Should we say thank you?

Hugh Wilford

  • The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Reconstruction of Postwar Europe by Greg Behrman
    Aurum, 448 pp, £25.00, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 84513 326 9
  • Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower by Nicolaus Mills
    Wiley, 290 pp, £15.99, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 470 09755 7

The winter of 1947 was Europe’s coldest since 1880. In Britain, a fuel shortage effectively halted industrial production for three weeks and led to a sixfold increase in unemployment. In Germany, thousands of Berliners were treated for frostbite and seven froze to death. French farmers stopped sending food to market and hoarded it for their own families, causing food riots in several cities and, for some, a creeping nostalgia for the German occupation. In Rome, unemployed workers looted shops and attacked the 74-year-old foreign minister, Carlo Sforza. It seemed that Europe – exhausted, divided and hungry – was on the verge of succumbing to another political catastrophe, only this time the threat came not from Fascism but from the Soviet Union.

By 1949, however, the disaster apparently threatening Europe had been averted. For Pierre Lignes, a municipal worker who rented out deckchairs on the Champs-Elysées, the explanation was simple. ‘Without Marshall aid probably very few people would be sitting down,’ he told an interviewer. ‘Most of them would be rioting and bashing each other over the head with my chairs.’

It is not hard to understand why Europeans like Lignes were grateful for the Marshall Plan, the programme for reconstructing Europe after the Second World War, named after the US secretary of state, George C. Marshall. Between April 1948, when President Truman signed it into law, and the end of 1951, the European Recovery Programme (ERP) poured more than $13 billion of aid into Western Europe – roughly equivalent to $550 billion as a share of current US GNP, and more than the sum total of all previous overseas American aid. The amazing recovery during this period set the scene for one of the longest spells of economic growth in European history. The same period also saw political defeats for Western Europe’s Communist Parties, and the first steps towards European union – in other words, the founding of the modern European order.

Considering all this, it’s no wonder that the plan later came to be seen as a model of humanitarian intervention. Throughout the Cold War, American politicians would invoke it when trying to win support for new aid programmes in the Third World. During the 1990s, there was much talk of a second ERP for the countries of Eastern Europe, both as a means of integrating the former Communist bloc into the capitalist economy and as a fitting gesture fifty years after Stalin had refused American economic assistance on behalf of the ‘captive nations’. In the last decade, the Marshall Plan’s exemplary force has, if anything, increased yet further, with calls for similar plans to tackle global warming, revitalise American inner cities and even to rescue the car industry.

Greg Behrman’s The Most Noble Adventure is a narrative history of the Marshall Plan which, its author hopes, will ‘speak to the current American moment’ and ‘illuminate a brighter path forward’. Less a scholarly treatise than an epic tale of American achievement, Behrman’s book is built around portraits of the five leaders principally responsible for devising the ERP and ensuring it was carried out: Marshall himself, William Clayton, Paul Hoffman, Richard Bissell and Arthur Vandenberg. All are portrayed as extraordinarily talented, dedicated and selfless individuals who acted out of a classical sense of republican virtue and, like Cincinnatus or George Washington, returned to private life at the first opportunity. In Behrman’s dramatic telling, these men do battle with various forces – Communist chicanery, European scepticism and American isolationism – but, after many tense conferences and debates, they triumph, and Europe is saved. In case this last point is lost on the reader, it is reinforced by several photographs showing European cities before (smoking bombsites) and after (bustling thoroughfares).

Historians have long disputed this story, however. The economic transformation of Western Europe during the late 1940s was indeed spectacular, but it is by no means clear that the Marshall Plan alone was responsible. The speed with which European economies picked up after 1947 suggests that the conditions for recovery were already in place. Despite the vast sums involved, Marshall aid averaged only about 2.5 per cent of the combined national income of the countries that benefited from it. Moreover, the performance of a particular economy did not correlate with the amount of aid it received: Britain was one of the biggest beneficiaries, yet its output lagged behind that of other countries, most conspicuously West Germany, indicating the importance of factors over which the ERP had little influence (such as British resistance to the American ‘productivity gospel’, especially new-fangled ideas about management techniques and harmonious industrial relations).

