- - Tuesday, February 6, 2018


By Benn Steil

Simon & Schuster, $35, 624 pages

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin abruptly ended wartime years of alliance with other nations with a February 1946 speech condemning capitalism as the “engine of modern war.” He foresaw “inevitable conflict with the capitalist West.”

Stalin’s belligerent statement rattled President Harry Truman and other world leaders who were grasping for answers as to how a war-ruined Europe might return to prosperity and a lasting peace.

Then up surged another surprising announcement: Great Britain was so broke that could no longer defend parts of its far-flung empire (India, most notably) or areas of dominance such as Greece and Turkey. The portend was clear: A USSR move into these abandoned lands could lead to world domination by the communists.

Mr. Truman’s response was swift. In what became known as the “Truman Doctrine,” he assumed responsibility for protecting former British interests. He also set into motion a program of financial assistance for the economic rescue of Western Europe.

Even readers who consider themselves well-versed on what became the Marshall Plan will be gripped by the details in Benn Steil’s retelling of just how Mr. Truman’s idea became reality.

Obstacles were many. Perhaps most importantly, after spending billions of wartime dollars, the American public had no stomach for financing the rebuilding of Europe. A strong Republican presence in Congress gave voice to these concerns.

Thus the Truman administration grappled for a way around these concerns. The solution: a program that would help Europeans rebuild their economies, rather than just soak up relief dollars.

Mr. Steil, an economist for the Council on Foreign Relations, is at his narrative best in recounting how the program was put together.

Although the eventual program bore the name of General George C. Marshall, the secretary of state, and wartime chief of staff for FDR, credit for its nuts-and-bolts creation must go to State Department veterans such as George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, foremost experts on the USSR in the federal government; Dean Acheson, who had long experience in international finance; and William Clayton, a Texas cotton baron turned diplomat who served as undersecretary for economic affairs.

Their work documents the need for an experienced and non-political diplomatic corps of varied expertise and institutional knowledge. Without these men, and others, the program likely would have floundered before birth.

When enacting legislation was ready for Congress, presidential aide Clark Clifford wanted to call the program “the Truman Plan.” The president demurred. “Anything going up [to Capitol Hill] bearing my name will quiver a couple of times, turn belly up and die The worst Republican on the Hill can vote for it if we name it after General Marshall.”

Mr. Truman also had ample problems with some Democrats. Henry Wallace, vice president under President Roosevelt, raged against “reckless adventure [and] ruthless imperialism” that was “betraying the great tradition of America.”

One early decision — and a key one — was to cast the program publicly as “not directed against any country” — meaning, of course, the USSR, but as the “drawing together and consolidation of the non-Soviet world.”

Further, the plan did not exclude participation by Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe, although drafters were confident that Stalin would not permit them to join. That such was recognized satisfied Republicans who would not have voted to send a single dollar to Moscow minions.

As George Kennan observed, including these captive nations “put Russia over the barrel.” If Stalin vetoed their acceptance of aid, he would “reveal his true aims” to the world.

Another decision was to have European nation draft their own recovery programs, rather than accept policies dictated by Washington — a means of sliding around the world “imperialism.”

A main hope was converting Germany into a Western democratic state, one capable of resisting any future Soviet intrusions but with ambitions of conquest at an end.

The initial appropriation was $5.3 billion, about a quarter of the defense budget for 1947. As expected, Stalin forbade underling nations from participating. (Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masarayk, who dissented, soon died in a “suicide fall” later determined to be a KGB murder.)

Recovery, to be sure, was laborious, and there were many bumps along the way. Moscow’s refusal to permit German unification prompted off-and-on Cold War scares.

But an initially dubious American public gave the Marshall Plan overwhelming support. Most surely recognized what Gen. Marshall had in mind in a Harvard speech formally launching the plan.

His words should reverberate through American history: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

The collapse of communism and the Soviet threat remained decades distant but the Marshall Plan gave the vital first shove to their oblivion. A victory over oppression of which all of us should be proud.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 19 books include “The Best Years: America 1945-1950.”

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