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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War

Benn Steil wrote this timely piece about the magnanimous, yet strategically astute, European Recovery Program, known popularly as the Marshall Plan. Not wanting to associate himself fully with the program, Truman coined the term after his senatorial Secretary of State, retired General of the Army, George C. Marshall. Truman made the fateful decision to aid anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey as those two nations were plunged into vicious civil wars in the chaotic months after the conclusion of peace in Europe in 1945. "Peace" was a relative term, because in fact, Europe was still in the throes of violent retaliatory movements in formerly occupied countries, repressive occupations, massive relocations of peoples, and in several cases, civil wars. Most importantly, Europe was on the edge of starvation.

As Steil writes, it wasn't so much that production capacity had been destroyed, but that transportation infrastructure and trade networks had collapsed. Recognizing the danger of communist subversion (particularly when the Soviets and the Allies could not agree on the plans for defeated Germany), the Truman administration decided to administer financial assistance to any country in Europe that desired it. Based on the wise policy advice of George Kennan, who knew they would refuse it, Truman and Marshall also offered the assistance to the Soviet Union and its occupied vassal states in Eastern Europe. When Josef Stalin refused the aid and would not allow the nations of East Europe to accept it, the United States came away looking like the white knight to the rest of Europe. France and Italy had strong communist parties and the aid went a long way toward seeing that democratic parties held court in national elections in each country. Steil focuses a large part of the book on the negotiations between the Soviets and the Allies over Germany. Besides Marshall, Steil writes of the other men responsible for getting this program off the ground, including the indefatigable General Lucious Clay, the leader of the U.S. occupation zone in Germany. British Foreign Minister Blevin was also a key figure.

For me the best part of this detailed study is when Steil leaps over to the end of the Cold War and describes the shortfalls in U.S. statesmanship, particularly in the 1990s, unlike the late 1940s when figures like Marshall, Kennan, Acheson, and Harriman expertly shepherded U.S. policy in the dark days of the early Cold War. He nails the current situation in his penultimate sentence of the book: "Great acts of statesmanship are grounded in realism no less than idealism."


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