None of this is to deny the influence or ingenuity of the Marshall Plan, which at the very least succeeded in giving Europeans the confidence to weather the crisis of 1947. While few historians now believe that the plan saved the economies of Western Europe, it did enable its leaders to overcome the crisis without slashing wages or welfare programmes, which would have risked serious social unrest. It also tied the continent to the US sphere of geopolitical influence for generations to come.

This brings us to another counterfactual question: without the Marshall Plan, would Europe have fallen to Communism? Again, the picture is less clear than accounts such as Behrman’s suggest. As the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia of February 1948 showed, the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe was tightening (with the exception of Tito’s Yugoslavia). In the West, however, the postwar popularity of Communism had passed its peak by the time the aid began to flow, even in those countries supposedly most at risk of a takeover, notably France and Italy. Elsewhere, in Britain, for example, the left did win power, but the European non-Communist left included some of the world’s toughest anti-Communists: veteran faction-fighters, like the Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, needed little encouragement from the Americans to fight the Cold War. And, in any case, Stalin probably didn’t actually have territorial designs on Western Europe. True, post-1945 Soviet intentions were inscrutable, and they continue to be a source of controversy among historians; but, insofar as a consensus exists, it portrays Stalin as mainly concerned, at least in the short term, with protecting Soviet security, not with annexing Western Europe.

And so it is with other supposed victories of the Marshall Plan. Western European union was an important long-term goal of the ERP – the breaking down of trade barriers seemed necessary for continued economic growth, while political integration held out the enticing prospect of a United States of Europe – and did, of course, eventually come to pass, though not in the federalist form envisioned in the late 1940s. US prompting and European leaders’ collaboration in the plan’s Organisation for European Economic Co-operation surely had something to do with this – but so too did local factors such as French fears of German resurgence and the campaigning of federalists like Jean Monnet. It was another local factor that proved the single biggest stumbling block to European union: the resistance of the UK, which wanted to preserve the sterling area, its influence over the Commonwealth countries, and the legacy of ‘a thousand years of history’, as Hugh Gaitskell, the most pro-American of Labour leaders, put it when explaining his reasons for opposing British membership of the EEC in 1962. Behrman consistently underplays these elements of the story, always giving the benefit of any doubt to the Marshall Planners, and essentially recycling the old America-saved-Europe narrative, but with up-to-date footnotes and bibliography.

Something else that does not get quite the attention it merits is the covert dimension of the plan: the secret anti-Communist ‘political warfare’ waged by Americans in Europe. Especially in the plan’s last phase, after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 led the Truman administration to declare a new ‘psychological offensive’ against Communism, the Economic Co-operation Administration (which ran the ERP) routinely engaged in covert operations. In the UK, for example, William Gausmann, an ECA labour information officer who had a background in the American socialist movement, liaised clandestinely with sympathetic officials in the Labour Party and TUC in an attempt to counter the anti-American propaganda of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Activities like this stirred dark rumours on the British left that the Labour and TUC leadership were ‘dancing to the tune’ of secret paymasters in Washington. (Behrman’s failure to say much about labour is curious, given the attention historians have paid recently both to the prominent role played in the ECA by American trade unionists and the impact of the Marshall Plan on the European labour movement.)

More important still was the intimate connection between the Marshall Plan and the newly formed CIA – or, to be precise, the Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC), the semi-autonomous unit charged with conducting covert operations during the CIA’s early years. The OPC was set up in 1948, largely in order to wage a secret campaign of psychological warfare intended to back up the public information efforts of the ERP. Not only did its division into six regional desks mimic that of the ECA, it was funded from the so-called ‘counterpart funds’ set aside for the Marshall Plan’s administrative expenses (which amounted to roughly $200 million a year). The closeness of the two agencies was shown by the movement between them of individuals such as Richard Bissell. A valuable aspect of Behrman’s book is that it reminds us that Bissell had a distinguished career helping run the ECA before eventually moving to the CIA and planning the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. It is ironic, and perhaps unfair, that the organisers of the Marshall Plan have received such a good historical press while the spies of the CIA have got almost nothing but brickbats, although they shared the same backgrounds, values and goals.

