STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA
Special English. I’m Steve Ember.
Britain was once the most powerful nation in the world. It ruled a
wide-reaching empire. This week in our series, we look at how British power gave
way to American influence after World War Two.
One can almost name the day when this happened. It was February twenty-first,
nineteen forty-seven. British diplomats in Washington called the State
Department. They had two messages from their government.
The first was about Greece. The situation there was critical. Greece had been
occupied by Germany during the war. Now it was split by a bitter civil war. On
one side of the fighting was the Greek royal family supported by Britain. On the
other side were communist-led rebels supported by Yugoslavia and the Soviet
British forces had helped keep Greece from becoming communist at the end of
World War Two. A few years later, Britain could no longer help. It needed all
its strength to rebuild after the war. So, on that February day in nineteen
forty-seven, Britain told the United States it would soon end all support for
Britain's second message that day was about Turkey. Turkey was stronger than
Greece. But the concern was that it, too, could become communist unless it
received outside help.
Britain warned the United States that the Soviet Union would soon extend its
control all the way across eastern Europe to the eastern Mediterranean. It
called on President Harry Truman to provide strong American support to help
Greece and Turkey resist the communist threat.
Britain, in effect, was asking the United States to take over leadership of
the Western world. The United States was ready to accept this new responsibility.
For months, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had been
growing worse and worse.
The two countries had fought together as allies in the Second World War. But
Soviet actions after the war shocked the American people.
The Soviet Union wanted to block western political and economic influence in
central and eastern Europe. It wanted to extend its own influence instead. So,
after the war, it forced a number of countries to establish communist
WINSTON CHURCHILL: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an
iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, described the situation in a
speech in March of nineteen forty-six at Westminster College in the American
state of Missouri.
WINSTON CHURCHILL: “Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient
states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest,
Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations
around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in
one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in
some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
Churchill warned that the Soviet Union was trying to expand its power. He
described it as an "iron curtain" falling across the middle of Europe. This iron
curtain divided Europe into a communist east and a democratic west.
The situation was made even more tense by news coming from China. China was a
divided nation at the end of World War Two. The forces of Nationalist leader
Chiang Kai-shek controlled the southwestern part of the country. Communist
forces under Mao Zedong controlled the north.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union expected that Chiang Kai-shek
would be able to unite China.
Chiang and the Nationalists won several early victories over the Communists.
But Mao and his forces used a growing hatred of the Nationalist government to
win support. Slowly, they began to win battles and capture arms.
Early in nineteen forty-nine, communist forces took control of Peking -- now
Beijing -- and Tientsin. They captured Shanghai and Canton. By the end of the
year, Chiang and his Nationalist forces had to flee to the island of Taiwan.
The fall of the Nationalist government on the mainland caused a bitter
political debate in America. Some critics of the Truman administration thought
the United States had not done enough to help the Nationalists.
The Truman administration rejected the charges. It said Chiang caused his own
defeat by failing to reform and win the support of the Chinese people. Secretary
of State Dean Acheson described the defeat this way:
"The unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil
war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States.
Nothing that this country did or could have done within the reasonable limits of
its capabilities could have changed that result; nothing that was left undone by
this country has contributed to it. It was the product of internal Chinese
forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not. A decision
was arrived at within China, if only a decision by default."
The United States was more successful in its policies toward Europe. The
British warnings about the communist threat in Greece and Turkey led President
Truman to speak to Congress. He said, "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."
American flour being unloaded in Greece
Truman called on Congress to give him four hundred million dollars in aid for
Greece and Turkey. After a brief but intense national debate, Congress agreed.
Truman then launched an effort to save the Greek economy and reorganize the
Greek army. Soon after that, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union ended their aid to
Greek rebels. The civil war in Greece ended.
American help for Greece and Turkey was the first step in what became known
as the "Truman Doctrine." The goal of this policy was to stop Soviet aggression
anywhere in the world.
Truman was willing to use military force to stop the spread of communism. But
he also believed it was equally important to build up western European nations
so they would be strong enough to defend themselves.
Europe was suffering terribly after World War Two. There were severe
shortages of food and fuel. Crops were destroyed. Many Europeans were beginning
to look to the communists -- to anybody -- to save them.
This is one reason why Truman and his advisers developed a plan to rebuild
the economies of Europe.
Heavy machinery from the United States bound for
After the war, President Truman made George Marshall his secretary of state.
Marshall had led American troops as a general in World War Two. Now, as the
nation's top diplomat, he proposed the idea for rebuilding Europe. This idea
became known as the "Marshall Plan."
President Truman explained why there had to be a Marshall Plan. People were
starving, he said. There had been food riots in France and Italy. There was not
enough fuel. People were cold and sick. Tuberculosis was breaking out.
As Truman said later, "Something had to be done."
Secretary of State Marshall described the plan during a congressional hearing
GEORGE MARSHALL: “Why must the United States carry so great a load in helping
Europe? The answer is simple. The United States is the only country in the world
today which has the economic power and productivity to furnish the needed
assistance. The six and eight-tenths billion proposed for the first fifteen
months is less than a single month’s charge of the war.
To be quite clear, this unprecedented endeavor of the new world to help the
old is neither sure nor easy. It is a calculated risk. It is a difficult program.
And you know, far better than I do, the political difficulties involved in this
But there’s no doubt whatever in my mind that, if we decide to do this thing,
we can do it successfully. And there’s also no doubt in my mind that the whole
world hangs in the balance as to what it is to be.”
The United States offered aid through the Marshall Plan to all countries in
Europe. The Soviet Union and its allies refused help. Sixteen other countries,
however, welcomed the aid.
From nineteen forty-eight to nineteen fifty-two, administrators of the
Marshall Plan worked with these countries. The United States spent thirteen
The plan worked. Agricultural production in Marshall Plan countries increased
by ten percent. Industrial production increased by thirty-five percent.
Production in some industries, such as steel, increased by much more.
There were political results, as well. Stronger economies helped prevent
communists from gaining control of the governments in France and Italy.
Some Europeans criticized the Marshall Plan. They said it increased tensions
between the United States and the Soviet Union in the years after the war. Yet
few could deny that the plan was one of the most successful international
economic programs in history.
Next week, we look at another way the United States provided aid in postwar
Europe -- the Berlin Airlift.
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures
at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA
Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for
THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
Contributing: David Jarmul
This was program #200. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in
quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.