The Marshall Plan: A Review

We occasionally run across a book that we deem important enough in the arena of geopolitics to warrant a full report dedicated to its review. Recently, we happened upon a book that fits this requirement, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil.[1] This book details the history of the Marshall Plan, discusses how the plan developed and identifies the major historical figures who created the strategy. Furthermore, more importantly for the present, it shows how this generation of policymakers addressed the geopolitical problems of Europe, issues that have resurfaced since the Cold War ended in 1991.

In this report, we will review the state of Europe after the war, focusing on U.S. and Soviet goals for the postwar era, and discuss the important figures of the era and the legacy they left behind.

Postwar Europe

Prior to the official end of WWII, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had begun negotiating how the postwar world would be managed. Roosevelt believed voters would not accept a permanent American military presence in Europe and thus intimated to Stalin that the U.S. would exit two years after the German surrender. Churchill was mostly focused on maintaining the British Empire, a position Roosevelt seemed determined to undermine. As the three drew up plans, Stalin sought to create a security buffer as far into Western Europe as he could press it.

Roosevelt died suddenly, on April 12, 1945, before VE-Day on May 8, 1945. Harry Truman, his vice president, was thrust into office with little preparation. Roosevelt’s plan for the postwar world was sketched out by Henry Morgenthau, who was treasury secretary from 1934 to 1945. He envisioned a pastoral Germany, stripped of its industrial base and nonaligned with either the Soviet Union or the U.S. Germany’s industrial base would have been used for reparations. This plan was poorly thought out—it wasn’t obvious how a deindustrialized Germany could have fed itself and also support Europe, which was dependent on German industrial goods for growth. However, the reason Morgenthau developed this policy was to address the “German problem.” Germany, centered in the middle of the European continent, sits on the Northern European Plain. Being on this mostly flat land gives the country a logistical edge as it faces few natural barriers to moving goods. Thus, after unification in 1870, it was destined to become a major economic power. At the same time, this lack of natural boundaries meant it was also vulnerable to invasions from the east and west. German foreign policy was structured to address these invasion fears; unfortunately, those concerns devolved into a foreign policy responsible for starting two world wars. The allies were determined not to allow Germany to cause another world war. The “trick” was in how to bring this goal to fruition.

Great Men

As I have noted before, I am partial to the “great wave” theory of history as opposed to the “great man” theory.[2] Historians tend to fall into one of these camps. Great Man theorists argue that history is made up of seminal figures that shape how history unfolds. Great Wave theorists argue that societal trends, or “waves,” make history and the participants are not necessarily “great” but are positioned, for good or ill, into those historical trends. In reality, both theories offer insights into how history unfolds but I have concluded that waves, in general, are a better way to view history.