In May 2017—70 years after the announcement of the Marshall Plan—I visited Greece on a US State Department-sponsored program commemorating the anniversary. There was a time when the subject would have been uncontroversial. Greece received a little over $700 million in aid under the European Recovery Program, and documentaries showing images of grateful Greek farmers receiving shipments of American mules and seed grain suggested that here, at least, the benevolence of the United States could not be questioned.
Now, however, Greece is a deeply divided nation, not just in its internal politics and economic relationship with the European Union, but in its perception of the past and its relations with the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than in popular perceptions of the Marshall Plan, which many Greeks—students especially, as I learned—denounce as a sneaky extension of US imperialism that caused the Greek economy more harm than good. The roots of these suspicions lay in divisions sown by the Greek Civil War of 1944-1949 and the ongoing legacy of Greek communism.
During World War II, Greece was first unsuccessfully attacked by Mussolini’s Italy in 1940 and then occupied by Germany in 1941. Greek resistance groups quickly emerged. Communists and sympathizers banded together in the National Liberation Front (EAM) and National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS). Ruthless, determined, and relatively more united than their monarchist, republican, and fascist rivals, the communists constituted the most powerful faction by the time the Germans began withdrawing in September 1944.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought fervently to keep Greece out of the Soviet sphere of influence. On October 9 in Moscow he concluded the “Percentages Agreement” with Joseph Stalin, effectively trading Romania for Greece (although evidence suggests that the Soviet premier had already decided not to formally bolster his would-be allies in Athens).
British forces landed in Greece in October 1944. Communist groups went through the motions of cooperating with them, but prepared for war despite Stalin’s lack of support. In December the communists began launching hit and run operations against British troops, also using women and children as human shields. The British launched a successful offensive in January 1945 to recapture Athens but fighting spread through the rest of Greece, and Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s new Labour government prepared to pull out of the country. A weak republican government in Athens now faced the communists, effectively alone.
Stalin sent secret material aid to the Greek communists, but more overt support came from Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, who gave them rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons, land mines, and anti-aircraft guns. With this support the communists captured large swathes of countryside and launched attacks to destroy power stations, dams, factories and other infrastructure, thus plunging Greek civilians deeper into misery.
President Harry Truman had Greece in mind in 1947 as he promulgated the so-called Truman Doctrine, under which the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces. In 1948 he directed this doctrine at Greece and Turkey while he and his Secretary of State George C. Marshall implemented the European Recovery Program (ERP), or Marshall Plan.
Marshall declared that the ERP was charitable and not anticommunist. The Soviet Union nevertheless refused to accept aid for itself or its East European satellites. Even so, the plan’s announcement tangibly eroded popular support for strong communist movements in France and Italy.
In Greece, the US government supplied Marshall Plan aid, along with military advisors and equipment for the national army. This fueled a series of successful government offensives, and in August 1949 Greek forces wiped out the final communist stronghold at Grammos near the Albanian border. A brutal Civil War that claimed the lives of an estimated 158,000 Greeks ended soon thereafter, and healing could begin.
I discussed these events during my tour in Greece, which included talks at the American College of Greece in Athens and the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki. Embassy and consulate staff were kindness personified, as were Greek faculty, staff, and many students. Other students, however, treated me with tolerant forbearance (at best) or barely restrained rage (at worst); armed security guards said they could only ensure my physical safety if the students decided to throw me out and occupy the podium—as had happened to other American speakers.
Instead of trying to convince the students that the Marshall Plan was beneficial to Greece, I simply tried to get them to accept that Truman and Marshall were—if not wholly benevolent—at least not nefarious. It was tough sledding. To give them credit, the Greek students listened carefully, thought deeply and engaged actively with the subject matter.
In the end, I made some progress; initially hostile Greek students later smiled and shook my hand, agreeing that Truman and Marshall were not the Ugly Americans they had presumed. Imbued as they are in a culture of largely left-wing protest, however—and bearing resentments against accounts of American support for the right-wing junta of 1967-1974 that they are too young to have experienced—many young Greeks refuse to consider the brutal futility of the Civil War of 1944-1949, or cherish the fruits of communist defeat.