In Search of a Usable Past: The Marshall Plan and Postwar Reconstruction Today
By Barry F. Machado
Emeritus Professor of History
Washington and Lee University
In recent years the Marshall Plan has been invoked on numerous occasions as a solution for problems domestic and foreign. This study aims to establish the relevance for contemporary postwar reconstruction programs of an experimental foreign policy conceived and executed back in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The monograph clarifies why and how the program was adopted, what its essential features were, and why it succeeded in Western Europe, concluding that it had important and mutually reinforcing aspects—political, psychological, and economic. Fear of Communist expansion westward and the resulting containment doctrine energized its American proponents and European recipients. Its principal architects were realists, motivated by enlightened self-interest. The strengths, weaknesses, and one major myth of their realism are analyzed. Features of great solidity and current relevance include the Economic Cooperation Administration’s partnership with Congress and the American people; a multilateral, regional approach that treated Western Europe as a unit; an insistence on European self-help and mutual aid; restriction of the ECA’s role to a “catalytic agent” rather than a “driving force”; imposition of the highest standards for recruitment and hiring; creation of ECA as a small, autonomous, and unbureaucratic agency; popularization of economic growth as a national priority; freedom from corruption and scandal; and an understanding of the requirements of world leadership. Further examples are provided throughout the text. Some weaknesses discovered were abuses of quantification and language, interagency feuding, and, most importantly, oversimplification of the root causes of Communist popularity in parts of Western Europe.