Behrman does devote a couple of pages to some of the OPC’s better-known operations, such as the channelling – through an official called Irving Brown at the American Federation of Labor – of millions of dollars to the Corsican leader of the Marseille dockers, Pierre Ferri-Pisani, whose members would beat up Communists trying to disrupt the landing of aid, or the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a Paris-based organisation of anti-Communist writers and artists that ran a vast programme of festivals, conferences and magazines intended to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of ‘neutral’ intellectuals, first in Europe, then around the world.

But there is no mention of the American Committee on United Europe, a front group designed to rally support for one of the Marshall Plan’s key aims: European integration. Launched in February 1949 by ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the legendary head of the OSS, the wartime precursor to the CIA, and his deputy Allen Dulles, the ACUE was run out of offices in New York by Tom Braden, the future head of the OPC/CIA unit in charge of such front organisations as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Although he was responsible for a campaign to publicise the advantages of European union to an American audience, Braden’s main duty was arranging discreet financial assistance for federalist projects in Europe. By the mid-1950s, the CIA was funding the so-called European Movement to the tune of nearly $1 million a year; the operation was overseen by the former Marshall Plan administrator Paul Hoffman.

Although the European Movement had some support in Britain – indeed, its early leaders, with whom Braden worked closely, included Winston Churchill and his son-in-law Duncan Sandys – the ACUE soon realised that the greatest obstacle to European federation was the Labour Party. At the same time as it shifted its support to continental Europeans, the CIA attempted to counter Labour anti-federalism by funding a variety of measures, including the Mackay Plan, a proposal for transforming the Council of Europe into a European parliament drawn up by the maverick Labour MP R.W.G. Mackay. Covert US support also found its way to such pro-European elements in Britain as the European Youth Campaign, the Federal Union and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit. How much all this influenced Britain’s application to join the EEC in 1961 is hard to say. One thing was clear, though, and that was the continuing suspicion of Europe at every level of British society. ‘The Durham miners won’t wear it,’ Herbert Morrison once said of European integration, and hard though they tried, neither the ERP nor the CIA was able to change that fact.

Nicolaus Mills’s claims for the plan’s impact in Winning the Peace are more modest than Behrman’s: he explicitly rejects the ‘messianic notion’ that the ERP saved Europe, placing considerable emphasis on the programme’s multilateralism, and the contribution of European leaders. That said, Mills is no less keen than Behrman to hold the plan up as a model of humanitarian interventionism, and in his account, George Marshall, an even more dominant figure here than in The Most Noble Adventure, emerges as the American statesman par excellence. Mills pays more attention than other writers on the subject to Marshall’s participation in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt’s public works project, the Civilian Conservation Corps, echoing Michael Hogan’s arguments about the influence on the ERP of New Deal-style ‘corporatism’, and betraying more than a hint of nostalgia for the social democratic politics of an earlier era.

Mills explores the way the Marshall Plan was invoked as a precedent for the American reconstruction of Iraq. As he points out, George Bush made the analogy in 2003, when he told the UN General Assembly that he was about to make ‘the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan’, while as secretary of state Colin Powell consciously modelled himself on George Marshall. But how the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq suffers by the comparison. The Marshall Plan was remarkable for its combination of careful planning with realistic aims, firmness of purpose tempered by receptivity to other viewpoints, and altruism wedded to a proper sense of the national interest. Bush’s post-invasion programme, in contrast, was distinguished by its lack of bipartisanship at home and of multilateral support abroad, its overreaching ambition and open-endedess, the comparative stinginess of the aid on offer, and the mediocrity of the individuals running it.

Does the example set by the Marshall Plan offer hope that a more successful set of policies could be pursued in Iraq, as Mills implies? Certainly, it is difficult not to feel wistful for the higher standards of American leadership that obtained in the late 1940s, but just how useful the plan really is as a guide to action now is highly debatable. The nation-state is a less powerful instrument of political will than it once was, and Obama notwithstanding, the Atlantic alliance on which the plan was built is weaker as well. Post-Saddam Iraq is not post-Second World War Europe. The US is generally perceived as an invader rather than a liberator; its presence lacks international legitimacy; and the new authorities cannot draw on the historic traditions of democracy the Marshall Planners were able to harness in 1940s Europe. As so often with historical exemplars, the plan works better as a rhetorical device than a policy blueprint.