The Plan The East Rejected

The Marshall Plan seems so straightforward in retrospect that it is easy to forget how radical it was.

In preliminary staff discussions, Marshall raised one sticky question. What about the Russians and Eastern Europeans? What should he say if reporters asked whether they were included? To answer no would promptly bring charges that the plan was nothing more than a gimmick for making participants dependent on “Uncle Shylock.” And leaving the East out of a program to relieve suffering peoples would be both a hostile act and a gigantic propaganda setback. But to include Moscow and its clients would almost certainly sink the plan in Congress. Who would vote for what the isolationist senator Robert A. Taft was later to call a “global WPA” when Communists were on its payroll?

What, then, was the answer? Marshall wanted to know. The Soviet experts George F. Kennan and Charles Bohlen, both future ambassadors to Moscow, said, in effect, “Don’t worry.” The plan would first demand from the recipients a wide-open look at their industrial resources and prospects. The secretive Stalin would never agree. Nor would he allow the satellites to abandon their forced economic dependence on the Soviet Union. The thing to do was to go ahead and make the offer universal. Say that it was directed not against Communism but (as the Harvard speech actually ran) “against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” And when Moscow rejected it, the United States could successfully—in Bohlen’s words—“identify Communism and the Soviet Union with the evils of misery, hunger, chaos, etc.”

It worked brilliantly. The first step taken after Marshall’s speech was a Paris meeting of the French foreign minister, Georges Bidault, and his London counterpart, Ernest Bevin. After that they quickly invited Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, to join them in discussions. Molotov’s reaction (naturally cleared with Stalin) was predictable when he heard of Bevin and Bidault’s proposed next step: a multinational conference to exchange information on each country’s needs. “Totally unsatisfactory,” he declared, and went home. As Kennan realized, genuine East-West trade would quickly have reflected the superiority of the American economy and put the Russians “over the barrel.”

Unfortunately for the nations of Eastern Europe, Molotov was taking them out of the plan too. The Poles and Czechs gave clear signs that they wanted to attend the conference, but after their leaders were called to “discussions” with the Soviet government, they tore up their reservations. So, unsurprisingly, did Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania.

The all-European parley convened without them. Again, it is easy to forget today what an extraordinary meeting it was in the immediate aftermath of a world war. Former enemies (Italy and Austria), former neutrals (Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey), and former allies against Hitler (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Greece) were all represented. The delegates—technical specialists who sat in committees—hammered away for months on their requests. The United States prodded them heavily to avoid individual shopping lists and to accept certain objectives distasteful to some of them (such as restarting the economy of West Germany, which was later included in the plan). But in the end the program avoided a totally made-in-U.S.A. look.

Meanwhile, Stalin gathered the hapless Eastern Europeans in a conference to adopt a “Molotov Plan” that integrated their economies more tightly with that of the U.S.S.R. And so a Marshall Plan for everyone became a mighthave-been, a historic road not taken.

Once at work, the plan gave a psychological and economic lift to Western Europe that sped it on the course of industrial modernization and integration that it is still following. And while the affluence it helped create is not problem-free, it was enough to destroy the appeal of Communist parties in Western Europe. Now its example seems to have done the same to those in Eastern Europe as well.

That returns us to the original speculation. What would be the overall historical effect of a new Marshall Plan? Would it have a healing effect on the old Cold War divisions? Would it help the Eastern nations catch up with forty years of capitalist development, and would they make the same choices as the Western nations did? The question is probably an idle one, since it is not likely that the hard-pressed United States of 1990 would find the idea as compelling as it did in a faraway and long-ago Truman era. But the final months of 1989 showed us that history still retains a capacity to surprise. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, the surprise is pleasant.