Why American Pragmatists Saved Postwar Europe


A demonstration in Paris against the Marshall Plan.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Dawn of the Cold War
By Benn Steil
608 pp. Simon & Schuster. $35.

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” President Trump declared on Jan. 20, 2017. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” As Benn Steil makes clear in his trenchant and timely new book, “The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War,” the architects of America’s global engagement after World War II would have been appalled that future generations — let alone a future president — might think they had been acting in anything but the national interest.

At its core the Marshall Plan was a pragmatic approach to a tough problem. The winter of 1947 was the hardest to hit Europe in a generation. The continent was in ruins, its people were starving and its economies were out of balance. Italy’s and France’s inflation rates were 62.1 and 49.2 percent respectively. In the face of this bleak situation, American policymakers concluded that the key to restoring the prewar European standard of living was restarting the German economy. And this could only be achieved by priming the German pump, and those of the other continental economies, with American dollars. While pragmatic, this proposition was, to put it mildly in the political context of the time, very controversial. Hitler had been dead only two years. Germany was divided into four sectors. Its people were widely loathed and two of its conquering powers, the Soviet Union and France, were counting on reparations from their former Nazi enemy to help rebuild their own economies. Meanwhile, most Americans were done with foreign entanglements. As future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, then a subordinate at the State Department, later recalled, two slogans neatly summed up the popular view of foreign policy: “Bring the boys home” and “Don’t be a Santa Claus.”

Behind this American pragmatism — which would ultimately translate into $14.3 billion of assistance between 1948 and 1952 (approximately $130 billion in 2017) — was neither philanthropy nor dreams of hegemony. Secretary of State George Marshall and the powerful thinkers at the department of that era — Will Clayton, George Kennan and Charles “Chip” Bohlen in addition to Acheson — were looking for a way to stabilize the continent without long-term American economic and security commitments. Although anticommunism and the Keynesian approach to capitalism animated the effort, the Marshall Plan was nonetheless not some clever attempt to sell American surpluses to broken economies. As Steil notes, to help Western Europeans get back on their feet the Truman administration “orchestrated a shift in policy at home away from protectionism and toward encouragement of imports.”

The Marshall Plan was successful, though, as Steil, the senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, demonstrates, American intervention in postwar Europe did not quite work out as expected. While the Marshall Plan helped restart Europe’s economy, it did not provide a glide path for the United States to avoid a long-term security entanglement.


The American initiative provoked Stalin and led to a series of Kremlin overreactions and misjudgments, including the Berlin blockade of 1948-49. Stalin, who had no interest in reviving Germany’s economy let alone European trade, was the captive of conspiracy theories that seamlessly linked the Marshall Plan to a capitalist plot to resurrect the anti-Soviet Wehrmacht. Meanwhile, although Western Europeans worried about Stalin — especially after he tightened his control over Eastern Europe in response to widespread enthusiasm for Marshall Plan funds — they were just as concerned about the ghost of Hitler. In a way that Harry Truman and George Marshall did not predict, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was the price that London and Paris expected the United States to pay for their full participation in what they saw as the risky endeavor of resuscitating the western part of Germany. In the words of Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, the Atlantic alliance existed to keep “the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

Steil has written an ambitious, deeply researched narrative that not only delineates the interlocking gears of international politics and economics in early postwar Europe but also introduces a large cast of statesmen, spies and economists that perhaps only Dickens could have corralled with ease. Slow going at first, the book builds intellectual excitement as the characters act and react to one another. NATO is not the only unexpected child of American pragmatism. So, too, in a way, is the drive for European unity. As the American vision for reconstruction takes hold, the British and, especially, the French come to embrace economic coordination not out of a commitment to liberalism but out of a desire to contain the German economic power that Washington is determined to unleash. This pragmatic European turn is dramatized by the conversion of the influential French statesman Jean Monnet. Immediately after the war, Monnet was an economic nationalist, advocating for French control of the German Ruhr to ensure French domination of postwar European steel production. He then became a champion of European unity.

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