed relations could still improve with the Soviets. Then, as suddenly as the war scare speeches began, Truman and Marshall abruptly changed their tone. By March 22, Marshall stopped referring to the USSR as a new Nazi Germany, while Truman even described Russia as a friendly nation. What had happened?

The late Frank Kofsky argues that Truman and Marshall had found the cure-all solution to their problems: by fabricating the threat of impending war with the Soviet Union, the administration had pushed its programs through a Congress (with the exception of military training). Marshall’s ERP promised to reduce the showing of the Communist Party in upcoming Italian elections, drawing Italy further under American leadership and away from Soviet influence. The Marshall Plan also laid the economic framework for a North Atlantic Alliance, an alliance that America sorely needed in the event of war. Congress found it hard to reject the ERP when war seemed imminent: no congressman, not even an isolationist Republican, wanted to be accused of undermining America’s national security.

Kofsky makes the further charge that Truman accepted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal’s $3 billion dollar increase in military spending not because he expected a Soviet attack, but in order to revive the airplane industry. Airplane manufacturers had hemorrhaged money ever since the end of World War II. Sales were so poor by 1948 that companies had begun to diversify production in order to supplement their income: Convair began to sell bus parts and freezers, Douglas created aluminum rowboats, while Ryan Aeronautical marketed steel coffins. Big business had much to lose in the event of a collapse: General Electric and General Motors enjoyed lucrative airplane contracts, while Chase Manhattan Bank had invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry. Both big business and the manufacturers themselves lobbied for aid. When the dust had cleared, Forrestal’s $3 billion financed a 57 percent increase in airplane procurement funds, the largest increase in history. Truman, in Kofsky’s eyes, embraced the philosophy that a Cold War build up would create a “magic formula for almost endless good (economic) times.”

In addition to intelligence reports claiming that the Soviet Union was no immediate threat, there is other evidence to support Kofsky’s assertions. Years later, General Clay explained that he had written his famous war telegram at the behest of the pentagon:

General Chamberlin told me that the Army was having trouble getting the draft reinstituted, and they needed a strong message from me that they could use in Congressional testimony. So I wrote out this cable.

It is also of note that United States continued to sell the USSR combat planes and engine parts during the month-long war scare, certainly not the action of a government expecting to be attacked at any moment.

Historians differ in opinion when it comes to interpreting the ultimate significance of these facts. In Kofsky’s eyes, a fabricated war scare that lasted little longer than the month of March caused America to ignore Soviet peace overtures, led to the Berlin Blockade, initiated a forty-year long arms race, and most significantly, created a “permanent war economy” inside the United States. Robert H. Ferrell, rejects Kofsky’s evidence, and maintains that Truman was “scared stiff” by Soviet actions (Ferrell points to a letter Truman wrote to his wife as evidence: Truman claimed that war with the Soviets might start within thirty days). Many, such as T. Michael Ruddy, accept Kofsky’s basic argument that the Truman administration manipulated foreign relations with the Soviet Union in order to reap domestic benefits. If this is true, their manipulation was above all irresponsible, for while they subdued Congress and rescued the airplane industry, they increased the very real danger of touching off a new war.


  • Frank Kofsky, Harry S. Truman And the War Scare of 1948: A Successful Campaign to Deceive the Nation (1993)

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chad faulkner ryan - 12/6/2004

It is interesting how you point out Truman's sudden neglect to the former danger of the USSR. From the perspective of the public in this day in age it does seem a bit shady. However, we as civilians cannot assume that we know everything that goes on in the intelligence rooms of the CIA. We can't assume that the USSR wasn't a threat, and we cant assume that Iraq wasn't a threat either. We simply don't know the big picture like our military leaders do. Now you can listen to the media and try to make sense of the histaria that they tend to market, but i prefer to stick to what i know can be proven true. (I never trust much of what the national media says, only what they report) . So what can we assume? We can assume that Harry Truman and George Bush aren't dumb enough to announce war with a dangerous country just to ensure the passing of a bill or a second term. I cannot think any nationally elected president would put thousands of American lives and his reputation at stake simply to pursue his political agenda. I believe those men had a clear reason for their actions, but chose not to inform the public as to what their reasons were. If you are an American citizen i believe you should support the president (regardless what the media says) because he knows the situation better than anyone.

