- Historic Sites
The Plan The East Rejected
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
What an amazing curtainfall we all watched in the dwindling days of the 1980s: In Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia Communist governments either resigning immediately or promising free elections in the near future; in Bulgaria discussions between the government and the opposition; in Romania a revolution against the Communist dictator that sadly broke the pattern of reform without bloodshed; the Soviet Union making it all possible by refusing to intervene. Who would have believed it could ever happen? It’s a jolt to those of us who think of history as moving only in majestic cycles. Here is history, with a grin, doing a swift, undignified backflip!
What’s the American connection? My eye was taken by an interview in the local Berkshire Eagle with a sixty-nineyear-old Lenox, Massachusetts, resident who fled Czechoslovakia in 1965. Jan Wiener declared that the Western nations, “having finally gotten what they wanted in Eastern Europe, should support the newly liberated … nations with a huge infusion of funds like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after the Second World War.”
There’s a provocative irony here. If a new Marshall Plan should emerge to help in finally liquidating the Cold War, it would create a neat historical symmetry, because the original Marshall Plan, enacted forty-two years ago, was a major step in creating it. Western Europe’s war-shattered economy was rejuvenated under American leadership, while Eastern Europe’s languished under Soviet auspices. That, as much as anything else, sealed the bitter division between East and West. It wasn’t precisely planned that way—or then again, perhaps it was.
In the spring of 1947 the United States was indisputably the world’s premier economic power. On the other side of the Atlantic lay a devastated Europe. Mines, factories, dams, roads, railroads, and all the sinews of industrial strength were still in ruins or idle for lack of capital and raw materials. A brutally hard 1946-47 winter exacerbated the general misery.
The contrast between American affluence and European desperation was one overriding force in the emerging postwar world. The other was the ongoing collapse of the alliance between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Stalin had ignored promises made at Yalta of free elections when the fighting ended. Instead his occupying forces had used their power to help eliminate all opposition to Communist parties, so that Soviet-style regimes were ruling absolutely in Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Poland, and soon would be in Czechoslovakia.
Most United States foreign-policy makers had come to believe that Stalin was behind a Communist insurgency in Greece. It was even argued that a future Soviet invasion of Western Europe was possible at the first sign of American weakness.
More immediately worrisome than a war with the Russians, however, was the prospect of a complete economic collapse in the democratic nations. Growing despair might throw middleand working-class voters into the arms of political extremists, as had happened in the Great Depression. Moreover, the continued prostration of Europe would eventually wreck the American economy.
The logjam had to be broken somehow. Europe needed dollars to buy American goods. But it could not earn them without an economic rebuilding job, which would require imports it could not afford.
To meet this crisis, State Department planners developed early in 1947 a new program for U.S.-assisted European recovery. It seems so straightforward in retrospect—a seemingly simple infusion of funds—that it is easy to forget how essentially radical it was. It had three key elements. First, there must be a continuing American commitment for several years (though with a definite cutoff point). Second, there was to be no handout of money to individual European governments to spend as they liked. The goal must be the recovery of the entire European economy, for which free goods—food, building materials, fuel, transport equipment, chemicals, machinery, generators—would be provided according to an overall blueprint. Third, the first draft of that blueprint must be sketched by European hands; the initiative must come collectively.
In other words, Congress was to commit large sums of money for a long time on an untried scheme. And European nations, after generations of economic warfare, were now to coordinate their currency, trade, and industrial policies and priorities. Nothing less than a full historical revolution was implied. The United States would give up isolationism. Europe would make a start on integration.
Merely to get the consent of Americans to the idea would take great political skill—which planners such as Undersecretaries of State Dean Acheson and William Clayton did not lack. They arranged to have their plan given its first major public exposure not by Truman, whose popularity was at an ebb in 1947, but by Secretary Marshall, retired General and Chief of Staff of the Army, universally venerated as the master strategist of victory. Truman, a devout Marshall admirer, fully consented to have the Secretary announce the plan (and thereby give it his valuable name) in a speech at the Harvard commencement of 1947.