BBC Correspondent Leonard Miall and the Marshall Plan Speech: An Interview

Marshall Foundation Librarian Barbara Vandegrift interviewed Mr. Miall on September 19, 1977, in the Library in Lexington, Virginia.

Q: Today we will be talking with Leonard Miall, BBC Correspondent. In 1947, he attended a luncheon at which the cast of characters included Dean Acheson, Under Secretary of State; Lincoln White, press officer of the Department of State; and other correspondents from Great Britain. Mr. Miall, I wonder if you can reminisce for us about that luncheon.

A: First of all, “attend” the lunch is not quite the thing. We gave the lunch. Malcolm Muggeridge, who was the correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, and René MacColl, who was the correspondent of The Daily Express, and I were all correspondents fairly new to Washington at that time. We had all arrived either at the end of 1945 or 1946. We felt we were at some disadvantage because all the great pundits of Washington managed to get their news, not really at press conferences, but by going to see cabinet ministers or top people in departments, and there was a sort of dribble of news all the time coming out. The scoops all came to the Lippmans, the Restons, and so on, of this world, who all knew the right American people to talk to in the Administration. We felt it was high time we got on much more friendly terms with some of these people, and we decided that we would make a start by asking Dean Acheson to lunch with us.

I had had an introduction to Acheson from an old friend of mine I had worked with during the war, Jimmy Warburg, who had been a friend of Acheson’s at Yale, and he had given me an introduction. I had talked to Acheson once at length in his office. I was in a position to ask him to a private lunch, and these other two correspondents and I decided to invite Acheson to lunch. He brought Lincoln White, the press officer of the State Department, with him. It was held in a private room in the United Nations Club, as it was then called, near Dupont Circle. Lincoln White told me sometime afterwards that Dean Acheson was suffering from a rather bad hangover and he said, “If these Limeys offer me sherry, I shall puke.” I remember Malcolm Muggeridge, who was the newest to Washington of the three of us at that time, said, “Now, we won’t have this horrible, bad American habit of having strong liquor before. We shall have some good wine with lunch or we shall just have some sherry before lunch.” Anyway, I can remember Muggeridge saying to Dean Acheson, “Would you like to have some sherry?” And he said, “No, I think I’d like a dry martini.”

We had a lunch and the lunch was in no way a briefing, as such, at all. It was a lunch for us all to get to know Acheson and to try and help him to get to know us. We did talk at great length about the speech at Cleveland, Mississippi. Incidentally, this lunch was on the second of June 1947, and we did talk a great deal about the speech that he had made at Cleveland, Mississippi, on May 8. He told us the tale of how he came to make that speech. It was a very funny story of how as Acting Secretary of State, while General Marshall was away in Moscow for a Big Four Foreign Ministers meeting, he was going over to the White House virtually every day. Suddenly, he got a call from President Truman, asking him if he would go to the White House, and he couldn’t think what it was that would call for this sudden summons to the White House on that particular day. President Truman then explained that he was due to make this speech at Cleveland, Mississippi. He had promised friends of his wife that he would do so. Cleveland, Mississippi, thought that this was going to do for Cleveland, Mississippi, what Churchill had done for Fulton, Missouri. It was really going to put it on the map, and it was going to be a big speech on foreign affairs.

