Benn Steil’s The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War reminded me at times of the movie 13 Days (about the scary 1961-62 confrontation between the US and USSR over Soviet missiles heading for Cuba): you know how the story ends, but even so the dramatic tension of men in suits talking in a room is almost unbearable. The dawn of the Cold War – particularly the status of Berlin and the airlift – was one of those extraordinary turning points too. Steil is also a terrific writer. For example, here he describes Kennan: “George Kennan would make a career out of repeatedly testing his powers of persuasion and then recoiling from the consequences.”
It’s also particularly poignant to read this book in Brexit Britain, for it makes clear the Marshall Plan’s bold vision of political cooperation and growing economic links between all of the western European nations, and the achievement of American politicians and diplomats in enabling this in a continent devastated by the war and not surprisingly beset by mutual suspicion. Prosperity and security for the whole were inextricably linked – hence the biggest challenge in launching the plan was to overcome the Europeans’ pursuit of individual national aims when the whole could be so much bigger than the sum of the parts. This went for making steel more efficiently and also for collective defence. It was difficult for the French in particular to see the (west) Germans and the Ruhr in this light. Kennan and others were clear that outside a new intergrated western Europe, “Britain would appear to have no future.” It depresses me utterly that we are turning our back on the vision that kept western Europe at peace and prospering since 1945 – this time without the Americans to set us straight.
The Marshall vision, however, also in a way sowed some Cold War seeds, for the Soviets were just as keen as the French to ensure German industry could not recover to its own benefit, but only to the extent that its outputs could be shipped to the USSR as reparations. The main issue was still Stalin’s desire to extend Soviet control as far as possible, including encouraging the Communist parties in France and Italy to engage in economic sabotage; but it’s fascinating to see how often questions of politics and influence were played out in seemingly dry economic issues such as the right to print currency, and whose versions of different currencies circulating in Berlin could be used to purchase which goods.
The essence of the Marshall Plan, Steil writes, was that the US taxpayers would sustain a minimum standard of living in the beneficiary countries in return for economic liberalization and integration to kick start the war-devastated economies and the momentum for continuing growth. “In essence the State Department was tendering the largest foreign aid program in history as a social shock absorber for the largest structural adjustment program in history.” The book covers the American political debate in detail, revealing new (to me) heroes, notably Arthur Vandenburg, the Republican senator who ensured President Truman got Congressional approval for the deal. And new villains: we all know Philby, Burgess and Maclean spied for the Soviets but they’ve been too sanitised by literature.
There are loads of nice details in the book too – for instance, when Molotov visited London on 1942 to negotiate an Anglo-Soviet treaty, he distrusted his hosts so much he slept with a revolver next to his bed. (If he were visiting London now, of course, he’d be having to distrust his compatriots more.)
A highly recommended read (and given the appendices and footnotes, not as daunting as its size suggests!)