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God bless America

Margaret McMillan on the new book by Greg Behrman

11 June 2008

12:00 AM

11 June 2008

12:00 AM

The Most Noble Adventure Greg Behrman

Aurum, pp.464, 25

The Most Noble Adventure contains a striking pair of photographs of the business district in Hamburg. The first, taken in 1945, shows shattered buildings, clouds of smoke and a virtually empty street. Five years later, the same scene is transformed. The damage has largely been repaired and the sidewalks are filled with well-dressed pedestrians. Was this extraordinary recovery, representative of what was happening all over Western Europe, a result of the Marshall Plan which pumped billions of dollars of American aid into a war-torn Europe? Or was it bound to happen sooner or later, once Europeans recovered their nerve and their will?

It is now 20 years since Alan Milward challenged the conventional wisdom that the Marshall Plan did indeed save Western Europe from economic catastrophe and quite possibly a Communist takeover. Curiously, in an otherwise admirable book, Greg Behrman relegates what has been a lively and important debate to his footnotes — yet it has considerable relevance for today. The Marshall Plan is widely seen, particularly in the United States, as a model of how to kick-start economic recovery and strengthen democracy. How often, for example, have we heard calls for a Marshall Plan for Africa?

Behrman’s own opinion is that conveyed in his title. Without the Marshall Plan, Western Europe might well have become part of the Soviet empire and the European Union another failed dream of those Europeans like Jean Monnet who were able to look beyond narrow national interests. And he makes a compelling case. While much of Europe, particularly in the west, still had the tools at its disposal — from an educated population to surprisingly resilient political and social structures — to rebuild itself, it did not seem so at the time. Europeans feared that their civilisation was finished and American observers tended to agree. The war had destroyed cities, factories, ports, railways, dams and mines. Millions of people were homeless or living in makeshift shelters. Farmers could not get enough seed to plant; in any case how were they to get their produce to markets? The weather piled on more misery. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest in memory and the following summer brought widespread drought. While many in Europe sank into apathy and despair, the Communists under Stalin’s malevolent direction saw an opportunity to seize power.

If Europe was going to survive and withstand the challenge from Soviet-style Communism, it would need massive imports. Stalin and his fellow ideologues had no interest in propping up bourgeois governments and saving capitalist societies. The United States had the resources but Europe did not have the dollars to buy them. ‘The margin between recovery and collapse throughout Western Europe’ said the Economist in the spring of 1947, ‘is dependent at this moment upon massive imports from the U.S.’ Would the Americans see it that way?

After the first world war, the United States had withdrawn from Europe and its troubles. Certainly many Americans hoped to do so again. What changed the minds of even some of the most determined isolationists was the Soviet Union. If Stalin had been determined to ensure that the United States stayed in Western Europe, he could not have done a better job. His tightening grip on Eastern Europe, culminating in the Czech coup of 1948, the violent strikes and outright sabotage by Communists in the West, Soviet attempts to move in on such countries as Turkey and Norway, all served to harden attitudes in the West.

Even so the battle to get first the Marshall Plan and then Nato approved by the American Congress was a long and difficult one. Behrman’s heroes, who include George Marshall, the great soldier turned equally great statesman, George Kennan, the architect of containment, Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican isolationist who became an internationalist after Pearl Harbor, and of course President Harry Truman, laboured to build a bipartisan coalition and to explain to the American people why such extraordinary peacetime measures were essential. Some 200 Congressmen, among them the young Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were taken off to Europe to see for themselves its devastation. As one asked on his return, ‘What would it cost not to aid Europe?’

The Plan’s advocates put their case in moral terms, but also, tellingly, in terms of American self-interest. If Western Europe collapsed, the United States would lose key markets and run the risk of another Great Depression. And the Soviet Union was standing by to pick up the pieces. As William Clayton, one of the fathers of the Marshall Plan said in the spring of 1947, ‘We must go all out in this world game or we’d better stay home and devote our brains and energies to preparation for the third world war.’ He and his fellow advocates had to overcome resistance from isolationists, and even American businessmen who saw the Plan as a waste of money.

Contrary to what one might expect, there was opposition, and not just from the Communists, in Europe too. The American insistence that the Europeans work together to divide up and administer the funding ran up against deeply entrenched national interests. The British, for example, did not want to move away from the sterling area and what was left of their empire. And for all Europeans, the German question, albeit in a new form, was a supremely difficult one. Without Germany, as Kennan so rightly said, there could be no real European recovery, but that meant putting the war so recently concluded behind. Fortunately there was both the willingness on the European side and the leadership of men such as Bevin and Monnet to produce much-needed compromise and co-operation.

The Committee on European Economic Co-operation was set up mid July 1947; by the end of September, working at incredible speed, it had detailed plans ready. Once Congress had approved the first tranche of aid in the spring of 1948, the taps were opened. At any one time there were at least 150 Marshall Aid ships carrying everything from food to trucks to Europe. Hundreds of European productivity teams made their way to the United States to learn the American technical and managerial knowhow. The Plan was key in getting production going again and in breaking bottlenecks. By the end of 1948, European production levels had exceeded pre-war ones. Equally important Europeans now had faith in the future; tellingly they started to have more babies.

It is hard not to compare the Marshall Plan with the current mismanagement and corruption in American aid to Iraq. The former had sensible aims: it made a difference; and it showed the United States acting as a great power.

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