Reading for the Day: A Review of Greg Behrman’s THE MOST NOBLE ADVENTURE: THE MARSHALL PLAN AND THE TIME WHEN AMERICA HELPED SAVE EUROPE

from The Economist, week of Sept. 29 – Oct. 5:

Sixty years after its birth was announced by George Marshall, a general who in 1947 was America’s secretary of state, the Marshall Plan remains oddly relevant. With American foreign policy scraping rock bottom, it is a reminder of a time when the country’s popularity was at an all-time high — and demonstrates that the policy of promoting democracy and a free-market economy in other parts of the world can indeed sometimes work.

Greg Behrman’s book is the first comprehensive history of the Marshall Plan since the end of the cold war. In the 1950s there were triumphalist accounts of the plan’s achievements: between 1947 and 1952, it helped Western Europe to recover by providing some $13 billion-worth of technical and economic aid. But in the following decades the plan came under fire, mostly from American and British historians. Revisionist writers claimed that it was purely self-interested and its success over-rated. Some argued that without it America could have agreed on a post-war settlement with the Soviet Union and thus avoided the horrors of the cold war.

Mr. Behrman agrees that the Marshall Plan was certainly in America’s strategic interest. America needed Europe as a political ally and a trading partner able to hold its own. In the immediate post-war years Europe was neither. Communist parties in Italy, France and elsewhere went from strength to strength as people fell out of love with capitalism. And Europe had a ballooning balance-of-payment problem with the United States.

But the plan, argues Mr. Behrman, was cleverly designed and its positive effect hard to overstate. In notable contrast to the ill-fated reconstruction efforts in Iraq, America’s best and most capable men ran the programme in partnership with European governments. Mr. Behrman claims that the plan not only helped the continent to get back on its economic feet but gave it a much-needed psychological and political boost. Europeans, with their confidence returning, went forth, multiplied and buried many a hatchet. Rising fertility and Europe’s integration became the main motors of the continent’s economic boom.

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