Reading Benn Steil’s magnificent book ‘The Marshall Plan’ makes me feel nostalgic for a time that America was playing a hero’s role in global affairs. The book shines the spotlight on the creation of the Western Alliance in the aftermath of the second world war and in a deliberate effort to contain Stalin’s expansionist ambitions.
Named after George Marshall, the war time Chief of Staff who, under Truman, became Secretary of State, the plan saved Western Europe, particularly France, Italy and Germany, from a covert takeover by communist parties, which had sprung up everywhere under the aegis of an Allied and victorious Soviet Union, and were taking full advantage of the misery and deprivation, caused by the ravages of war and the destruction of the European economies.
The pattern, deployed by Stalin for Western Europe, was the same he had successfully used to establish communist control in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Russian sector of a divided Germany: Start with communist participation in a coalition government and then, through agitation, strikes and chaos, shift to complete communist take-over and control.
Initially, the Marshall Plan was designed with two main objectives in mind:
1) By a one-time, temporary, multiyear aid program, revive the West European economies so that they could stand on their own and allow the USA to withdraw both economically and militarily from the European war fields;
2) Block, by bringing the allied economies and infrastructure back to life, communist control of the West European democracies.
In the process of developing the plan, and shepherding it, against all odds, through a thoroughly reluctant Congress for approval and funding, it quickly became clear to Marshall and Truman that the enormous investment in Europe could and should not be made without, at the same time, setting up a military security system to protect the investment. This awareness led to the creation of NATO.
Seventy years later, it is hard to overstate how times have changed, in Europe as much as in the USA. In Europe, the generation that witnessed and benefited directly from the American largesse, in war and in the aftermath of war, has passed on and America has become so self-absorbed and, under Trump, so inimical to the concept of the Western Alliance, that it would be unthinkable to devise and implement such a generous, altruistic, plan to come to the aid of American allies in trouble again.
Altruistic the Marshall Plan was, although not entirely one sided. A big component of the political acceptance of the plan was the thought that it would save America from potentially much more expensive intervention and war against communism at a later date. In that sense, the plan did not entirely meet the expectations, as, all during the Cold War and into the present time, America has not found it prudent to withdraw its troops and weaponry, including its nuclear arsenal, entirely from European soil and, as President Trump points out at every opportunity he gets, America still pays a disproportionate share of the cost of NATO as a tool to protect Europe from enemy (read Russian) aggression.
At the critical juncture of the world war ending and the cold war starting, America was lucky to have an arsenal of great leaders in all the right places, notably Harry Truman at the White House, George Marshall at the State Department and Arthur Vandenberg as Senate minority leader. They were assisted by geopolitical thinkers like George Kennan, Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, who each played important roles in designing and articulating the plan. It is hard to imagine what FDR, had he lived, would have done in the aftermath of WW II, but we know that he, other than Truman, put all his faith in building internationalist institutions like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank (just like Woodrow Wilson had done after WW I) and that he had unshaken faith in being able to bring Stalin along in that effort.
It was Truman who decided that the Soviets were not going to cooperate and needed to be checked by both economic and military means. I think it prodigious that America had Harry Truman in place when it mattered most. Other than FDR, who had little use for the State Department and preferred to manage his own foreign policy on a personal basis with Stalin and Churchill, Truman restored the State Department to its rightful place, with an intellectual giant in charge in the person of George Marshall. Truman, the Democratic leader, also understood that he needed Republican support in Congress to get his plans funded and implemented and he reached out across the aisle to Arthur Vandenberg to provide such support. Without Truman, Marshall and Vandenberg, Europe would not have been getting the American bail-out and support it needed to fend off the communist threat emanating from the ravages of war. It was a close call. Popular sentiment and a majority in Congress was not in favor of an activist foreign policy. America had paid its dues in winning WWII and was ready to withdraw in splendid isolation. But America’s leadership team saw the threat to the free world and acted to repulse that threat by economic and military means.
Under our current President, America appears to have given up on both the Wilson/FDR internationalist approach to foreign policy and Truman’s Western Alliance, trading it for a nationalist, nativist, doctrine of America First. If this turns out to be more than a short-term aberration, that will quickly be reversed by the electoral process, one has to wonder how history will judge this further retreat from America’s responsibility in the world, when history about this day and age will be written.