MELVYN P. LEFFLER is Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the author of Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920–2015.
The Marshall Plan was the most successful U.S. foreign policy program of the Cold War, and arguably the most successful in all of U.S. history. In France, Italy, the United Kingdom, West Germany, and beyond, the plan’s $13 billion in aid expedited economic recovery, buoyed morale, and eroded the appeal of communism. All that is well known. But what is often forgotten is that the Marshall Plan also ratcheted up Cold War tensions. By spurring the economic revival of the western occupation zones in Germany and their eventual merger into the country of West Germany, it rekindled fears across the continent, east and west, about the specter of renewed German power. That, in turn, led to the establishment of NATO and the division of Europe.
These are the themes of Benn Steil’s well-crafted new book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, which puts the initiative in grand strategic perspective. Steil, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that although the Marshall Plan was a strategic success, it also contributed mightily to the evolving Cold War. What is more provocative, he shows that key U.S. policymakers—such as Secretary of State George Marshall, the plan’s namesake, and George Kennan, the head of the State Department’s new Policy Planning Staff—understood that the initiative would trigger a Soviet clampdown in Eastern Europe and solidify the division of the continent. According to Steil, the administration of President Harry Truman was wise to accept this unhappy tradeoff. The Marshall Plan worked, Steil concludes, “because the United States aligned its actions with its interests and capacities in Europe, accepting the reality of a Russian sphere of influence into which it could not penetrate.”
Steil attributes the realism that infused U.S. strategic thinking during this period to a growing interest in geopolitics and the influence of such thinkers as the British geographer Halford Mackinder. That is true, but even more important were the lessons that the
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