Marshalling a New Europe

In 1947, the U.S. launched one of the most comprehensive financial endeavors of the past century, to prevent post-war Europe from turning communist. Greg Behrman traces the ideas behind, and impact of, the Marshall Plan.

"The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe" by Greg Behrman, Free Press, 464 pages, $27

Even among the greatest critics of the Soviet Union and its heritage, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who will put the entire blame for the Cold War at the communist motherland's doorstep. Some revisionist American historians even contend that the United States and its president at the time, Harry S Truman, had their own motives and interests in fanning that war's flames.

Two years after the end of World War II in Europe, there were still no signs of the new and better world suffering soldiers and civilians had been promised. The economy had not stabilized and shortages were widespread. Britain even instituted bread rationing, which had not been imposed during the war years. As distress and hopelessness increased, the prophets of happiness and prosperity from the East gained in strength.

More and more civilians began wondering if they had been asked to sacrifice their loved ones' lives and their own fortitude for the sake of capitalists, who know how to get rich even when times are hard.

Moscow undeniably influenced the rise of communist parties, mainly in France and Italy, as well as the growing unrest, the demonstrations and the opposition to parliamentary regimes.

The Cold War is born

European leaders had no problem convincing Truman that new revolutionary emergency measures were called for. Even the slightest sign of light at the end of the tunnel would convince the citizens of Europe's battered countries that there was hope, prompting them to discard the illusions of welfare and progress emanating from Moscow. All that needed doing was to plan the assistance in a manner that would encourage and nurture local enterprise, under temporary and proper direction, to avoid creating a relationship of permanent dependency. The assistance plan drawn up by then U.S. secretary of state George C. Marshall was the solution.

At some point it was decided to extend the offer of this assistance to those European countries beyond the Iron Curtain, in the hope that Stalin would reject the outstretched hand. At first Moscow hesitated, and did not get in the way of a few leaders of its satellites, who demonstrated their interest in the plan. But ideology quickly overcame practicality.

On July 2, 1947, Europe's foreign ministers convened in Paris to work out their stance toward America's proposal. As expected, Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, rejected Marshall's offer, and even accused the U.S. of harboring malicious plans of domination. At this, Britain's foreign secretary, Ernst Bevin, probably breathed a sigh of relief. After all, what would have remained for faltering Britain if the Soviet Union and its satellites had joined the pool of support recipients? The whole idea had been born in order to isolate the communist camp.

Greg Behrman, the author of "The Most Noble Adventure," as well as almost all the historians who have dealt with this issue, has no doubt that July 2, 1947 marks the beginning of the Cold War. Had the Soviet Union also benefited from American financial assistance, the Cold War would have been prevented, Europe's recovery would have been delayed and Europe's fate would have been stymied.

Did Stalin and Molotov not realize back then what every political neophyte can see today: that the keys to preventing America's rise as leader of the Western world were in their hands, and they threw them away without a second thought?

Why did they act as they did? Because of national Soviet pride? Glaring short-sightedness? Perhaps concealed malicious plans?

Behrman posits many explanations for the Soviet Union's failure, the most decisive of which is the ignorance and benightedness that characterized the behavior of all those involved. Truman did not hesitate to attribute aggressive and domineering intentions to Moscow's leaders and was convinced that the communist demonstrations in Paris and Rome constituted the early stages of the Reds' expansion plan. Today every historian knows that such an analysis does not reflect the intentions and policies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The West viewed Stalin, justifiably, as a bloodthirsty megalomaniac who would not miss out on any opportunity to realize the Russians' traditional expansionist intentions. The idea that Stalin was a devout communist who believed in the rules and laws of historic determinism was not even taken into account, although no one could have been more loyal than he to the status quo. He demanded compensation for his country's terrible toll in the war; he demanded solid defensible borders; and he demanded hegemony - but not beyond the areas awarded him consensually by his former allies turned opponents, the leaders of the West.

Stalin did not have to resort to aggression, because as a Marxist he did not believe that the regime the capitalistic U.S. was trying to establish in Europe could last. To him, the Marshall Plan was a Western attempt to escape history's decree that capitalist states cannot live peacefully beside one another and will eventually be overcome by their competitive urges, which will prompt a fierce struggle whose main beneficiaries will be those who stand on the sidelines and watch the capitalist powers destroy one another, following the dictates and rules of history.

