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'The Marshall Plan' considers how and why the US became a global superpower

This is a welcome, timely, and significant addition to what we know about the way that the Marshall Plan shaped the post-World War II landscape.

The Marshall Plan By Benn Steil Simon & Schuster 624 pp.

America’s global perspective has changed a lot in the last year. International agreements have been abandoned, longstanding allies have been insulted, authoritarian regimes have been comforted, and bellicosity has frequently replaced the measured language of diplomacy. More than a hint of isolationism is in the air. Taken together, it represents a sea change in America’s outlook and behavior.  

These changes make it all the more necessary to understand how and why, after World War II, the United States abandoned centuries of isolation and began to assert itself on the world stage. Benn Steil’s new book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War is an important and welcome analysis of why and how the US became a global superpower and the difference it made to the world we inhabit.   

Even before World War II ended in Europe, President Roosevelt promised to withdraw US. troops from the continent within two years. Perhaps naively, this overarching goal led him to cooperate closely with Joseph Stalin in hopes of a secure and lasting peace.  But when the war concluded, President Truman was confronted by the reality of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and was forced to chart a different path.    

Europe was a ruin when the fighting stopped. Millions were homeless and many others were forcibly resettled. Hunger was commonplace. “Blessed are the dead,’ read a piece of graffiti in Berlin, "for their hands do not freeze.” Most western European nations were effectively bankrupt. The turmoil came to a head in February 1947 when a financially desperate Great Britain announced that it would cut off aid and withdraw its troops from Turkey and Greece within weeks. 

Fully expecting that the Soviet Union would step into the vacuum, Truman asked Congress to extend financial and military aid to both nations and, in short order, Congress agreed. This action, notes Steil, dramatically and decisively ended US isolationism and “greatly elevated the role of economic intervention in the American diplomatic arsenal.”

But as Europe continued to struggle, US Secretary of State George Marshall realized that a more comprehensive effort to stabilize Western Europe was needed. In June 1947, he rolled out his idea in a commencement address at Harvard University. Given the importance of the speech, it comes as a surprise to learn that Marshall did not alert the press – or President Truman – before he unveiled what history knows as the Marshall Plan.  

The central idea was a promise that the United States would help rebuild western Europe if the European nations could jointly develop a plan to make it happen. The US had two primary goals: boosting industrial production in (what would soon be) West Germany and finding a way to increase economic integration among Western European nations. The hope was that this would stimulate trade, consumption, and economic growth.  Given how integrated Europe has become over the last 50 years, it’s hard to imagine how unusual it was to talk openly about economic integration. But Steil makes a compelling case that the integration of Western Europe that we now take for granted really began with the Marshall Plan. 

The Soviets were not pleased. Several of their satellites (including Poland and Czechoslovakia) wanted to be part of the discussions, but the Soviet Union – concerned about the possibility of a resurgent Germany and the establishment of America economic hegemony in Europe – blocked them. The Americans correctly assumed that the Soviets would not join the effort. This was fortunate because, as Steil makes clear, the strongest political argument in favor of the Marshall Plan on Capitol Hill was that it would deter the spread of communism. It would have been a tough sell if the Soviet Union had joined the effort. 

Steil describes the Marshall Plan’s journey through the legislative process and the role played by a number of senators, perhaps most notably Republican Arthur Vandenberg who was, before World War II, one of the nation’s most outspoken isolationists.  Truman, of course, organized his successful 1948 reelection campaign around attacks on the “do nothing” 80th Congress. Ironically, that same Congress approved the Marshall Plan, a dramatic, groundbreaking initiative that set the tone and direction of American foreign policy for the next four decades.     

Steil concludes that the Marshall Plan was a resounding success. Between 1948 and 1952, the United States spent $13 billion under the Marshall Plan, with most of the money allocated in the first two years. GDP grew in the 16 Marshall Plan countries, investment increased, industry was modernized, and debt was reduced. Thanks to the economic growth Marshall’s strategy unleashed, Western Europe stayed firmly on the democratic, capitalist path.  

But the Marshall Plan also helped launch the Cold War. Coupled with a number of other high-stakes controversies in 1947 and 1948 such as the Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia, the establishment of NATO, the Berlin airlift, and the founding of West Germany, the Plan marked the beginning of a stable, if often tense, international order.  

This is a gripping, complex, and critically important story that is told with clarity and precision. The book is superbly documented and reflects an extraordinary level of research. It helpfully includes a 25-page “cast of characters” that identifies all of those in the book and the role that they played. Since many of these officials worked for foreign governments and many others are not terribly well-known today, this is a useful addition. Some readers will wish for more chronological precision and others will find the economic analysis a little tedious. But this is a welcome, timely, and significant addition to what we know about the way that the Marshall Plan shaped the post-World War II landscape.

Today’s readers will undoubtedly be struck by the bipartisanship and dispatch with which Congress acted: President Truman signed the Plan into law within a year of Marshall’s speech. So in a time of intense partisanship and polarization, Steil’s book is an important reminder that the federal government was once able to put aside partisan differences to advance national interest and well-being with bold initiatives. One hopes that those days are not gone for good.   

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