The Marshall Plan and the Cold War

The European Recovery Program, commonly known as Marshall Plan, is usually remembered for the economic support provided by the United States for the rehabilitation of European countries ravaged by the Second World War. But the US was motivated by more than just economics and today a far more important role is accredited to the Marshall Plan. By way of example, Andreas Enderlin points to two influential works dealing with the Marshall Plan and its implications for the Cold War. The publications were published in 1995 and 2005, the ten-year gap alone promising two differential points of view on the motives that lay behind the Marshall Plan.

United Europe

Published in 1995, Klaus Schwabe examines the traditional view of the Marshall Plan in his work Der Marshall-Plan und Europa. In a speech given in 1947, the then US Secretary of State, George Marshall (pictured), declared that the ‘official goal’ of the Marshall Plan was the unification of Europe. The program met with great approval in the United States. However, the future Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, realized, along with others, that the Soviet Union would render a united Europe impossible. So instead the US concentrated on forming a united Western Europe, motivated, to use Schwabe’s words, by a ‘rational utilization of Europe’s economic potential’ and an ‘alternative for Europeans against communist propaganda’.

The United States had their own vision of a united Europe. This led not only to tensions with the Soviet Union, but also to disagreements between the Western Powers. In general, the Western Powers pursued the concept of persuading as many countries as possible into the new assembly of states of Western Europe. The Marshall Plan was to act as a connecting element, and also bind the countries to the West.

The Marshall Plan was also offered to those countries of Eastern Europe that were under Soviet influence, including the Soviet Union itself. The US never expected any kind of cooperation from the Soviet Union and sure enough, at the Conference of Foreign Ministers in Paris in 1947, the Soviet Union turned the offer down. Politically, it was a clever move by the US, because it seemed as if the Soviet Union had excluded itself from the European Recovery Program by its own doing. The remaining countries under Soviet influence of Eastern Europe were pressed into turning down the Marshall Plan as well. Those tempted were influenced by the hint of Soviet military force.

The defense of Germany

Within Western Europe, there remained the question of the Germany’s integration. Most important was the rehabilitation of Germany, the consolidation of the European economy and the preservation of the balance of power. Great Britain was an essential part of any solution regarding the European unification. In 1948, Britain suggested a military defense alliance. With the blockade of Berlin by Soviet forces during the summer of 1948, the military protection of the West became the primary goal of the US. In September 1948, the Western Union Defence Organization came into existence, and 1949 saw the founding of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). At this point, security policy and defense strategy dominated the political landscape.

Recapping Schwabe’s examination of the Marshall Plan and its implications on the Cold War, we get the picture of a defensive program arranged by the United States. Economic and political unification and protection against communism were the main objectives.

Rethinking the Marshall Plan

The second work, published in 2005, takes a more modern approach to the subject partly due to the wider scope of available sources since 1995. Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe’s paper The Tragedy of American Diplomacy? Rethinking the Marshall Plan depicts the actions of the US not as defensive but rather as an indirect offensive advancement against the spread of communism.

The first argument for this position lies within the offer of the Marshall Plan itself. Though the European Recovery Program was offered to the Soviet Union, the Western Powers sought to make sure that the Soviet Union would never accept it. One example is the demand that all participating countries had to detach themselves from all communist influence. This was evidently unacceptable for the Soviet Union.

The Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, arrived at the Conference of Foreign Ministers with about 100 advisors and, according to recent sources, the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin were far more open to negotiation than previously assumed. Nevertheless, Molotov turned down the Marshall Plan offer.

This notion of an approachable Soviet Union is based on the publication Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War (1996) by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov. From this perspective, the Marshall Plan shines in a different light and actually poses a threat to communist countries. The European Recovery Program became an ideological, offensive tool of the West against the communist East. So it would seem that the actual goal or ‘plan’ was to reduce the overall influence of communism in Europe. Zubok and Pleshakov support their notion by the fact that Western Europe was already receiving economic support before the Marshall Plan. Stalin’s Cold War policy could therefore be seen as a reaction against the European Recovery Program. Furthermore, the Molotov Plan (the Soviet Union’s own version of the Marshall Plan) and the hardening grip on the countries of Eastern Europe could be seen as a reaction.

The decisive moment of the Cold War?

William Cromwell, in Cox and Kennedy-Pipe’s paper, believes that the European Recovery Program could have helped bridged the gap between West and East, but the means to achieve this were instead used to further ignite the Cold War.

The Marshall Plan could therefore be seen as a decisive moment of the Cold War. A different approach might have possibly changed the outcome for the countries of Eastern Europe. The question that remains is: would the Cold War have taken a different turn, perhaps a less antagonistic way, if the doors for Moscow into the European Recovery Program had stayed open a little bit longer?

Consequently, the Marshall Plan can be seen either as a defensive reaction or an indirect offensive action against communism. From a modern perspective, it is unjustifiable to treat the Marshall Plan as a mere economic aid for the rehabilitation of Europe.

Andreas Enderlin

See also the Berlin Blockade and Berlin AirliftGeorge C Marshall and the East German Uprising

Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

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