Rebuilding Europe After World War II
When Communist forces took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the U.S. Congress realized the seriousness of the Soviet threat to European democracy. They voted for full funding of the European Recovery Program, universally known as the Marshall Plan.
General George C. Marshall, secretary of state and former army chief of staff, created a foreign-aid plan which would provide almost unlimited U.S. funding for the necessary repairs to Europe’s cities, highways, and railways. Any European nation that requested such aid would receive it. In the end, the Marshall Plan provided $13 billion to war-torn Europe as an outright gift, not a loan. Although the economies of Europe were already achieving near miracles of recovery through their own efforts, Marshall Plan funds played a crucial role in rebuilding—but only in the West and in Yugoslavia, where Josip Broz Tito refused to permit any Soviet interference. Stalin refused to allow any Soviet- controlled nation to accept what he regarded as a blatant American attempt to buy Eastern European friendship.
Thanks to their own superhuman efforts, plus the boost provided by the Marshall Plan, Western European countries returned to normal much faster than anyone would have expected on seeing the destruction wrought by the war. Infrastructure was rebuilt, theaters reopened, and people went back to work. Many difficulties, including food shortages and rationing, continued to exist for some time after the war, but governments took what steps they could to bring their nations back to prosperity.
Behind the Iron Curtain, however, conditions were quite different. Although one benefit of Communist rule was full employment, jobs were assigned with- out regard to individual preferences, and wages were low. Housing was over- crowded—an entire family sharing a one-room apartment without a private kitchen or bathroom was typical in all Soviet cities. In addition, there were constant shortages of necessities, and luxury goods were a thing of the past. Behind the Iron Curtain, there was never any guarantee that shops would have anything to sell. When people heard that a market had just received a truckload of, say, fresh eggs, a long line of customers would appear at that market as if by magic, because it might be the last chance for eggs for a month or more. People carried shopping bags called “perhaps bags” everywhere they went, just in case—perhaps—there might be something to buy and carry home. Barter, rather than cash purchases, became common. The state owned and ran all businesses and industries, so no one had any personal pride or vested interest in doing a good job or seeing his or her business succeed.
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