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The Marshall Plan and the Division of Europe

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The Marshall Plan and the Division of Europe

Charles S. Maier

Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe provide a valuable survey of much of the historiography of the Marshall Plan, rightly understood to be a centerpiece of the early Cold War. Their essay raises important questions about post-revisionist accounts and interpretations and makes a useful contribution in discussing the role of the British and French in the events of 1947—a role that the American literature long overlooked but that some corrective literature then overstated. Their article also helpfully summarizes the debates among Soviet leaders about the value and pitfalls of accepting U.S. proposals in the immediate aftermath of George Marshall's speech.1

Nonetheless, the essay makes less innovative and original arguments than it purports to, and it does not adequately analyze the meaning of "dividing Europe." Cox and Kennedy-Pipe imply that "dividing Europe" is equivalent to starting the Cold War. I will argue that indeed the United States and its Western allies bear much of the responsibility for dividing Europe—but that the policy was in fact a strategy for an ideological and geopolitical conflict that was already emerging. The Marshall Plan confirmed a division that events from the formation of rival Polish governments-in-waiting in 1944 through stalemates on Germany in early 1947 had already made difficult to bridge.

Division in effect can be construed as the third-best solution for both sides once it became likely that neither great power could impose its most desired solution (or even its second-best solution) on the whole continent. By "most desired" solution I mean a Europe from the Pyrenees to the Soviet border that would—depending on whether Moscow's or Washington's preferences prevailed—have been either Communist or non-Communist. Either of these results was precluded by the terms of the wartime coalition. Each side in the anti-Hitler alliance had too much need for the other simply to claim the whole area liberated from Nazi Germany. The British understood this as early as 1942 when they accepted Soviet demands for postwar border revisions. Soviet planners envisaged coexisting security spheres and cooperation with Britain [End Page 168] on the continent. The Americans, however, resisted accepting the implications of alliance politics until the Yalta conference in January 1945.2 The real question was whether each side could achieve its second best solution. By "second-best solution" I mean one in which pro-Western parties would retain a chance to share power and assure open competition in Eastern Europe and Communist parties would continue in government coalitions in Western Europe. This outcome would have required compromise but not a total renunciation of either side's goals. The division of Europe into anti-Communist and pro-Communist halves was the third-best solution in 1945, but it emerged as the most acceptable solution for both sides by l947-1948. Indeed, the Marshall Plan evolved as an American strategy for assuring at least this outcome, and the development of the Plan between the Moscow Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in March 1947 and the Soviet refusal to remain at the Paris talks called by Ernest Bevin and Georges Bidault in July advanced step by step with this realization.

The underlying dispute in the American historiography over fifty years has not really been about the logic of this result. Instead, it has addressed two other issues: whether the Soviet Union or the United States was more responsible for this outcome, and whether Americans (and East Europeans) might not have secured a less repressive political order in Eastern Europe. John Gaddis, from his first book to his recent work, has focused on the question of responsibility. Cox and Kennedy-Pipe appropriately take note of Gaddis's evolution: He argued in 1972 that Josif Stalin's behavior in Eastern Europe provoked American acceptance of what I have termed the third-best solution. By the mid-1980s he seemed to think the outcome was more structurally determined by the logic of bipolarity; and after 1989 he insisted that new evidence placed the fault directly at Stalin's doorstep.3 The Soviet dictator's unwillingness to allow liberal pluralism to be instituted in Eastern Europe provoked the American reaction and led to the logic of containment.

Important as these interpretations may be, the historiography has included two alternative arguments from different political viewpoints suggesting that Americans and West Europeans might have actually secured the [End Page 169] second-best, not the third-best, solution. "Revisionists" asserted that if the United States had not contested legitimate Soviet security and economic needs in Eastern Europe, Stalin might have lived with pluralist regimes in that region. On the other side, relative hardliners, such as Vojtech Mastny, argued that if U.S. leaders had simply flexed more nuclear muscle or protested more firmly, they could have deterred Stalin from imposing Communist systems on Eastern Europe. It is not clear, however, that after the great common war effort the American public would have been willing to turn alliance policy around so quickly. Major crusades that threaten possible military action require a long period of preparation in American politics. Moreover, a harsher American reaction to developments in Eastern Europe might have given the Soviet leader pause, but it might also have impelled him toward a more rapid crackdown.

In any case, the argument among historians has been less about what we knew than about what alternative policies we might plausibly have adopted. Of course, as historians we seek knowledge of intention. Although Cox and Kennedy-Pipe do not confront the issue head on, they are apparently skeptical—and rightly so—of Gaddis's conclusions that "we now know" more definitively than before that Soviet intentions were aggressive and repressive. For one thing, what we apparently now know with such confidence relies heavily on memoir ruminations, including Vyacheslav Molotov's recollections of conversations long past. When we consider what the archives have in fact revealed (Norman Naimark's work is valuable in this respect4 ), it suggests continued debate among party officials and bureaucratic agencies about the policies that would make sense for Moscow. Only the willfully blind could have denied at any time that Stalin was a cruel and arbitrary political leader. But it has always been questionable to assume that because he was a tyrant at home he must also have had an aggressive agenda for subversion and ideological control not only of Eastern Europe and Germany, if possible, but of much of Western Europe as well. Ideology doubtless suggested that capitalism could eventually be overcome, but it never dictated when and how.

