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The Plan The East Rejected

March 2023
5min read

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.

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.

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