In the meantime, there had been this political crisis blowup in Washington, when Senator Bilbo, the Senator from Mississippi, had been denied his seat in the Senate for corrupt practices, and the whole of the Democratic Party in Mississippi was torn in twain. It was as much as it was worth his job as President for the leader of the Democratic Party to set foot in the state of Mississippi while there was this tremendous unresolved row going on about Senator Bilbo. But there was the embarrassment of the fact that a major speech on foreign affairs had been promised and General Marshall was away in Moscow, so he couldn’t do it. Truman was quite certain he couldn’t do it. He said he had offered them Attorney General Tom Clark and they weren’t interested in Attorney General Tom Clark. According to Acheson, the President said: “Dean, I must ask you to do me a favor. Will you please just go and make a speech at Cleveland, Mississippi?” Acheson had prepared carefully what he wanted to say, but before leaving the White House, he said to President Truman, “There is one thing that I would request, and that is that you read the speech before I deliver it.” He also said that he would like to have it read by Averell Harriman, who was then Secretary of Commerce, and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by the President’s economic advisors. He told us that he had added these other names because he really did want to make quite certain that it was passed as Administration policy, but he didn’t want the President to send it over to either Senator Vandenberg or Senator Connolly in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Acheson then wrote this speech which very much foreshadowed the ideas in the Marshall Plan, and this caused enormous interest, particularly in Britain, where it was published in full in The London Times.

Incidentally, I was in Britain on a visit at that time and the thing that is said in Joe Jones’s book [Joseph M. Jones, The Fifteen Weeks (February 21-June 5, 1947) (New York: Viking, 1955)].that Acheson, Muggeridge, MacColl, and I all had lunch together before the Cleveland, Mississippi, speech, is quite untrue. We had no such lunch until the second of June 1947.

Then, particularly, the Europeans’ response to Acheson’s speech had caused such interest in the United States that Reston, for instance “Scotty” Reston, James B. Reston -went to see Acheson and said, “Is this a new policy that you are enunciating or is it just a bit of private kite-flying?” Acheson said, “You know this town better than I do. Foreign policy is made in the White House. You must ask the President.”

At the next Presidential press conference, Reston asked President Truman whether this speech by Acheson was Administration policy or was Acheson just kicking off some private ideas of his own. The President, having read it himself, having had it read by Harriman, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were really only looking to see if there was any mention of foreign bases in it, and by the Council of Economic Advisors, who were correcting only a few minor points in the arithmetic, President Truman said, “Yes, it certainly was Administration policy.”

Acheson then explained to us the reason why he was so keen that this should be done. He didn’t want it disclaimed in the way that Henry Wallace’s unorthodox ideas on foreign policy had just been rejected by him being kicked out of the Cabinet. So all this discussion went on in terms of anecdote, and especially the rather curious circumstances under which Acheson had come to make the speech at Cleveland, Mississippi.

Q: Had Marshall seen a copy of that speech which Acheson delivered prior to the delivery?

A: No, I don’t think so, because Marshall was in Moscow. I have no idea whether they cabled it to Moscow, but I would think it unlikely. The basic trouble was that General Marshall was away. Otherwise, President Truman would have asked him to go in the first place. He [Marshall] had been there for quite a while I don’t remember exactly when he went to Moscow but I think he was there for quite a long time during May [March-April] of ’47.

Q: There has been a good bit said about Acheson’s use of the “Calculated Leak.” Did you feel a part of that in your lunches with him?

A: Well, yes and no. There was certainly a “calculated leak” in the sense that he was very strongly stressing to us the fact that the response must come from Europe, that there must be a European initiative. He said that he and his colleagues had been up to The Hill far too often with panaceas for the economic ills of Europe. First, there had been UNRRA, and then the British Loan, and then the Truman Doctrine, one thing after another, and each time they promised this was going to bring us peace in our time, and prosperity, and each time it had failed to do so.

He [Acheson] was very much aware of the fact that Congress was not in the mood to support another dose of this kind of what the economizers in Congress would call “Operation Rathole,” particularly because by then there had been the congressional elections in the fall of ’46, and there was a strong Republican majority in both houses which was concerned on the whole with economy of the budget. There was not a “calculated leak” in either of these senses.

