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The Marshall Plan

Spare Dean Acheson a Moment Today; Just a Moment

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 28, 1997.

We celebrate, this year, the Fiftieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan. Reading the hoopla surrounding it in the national media, one is struck by the overweening incompetence of those explaining what the Plan was to a new generation is, and how the Plan actually worked. In Newsweek, for example, we learn that the United States gave some billions of dollars in Aid that today would be equivalent to some hundreds of billions of dollars. Well, yes, and no. And the plan is credited to that icon of competence and patriotism, General of the Army George Marshall. He did adapt the Plan, but he was nowhere near its innovator. There were many fathers to the Plan, but credit where credit is due. The one essential individual to creating and seeing it through was Dean Acheson, if Alistaire Cooke is to be believed. He is.

Acheson, who took his lumps under Truman from the bizarre right wing in the U.S. Senate, has never been given much credit for anything of merit. He was one of those faceless State Department gray eminences who always seemed to be around power and important events and who never showed anything to be construed as emotion. But it was Acheson who moved the powers that be in the United States to take compassion on an entire continent. After listening to one cold summation by the isolationist element, the man exploded. “If you could only see them,” he yelled. “If you could only see....”

What he wanted to be seen was a continent so bereft of basic shelter and food, much less creature comforts, that flavorless ice cream was a gourmet item in patron-less British restaurants and a source of murder virtually anywhere on the mainland. Coupled with the worst harvests and winters in centuries, Europe was third world and heading south everywhere. Italy was going communist, and whatever your persuasions, imagining Soviet style agriculture technique in Western Europe can send everyone from rank conservatives to members of the Green parties into a coma. France resembled the Balkans. Germany resembled nothing on Earth except parts of Japan and the Soviet Union, only much worse. Hardly a city was not crumbled by bombing. Fishing fleets were destroyed, mine fields blocked their passage anyway, and what had been the very definition of productive farmland was mined, blown away, or covered with tents of refugees, possibly not from that nation. What the world could see coming was something that would make present-day Bosnia seem a civilized debate.

Acheson had seen it all, and when his eloquence could not compel, apparently tearful screaming could. Alistaire Cooke witnessed it, and to this day is ashamed that no equestrian statue of the man exists in Europe, because he considers Acheson the savior of Europe.

Acheson’s most important convert was Marshall, and resented not the fame attending the wrong man. If we are going to celebrate what Churchill called the most unsordid act in history, let the right man be at least mentioned in passing.

The Plan did not give billions of dollars to Europe. Instead, it formed an organization and guaranteed the loans and credits this entity granted. Since the vast majority of purchases were made in the United States - the only place in the world that could fill the orders, and many times over - it was, in many ways, simply an extension of the New Deal. But the food that came, the products and raw materials that came did not, as other nations had ever done, make the recipient dependent upon the United States. Quite the opposite. It gave them the best materials to reconstruct an industrial economy where the plants were newer and superior to those in America. In short, America funded its economic rivals, and did so knowingly. It also gave a huge push to our own national economy after the War, employing all those recently returned service men. For all the self-serving nature of it, it worked. And if you think we were totally selfish, and the Plan is just another example of capitalist hypocrisy, take a trip to Europe with a photo collection of what all these places looked like in January of 1947. Look up what the combined financial resources of Europe were. There weren’t any. There was nothing to tax. Europe was totally broke.

That the credits and loans supported the individual nations’ economies rather then destroy them outright, is a credit to smart, smart thinking ahead of time. That a French farmer or an Italian shopkeeper sometimes seem ungrateful to us should not be surprising. The money that allowed them to purchase a plow or restock their store was too far upriver for them to trace. They dealt with their own local government, who dealt with their national government, who dealt with the Plan, who dealt with the United States.

It was a massive job, and even conservatives today are impressed: it was a government program that came in on budget, and ended on time, much to the hypocritical whining of conservatives from states that benefited most from it. It also worked better than anyone could have imagined, from every point of view. And, if we can be chauvinistic here, what other nation would fund the construction of economic rivals willingly, for any reason, even to stroke them as military allies? If you look through history, the answer is: none. That Acheson, however he did it, convinced an isolationist America to do so was his finest hour. Actually, perhaps our finest hour. Spare him a thought.