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The Marshall Plan

Dawn of the Cold War


Benn Steil


A Council on Foreign Relations Book

Oxford: University Press, 2018*

Hardcover. xii+606 p. ISBN 978-0198757917. £25


Reviewed by Andrew David

Boston University




The European version of Benn Steil’s The Marshall Plan : The Dawn of the Cold War has, on its cover, one word pulled from a review in the Wall Street Journal: “brilliant.” That is lofty praise indeed and sets the bar high for what lies between the book’s covers. It is such lofty praise that one might expect it difficult for Steil’s work to match it. While the book has some downsides, this is truly an impressive work of history that seeks to reexamine how the Cold War started in Europe.

Steil’s work covers roughly the period of 1946 through 1951 and examines the breakdown in US-Soviet relations and the early confrontations of the Cold War. This includes the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, and of course the origins of, debate over, and implantation of the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Plan (ERP). Steil draws from a variety of archival, published primary, and secondary sources to tell this story. Oxford University Press deserves credit for including seventy pages of Steil’s footnotes (in case anyone wants to track down sources) and also allowing him to reproduce in full Truman’s speech implementing the Truman Doctrine as well as George Marshall’s 1947 speech announcing the ERP. While Steil brings in voices from all nations, this is primarily an American story. Steil rightly highlights the centrality of the State Department in implementing both the ERP as well as managing American foreign policy in the early Cold War. While the cast of characters might be familiar—including George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Paul Nitze—this examination of the bureaucratic history of the era proves central to Steil’s overall argument. Truman, Marshall, and other American officials “aligned [America’s] actions with its interests and capabilities in Europe, accepting the reality of a Soviet sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate without sacrificing credibility or public support” [404]. Republican Arthur Vandenburg also plays a key role in this story: Steil emphasizes how the reformed isolationist worked with Harry Truman to win Congressional support for many of the important pieces of legislation in the early Cold War. Steil’s book contains a cast of dozens, recounted in a twenty-five page Who’s Who in the back of the book. To his credit, however, the different names never feel overwhelming or unnecessary. Each person has a place in this story.

But this is not solely an American story: Steil devotes an entire chapter to the self-inflicted wound that was the Soviet refusal to join the Marshall Plan or allow its satellite states to do so. Another chapter follows the failed attempts of the Czechs to join the ERP. The backlash against that effort resulted in the end of anything resembling democracy in that nation and the imprisonment or worse for those who wanted a different political path for Czechoslovakia. Steil describes how Britain both suffered because of American economic policies while at the same time remaining America’s closest ally in birthing the Marshall Plan. It also follows the journey of the French Government during this period and how it went from being a thorn in the side of its Western Allies to joining them in rebuilding West Germany to oppose the Soviet threat.

Part of the strength of Steil’s account is that, in his telling, the Cold War never feels inevitable. Even though the reader knows how this period of history ends, Steil’s account of it makes it seem like, at any minute, the two sides might work things out. Indeed, his discussion of the end of the Berlin Blockade shows how relatively functional relations remained despite worsening Cold War tensions. Steil even goes as far as to suggest a date for the start of the Cold War in Europe: 7 July 1947, the date which Steil says the US and Soviets “became irrevocably committed to securing their respective spheres of influence…without mutual consultation” [135-136]. By highlighting the fluidity of relations during this period, Steil demonstrates how both sides intentionally and unintentionally fell into the Cold War.

For all the book’s strengths, there are a few weaknesses. A minor complaint is that, early in the book, Steil suggests that the 1900 Open Door note was the first time American diplomats believed “that economics should occupy a prime place in the American diplomatic arsenal” [88]. Economics and freedom of trade had been central tenets of American foreign policy going back to the nation’s founding. A slightly more significant issue with the book is that, by and large, we only get an overview of what the average person, in either Europe or America, thought of the Marshall Plan and how those opinions reflected back on the bigger political picture. Steil’s choice to focus on the high politics and diplomacy of the ERP was undoubtedly the right one: the story is so far-reaching and complex that focusing on this narrow band of politics and politicians makes for as cohesive a story as possible. Yet this also makes for some discordant moments. Steil spends chapter 10 discussing how difficult it was for Congress to pass the Marshall Plan. Yet three chapters earlier Steil notes that the American public was so taken by the idea that “Marshall Plan” became a phrase positively used in a variety of contexts. As he writes, “No problem of deprivation or suffering, it seemed, was too big, or too small, for a Marshall Plan [of its own]” [201]. How Congressional Republicans could put up such a fight against the Plan when the majority of Americans were so firmly behind the idea they had coopted its very name is left to the reader to decipher. Lastly, in some respects, the better title for this book would be its subtitle: the Dawn of the Cold War. After the Congress passes the bill, and the first ships arrive with Plan aid in Europe on page 263, the story does become about Cold War tensions. If one is looking for a book that goes into detail about what happened to the aid upon arrival or how trends in aid changed during the ERP, this probably is not the book for them.

Yet, Steil’s final chapter, one entirely devoted to examining the success of the ERP, does a fine job of tearing down the myths of the ERP’s success while also showing the real reasons why the Marshall Plan worked and helped rebuild Europe. Unlike what some of its early advocates argued, Marshall Plan aid did not by itself rebuild European nations. What it did was two things: first, it provided the economic stability for European nations to engage in their own domestically driven efforts at rebuilding. America intervened in this process to greater and lesser degrees depending on the nation, but Steil demonstrates that there was far more give and take in the ERP between Washington and its European partners than might commonly be understood. Second, the ERP allowed for West Germany to, under Allied supervision, begin to rebuild both politically and economically. Only when all of Western Europe could revive itself economically could Europe rebuild. If there was a great failing of the ERP, Steil argues, it was that America found it impossible to withdraw its troops from Europe after the ERP concluded as it had initially hoped. In light of Stalin’s crackdowns in Eastern Europe, both American and European officials believed the ERP needed defending militarily, thus leading to the creation of NATO.

In The Marshall Plan Steil has written about a highly complex subject in an approachable manner. This is a book that can be enjoyed by a general audience, could be assigned to undergraduates, and certainly would be useful for graduate students or academics unfamiliar with the subject matter who want an overview of the period. Even those historians who deal with the era would surely find something in this book of interest. Benn Steil’s book should be read by those interested in the ERP, the Cold War, and/or how US foreign policy is made. Each of these audiences will find a text well worth their time.


* American edition: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 978-1501102370. $35.


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