Published December 24, 2007
The Most Noble Adventure : The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe
(by Greg Behrman, Free Press, 464 pp., $27)
The Marshall Plan, which was launched exactly 60 years ago, was one of the wisest and most generous political achievements of the 20th century. It restored the shattered economies of war-ravaged Western Europe, revived democratic politics, and sowed the seeds for the fall of the Evil Empire.
The idea for this historic achievement was launched in a commencement speech by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at Harvard in June 1947, three months after President Truman’s equally historic speech setting forth what became known as the Truman Doctrine, a dramatically new initiative to provide military aid to nations threatened by the Soviet Union, notably Greece and Turkey. The significance and consequences of the Marshall Plan cannot be understood apart from the Truman Doctrine and NATO, both created to serve the same overarching purpose of securing Western European states as allies in the struggle to contain Soviet expansion. Ten months after Marshall’s speech, Truman launched the massive effort by signing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948, declaring that it was “America’s answer to the free world.”
Along with winning World War II, the Marshall Plan became the greatest achievement of the generation of which I am a card-carrying member. I didn’t storm the Normandy beach, but as a civilian YMCA worker for three years in war-torn Western Europe, I saw close-up the physical devastation and spiritual despair wrought by Hitler. I walked through the rubble of Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, and a dozen other great cities. The massive destruction and the collapse of currencies brought Europe to the brink of disaster. No one wanted to repeat the grim aftermath of World War I.
I also observed Stalin’s early, but less obvious, efforts to swallow up Eastern Europe and support Communist parties in Western Europe. Much of what I witnessed the author of this timely and fact-studded volume has had to learn from books and documents. Born in 1976, Greg Behrman reflects the enthusiasm of a newcomer to the momentous events that gave birth to the Marshall Plan, and introduces a new generation to the giants who wrought this miracle. He leaves few stones unturned in his long march through mountains of documents.
With 82 pages of footnotes, The Most Noble Adventure presents an endless stream of quotations and documents, but Behrman tends to slight historical analysis and context. He rightly gives prime attention to the three most influential Americans responsible for the Marshall Plan–Marshall, Truman, and Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson–and acknowledges the vital role of the Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who rallied bipartisan congressional support. Two years after it was initiated, Vandenberg declared that the Marshall Plan had been “substantially responsible for reversing the corroding gloom which threatened Western Civilization,” and that “might have brought the ‘iron curtain’ to the very rims of the Atlantic.” Like most Americans at the time, I supported Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan, NATO, and aid to Greece and Turkey. Truman’s most conspicuous foreign ally in this drama was Winston Churchill, no longer British prime minister by that time, but whose prophetic “Iron Curtain” speech in March 1946 was considered too anti-Soviet by some pundits of the day.
By the end of the Marshall Plan program in 1951, it had financed $13 billion–roughly $100 billion in today’s dollars–for the recovery of war-ravaged Europe, and Dean Acheson called it “one of the greatest and most honorable adventures in history.” From the outset, the Plan faced great financial difficulties compounded by political intrigue. Europe had been ravaged from Norway to Sicily, and from Paris to Leningrad, and Britain was too exhausted to celebrate VE Day until a year after the war ended. The situation on the continent was far worse, especially in Germany, whose great cities, long centers of learning, science, art, and industry, had been flattened by Allied bombardment.
Early on, Truman explored the feasibility of Soviet participation in the Plan, but Stalin saw it as an attempt to subvert Moscow’s political designs in Eastern Europe. (One pro-Soviet Yugoslav leader called the Marshall Plan “a dagger pointed at Moscow.”) Despite Stalin’s tightening grip on Eastern Europe, several states, notably Czechoslovakia, at first entertained hopes that the Iron Curtain might be lifted so Prague could participate in the plan. Sadly, this small nation, which had enjoyed a brief experience of democracy between Versailles and Munich, suffered a tragic blow when Stalin prohibited it from receiving Marshall aid.
“When it rains in Moscow, Prague puts up an umbrella,” a Czech friend told me in 1948.
Most Western European governments enthusiastically accepted the Marshall Plan. But predictably, the French had reservations. Paris feared that it would promote German recovery over that of France, and such apprehension increased when the 1948 West German currency devaluation gave the new Deutschmark a competitive position in world markets.
The arrival of Marshall Plan ships in European ports infuriated Stalin and the Western European Communist parties. In June 1948, to counter growing American influence, especially in West Germany, Stalin blockaded West Berlin, an enclave located 120 miles inside Soviet-occupied East Germany, with the hope of expelling U.S. forces from the city. Truman responded with a massive airlift of food and fuel. In May 1949 Stalin lifted the blockade. Truman’s heroism did much to assure the success of the Marshall Plan, but further fueled Moscow’s imperial designs on Eastern Europe.
For three momentous years the Marshall Plan, despite bickering among European participants, achieved what it set out to do: rescue wartorn Europe from economic and political collapse, and restore a sound currency and stable political environment for NATO. Without the Marshall Plan, writes Behrman, West European statesmen would have been hard-pressed to curb the “internal communist threat, political violence and the external Soviet threat.”
Ernest W. Lefever, founder and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author, most recently, of Liberating the Limerick.