With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

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

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)