By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
The end of the Second World War led to a realignment of the world powers. Britain, in particular, had a very uncertain future and the British Empire clearly could no longer maintain its position in the world powers. While the British people admired Winston Churchill as a war leader, they didn’t think he’d be a suitable leader at the beginning of peacetime.
Britain Backs Down
At the very end of the Second World War, Churchill was voted out as the British Prime Minister and was replaced by a Labour Party government under the leadership of Clement Attlee.
Whereas Churchill had wanted to hold onto the British Empire, Attlee was committed to the idea that it ought to be let go. That’s why the British Empire devolved very quickly in the late 1940s with India gaining its independence, and then the Palestine mandate developing into the creation of the state of Israel.
America at the Helm
Britain, although it was on the winning side of the war, was absolutely exhausted by the stress and strain of the war, and could no longer take on the world-policing role it had had in the preceding century. President Truman, therefore, had to make the decision as to whether he was going to take over that role, or whether he was going to follow the pattern of withdrawing from European affairs, just as the United States had withdrawn after the First World War.
In the end, he made the momentous decision not to withdraw but rather to remain committed to a far more active worldwide foreign policy.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Truman Doctrine
Britain had been supporting anti-Communist regimes in Greece and Turkey, which were fighting against Communist gorillas. Truman said he was willing to take on that role in 1947 to prevent the continued spread of communism there. He made an important address to Congress on March 12, 1947, in which he outlined the conflict of two great civilizations, and this became known as part of the Truman Doctrine:
At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of the minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
In other words, America was going to accept the role of trying to forestall communist revolution wherever the possibility of it might appear.
Policy of ‘Containment’
One of the ethical dilemmas of American foreign policy has always been: How unscrupulous a regime can the American government support from the knowledge that if it doesn’t, it might have to put up with something much worse afterwards.
An influential American diplomat named George Kennan conceived the policy principle that governed American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. It was called ‘containment’. It was containment against the hazard of the constant spread of communism worldwide. Kennan was a diplomat in the American embassy in Moscow, and he sent what’s now remembered as ‘the long telegram from Moscow’, explaining the sources of Soviet conduct and the ways in which the Americans ought to come to terms with it.
This diplomatic telegram was 8,000 words long. It was brilliantly successful, though, in that it was recognized as a summary of the way in which the Americans ought to think about their world task from now on.
The Marshall Plan
The Marshall Plan dedicated American resources to the economic revitalization of western Europe. Western Europe had been shattered by the fighting that had taken place there, and by the very heavy bombing of Britain by the German air forces and then the even heavier bombing of Germany by the British and American air forces.
On graduation day at Harvard in 1947, Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, proposed what became known as the ‘Marshall Plan’. This was the offer of American money for the rapid rebuilding of the industrial infrastructure of western Europe. It was a generous offer, but it was also a self-interested one, in that by now the economic wisdom was to rebuild strong and healthy nations, rather than having one of them be artificially weakened, as had been the original plan at the end of the First World War to keep Germany weak.
Germany: An Ally?
Now, the idea was to rebuild a democratic Germany as strongly as possible because it was going to become a central part of defenses against the possibility of Soviet aggression.
Already by 1947, Germany was being reconceived as more like an ally than an antagonist, and the Soviet Union, America’s old ally, was now clearly reinterpreted as the antagonist. America had learned after the First World War that its own prosperity and stability depended on its potential rivals and customers also being economically strong, not feeble.
The Marshall Plan itself—because it was a highly successful policy that led to the rapid rebuilding of the Western European economies—was one of the contributors to the great economic disparity between Western and Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War years.
Common Questions about How America and Britain Switched Roles Post-WWII
An influential American diplomat named George Kennan conceived the policy principle that governed American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. It was called ‘containment’. It was containment against the hazard of the constant spread of Communism worldwide.
In 1947, Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, proposed what became known as the ‘Marshall Plan’.
The ‘Marshall Plan’ was the offer of American money for the rapid rebuilding of the industrial infrastructure of Western Europe.