First of all, he did not in any way refer to the fact that General Marshall was going to speak at Harvard, or ask us to watch out for it or anything of that sort. I’m interested myself in whether he knew at that stage that General Marshall was going to make a speech at Harvard on that day. Secondly, it is quite untrue, as suggested in some memoirs, and indeed, it’s sad to see suggested in his own book, Present at the Creation, that he asked us to telephone Ernest Bevin about the significance of the Marshall Plan, the Marshall speech at the Harvard Commencement. It is quite untrue that he asked us to do that. Indeed, he didn’t even mention the fact that the speech was coming off.

Q: This was just three days before that?

A: This was just three days – this was at lunchtime on June 2. Now it so happened that I was the BBC’s news correspondent in Washington. I was doing daily dispatches of the current hard news. Dating from the 1930s, the BBC had had traditionally a weekly talk on American policy which was given by a number of distinguished Americans. It was started by Raymond Graham Swing. Elmer Davis, Stewart Alsop, Ernest K. Lindley, Joseph C. Harsch, and Clifton Utley in Chicago were the regular contributors to this thing. They rang changes according to availability. It so happened that there was one of these programs due to be broadcast on the 5th of June in the evening. It was a program which was regularly listened to, particularly by people in the Foreign Office, and people concerned with world affairs, because it had a reputation for very serious and interesting analyses of what was going on in the United States.

It so happened that the man who was due to do it that time was Joseph C. Harsch, and he had just been offered a facility trip to Europe to go around the NATO and defense establishments, or something of that kind. I remember I happened to go out to Andrews Field and saw him lining up with his pilot’s uniform and his parachute and so on, before getting onto an Air Force plane to go off on this trip. And for one reason or another, none of these other distinguished Americans, who were customarily giving this commentary, was available. So, “biting on the bullet,” the BBC decided they would use their own correspondent who normally didn’t have a chance for any kind of lengthy analysis of what was going on, but was concerned with shorter hard news dispatches.

I was preparing this so-called “American Commentary” and I wrote it really almost entirely out of what Dean Acheson had told us at lunch. Of course, what he said was not for attribution, but the kind of talk that I was giving was not one where you needed attribution. You were talking about what policy-makers in Washington were thinking about and in the administration it could be a discursive kind of commentary. So I wrote this piece and I had finished. On the afternoon of the 4th of June, I happened to be speaking to the Press Officer at the British Embassy, a man called Phillip Jordan, who went shortly after that back to become the Press Officer at 10 Downing Street as the Press Officer for our Prime Minister. Phillip Jordan said to me, “Have you seen the speech that General Marshall is delivering at Harvard?” I said, “No, I haven’t.” He said, “Well, if I were you, I would have a look at it. It is very interesting stuff.”

It so happened that at that time, I was riding regularly out to my home outside Alexandria in a car pool. One of the other members of this car pool was Charles P. Kindleberger, who was working in the State Department at that time on economic affairs, particularly, and actually had been involved very much in the drafting of the thoughts that came into the Marshall speech at Harvard. Before picking him up, I went along to the Press Office and picked up the advance text of General Marshall’s speech at Harvard, which was just available then. There were none of the trappings of it being an important speech. There were none of the double spacing and things by which you recognize that this was a very important démarche. However, as I read it that night at home, I suddenly realized that here was chapter and verse for everything that I was trying to say without attribution in this piece that was based on the lunch with Acheson.

I sat up and rewrote the thing entirely. But my problem the next day was to try and find out when General Marshall was going to speak at Harvard, because there were no arrangements for a network radio. It was not carried on network radio, although it was locally broadcast, but it wasn’t broadcast nation wide. Nobody at Harvard seemed to know exactly when he was going to be speaking. I had a standard recording at 12:45, Washington time. Washington time, I think, was the same as the time in Boston. There were two occasions in the first instance where this was going to be used. One was the BBC’s 9 o’clock news, 4:00 p.m. Harvard time and Washington time, and second, at 10:30 p.m. British time or 5:30 p.m. in the afternoon in Eastern time. My problem was, had Marshall spoken by 4 o’clock? I was delighted to see downstairs today that he did speak at 2:50 because I took a chance that he had spoken by 4 o’clock.