Eduard Maximilian Mark - 10/28/2004

The idea that the war scare of 1948 was fabricated for one purpose or another has been entertained by many historians, even by some whose views were not so radical as those of the late Mr. Kofsky. The reason is that the concern appears to arise out of nowhere in the latter part of February and early March 1948. The better part of wisdom in cases such as this is to ask oneself whether part of the evidence might be missing. And this is in fact the case for the War Scare of 1948.
When Mr. Koksky wrote all the relevant intelligence was still classified. And of course there were no Soviet or East German sources. Even now the reports of the CIA on the events connected with the war scare are still classified. So, too, is the communications intelligence and a large body of reports received from foreign intelligence services. But the military intelligence is now completely declassified. Convenient sources include the reports of European Command (EUCOM) and the intelligence cables of Army G-2. These suffice to show what happened in early 1948.
The Soviets were much upset with the decision of the Western Powers, made at London late in 1947, to form a West German state from their zones of occupation in Germany. With a view to impressing upon the Western Allies the dangers of the course upon which they had embarked, the Soviets began a series of actions suggesting that they were preparing for offensive action against Western Europe. These included sending engineers to check in an obvious way the load-bearing capacities of bridges leading into the American Zone from the Soviet Zone; the depth of steams was measured in a similarly patent way. Soviet forces were marched to and fro within the Soviet Zone to frustrate an accurate count of their number, while rumors were circulated that hundreds of thousands of troops were being marshalled at Kiev and would be moved into Germany in May for offensive action.
In support of this story tens of thousands of Germans were ejected from their homes, allegedly to make way for the Soviet reinforcements. Soviet military dependents were sent home. This list hardly exhausts all the dimensions of the Soviet deception.
American intelligence, aided agents by well-placed agents in the Soviet Zone and comprehensive surveillance of Soviet lines of communication in Eastern Europe, was by May able to establish that the Soviets were engaged in an ambitious strategic deception. Mr. Kofsky instanced reports from Poland that the Soviets were still tearing up railroad track as evidence that the war scare was a fraud. This, interestingly, was one of many pieces of intelligence that convinced Western intelligence that no Soviet offensive impended. Kofsky was in a sense right -- the war scare was a fraud -- but one made in Moscow. The significance of this discovery was great. For when the Berlin Blockade began, the Truman Administration was able to move more decisively than it might have done otherwise. For all the intelligence work done in the late winter and early spring had shown that the Soviets were not ready for war. President Truman could therefore take most of the transport aircraft that the Stratgic Air Command would have need for a strategic air offensive against the Soviet Union and devote it to the support of Berlin.
I shall present the full particulars of this episode in a forthcoming official history of the United States and the military defense of Western Europe in the first decade of the Cold War, which is now undergoing declassification review. I am also writing an article on the true origins of the war scare.
Eduard Mark

Grant W Jones - 10/18/2004

Truman must have really scared Jan Masaryk for him to have jumped out that window. Or was he pushed? Why would anyone be scared of Stalin? Certainly not the Turks. Truman and Churchill should not have started the Cold War by provoking the peace-loving Uncle Joe Stalin. Just like when France and Britain pushed Stalin into alliance with Hitler. HNN can next provide an article explaining how the Poles made Stalin occupy their country, twice.

For Marshall to "suggest" that a Stalinist "reign of terror" could exist in Eastern Europe...Horrors...Horrors...

"During morning roll call, the chief of police (i.e., the head of the State Security forces in the camp) would choose his victims. He would take a little mirror out of his pocket and shove it in their faces, saying, 'Here, take a last look at your face!' The victims were then given a sack, in with they would be brought back to the camp that evening...They left for the site, which in fact was a quarry. There they were beaten to death by the brigadiers and tied up in the sack with some wire." Tzvetan Todorov's description of the Bulgarian slave labor camp at Lovech.

"Yet scholars heve neglected the crimes committed by the Communists. While names such as Himmler and Eichmann are recognized around the world as bywords for twentieth-century barbarism, the names of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Genrikh Yagoda, and Nikolai Ezhov languish in obscurity. As for Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and even Stalin, they have always enjoyed a surprising reverence...Why such a deafening silence from the academic world regarding the Communist catastrophe, which touched the lives of about one-third of humanity of four continents during a period spanning eighty years?...Or are we talking about a refusal to scrutinize the subject too closely for fear of learning the truth about it?" Stephane Courtois, "The Black Book of Communism"

"Of course Geltkin was right not to believe him. Even he himself was beginning to get lost in the labyrinth of calculated lies and Dialectic pretenses, in the twilight between truth and illusion." Arthur Koestler, "Darkness at Noon"

Thanks HNN, for perpetuating the Darkness

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/18/2004

An intriguing question raised here. To what extent does danger justify exageration in order to prepare for danger? To what extent should people and industries be able to profit from such an exageration?

Having said that, I don't think that the evidence here is conclusive that Truman and his advisors believed there was no danger. The sense of an "iron curtain" was not simply Churchillian prose. There was reason to see eastern Europe that way.

The coup in Czechoslovakia had a profound impact on American leadership : In part because of the seeming parallel to the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and perhaps because the US could have kept at least part of that nation out of Soviet hands by not withdrawing troops in 1945.

Having said that, it seems quite likely that Truman did push the sense of danger hard to get legislation passed, just as he did when he requested aid for Greece and Turkey in 1947.

PS: Now this does provide an interesting perspective from which to view Bush's actions concerning Iraq.