Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I cannot but help feel suspicious as a gut reaction, when I see a book named "The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe". In general, the whole "America saves X" ilk makes me squirm and take a good look. The above is the name of a new book about the Marshall Plan by Greg Behrman.

I haven't read the book, but it seems to have got glowing reviews. Reviewers also say that it may help inject some pro-US sentiment in European countries by pointing out the good that the US has done in past days. Well, considering what the Bush administration has done, any action of the US except Vietnam may sound good...but that's a different issue.

Everybody knows that the Marshall Plan was a plan to essentially give economic aid to European nations to help them rise from the destruction and poverty engendered by the Second World War. The plan was probably one of the better things that the US has done, but I think that calling it "The most noble adventure" is hagiographical, belies the facts, and misleads the public.

The plan was conceived among other people by George Kennan. Kennan was a famous US diplomat, best known for a telegram that he sent from Moscow at the beginning of 1946, revealing the true character of Soviet Russia to American leaders. Kennan understood the inside workings of Soviet leadership and accurately guaged that the Soviets would not back down in the face of a generous and weak-sounding adversary, but would do so in the face of an adversary who acts like he means business (although later, Americans also often misunderstood Soviet intentions, with tragic effects; Vietnam being the biggest tragedy). He was the architect of the "containment" policy followed by the US towards the Soviets, until Henry Kissinger's "detente" came around much later. In fact, Kennan's telegram from Moscow is considered as one of the starting points of the Cold War, when American leaders realised what the Soviets were made out of. Even though Kennan turned out to be one of the most influential American political philosophers of the twentieth century, he saw the policy he had so much initiated and influenced turned on its head, and he fell out of favour from later inside Washington circles. His recommendations which were supposed to be mainly political, diplomatic, and propagandist, were turned militaristic by later American leaders. Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101.

But because Kennan also saw that the Soviets would back down only by getting intimidated, he understood the importance of covert action, intelligence gathering, and harnessing insurance against a possible Soviet attack. To this end, and this does not seem to be well-known, he was one of the architects of covert operation strategy in the CIA. With others, he also conceived the Marshall plan and the Truman doctrine. The Truman doctrine sent aid in the form of money, weapons, and materiel to many countries, most notably Greece. Its explicit aim was to subdue communism.

In reality, all three were part of a single vision of making friends, through hook or crook throughout Europe, distributing aid and buying off politicians, newspaper men, union leaders, and agents in European countries with largesse, and preventing these countries from going Communist. All this was aimed at having people on the side of the US in case the Soviets turned overly belligerent in Europe.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the Marshall Plan was far from philanthropic. It probably would be more accurate to say that philanthrophy was a happy side-effect of the plan. It bought off large numbers of people of all colours and backgrounds in Europe and turned them into pro-US allies and propaganda generators. It made sure that there would be plenty of pro-capitalist leaders in Marshall aid countries to sway elections, manipulate public opinion, break up communist strikes, and side with the US in case of an attempted communist takeover.

The CIA was an important beneficiary of the plan. Countries which received Marshall aid were supposed to keep aside an equivalent sum in the form of their own currency. A part of this sum was supposed to be used by the CIA, with no questions asked. Through the Marshall Plan, CIA had a conduit to exercise their covert operations throughout Europe. What the CIA did with these funds is quite despicable in many cases. I will leave a discussion of that for some other time, but for now, suffice it to say that Marshall Plan-bought foreign capital was designed to help the CIA in its sordid deeds. In spite of this, the CIA often botched up its operations and indirectly killed thousands of foreign agents through its incompetence.

Now of course, you can argue that preventing communist takeover and safeguarding national interests is what any country would have done, and so did the US. But whether and to what extent this is right or wrong is not the point here. The point is that the Marshall Plan was not some kind of generous philanthropy aimed for America to "save Europe". It was, like any other national interest action, calculated to preserve US supremacy, presence, and interests in Europe. It had good side-effects, but it should be seen for what it was designed to do, that's all. This simple truth should be understood.

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