The Plan And The Man

During the winter of 1946-47, the worst in memory, Europe seemed on the verge of collapse. For the victors in World War II, there were no spoils. In London, coal shortages left only enough fuel to heat and light homes for a few hours a day. In Berlin, the vanquished were freezing and starving to death. On the walls of the bombed-out Reichstag, someone scrawled "Blessed are the dead, for their hands do not freeze." European cities were seas of rubble - 500 million cubic yards of it in Germany alone. Bridges were broken, canals were choked, rails were twisted. Across the Continent, darkness was rising.

Americans, for the most part, were not paying much attention. Having won World War II, "most Americans just wanted to go to the movies and drink Coca-Cola," said Averell Harriman, who had been FDR's special envoy to London and Moscow during the second world war. But in Washington and New York, a small group of men feared the worst. Most of them were, like Harriman, Wall Street bankers and diplomats with close ties to Europe and a long view of America's role in the world. They suspected that in the Kremlin, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was waiting like a vulture. Only the United States, they believed, could save Europe from chaos and communism.

With sureness of purpose, some luck and not a little finagling, these men persuaded Congress to help rescue Europe with $13.3 billion in economic assistance over three years. That sum - more than $100 billion in today's dollars, or about six times what America now spends annually on foreign aid - seems unthinkable today. Announced 50 years ago next week, the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, was an extraordinary act of strategic generosity. How a few policymakers persuaded their countrymen to pony up for the sake of others is a tale of low politics and high vision.

Yet their achievement is recalled by many scholars as a historical blip, a moment of virtue before the cold war really locked in. A truer, if more grandiloquent, assessment was made by Winston Churchill. The Marshall Plan, said England's war leader from his retirement, was "the most unsordid act in history."

It was, at the time, a very hard sell. The men who wanted to save Europe - Harriman, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, diplomats like George Kennan - were unelected and for the most part unknown. They needed a hero, a brand name respected by ordinary Americans. They turned to George C. Marshall.

His name would bring blank stares from schoolchildren today, but Marshall, the army's highest-ranking general in World War II, was widely regarded then as the Organizer of Victory. "He is the great one of the age," said President Harry Truman, who made Marshall secretary of state in January 1947. Upright, cool to the point of asperity ("I have no feelings," he said, "except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall"), Marshall made worshipers of his followers. Dean Acheson described his boss walking into a room: "Everyone felt his presence. It was a striking and communicated force. His figure conveyed intensity, which his voice, low, staccato and incisive, reinforced. It compelled respect. It spread a sense of authority and calm." Though self-effacing and not prone to speechifying, Marshall used a few basic maxims. One was "Don't fight the problem. Decide it."

Without hesitation, Marshall gave his name and authority to the plan to rescue Europe. His only advice to the policymakers: "Avoid trivia." The unveiling came in a commencement speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947. Wearing a plain business suit amid the colorful academic robes, Marshall was typically plain-spoken and direct: "Our policy," he said, "is not directed against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos."

The response in the american press was tepid, but the leaders of Europe were electrified. Listening to the address on the BBC, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin regarded Marshall's speech as a "lifeline to a sinking man." Bevin immediately headed for Paris to urge the French to join him in grabbing the rope.

Marshall did not want Washington to appear to be dictating to its allies. "The initiative, I think, must come from Europe," he had said at Harvard. But the Europeans fell to squabbling. The French, in particular, were wary of reviving Germany. "The Plan? There is no plan," grumbled George Kennan, the diplomat sent to Paris that summer of 1947 to monitor the talks. The Europeans were able to write shopping lists, but nothing resembling an overall program. In a cable to Marshall, Kennan predicted that the United States would listen, "but in the end, we would not ask them, we would just tell them what they would get."

First, however, Marshall's men had to persuade Congress to provide the money. In October, President Truman tried to appeal to America's sense of sacrifice, urging Americans to eat less chicken and fewer eggs so there would be food for starving Europeans. Urged to "waste not," some schoolchildren formed "clean-plate clubs," but that was about as far as the sacrificial zeal went. Members of Congress were profoundly wary. Bob Lovett, another Wall Streeter who replaced Acheson in the summer of 1947 as under secretary, managed to win over Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenberg, mostly by feeding him top-secret cables over martinis at cocktails every night. But many lawmakers regarded foreign aid as "Operation Rathole," and viewed the rescue plan slowly taking shape at the State Department as a "socialist blueprint." Said Charles Halleck, the Republican leader in the House: "I've been out on the hustings, and I know, the people don't like it."