What l989 really let us "know"—although many understood before5 —was that without the intervention of Soviet forces to crush insurrectionary dissent, Eastern Europe would not have remained under Moscow's control for [End Page 170] four decades. That is an important lesson, and it was often denied. This conclusion does not mean there were no genuine enthusiasts for the Communist regimes, but it does suggest that they would not have held power without Soviet tanks in the background. Of course, Soviet representatives understood their clients' vulnerability and sometimes told them as much.

Nonetheless, as Cox and Kennedy-Pipe argue, what we now know does not answer the question of what alternative outcome might have been secured. I agree with them when they—drawing heavily on Anna Di Biagio's invaluable analysis of Andrei Zhdanov's rapid evolution—claim that the Soviet Union had hoped to avoid a fundamental division in Europe until well into 1947. But Moscow's pre-Marshall Plan hopes for Communist participation in Popular Front-style governments in the West had been set back when the Communists were extruded from the coalitions in France, Belgium, and Italy earlier that year. The Marshall Plan went further by threatening to extend American influence into the Soviet zone of influence. When Zhdanov revised his speech for the founding meeting of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) at Szklarska Poreba in September 1947, he made clear that the "people's republics" in the East would have to abandon the supposed legacy of post-fascist coalitions and that the Communist parties in the West must prepare for unrelenting opposition in their countries.6 Although Zhdanov's and Marshall's ideologies were totally at odds, the Soviet official seems to have arrived at roughly the same conclusion that the U.S. secretary of state drew at the Berlin Conference of Foreign Ministers six months earlier. Each side now believed it was time to put its own half of Europe in order. By contrast, Stalin's preferred option before the Marshall Plan would have been a Europe in which the Western Communist parties retained at least a strong coalition role and prevented any "ganging up" on the Soviet Union. The discussions documented by Cox and Kennedy-Pipe valuably support this picture, but they do not really change what we long ago understood as Communist logic.

Cox and Kennedy-Pipe are also on solid ground in arguing that it is hard to envisage a way Eastern Europe could have "escaped the Soviet grip." But what does "grip" mean precisely? Finland, as they remind us, was among the countries that in the fall of 1947 withdrew from the Committee of European Economic Cooperation discussions on the implementation of the Marshall Plan. But in what sense was Finland in the Soviet grip, and did it remain so? By the 1980s, when the possible "Finlandization" of Western Europe was discussed with respect to the upgrading of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the term implied a harsh political fate. In reality, the Finns found that their relationship [End Page 171] with Moscow did not prevent them from building a tolerable liberal democracy. The key issue for judging the political fate of Eastern Europe in the 1940s is whether the countries that fell into the Soviet sphere might have retained pluralist regimes at home while adhering to a foreign-policy orientation desired by their massive neighbor. That is still a key question for historians, and although Cox and Kennedy-Pipe provide a sensible discussion, their article does not further resolve or clarify this issue.

Most problematic is the implication in the article that whichever power confirmed the division of Europe was in fact responsible for the Cold War and perhaps for the repression of liberty in Eastern Europe. (To be fair, I am not certain what precise implications Cox and Kennedy-Pipe want to draw from their "rethinking.") The two authors might have regarded their conclusions as less surprising if they had devoted some attention to the momentum of events in Germany, where the British and Americans also accepted division rather than run the risk of continued economic misery and Communist influence in the Western zones. Caroline Eisenberg has vigorously argued that U.S. policymakers repeatedly pressed measures that hastened the division. She believes this was regrettable, whereas I believe it was a natural reaction to the suppression of freedom in the East.7 In a volume that Günter Bischof and I edited, we, too, demonstrated the logic of division that helped lead up to and was then confirmed by the European Recovery Program (ERP).8 In any case, from Secretary of State James Byrnes's Stuttgart speech in September 1946 through the formation of the Bizone and Lucius Clay's reparations moratorium in l947 and then the trizonal currency reform in 1948, U.S. policymakers—and ultimately German ones as well—accepted the logic of division. By dint of shutting down meaningful liberal pluralism in eastern Germany (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe), the Soviet Union made division appear a rational response.