Q: You had no idea that he had arrived safely.

A: No idea at all. No, I did things which, professionally, I was not supposed to do. I said Marshall had said it, and I didn’t know for certain that he had. I am certain that by 12:45, when I pre-recorded my piece, he hadn’t. No doubt about that. But, I think had I known, had it been reported on the news agencies that Marshall had fallen down dead, I would have been able to stop it. But the exact moment of whether he had spoken, I certainly did not know when I pre-recorded it. I did tell them it would be safe to use it by 4 o’clock and certainly, it was okay to use it again in this “American Commentary.” In this “American Commentary,” I did things which were not normally done in the “American Commentary.” I stressed a piece of news, going on the assumption that possibly some people had not heard exactly what was said. I therefore read at the beginning of my “American Commentary” the really vital paragraph out of Marshall’s speech relating to the offer that he was making in the United States’ name. It was this thing that, by good fortune, Ernest Bevin happened to hear as Foreign Secretary in his room. He subsequently described how he had this little radio set by his bed and he heard this. He described it as a “lifeline that he grabbed with both hands.”
It’s interesting, as John Wheeler-Bennett has pointed out in his book, Semblance of Peace, that Bevin thought he was hearing Marshall’s voice. He wasn’t. He was hearing my voice reading out what Marshall had said. Anyway, the odd thing to me always was how underplayed this was by the State Department. The American news agencies did not ring bells and send double spacing and do all the things they do when it is a major piece of news that’s coming out. There was a lot of competing news. Senator Taft had made a great speech demanding economy, the Russians had just marched into Hungary, and there were all sorts of other things happening at the time. But it was not played up as major news in the United States, and it was certainly not played up as major news in Britain.
The London Times had a very brief account from Reuters News Agency. There was nothing from their own correspondent, and Ernest Bevin’s parliamentary private secretary, Christopher Mayhew, told me subsequently of how Bevin came striding into the Foreign Office the next day, saying, “Get me Marshall’s speech,” and “I want to get Bidault on the telephone,” and that sort of thing. The Foreign Office was thrown into a total tizzy because they didn’t know what he was talking about. There was nothing in The Times except a tiny little piece from Reuters which was what most people in the Foreign Office read. There was a lot more in The Express which was René MacColl’s paper. But there wasn’t anything from the British Embassy in Washington. Phillip Jordan, the Press Officer, had told me in some distress the next day that he had taken the speech in to the acting ambassador, the chargé d’affaires, Mr. Jacque Balfour, later Sir John Balfour, who was holding the fort in between two ambassadors. The British Embassy had recently received instructions to economize on their cabling of things. Balfour flipped his way through this text, and according to Phillip Jordan, said, “This is just another university oration. We’ll send this by pouch or by bag.” And so, there wasn’t, in fact, anything sent from the British Embassy about the text of the speech. Though, in justice to Balfour, he had had a lunch rather similar to the lunch that we had had with Acheson, and a British newspaper editor, Gerald Barry, a few days beforehand, and had reported this to London. In a sense, it was merely a confirmation of something that was reported, but there was total confusion in the British Foreign Office because they didn’t know what had happened.

General Marshall, some time later, spoke to the Overseas Press Club and told them about these things in an off-the-record talk. I wasn’t present at this, but a number of my friends were. Joseph C. Harsch told me that General Marshall had said that he was very reluctant to warn Bidault beforehand about this, and although he would have liked to have tipped off Bevin, he didn’t want to make bad blood between the French and British or the French and the Americans because he had tipped off only the British. Therefore, he decided not to tip off anybody. He was particularly concerned about the reaction in Congress. He was worried that if a great deal of fuss was made about it in the United States before he had had a chance to speak, and certainly before there had been any chance for a European reaction, all the economizers in Congress would have gone on the record saying that this was no time to be spending any more money on Europe’s economic troubles.