Clearly, appealing to good will was not going to suffice. It was necessary, then, to scare the voters and their elected representatives. As it happened, Russia growled at just the right moment. In the winter of 1948, Moscow cracked down on its new satellite state of Czechoslovakia. Jan Masaryk, the pro-Western foreign minister, fell - or was pushed - to his death from his office window in Prague. At the Pentagon, the generals worried that Soviet tanks could begin to roll into Western Europe at any moment. The atmosphere in Washington, wrote Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the hawkish establishment columnists, was no longer "post-war." It was now "pre-war."

In fact, the fears of Soviet invasion were exaggerated. We now know that after World War II the Red Army began tearing up railroad tracks in Eastern Europe because Stalin feared an attack by the West against the Soviet Union. Exhausted by a war that cost the lives of 20 million Russians, the Kremlin was not ready to wage another. Because of poor intelligence, Washington did not fully appreciate Russia's weakness. Top policymakers were aware, however, that the hysteria was exaggerated, that war was unlikely. Even so, they were not above using scare tactics in a good cause - like winning congressional approval of the Marshall Plan. Sometimes, said Acheson, "it is necessary to make things clearer than the truth."

Frightened by the talk of war, urged to recall that isolationism after World War I succeeded only in producing World War II, Congress waved through the European Recovery Plan that spring. In April the SS John H. Quick sailed from Galveston, Texas, with 19,000 tons of wheat. Before long, there were 150 ships every day carrying food and fuel to Europe. There were new nets for the fishermen of Norway, wheat for French bakers, tractors for Belgian farmers, a thousand baby chicks for the children of Vienna from 4-H Club members in America.

Politics, needless to say, sometimes interfered with altruism. Some congressmen tried to turn the Marshall Plan into a giant pork barrel, voting to send Europeans the fruits of their districts, needed or not. From Kentucky and North Carolina poured millions of cigarettes; from the Midwest arrived thousands of pounds of canned spaghetti, delivered to gagging Italians. In London drawing rooms, there was some resentment of the heavy American hand. "Our Uncle, who art in America, Sam be thy name/Thy Navy come, thy will be done," went one ditty. In Paris, fearful for the purity of the culture (and the sale of wine), the French National Assembly banned the sale, manufacture and import of Coca-Cola.

American aid had a darker side. The Marshall Plan provided the CIA with a handy slush fund. To keep communists from taking over Italy (a genuine threat in 1948), the CIA began handing out money to Italian politicians. At first, the agency had so little money that America's gentlemen spooks had to pass the hat in New York men's clubs to raise cash for bribes. But with the Marshall Plan, there was suddenly plenty of "candy," as CIA official E. Howard Hunt called it, to tempt European politicians and labor leaders.

The CIA's meddling looks sinister in retrospect (though it seemed essential in 1948, when policymakers feared Stalin could start a revolution in Italy and France "just by picking up the phone"). The actual impact of the aid is also a source of dispute. Some economists have argued that the plan played only a superficial role in Europe's recovery. They point to Europe's pent-up innovation and restorative will. But the fact is that from 1938 to 1947 the standard of living in Europe had been declining by about 8 percent a year. After the arrival of the first Marshall aid, the arrows all turned up. Europe's per capita GNP rose by a third between 1948 and 1951. American technicians brought know-how to Europe and reaped enormous good will.

Perhaps America's best export was hope. The Marshall Plan arrived at a time of despondency as well as hardship. Forced to work together, Europeans overcame some historic enmities while America shed its tradition of peacetime isolationism. Ties strengthened by the Marshall Plan evolved into the Western Alliance that stood fast until communism crumbled of its own weight in the Soviet Union. Some of the men who made the Marshall Plan possible saw the romantic and epic quality of their task. It was "one of the greatest and most honorable adventures in history," wrote Dean Acheson. His friend and successor at State, Bob Lovett, had a more practical view: the Marshall Plan was that rare government program that came in on budget, accomplished its goal - and then ended.

The men who made the Marshall Plan were practical, and their motivations can be regarded coldly as a matter of econom- ics and power. But they also wanted to act because they believed that saving Europe was the right and only thing to do. They achieved that rarity among nations - a bold act by one that benefited all.