Harry S. Truman: Special Message to Congress on Threat to Freedom of Europe Primary Source eText

Primary Source

President Harry S. Truman, making a radio broadcast in the 1940s. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos. President Harry S. Truman, making a radio broadcast in the 1940s. Published by Gale Cengage AP/Wide World Photos
President Harry S. Truman, reading at a press conference in the 1940s. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos. President Harry S. Truman, reading at a press conference in the 1940s. Published by Gale Cengage AP/Wide World Photos

Excerpt from "Special Message to the Congress on the Threat to the Freedom of Europe, March 17, 1948"

Published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States:
Harry S. Truman, January 1 to December 31, 1948,

published in 1964

"The Soviet Union and its satellites were invited to cooperate in the European recovery program. They rejected that invitation. More than that, they have declared their violent hostility to the program and are aggressively attempting to wreck it."

In July 1947, sixteen Western European nations that had chosen to participate in the U.S.-proposed European recovery plan known as the Marshall Plan met in Paris. After several months of discussion, on September 22, 1947, the nations had readied their proposal of immediate needs and long-term cooperation goals for Washington's review.

The U.S. Congress began to consider the $17 billion aid request. Using the logic of the Truman Doctrine, a program designed by President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) that sent aid to anticommunist forces in Turkey and Greece, the Truman administration argued that the Marshall Plan aid would help countries stop communist influence within their borders. Congress continued to debate, so in December, Truman managed to obtain an interim $600 million aid package approval from Congress for France, Italy, and Austria.

By January 1948, Truman reduced the original plan request down to $6.8 billion for a fifteen-month period. In February, he reduced it again to $5.3 billion to cover a twelve-month period.

Suddenly, several alarming events pushed Congress to pass the plan. First, in February, Czechoslovakia fell to a communist takeover that unseated the Western-supported government. This change represented the disappearance of the last democracy in Eastern Europe. Anticommunist feelings were running high in America and Western Europe. Fears increased about the political stability of Western Europe. Next, the newly established National Security Council (NSC) issued a report, NSC-20, concluding the goal of the Soviet Union was world domination. Another report, NSC-30, advocated the use of nuclear weapons as discouragement to further communist expansion. This represented a bold new approach for U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, on March 17, 1948, President Truman delivered a powerful speech to the joint session of Congress titled "Special Message to the Congress on the Threat to the Freedom of Europe." Truman described the "situation in Europe" as "critical." He charged that "one nation," meaning the Soviet Union, had refused to cooperate in establishing peace after World War II (1939–45). Further, that nation "and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe." He called on Congress to act, to "face the threat to their liberty squarely and courageously."

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the "Special Message to the Congress on the Threat to the Freedom of Europe":

  • The amount of aid requested was massive. It was inevitable that, although time-consuming, Republicans and Democrats would battle in Congress over the expenditure for some months.
  • The Marshall Plan addressed economic and political issues of Western Europe and was not intended to provide any military aid.
  • By 1948, anticommunist feelings were running high in the United States. When Czechoslovakia fell in February 1948, U.S. military officials actually suggested that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe might happen at any time.

Excerpt from "Special Message to the Congress on the Threat to the Freedom of Europe, March 17, 1948"

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Congress:

I am here today to report to you on the critical nature of the situation in Europe, and to recommend action for your consideration.

Rapid changes are taking place in Europe which affect our foreign policy and our national security. There is an increasing threat to nations which are striving to maintain a form of government which grants freedom to its citizens. The United States is deeply concerned with the survival of freedom in those nations. It is of vital importance that we act now, in order to preserve the conditions under which we can achieve lasting peace based on freedom and justice.

The achievement of such a peace has been the great goal of this nation.

Almost 3 years have elapsed since the end of the greatest of all wars, but peace and stability have not returned to the world. We were well aware that the end of the fighting would not automatically settle the problems arising out of the war. The establishment of peace after the fighting is over has always been a difficult task. And even if all the Allies of World War II were united in their desire to establish a just and honorable peace, there would still be great difficulties in the way of achieving that peace.

But the situation in the world today is not primarily the result of natural difficulties which follow a great war. It is chiefly due to the fact that one nation [the Soviet Union] has not only refused to cooperate in the establishment of a just and honorable peace, but—even worse—has actively sought to prevent it.

The Congress is familiar with the course of events.

You know of the sincere and patient attempts of the democratic nations to find a secure basis for peace through negotiation and agreement. Conference after conference has been held in different parts of the world. We have tried to settle the questions arising out of the war on a basis which would permit the establishment of a just peace. You know the obstacles we have encountered, but the record stands as a monument to the good faith and integrity of the democratic nations of the world. The agreements we did obtain, imperfect though they were, could have furnished the basis for a just peace—if they had been kept.

But they were not kept.

They have been persistently ignored and violated by one nation.

