It might seem strange to begin a post about the Marshall Plan this way, but the end of the First World War a generation earlier was so poorly handled that a second war became necessary twenty years later, to finish the work of the first. Why did the second war happen? The debate is long and complicated, but there are two themes that often come up as explanations. One is the failure to obtain an unconditional surrender from the Germans, and change their system of government enough to make a second war less likely. The other is the imposition of reparations, or the plan to force Germany to pay for the damages they had caused - something which angered the Germans enough that they went to war again a generation later, largely as revenge for the impoverishment caused by the reparations.
Germans demonstrate against Treaty of Versailles, Reichstag 1919
No one will ever know for sure, but I think it could have been prevented - that rebuilding Germany, instead of punishing it, would have been a better way to prevent a second war. In short, what they needed was a Marshall Plan; and the Marshall Plan following World War II (which was the plan to provide economic assistance, to rebuild postwar Europe) may have been a large part of the reason that the peace with Germany was kept after the war was over. The Allied troops did what they had to do to stop Germany; but after the war, the best thing they could have done for their countries was to turn their former enemies into friends; and win the hearts of the people so that they would not be likely to invade their neighbors again. They had won the war; now they needed to win the peace; and the Marshall Plan was a large portion of the reason why the peace has lasted as long as it has.
Devastation of postwar Berlin, June 1945
What was it that motivated the Americans to approve the Marshall Plan, and send so much economic assistance to rebuild Western Europe? The humanitarian motives are often cited, and I think that Americans were glad to see the humanitarian effects of the plan; but the plan would never have been approved if it wasn't also in our interest to do it. This is not to downgrade the motives of the plan - looking out for American self-interest is nothing to apologize for, as it is a noble and necessary motive for us. But the humanitarian motives by themselves were not enough to justify sending that much money abroad - the plan had to first and foremost serve a purpose for America; and a large portion of that purpose was to keep the peace with Germany, and prevent another war with it from happening.
Protests in West Germany against the disastrous food situation - "Hunger winter," 1947
(the year before the Marshall Plan was implemented in Germany)
But there was one other purpose which was even more urgent, and that was preventing Western Europe from falling to communism. This aspect of the plan has not received as much attention from the public, but it was undoubtedly a significant part of the plan; and in that respect as well as in every other, the plan was a great success. Western Europe after the war was poor - both in the losing countries, and even in many of the winning ones - and poor people often fall prey to utopian fantasies like those falsely promised by communists. The promises start to sound so good that wishful thinking overwhelms their sense of reality; and as surely as they did with Hitler, they are willing to follow demagogues down the road to dictatorship and ruin. The fact that this didn't happen in Western Europe was largely the result of the Marshall Plan; and in addition to keeping the peace with the Germans, the plan also helped to keep the freedom from the communists - both for many former enemies, and for longtime friends.
Border between West and East Germany - Iron Curtain, 1949
The Marshall Plan is an embarrassment to communists around the globe; as whether they realize it or not, it was a testimony to how much better the capitalist system was than theirs. Only in capitalist countries like the United States could governments afford to give to the poor, and history has recorded the inability of Soviet Russia to do the same. The Soviets actually tried to block implementation of the Marshall Plan through diplomatic pressure, as they knew what a threat it was to their plans for expanding further into Europe. They blocked it in their conquered countries (including East Germany), they tried to block it for the countries still free (including West Germany), and they would have blocked it successfully, if the Americans had been less resolute against the Soviet pressure. But the Americans pressed on with it, and capitalized on the propaganda victory of how the Russians wanted to obstruct humanitarian aid - showing which system would really take care of the poor, and which system stood in the way of this.
Marshall Plan - West Berlin, 1949
Critics of the Marshall Plan often point out that there were strings attached, and it is noteworthy that there really were once people who criticized the Plan. Some still criticize it today, for specifying that countries that wanted its aid could not elect communists if they expected to get it. Some even characterized the money as an unholy bribe, given as payment for the "immoral" enabling of capitalism; or as an interference in the sovereignty of nations, which prevented them from making decisions for themselves. (The people making this argument are usually referring to the money the CIA gave to anti-communist political parties in occupied postwar Italy, the former enemy country that was in danger of electing communists, and being sucked into the Soviet sphere of influence.) One might point out to such people that no one was ever forced to accept their aid or elect capitalists - it was given as an incentive for their cooperation. I am generally against interference with another nation's sovereignty and self-government, but I think the fact Italy was a country we had been at war with just years before gave us some unusual right to occupy them and interfere with their governmental institutions - at least temporarily. Better a democracy in Italy than another totalitarian regime likely to invade its neighbors, and the communists would not likely have been much different in this respect than the Fascists of Mussolini. The Italians elected the anti-communists of their own volition anyway, which takes some wind out of the sails of the "interference" charges. What little American interference there was here was justified, and the Italians should thank us for it.
Palmiro Togliatti, leader of Italian Communist Party defeated in 1948 elections
The people who really did interfere with the sovereignty of nations on a grand scale - including many who had not harmed them in any way - were the communists themselves, who tried hard to start communist revolutions in Turkey and Iran, enabling and supporting violent revolts against legitimate and peaceful governments, all in the hopes of making these countries ripe for Soviet invasion (like that which chillingly occurred after the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia). This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, and every attack that communist sympathizers made on the Marshall Plan showed them for the hypocrites they were. History has witnessed (and history has recorded) that it was the capitalist countries who rebuilt postwar Europe; and it was the capitalist countries who fought poverty and respected sovereignty. The capitalists engaged in some minor interference with former enemies, while the communists engaged in some massive interference with everyone they could. History has shown which one was the more fair.
Marshall Plan - Greece, 1952
It should also be noted that the Marshall Plan aid we gave is not the only reason that West Germany became prosperous after the war, when East Germany did not - the prosperity of West Germany was created by the West Germans themselves, and enabled by the rewards for production that are unleashed by a free-market economy. The Marshall Plan only got them started down that road - the capitalist system was the engine that carried them to prosperity, and brought them the success of the postwar years.
Construction of Berlin Wall by the Soviet side (to prevent escape from communism), 1961
The Marshall Plan is widely recognized as an important event in World War II history, and it is a large portion of the reason World War II was so successful for the Allies. But it was an equally important event for Cold War history, and kept European countries from going communist and being ruined by it. The Marshall Plan was a humanitarian success, and helped keep the peace between Germany and her neighbors. But it was an equally important success in containing communism, and preventing it from further infringing upon the freedom of Europe.
In this and every other way, the Marshall Plan was an underrated success for the free world.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
World War II miniseries
The results of dividing Germany
Cold War miniseries
Part of a series about
Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work
The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Communism in practice: The results of the experiments
Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)