The Marshall Plan—the costly and ambitious initiative to revive western Europe after World War II—marked the true beginning of the Cold War, argues Benn Steil. Bringing to bear new Russian and American archival material, Steil shows that it was only after the launch of the plan in 1947 “that both sides, the United States and the Soviet Union, became irrevocably committed to securing their respective spheres of influence.”
In his new book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, Steil describes how President Harry S. Truman’s State Department, under George C. Marshall’s leadership, formulated the recovery program to provide Europe with a new economic and political architecture appropriate for a continent divided into two worlds: a capitalist and a communist one. The Marshall Plan “promised a continuing energetic U.S. presence, underwritten by a reindustrialized capitalist western Germany at the heart of an integrated, capitalist western Europe,” Steil explains. His narrative, which Paul Kennedy’s Wall Street Journal review calls “brilliant,” brings to life the most dramatic episodes of the early Cold War—such as the Prague coup, the Berlin blockade, and the division of Germany—and shows how they unfurled from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s determination to undermine the U.S. intervention.
Steil, senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the award-winning book The Battle of Bretton Woods, asserts that whereas “the Marshall Plan is remembered as one of the great achievements of American foreign policy,” it fell short in one of its principal goals. The Plan “aimed at aiding American military disengagement from Europe, yet ended up, through NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], making it both deeper and enduring.”
Given current echoes of the Cold War, the tenuous balance of power and uncertain order of the late 1940s is as relevant as ever. The Marshall Plan provides critical context into understanding today’s international landscape. “Many of the institutions we now take for granted as natural elements of the liberal postwar order—in particular, the European Union, NATO, and the World Trade Organization—were forged under U.S. leadership during the early Marshall years,” writes Steil. This order is now under threat, Steil argues, partly from failures in American diplomacy.
“In the wake of the devastation of WWII, the Marshall Plan and NATO provided western Europe with [economic and physical] security and kept it firmly on the democratic, capitalist path,” Steil writes. “Yet in the quarter century since the passing of the Soviet Union,” he contends, “Grand Strategy has been set aside in favor of improvisation to pacify competing interests.” As a result, Steil asserts, the NATO expansion policy is failing to extend reliable security guarantees.
The Marshall Plan worked, Steil reasons, “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.” Washington is today, he believes, losing both.
“Great acts of statesmanship are grounded in realism no less than idealism,” Steil concludes. “It is a lesson we need to relearn.”
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Educators: Access Teaching Notes for The Marshall Plan.