A map showing Eastern and Western European nations during the Cold War. Reproduced by permission of the Gale Group. A map showing Eastern and Western European nations during the Cold War. Published by Gale Cengage Gale Group
The Congress is also familiar with the developments concerning the United Nations. Most of the countries of the world have joined together in the United Nations in an attempt to build a world order based on law and not on force. Most of the members support the United Nations earnestly and honestly, and seek to make it stronger and more effective.

One nation, however, has persistently obstructed the work of the United Nations by constant abuse of the veto. That nation has vetoed 21 proposals for action in a little over 2 years.

But that is not all. Since the close of hostilities, the Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe.

It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today.

The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock throughout the civilized world. Now pressure is being brought to bear on Finland, to the hazard of the entire Scandinavian peninsula. Greece is under direct military attack from rebels actively supported by her Communist dominated neighbors [Yugoslavia]. In Italy, a determined and aggressive effort is being made by a Communist minority to take control of that country. The methods vary, but the pattern is all too clear.

Faced with this growing menace, there have been encouraging signs that the free nations of Europe are drawing closer together for their economic well-being and for the common defense of their liberties.

In the economic field, the movement for mutual self-help to restore conditions essential to the preservation of free institutions is well under way. In Paris, the 16 nations which are cooperating in the European recovery program are meeting again to establish a joint organization to work for the economic restoration of Western Europe.

The United States has strongly supported the efforts of these nations to repair the devastation of war and restore a sound world economy. In presenting this program to the Congress last December, I emphasized the necessity for speedy action. Every event in Europe since that day has underlined the great urgency for the prompt adoption of this measure.

The Soviet Union and its satellites were invited to cooperate in the European recovery program. They rejected that invitation. More than that, they have declared their violent hostility to the program and are aggressively attempting to wreck it.

They see in it a major obstacle to their designs to subjugate the free community of Europe. They do not want the United States to help Europe. They do not even want the 16 cooperative countries to help themselves.…

The door has never been closed, nor will it ever be closed, to the Soviet Union or to any other nation which genuinely cooperates in preserving the peace.

At the same time, we must not be confused about the central issue which confronts the world today.

The time has come when the free men and women of the world must face the threat to their liberty squarely and courageously.

The United States has a tremendous responsibility to act according to the measure of our power for good in the world. We have learned that we must earn the peace we seek just as we earned victory in the war, not by wishful thinking but by realistic effort.

At no time in our history has unity among our people been so vital as it is at the present time.

Unity of purpose, unity of effort, and unity of spirit are essential to accomplish the task before us.

Each of us here in this chamber today has a special responsibility. The world situation is too critical, and the responsibilities of this country are too vast, to permit any party struggles to weaken our influence for maintaining the peace.

What happened next …

Congress approved $5.3 billion for the Marshall Plan on April 3, 1948. Within months, aid was headed to Europe. Only 20 percent was in loans because the United States did not want to burden Europe with debt. Some money grants were also sent without the need for countries to repay them. The bulk of the aid was in goods, food, fertilizers and tractors, and industrial equipment. The Fiat automobile manufacturer in Italy was rebuilt with assembly-line machinery sent from Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which saved the Italian economy. Northern Greece needed mules for agriculture and received large and stubborn mules from Missouri. The plan provided more than $13 billion by 1952 to help maintain political and economic stability in the West. Passage of the plan essentially divided Europe economically into an East communistdominated half and a West capitalist-supported half. Czechoslovakia ended up in the East, France and Italy in the West. The United States would continue to support a large foreign-aid program through the second half of the twentieth century.

Did you know …

  • Much of the Marshall Plan aid eventually returned to the American economy. As economies became healthy, Europeans bought America's finished goods and raw commodities. In addition, U.S. goods sent originally to help Europe were purchased by the U.S. government from American farmers and manufacturers.
  • Between April 3, 1948, and June 30, 1952, Great Britain received the most aid at $3.2 billion. France was a close second at $2.7 billion. Tiny Iceland received the smallest amount of aid at $29 million.
  • By the mid-1950s, Western European economies were far more robust than Eastern European economies.

Consider the following …

  • Why do you think the Soviets were so opposed to the rebuilding of West Germany? Why was the United States so determined to rebuild West Germany?
  • If Western Europe had fallen under communist rule, predict how the future of the United States would have been affected.
  • Before Congress passed the Marshall Plan, at the end of 1947, President Truman got Congress to agree to an interim $600 million package primarily for France, Italy, and Austria. Why were those particular countries chosen?

For More Information

Books

Ferrell, Robert. Harry S. Truman: A Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, January 1 to December 31, 1948. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.

Truman, Harry S. Memoirs: Years of Trial and Hope 1946–1953. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956.

Young, John. Cold War Europe, 1945–1989: A Political History. London: Edward Arnold, 1991.

Web Site

"Harry S. Truman." The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ht33.html (accessed on September 10, 2003).