Marshall Plan Commemorative Section: A Modest Magician: Will Clayton and the Rebuilding of Europe

William L. Clayton was, in the words of Dean Acheson, the "catalyst" of the Marshall Plan. Through the summer of 1947, as the Committee of European Economic Cooperation labored to transform a vague offer of assistance into a workable plan, this Southern businessman's long strides through Geneva, Paris, and London embodied America's can-do resolve. As he returned from Geneva in October with an accord for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in one folder (the product of the "Clayton Round") and the outline for implementing the Marshall Plan in another, The New York Times commented that his work "makes all previous international economic accords look puny." It amounted to "the big step that nobody else but Mr. Clayton and a few of his colleagues ever thought would be taken."

Contemporaries were well aware of Clayton's crucial contribution, but recent histories of the period hardly refer to this quiet diplomat. This seeming puzzle falls away when one compares Clayton to the large egos that surrounded him: George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Clark Clifford, and George Kennan. With the exception of Marshall, each remained active in policymaking circles for the next generation. They wrote memoirs and cultivated reporters, scholars, and biographers. Clayton did not. Yet on his death in 1986, obituaries noted that Clayton "has been recognized by many as the idea man behind the Marshall Plan." "If Clayton were not the sort of person who didn't care a lot about the credit," Clifford said long afterward, "he probably wouldn't have been able to put everything together -- between the president and Acheson and all the others." And without such a humble broker, "there might have been no plan."

FROM MISSISSIPPI TO MARSHALL

Born in 1880, Clayton was a successful entrepreneur in the cotton industry in the early years of the century. Starting from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, he mastered commodity brokerage and was a multimillionaire by the end of World War I. As his wealth and market expertise grew through the next decade, he became interested in the politics of international economics, free trade in particular. In a distinct minority among his business colleagues, Clayton was a defender of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and as the Republicans veered toward protectionism, he became a confirmed Democrat, albeit on the conservative side of the New Deal.

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