Robert Gellately’s incisive work could well be titled, “Stalin’s Worst Blunder.” It is the story of how his rejection of Marshall Plan aid in 1947, both for the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations falling under its domination, precipitated the Cold War and eventually led to the economic collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Mr. Gellately gives short shrift to individuals in the West — notably President Roosevelt and George Kennan of the State Department — who felt the wartime alliance would continue once peace arrived. He makes plain that Stalin had no such intention. Instead, he was determined to establish Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. During the war, he milked the alliance for all it was worth while he planned to plant Soviet-friendly regimes wherever the Red Army went.
American statesmen such as Secretary of State George C. Marshall and colleague Dean Acheson recognized that the war left Europe an economic ruin. Europe needed more food and fuel than it could pay for. If the problems were not solved, Marshall said, demoralization would surely set in, with a disruption of any recovery.
Marshall laid out his thinking in a speech at Harvard in June 1947, in what must rank as one of the more magnanimous offers in 20th century history. As Mr. Gellately writes,”There was no ‘Marshall Plan’ in the sense that the United States presented a thick document like one of Stalin’s five-year plans, setting out production targets and quotas and all the rest.” He said that “our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” A new approach was needed, but “it would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans.”
Marshall and aides made a crucial decision. To be effective, they noted, the recovery program must include the USSR and Eastern Europe. To friends, he said he “deplored the emotional anti-Russian attitude in the country and kept emphasizing the necessity to talk and write about Europe in terms of economics instead of ideologies.” He recognized that if “the Russians” agreed to go along with the recovery program, obtaining congressional approval would be more difficult. This risk Marshall was willing to take.
British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin and his French counterpart, Georges Bidault, agreed to an international conference to discuss the actual details of Marshall’s proposal, saying, “It was like a lifeline to sinking men. It seemed to bring hope where there was none. The generosity of it was beyond our belief.”
Not so, to Stalin. “In his view, the United States and Great Britain, the two major capitalist powers to survive the war, had been pleased to defeat their main competitors in Italy, Germany and Japan and intended to keep them down to control prices and dominate the globe.” He predicted that the United States would fail. “The Americans believe that they alone will be able to deal with the world market. That is an illusion. They will not be able to cope with it.”
The word went out from Moscow to Communist leaders in Eastern Europe: They must boycott the planning conference called by Bevin and Bidault, even if they wished to participate. The Czech government originally had agreed to participate. Jan Masaryk and other leaders were summoned to Moscow. As a somber Masaryk lamented when back in Prague, “I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state. I returned as a lackey of the Soviet government.” (The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, cabled Marshall that he regarded the Kremlin’s strong-arming of the Czechs as “nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union on the immediate issue of the control of Europe.”)
Mr. Gellately concedes that the Marshall Plan contained elements both of American altruism and economic interest. “Then, again, when is altruism never mixed with self-interest? It does nobody any good to have trading partners who are desperate and starving. We should also recall that the American economy in the postwar period was at full employment, and domestic demand could have been further stimulated without the investments attached to foreign aid …
“It was overwhelmingly Stalin’s actions that led to the Cold War. The Moscow dictator was willing to bide his time and to let Western Europe stagnate and fester. If the United States had turned away, those who condemn it for offering the Marshall Plan would blame it — and rightly so — for doing nothing to put an end to the suffering and starvation in war-torn Europe.”
In the end, ordinary Eastern Europeans — and Russians alike — paid the price for Stalin’s harshness. Their economies fell behind Western Europe and never caught up. So, too, did their standard of living and life expectancy. “Communists in Western Europe never again put in a serious bid for political power.”
Mr. Gellately, a professor at Florida State University, relied heavily on newly released Soviet documents in writing “Stalin’s Curse,” and he dashes once and for all the claims of blame-America academicians and faux historians that Washington was responsible for the Cold War.
Joseph C. Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Books, 2012).
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