The political brilliance of the Marshall Plan—as events later showed—was that it forced the onus of any division onto Moscow. As Cox and Kennedy-Pipe correctly discern, the Marshall Plan offered Soviet leaders the unpalatable alternative of accepting capitalist intrusions into their planned economy or renouncing what might have been useful assistance. To be sure, the Soviet Union needed a Marshall Plan less than did some of the West European economies. The Plan functioned by relaxing balance-of-payments constraints [End Page 172] —something the Soviet Union did not have to face because it did not import American goods. Still, U.S. aid might have induced Soviet leaders to extract fewer reparations from eastern Germany, just as it helped lower the reparations burden on western Germany. This presumably would have allowed Moscow to avoid establishing such an unpopular and coercive Communist regime in its zone of occupation. The biggest cost of renouncing the Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union, however, was to the isolation of its affiliated Communist parties in Western Europe from social democrats who might otherwise have formed electoral coalitions with them. Non-acceptance consigned the Western Communist parties to a political ghetto.

The Marshall Plan, in effect, was the single most important policy in confirming, but not initiating, the division of Europe. Cox's and Kennedy-Pipe's article would have served us better if it had kept that distinction clear. The European Recovery Program signified that policymakers on both sides in the emerging Cold War—some with reluctance, others with alacrity—were giving up their hopes of achieving the second-best solution and were instead embracing the third. Western historians have always celebrated the freedom and prosperity the Marshall Plan helped confirm in the West, although it remains unlikely that Western Europe would have "gone Communist" without the ERP. Historians, moreover, tend to celebrate the Marshall Plan without counting the cost of Communization for the millions in Eastern Europe who fell under a far more repressive yoke. But historians could be celebratory despite that massive cost because the architects of the Plan, at least apparently, offered the East European countries the choice to take part or not.

Harder questions about advancing the division of Europe arise with respect to post-Marshall Plan developments. Did the policies of West German rearmament and the military confrontation that escalated from 1949-1950 have to be pressed with such vigor? Or was this degree of heightened confrontation already implicit in the divisions catalyzed by the Marshall Plan? After all, not every proposed division made sense, and at least one, thankfully, was avoided. In the spring of 1948 George Kennan proposed a division of Italy along North-South lines, letting the industrial North fall under Soviet control but preserving a Western-oriented Mezzogiorno, rather than wagering on a Communist victory in the 1948 elections.9 Even those who admire Kennan's long career of analysis and disinterested public service can be glad that this recommendation fell on deaf ears.

Of course, only a few lonely dissenters predicted what happened four decades later. In 1989 Americans and Europeans won not just their long hoped-for [End Page 173] second-best solution. The softening of Communism (but not its dissolution) was the explicit aim of détente and Ostpolitik as of l970. Instead, because of the challenges of post-industrial economy, the crisis of the Soviet Union, and the courage of dissidents, the East European nations actually achieved the optimal solution for which they had long yearned. As Cox and Kennedy-Pipe remind us, the opening of the archives that followed presented a second chance for historical scholarship. It is natural to use this evidence to reassess old questions, but new evidence should also suggest new questions. It should certainly free us from the inherited "either-or" alternatives that framed debate when the Cold War was still under way.

Charles Maier is the Leverett Saltonstall professor of history at Harvard University and a member of the Journal of Cold War Studies Editorial Board


1. Michael Cox and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy? Rethinking the Marshall Plan," Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2005), pp. 97-134.

2. See Aleksei M. Filitov, "Problems of Post-War Construction in Soviet Foreign Policy Conceptions during World War II," in Francesca Gori and Silvio Pons, eds., The Soviet Union and Europe in the Cold War, 1943-53 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp.3-22.

3. Compare the tonalities—from judicious, to Olympian, to self-assured—in John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972); John Lewis Gaddis, "The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War," Diplomatic History, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer 1983), pp.171-190; John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), especially the title essay; and John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

4. Norman M. Naimark, The Russians in Germany 1945-1949: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

5. To cite but one example, Mark Kramer wrote in 1984 that "without the presence of Soviet troops on East European soil and the threat of a Soviet invasion to bolster faltering regimes, it is unlikely that the current governments [in Eastern Europe] would survive for long." See Mark Kramer, "Civil- Military Relations in the Warsaw Pact: The East European Component," International Affairs, Vol.61, No. 1 (Winter 1984-1985), p.45.

6. Anna Di Biagio, "The Marshall Plan and the Founding of the Cominform, June-September 1947," in Gori and Pons, eds., The Soviet Union and Europe in the Cold War, pp.208-221.

7. Caroline Eisenberg, Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Cox and Kennedy-Pipe cite this work as a specimen of revisionism, but its claims are more persuasive than the revisionist work of a generation earlier.

8. See Charles S. Maier, "Introduction," in Charles S. Maier and Günter Bischof, eds., The Marshall Plan and Germany: West German Development within the Framework of the European Recovery Program (Providence: Berg Press, 1991), pp.1-14.

9. Kennan to Secretary of State, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, Vol. III, pp.848-849.

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