U.S. foreign policy, seen at its best

Review History

August 26, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[ Special to The Sun]

The Most Noble Adventure

The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe

By Greg Behrman

Free Press / 448 pages / $27

World War II left Europe in ruins. More than 36 million people had died. With half of the houses in major cities reduced to rubble, 13 million more were "displaced persons." Winston Churchill watched as "a vast quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings ... scanned the dark horizons for the approach of some new peril, tyranny or terror. Among the victors there is a babel of jarring voices; among the vanquished a sudden silence of despair." With its G.I.s back home, the United States, the world's only superpower, seemed unwilling to help. Americans, Ambassador Averill Harriman told his colleagues, just want to "go to the movies and drink Coke."

But on June 5, 1947, at Harvard's 286th commencement, Secretary of State George C. Marshall sketched out the broad contours of a plan to help Europe establish the economic, political, and social conditions "in which free institutions can exist." He offered assistance to the emerging Soviet bloc as well as Western Europe: American policy, Marshall claimed, ingeniously and disingenuously, was directed "not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." By 1951, the Marshall Plan had provided $13 billion for recovery and rehabilitation.

In The Most Noble Adventure, Greg Behrman, the Henry Kissinger Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Aspen Institute, celebrates the 60th birthday of the Marshall Plan with a lucid account of its origins, operations and impact. Since the European Recovery Plan was motivated by self-interest as well as altruism, Behrman acknowledges, it contained contradictions. Designed to develop markets for American products and save Europe from communism, the plan helped trigger the Cold War. Trumpeted for its transparency, it bankrolled covert activities by the CIA. Nonetheless, Behrman concludes, the ERP was remarkably free of corruption, contained the Soviet Union, undermined once-popular communist parties in Western Europe, revived Germany and laid the conceptual foundation for what would become the European Union. Embodying the very best of American ideals, the Marshall Plan was "perhaps the most successful peacetime foreign policy in United States history."

Behrman captures the dramatic context behind Marshall Plan aid. Sensing that the collapse of capitalism might be imminent, the Russians believed that the program was a desperate attempt to manage American overproduction. Instead of ruining European recovery by delaying and temporizing, Josef V. Stalin refused to participate - and prepared to "pursue territorial expansion opportunistically." In 1948, he blockaded Berlin. Left unchecked, Behrman asserts, "he would have reaped tremendous strategic gain." Left to their own devices, the nations of Europe might have fallen - or jumped - into the Soviet orbit.

The Marshall Plan was a creative response to an unprecedented global crisis. But it wasn't quite the cliffhanger described in The Most Noble Adventure. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, Behrman implies, passage of the plan was just short of miraculous. Actually, the outcome was never much in doubt. Although Sen. Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican," denounced the ERP as a Rooseveltian "giveaway" and John Taber, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was determined to kill it, a bipartisan majority supporting the program quickly emerged. Marshall Plan legislation gathered strength as communist parties did well in elections in France and Italy, and President Harry S. Truman "scared the hell" out of the American people about the Soviet threat in Greece and Turkey. Thomas E. Dewey, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 1948, announced his support before a bill was introduced in Congress. Organizations from the American Federation of Labor to the American Legion endorsed the aid package as well. The Marshall Plan passed the Senate by a vote of 69-17; the House tally was 329-74.

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