Courtesy Reuters

Marshall Plan Commemorative Section: The European Response: Primacy of Politics

"The initiative, I think, must come from Europe." That was the crux of George Marshall's speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947. Only if the Europeans helped themselves could the Truman administration persuade Congress and the American public that Europe was worth helping, and only a plan designed by Europeans for the rebuilding of their continent would promote Washington's larger goal of European integration while avoiding the impression that America had dictated the terms of the project. But who were the Europeans, and how should their problems and needs be defined? The transatlantic debate on these questions between 1947 and 1950 determined the shape and fate of Europe for half a century.

To appreciate the significance of the Marshall Plan, we must shed the assumption that the Cold War outlines of Europe were already clear in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Hitler's Third Reich. Although Winston Churchill privately wrote of the "iron curtain" to Truman in May 1945 and popularized the term the following March in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Europe was not yet irrevocably polarized. The whole continent had swung leftward, blurring any rigid ideological lines between the communist and capitalist worlds. The success of left-wing parties in postwar elections made clear that Europe's experiences in the depression of the 1930s and the war that followed had discredited capitalism as well as fascism. In Eastern Europe peasant and socialist parties cooperated with communists to redistribute land and bring heavy industry under government control. Further west, the Labour Party surged to power in Britain, social democrats predominated in Norway and Sweden, and center-left coalitions, including the communists who had been in the vanguard of wartime resistance, governed France, Italy, and Belgium. Europeans viewed the United States as the epitome of unreconstructed capitalism: in February 1946 Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, spoke of Britain as "the last bastion of social democracy . . . against the red tooth and claw of American capitalism and the Communist dictatorship of Soviet Russia." Western Europeans remained skeptical

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