Q: Did you have the impression at that time, or any time after that, that there was a wariness about alerting Molotov? Or any dealings which might have indicated that they were attempting to foresee the Russian refusal to attend the conferences?

A: Almost immediately after the speech at Harvard, President Truman went on a state visit to Canada, and while he was in Canada, he reiterated some of the thoughts in the Marshall Plan in his formal speech in Ottawa. He also held a press conference on the Sunday. We all went out on a picnic to the Seigniory Club outside Ottawa, and there was a press conference there. The President was asked whether this offer did apply to the Soviet Union as well, and the President said, “Yes, it did.” General Marshall had said in his speech that this was open to any State. Whether this was a calculated risk that the Russians would refuse or not, I don’t know.

Q: One of the myths of the Marshall Plan speech is that General Marshall was revising on his way to Harvard and one of the possible revisions was the insertion that it was indeed open to all European states.

A: I don’t think that was so because I’m sure that was in the text that I had which had been handed out from the State Department the day before. Now, after consulting my notes, I see that from the advance text from which I did this so-called “American Commentary” program, and which Bevin happened to hear, I said at one point that the Secretary of State made it clear that substantial help must come from the United States. “Our policy,” he said, “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Such assistance must not be on a piece-meal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that America may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation on the part of the United States government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us.” That was in the advance text before General Marshall set off for Harvard. It was not part of a revision.

Q: That’s clarifying. Following the delivery of the Marshall Plan Speech, and your broadcast commentary on it, what sort of reaction did you sense in the American Congress?

A: Whenever any important event happened anywhere in the world, everybody was always interested in what was the reaction in the United States, either in Congress, or in the press, or both. I remember, immediately I got a follow-up piece on Marshall’s speech and Marshall’s offer. I remember it was a rather lame explanation of why there had been virtually no reaction. I was explaining that there were a lot of other things that were competing for news in the United States at that time, particularly a strong attack on the Administration by Senator Taft, and the reactions to the Russian coup in Hungary, and a number of other things the nature of which has slipped my memory now. But there was a lot of competing news, and there was very little reaction immediately to Marshall.
I think this was one of the things that happened to get it off on a good foot, because Bevin did act very quickly in arranging a meeting with Bidault and Molotov in Paris to try and cook up a combined European response. Molotov, I think rather fortunately, vetoed any participation not only by the Soviet Union, but also by Czechoslovakia. Had Molotov accepted it gladly on behalf of the East European Bloc, it would have had a very more sticky time in Congress than it actually did. It didn’t have the easiest time in Congress. There was quite a considerable opposition, quite a considerable filibuster at one stage, as I recall, but it was eased enormously by the fact that the Russians decided that they didn’t want any part of it.

Q: Can you comment on Marshall’s role in “politicking” it through Congress?

A: I don’t think “politicking” is a verb I would ever use in connection with General Marshall. He was this totally upright, straightforward, blunt, honest soldier who had come along saying what he thought was necessary or what the situation was, and was listened to with great respect. He was the last person to be a kind of “wheeler-dealer,” the last person to go and curry favor with Congressmen or ring them up and pressure them to help. I don’t think that was in his nature. I don’t know, of course, what he was doing behind closed doors, whether he was doing a lot of telephoning to people. At the occasions when people meet each other at social gatherings and things, he may have been doing “politicking,” but I don’t think that was the nature of General Marshall.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your feeling that Acheson’s material that was given to you at the luncheon, and the speech which confirmed it, was an important bit of material?

