Book review: The Marshall Plan - Dawn of the Cold War

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 15 May 2018 in Culture

Benn Steil has written what many will consider to be the definitive history of the Marshall Plan.

It is very apposite that Benn Steil’s The Marshall Plan has been published this year against the background of the Trump Presidency and the debate in the USA over the shift from intervention to a kind of isolationism. The author is an economist whose earlier book The Battle of Bretton Woods outlined the ruthless policies of the USA in 1944 to overthrow the dominance of the British Empire and to strike a harsh deal on economic support.

The political relationships between the leaders of the European nations, and this includes Theresa May, are rather bleak, as President Trump reverts to an earlier nationalistic foreign policy.

It is difficult for today’s generation to realise the extent of the power of the USA in 1945 and the collapse of the economies of the European nations, including Britain, and the fear of the incremental influence of the Soviet Union.

Benn Steil has read widely and  used archives in both Europe and the USA to write what  many  will consider to be the definitive history of the Marshall Plan. There was no seamless line between the outpouring of US economic and military power during the war years and what became a massive aid programmeto Europe worth $130 bn in today’s money.

Steil weaves together the development of policy in the USA which involved President Truman – who had been fairly isolationist in the 1930s – his Secretary of State, George C Marshall, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the important role of the former isolationist Republica n Senator Arthur Vandenberg, and a host of senior officials. Nothing was preordained, but these mainly men developed one of the more imaginative aid programmes.

Named after the Secretary of State, what became the Mar shall Plan was aimed at preventing the economic collapse of most European countries trying to re-integrate a defeated but potentially powerful Germany, and to challenge the Soviet Union’s dominance of central and eastern Europe.

Focussing on the critical years of 1947 to 1949, Steil’s account takes us through the seminal episodes making the collapse of postwar US  – Soviet relations – the  Prague coup, the Berlin blockade and the physical division of Germany. It was only gradually that Stalin moved to prevent European countries from accepting US aid, by physically controlling the central and east European countries, and by using the large and extensive communist parties in the west.

The American authors of what became the Marshall Plan were Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Will Clayton and of course George C Marshall. The latter recognised that the  USA had to break the circle of continuing economic decline in Europe and restoring political confidence with aid.

But the aid was not a no strings attached freebie. Marshall laid down conditions including that the Europeans were to receive the American cash in return foragreeing an unprecedented degree of mutual cooperation and economic  liberalisation. What comes across is that at the heart of the Marshall Plan –which Stalin bitterly opposed – was the resurrection of Germany – and this was to le ad to the physical division of that country. But Stalin’s opposition and attempts to use the communist parties in Western Europe failed.

President Truman was nervous of such a proactive aid programme and on such a vast scale, but was helped by American public opinion being aroused by what was portrayed as the communist threat. The importance of the Marshall Plan was that it was to lead to the formation of NATO, and Steil would argue eventually to the EU.

Steil has expert command of his sources and writes  with clarity about a complex set of relations. To a British reader he demonstrates just how close we were to complete bankruptcy at the end of the war.

The author is not convinced that the Marshall Plan on its own was the decisive factor in revitalising the European economy, and indeed shows that the Europeans were already gradually carrying out measures that mirrored those of the Plan.

Steil’s final chapter consists of reflections on the state of Europe and US policy following the collapse of the old Soviet Union. He concludes that the Marshall Plan worked “because the United States aligned its actions with its interests and capacities in Europe, accepting the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate without sacrificing credibility and public support. Great acts of statesmanship are grounded in realism no less than idealism. It is a lesson we need to relearn.”



Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.



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