Window of opportunity

The boorish willingness to attribute terrible, covert intentions to the opponent were all-encompassing and damaging. Every party, and especially the West, felt that the countdown had begun toward the outbreak of World War III. It is difficult to describe the feeling of urgency that accompanied that fear. The West knew that the Soviet Union was accelerating its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and saw a short, fateful window of opportunity. Contemporary thinking had it that whatever happened now would seal Europe's fate for either domination or enslavement: All those who joined the communist parties in Western Europe did so because they felt cheated, because they felt they had been promised a life of happiness and riches after years of trials and tribulations, and now they feared their leaders and the wealthy would not lift a finger to improve their lot.

The assistance plan's architects were mostly wary about a massive infusion of financial aid that would quickly evaporate, leaving behind harsh disappointment and growing despair. The planners had to rely on the promises of their partners on the ruined continent, that all that was needed was a growth engine. Thus, instead of direct cash investments, the Americans focused on creating mechanisms that would ensure that the recipients of the assistance in Europe matched every American dollar with effort and investment.

The mechanism was complex and complicated and employed many clerks and planners, who had to design an assistance scale and levels of benefits: What would a French farmer have to promise in exchange for the sum of money that would be deposited in his account for the purchase of a tractor? Where would that tractor be manufactured and purchased? In America or in the silenced, work-starved European factories? And the biggest question of all was how to manage the aid and prevent the European vassals from feeling a sense of enslavement to the whims and wishes of Uncle Sam.

The money began to arrive in Europe, but the Soviet propaganda did not cease, constantly telling its dwindling camp of faithful in Western Europe that every penny they were willing to accept from Washington hastened the demise of their freedom.

Overwhelming success

The impact of the Marshall Plan was surprising. By 1950 there was a significant decline in the strength of communist parties in Europe. The more the Cold War intensified and Moscow's attempts to sow unrest and opposition in Europe proliferated, the more communism's influence waned. The rift between East and West steadily widened. A new situation developed in Western Europe: Past enemies became the allies of the present, and even West Germany began to find its place in this new order. The washing machine, full-time employment and signs of prosperity lived cheek by jowl with the dread of nuclear war. The Marshall Plan succeeded, and the U.S. established itself as the leader of the free world.

Today it is difficult to comprehend the basis for this grandiose plan's overwhelming success. During the four years of its implementation, some $13 billion was funneled into Europe. Although this was a handsome figure for those days, it is still small compared to the fruits generated by the engine it powered.

The Marshall Plan created a new Europe, and for the sake of comparison, Behrman notes that $13 billion was more or less the sum total of the booty the Soviet Union took from the Eastern European countries that were under its thumb. The Soviet Union appropriated the compensation the Western powers refused to give it, but unfortunately all that money did not cause an economic revolution there - not on the scale of the revolution in Europe, powered by the Marshall Plan's money.

Behrman and many other economists and historians know that the secret to the Marshall Plan's overwhelming success cannot be found in summarized economic analyses. British historian Tony Judt summed it up nicely in his 2005 book "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," when he stated that the Marshall Plan was "a glass of milk and optimism" - a glass of milk every morning for Europe's children, to ensure their health and growth, and a conservative atmosphere with hope for a better future after years of ruin and destruction. Behrman, who compares the Soviet Union's predatory behavior toward its satellite states in Europe to the sage behavior of the U.S. on its way to becoming the leader of the Western world, writes that the plan's contribution to the flourishing of Western Europe's economy was the measure of faith and hope it spread.

The Marshall Plan changed Europe beyond recognition, but many from that generation do not feel that it was a decisive turning point. The plan did not put an end to the Cold War, but rather only hastened its onset, prompting it to assume new and threatening heights. Behrman notes, however, that the generation in question could not have known about the plan's long-term impact, which he feels included planting the seeds for the process that years later resulted in the Soviet Union's collapse.

The plan also bore fruit that was unexpected and perhaps even unwanted by the planners in Washington. It created a good and fitting infrastructure for the thoughts that began developing in Europe as a result of the world war that had just ended.

The Marshall Plan was a catalyst and guarantor on the road to Europe's unification because it sparked a thought process on the European continent and stressed the advantages of joint effort. The plan that established America's status as the leader of the Western world also stood over the cradle of a strong center of power that in the early years of the 21st century is undermining the supremacy of American domination. This is another important message from Behrman's book, which recounts the history of one effort, but whose lessons also apply to the totality of relationships between different countries.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is editor-in-chief of the "Ofakim" series published by Am Oved.