It was called the Marshall Plan, and if not for a small group of forward thinking American statesmen who are now mostly forgotten, Western Europe as we know it would have disintegrated. Generalissimo Joe Stalin and his Soviets successors would have been the masters of a new European order while the United States retreated to the other side of the Atlantic.
This happened in 1947 and, trust me, it was far from easy. America had little interest in becoming involved in European affairs. Dragged into World War I, the post war Senate rejected joining the League of Nations and America returned to our natural state of isolation.
Isolation was in our DNA, placed there by George Washington in his farewell address when he chose to preserve our Republic by not accepting an un-apposed third term. He admonished us “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, above all Europe.” “Europe,” he said, “has a set of primary interests which to us have a remote relation.”
When Hitler came to power, we hid behind the ocean that protected us refusing to consider much less confront the growing menace. Once the shooting started in 1939, America First, Father Coughlin and the American Bund attacked FDR for his short of war policy. They stood fast hoping to prevent a repeat of Wilson taking us into World War I.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 instantaneously erased any isolationist thoughts as America flipped a switch and declared total war in Europe and the Pacific. That National will combined with our wealth, economic capacity, manpower and those two oceans produced the arsenal for democracy; a safe place to build an army, air force and navy and produce enough material not only for the USA, but sufficient for our allies, especially England and the USSR to achieve total victory.
VE-Day, (Victory in Europe) arrived on May 8, 1945 and VJ-Day (Victory over Japan) on September 2, 1945. Once the celebrations ended, America de-mobilized. By 1947, only 1.5 million men remained under arms from the 12.2 million at war’s the end. However, our troops occupied US zones in Austria, Germany and Berlin (as we did in Japan.) The USSR, British and French occupied the other three zones.
The Soviets had no intention of going home deploying their army throughout Eastern Europe. To be fair, Stalin, despite his growing paranoia, established a buffer between Germany and his Motherland to prevent a repeat of Hitler’s 1941 invasion. It is estimated that the USSR lost ten million soldiers and eleven million civilians in the war against the Nazis. The generalissimo established a militarized buffer as the rights and aspirations of the citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungry, Rumania and Bulgaria were of no concern to Stalin.
Western Europe, on the other hand, was near collapse. Currencies were worthless, their infrastructures lay in ruins while coal and other fuel sources were scarce Hunger and deprivation ruled the day. The continent was covered by armies of displaced people fleeing the Communists or just trying to return to homes and families that no longer existed. The rule of law had ceased to have meaning. An organized black-market ruled the distribution of food and goods, an outgrowth of years of brutal German occupation. These black-market operators prospered as great shortages and busted economies couldn’t offer alternatives.
Great Britain fared little better. The economy at home was in shambles, the nation close to bankruptcy while its empire disintegrated.
Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, William Clayton, George Kennan and Lucius Clay were the architects of the Marshall Plan. Truman decided on the name explaining that his secretary of state and former five-star general’s name was a better choice than his own: “If I send a plan to a Republican congress calling on America to spend billions in Europe and call it the Truman Plan, it will D.O.A.”
And it came to pass that despite so many reasons for the plan to fail, congress authorized this most generous and unprecedented expenditure for a period of five years. Between 1948 and 1952 the United States Treasury transferred $14.3 billion to Western Europe ($143 billion in today’s dollars.)
Success though didn’t happen because our nation and the congress compassionately embraced a starving Europe. The architects realized early on that in the realm of American politics and popular opinion, altruism wasn’t high on our agenda. National security was, and, because of his paranoia, Stalin misplayed the cards he was dealt so badly, almost everything he did, backfired. His disruptions and pig headedness only made the Soviets the bad guys and the people of Western Europe saw the writing on the wall.
The failure of Stalin’s Berlin blockade to starve the city into submission and lay low the USA was his Waterloo. For sure, it may not have been the beginning of the end of the USSR, but it was the end of their European expansion. (The Berlin wall was a monument to failure.)
The Marshall Plan gave birth to West Germany, and resurrected Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. It committed America to defend Europe and NATO quickly followed! Once America committed to treating and attack on a member’s homeland as an attack on our homeland, including nuclear retaliation, Western Europe stabilized under America’s nuclear umbrella knowing a return to isolation was dead.
Our terms for European participation insisted on a united Europe thereby intentionally providing the groundwork for the EEC and the EEU.
The wall came down in 1989 and freedom for those enslaved nations soon followed. Not too shabby a legacy!
(If you are interested in reading the complete story, I highly recommend: The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, by Benn Steil.)