In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Marshall Plan as Tragedy
  • Marc Trachtenberg (bio)

Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe believe that a "new Cold War orthodoxy" has taken shape. The "central purpose" of their article on the Marshall Plan is to challenge that "new orthodoxy with its working assumption of Soviet guilt and U.S. impartiality" and "to question the increasingly influential thesis that new evidence does indeed bear out old truths about the Cold War." Their discussion of the Marshall Plan, they say, shows that the United States played an important and perhaps leading role in the process that led ultimately to the division of Europe and thus to the Cold War itself. They are quite critical of American policy in 1947 and indeed in the post-World War II period more generally. The United States, in their view, refused "to recognize that Moscow had certain security needs in Eastern Europe." The U.S. government, they claim, "never accepted the 'loss' of Eastern Europe and did everything it could short of war to eliminate Communist influence in the region." In their view, America's policies with regard to the Marshall Plan were not "primarily defensive" in character; the "American goal all along" was to bring about the loss of Soviet control over Eastern Europe.1

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, according to Cox and Kennedy-Pipe, pursued a more reasonable and more moderate policy in the Marshall Plan negotiations. The Cold War, they believe, was something the Soviet leader, Josif Stalin, "never wanted because he realized that the Soviet Union was manifestly unable to compete with the United States over the long term." The "orthodox line" that the Soviet Union wanted a divided Europe after the war is in their view incorrect: "The division of Europe," they say, "was possibly the outcome [Stalin] least desired." But although Soviet leaders wanted to cooperate with the West, they could not "compromise Soviet security interests" by allowing the Eastern European states to accept the American terms and take part in the Plan. So, "with great reluctance," Stalin broke with the West, and the Cold War was on.

What is to be made of these arguments? What, first of all, are we to make of the claim about a "new orthodoxy and its working assumption of Soviet [End Page 135] guilt and U.S. impartiality"? Perhaps I am wrong, but my sense is that very few scholars interpret the Cold War in such simple terms. This does not mean, of course, that people now go to the opposite extreme and blame the United States while whitewashing the Soviet Union. If anything—and this is particularly true of Melvyn Leffler's A Preponderance of Power, "the best book anyone has yet written on the United States and the origins of the Cold War," as John Gaddis himself put it—the prevailing tendency today is to emphasize the defensive goals of both sides and to interpret the conflict as a clash of essentially defensive policies.2

The real issue, however, is not what historians believe but what the story actually was. That means we need to focus on the claims made by Cox and Kennedy-Pipe about first American and then Soviet policy. They argue that U.S. policymakers were serious about rollback, and they contend that the Marshall Plan must be understood in the context of that policy. But was it true that "the United States never accepted the 'loss' of Eastern Europe and did everything it could short of war to eliminate Communist influence in the region"? The U.S. government may not have welcomed Soviet control of Eastern Europe, but from the start it had little problem in practice in accepting that area as a Soviet sphere of influence. The authors cite the works of Gregory Mitrovich and Peter Grose about the "rollback" operations that began in the late 1940s, but, in reading those books, one is struck by how little was actually done and by how long it took to implement a "rollback" policy.3

Can it really be said that the Americans were doing all they could, short of war, to "eliminate Communist influence" from Eastern Europe? The U.S. government in the...