- The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and How America Helped Rebuild Europe
More than sixty years since its inception, the Marshall Plan, which provided some $13 billion in U.S. economic assistance to Western and Southern Europe from 1947 to 1952, continues to fascinate. It is a potent symbol of a bold foreign aid program that largely worked as advertised. Policymakers and pundits regularly invoke the plan as a metaphor for ambitious schemes to tackle poverty, climate change, and other intractable problems. Scholarly interest also remains high. The Most Noble Adventure is one of four new studies—three monographs and a conference volume—published in the past two years on the Marshall Plan.1 A key concern in this new literature is whether the plan offers useful lessons for the present.
Behrman, in this engagingly written narrative account of the Marshall Plan, answers this question in the affirmative. He hopes that the story of the plan “might help to illuminate a brighter path forward” for America (p. 5). While acknowledging the plan’s complexities and contradictions, including its (unwitting) funding of covert CIA programs in Europe, he views the Marshall Plan and its authors in highly favorable, almost hagiographical, terms. He focuses on six “indispensible” statesmen— George Marshall, Will Clayton, Arthur Vandenberg, Richard Bissell, Paul Hoffman, and W. Averell Harriman—and a secondary set of “remarkable statesmen”—Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson, Robert [End Page 619] Lovett, George Kennan, Lucius Clay, and David Bruce (p. 4). These American policymakers, he argues, successfully blended idealism and U.S. strategic interests. They produced a plan that tackled not only the Western European economic crisis but a severe “Crisis of Confidence” (p. 334). Siding with Michael Hogan on this point, Behrman sharply disagrees with Alan Milward’s pathbreaking argument that Western Europe faced a short-term balance of payments imbalance in 1947, not a full-blown crisis (pp. 349–350). Behrman argues convincingly that politically and psychologically Western Europe was at a tipping point, even if economically the continent was already on the road to recovery, as Milward details.2
Less well developed in The Most Noble Adventure is the important Western European role in the Marshall Plan. This is a lacuna that Behrman acknowledges, as he describes the plan as “a partnership in which the United States and Europe played co-leads” (p. 4). Although important European statesmen, such as Ernest Bevin and Georges Bidault, appear in Behrman’s narrative, it does not consider their views and those of their countrymen systematically. Better developed is Behrman’s coverage of the Soviet reaction to the Marshall Plan, which draws on English-language secondary sources. He sides with scholars such as John Lewis Gaddis, disagrees with revisionist critics who view the plan as an aggressive U.S. offensive, and emphasizes the role of ideology in Stalin’s decision making. Behrman argues that Stalin badly misread history by “conflating capitalism with imperialism” and by reading U.S. actions through a rigid ideological prism (p. 89). As a result, Stalin “drove the United States to Europe’s aid” and squandered the political capital of the French and Italian communist parties in futile campaigns against the nascent Marshall Plan (pp. 89, 120). Waves of communistled strikes and sabotage proved no match for the promise of generous American aid, and the Marshall Plan was an important psychological weapon in the emerging Cold War (pp. 138–139).
Therefore, The Most Noble Adventure is not a work of world history, or an international history drawing upon multiarchival sources. It is primarily an account of the American role in the Marshall Plan, written overwhelmingly from U.S. sources. That said, it still has much to offer world historians. Behrman has judiciously mined the extensive English-language secondary source literature on the Marshall Plan by American authors. He also has consulted several major works by European authors and drawn upon selected papers at the Harry S. Truman [End Page 620] Presidential Library, public U.S. government documents, and interviews. As a...