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).

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