A: I think it was in this sense, and the one thing that Acheson said to us was that it was very important to have an urgent response. In those days, it was not to the Marshall Speech at Harvard, but to the general thoughts about a getting together to form what was called a Continental Plan which had been initiated by his own speech at Cleveland, Mississippi, and followed up a good deal by the writings of Walter Lippmann. He did say to us that it was very important that Europe took the initiative and that it took it quickly. That wasn’t actually in Marshall’s speech at Harvard at all, but in my report. In talking about it in this “American Commentary,” I did stress this. I ended off my dispatch, “American Commentary,” by saying that “already there was talk of a special session of Congress this autumn if the countries of Europe have by that time been able to seize the initiative. The ball has now returned to them and the next weeks and months Washington will watch eagerly to see the reaction across the Atlantic. Whether or not the Republican Congress will support help on the scale that General Marshall has in mind remains to be seen. President Truman and Senator Taft are already clashing openly on the economics of spending abroad. In addtion, Congress is anxious to fulfill its election promises of economy. In the next few weeks, before the summer recess, some of the pet projects of Congress to cut income taxes, to place more curbs on trade union activities, to lift some of the controls on rent, may bring the first open breaches between the Democratic administration and the Republican Congress. On Capital Hill, they are anxious to get away and to have the whole summer and autumn to prepare for next year’s presidential election campaign. Whether in spite of this they will reassemble in the autumn depends on the European response to General Marshall’s very direct overture today.”

I think it was that that gave it a sense of urgency which Acheson had imparted to us with his lunch and which wasn’t quite so much in the actual text of General Marshall’s speech.

Q: Did you have the impression that MacColl and Muggeridge agreed with you that this was important?

A: Certainly. Certainly. We discussed it beforehand. As soon as I got the text of Marshall’s speech, I immediately telephoned these other two chaps and told them to look out for it, too.

Q: Did you have other luncheons following this?

A: Yes, we did. Our next lunch was with Will Clayton a few weeks later. We had subsequent ones with Acheson, or at least one with Acheson. They were always on this same private, off-the-record basis at which we were the hosts. We had one with Averell Harriman, but in a sense, they had already achieved their purpose. Acheson now knew us well enough for us to go to talk to him in his office or something of that sort. It didn’t become a regular thing, but the idea that there was one before Acheson’s speech at Cleveland was quite wrong. That somehow crept into the record.

Q: So the first of the luncheons was June 2?

A: It was June 2, and to me the surprising thing was that there was no tip-off about the actual speech at Cambridge. I’m very interested in how General Marshall came to take this offer at Harvard. I had thought, on the basis of what someone told me, that Marshall had said to the Overseas Press, the overseas writers, a small group in Washington who used to talk to people and listen to people off-the-record, sometime later that he had made a point of honor not to accept honorary degrees, or give commencement addresses or anything of that sort, during the war while people were fighting and dying. On one occasion, he came back from the Big Four Conference at Cairo, I believe, to find to his embarrassment that the other Joint Chiefs of Staff had all been offered degrees by Harvard, and that some of the others were going to go and accept it. He, being a man of very strong principle, was not going to go back on his wartime vow. At the same time, he didn’t want to embarrass his colleagues who had accepted. He therefore wrote to Harvard just to say that he was very sorry he couldn’t accept their degree, giving no reason whatever. Harvard was flabbergasted nobody turns down a Harvard honorary degree without any reason at all. They wrote rather fervently and said they were sorry he wasn’t able to take it right now, but they hoped when the war was over, he would be able to come and take it.

My impression was, that it was the invasion of Hungary, which was the weekend before the Marshall speech at Harvard, that tipped his hand and made it vital for him to make that offer then. I had thought that he just simply got on to Harvard and said could he now come and take his degree and do it then. It’s clear from the correspondence that you have here in this library, that he had already been invited and he had already accepted to go and accept his degree and make a few remarks, but that invitation was in May, I think. I don’t believe that it was then decided that General Marshall would make a major speech at Harvard, a major European offer. I’m pretty certain that this speech was cobbled together between the invasion of Hungary, which was the weekend, and the Thursday on which it took place. I can’t believe that if it had all been planned, that General Marshall would say this at Harvard, or if it had been known to Acheson on June 2, that he would not have mentioned it to us.