The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and How America Helped Rebuild Europe

Overview

In this landmark, character-driven history, Greg Behrman tells the story of the Marshall Plan, the unprecedented and audacious policy through which America helped rebuild World War II-ravaged Western Europe. With nuanced, vivid prose, Behrman recreates the story of a unique American enterprise that was at once strategic, altruistic and stunningly effective, and of a time when America stood as a beacon of generosity and moral leadership.

When World War II ended in Europe, the ...

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The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time when America Helped Save Europe

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Overview

In this landmark, character-driven history, Greg Behrman tells the story of the Marshall Plan, the unprecedented and audacious policy through which America helped rebuild World War II-ravaged Western Europe. With nuanced, vivid prose, Behrman recreates the story of a unique American enterprise that was at once strategic, altruistic and stunningly effective, and of a time when America stood as a beacon of generosity and moral leadership.

When World War II ended in Europe, the continent lay in tatters. Tens of millions of people had been killed. Ancient cities had been demolished. The economic, financial and commercial foundations of Europe were in shambles. Western Europe's Communist parties — feeding off people's want and despair — were flourishing as, to the east, Stalin's Soviet Union emerged as the sole superpower on the continent.

The Marshall Plan was a four-year, $13 billion (more than $100 billion in today's dollars) plan to provide assistance for Europe's economic recovery. More than an aid program, it sought to modernize Western Europe's economies and launch them on a path to prosperity and integration; to restore Western Europe's faith in democracy and capitalism; to enmesh the region firmly in a Western economic association and eventually a military alliance. It was the linchpin of America's strategy to meet the Soviet threat. It helped to trigger the Cold War and, eventually, to win it.

Through detailed and exhaustive research, Behrman brings this vital and dramatic epoch to life and animates the personalities that shaped it. The narrative follows the six extraordinary American statesmen — George Marshall, Will Clayton, Arthur Vandenberg, Richard Bissell, Paul Hoffman and W. Averell Harriman — who devised and implemented the Plan, as well as some of the century's most important personalities — Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, Joseph McCarthy — who are also central players in the drama told here.

More than a humanitarian endeavor, the Marshall Plan was one of the most effective foreign policies in all of American history, in large part because, as Behrman writes, it was born and executed in a time when American "foreign policy was defined by its national interests and the very best of ideals."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Marshall Plan was the most creative and inspired act in modern American foreign policy. It preserved the possibility of freedom and showed the potential for great leadership. There's so much we can learn from the boldness and creativity of Marshall, Acheson and their coterie. Greg Behrman has captured all of this masterfully. In a beautifully researched and written narrative, he has produced a compelling tale that should be an inspiration as we face our new global challenges."

— Walter Isaacson, coauthor of The Wise Men and author of Einstein

Every time our nation faces a crisis, someone calls for a new Marshall Plan. But few know the real story of the original: thrilling, inspirational and relevant to the challenges of today. No one has ever told it better than Greg Behrman, who draws modern lessons while making this vital period come alive once again."

— Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

"The Marshall Plan is an often-invoked but not well-understood icon of American politics. Greg Behrman turns it into a living, vivid — and moving — story. He captures the dangers and drama of the years after World War II. He shows how personalities — whom afterwards history would rightly judge statesmen — combined vision and pragmatism with determination, money and self-help to prevent Europe from falling into the arms of Josef Stalin, while laying the basis for a united Europe."

— Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize and Shattered Peace

"Behrman's comprehensively researched and well-written history of the Marshall Plan — that, as much as the Allied victory, saved Europe as we know it — promises to be a definitive work."

— Dr. Henry Kissinger

"A commanding and measured account of one of the most visionary programs in United States history. If you wish to know America at its best, what America can be, read this book."

— Bob Kerrey, president of The New School and former senator

"As historian Greg Behrman makes abundantly clear in The Most Noble Adventure, the Marshall Plan has become code language for governmental caring. By reminding us of President Truman's great accomplishment in vivid detail, Behrman has rendered history a signal service. A smart, balanced and timely study."

— Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge

"There is much for our times to learn from the Marshall Plan — about what common purpose can achieve and how cooperation among nations, even in dangerous times and midst high tension, can bring such great common benefit."

— Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743282642
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 8/12/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 697,457
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 10.46 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Greg Behrman is the Henry Kissinger Fellow for Foreign Policy at The Aspen Institute. He is the author of The Invisible People: How the U.S. Has Slept Trough the Global AIDS Pandemic, The Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time (Free Press; June 2004). The New York Times called the book, "[w]ell researched and unsparing," and an "important volume." The Baltimore Sun lauded the "eloquent history" as "[m]arvelous." The Washington Post Book World suggested that it was "[a]head of its time."

All of the proceeds from his first book were donated to Heartbeat, a South African-based not-for-profit that provides care for AIDS orphans. Behrman is on Heartbeat's Board of Directors. He was also the Coordinator for the Council on Foreign Relations Roundtable on Improving U.S. Global AIDS Policy.

Behrman has moderated Roundtable events with leading policy makers and experts and has been the featured speaker at The Council on Foreign Relations (Washington D.C.), The Asia Society (NY), The Commonwealth Club of California (San Francisco), The Foreign Policy Association (NY), Harvard, Yale, Princeton and dozens of other venues. He has appeared on NBC, PBS, C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, CNBC and National Pubic Radio (NPR). His writing has appeared in Newsweek International, Los Angeles Times and International Herald Tribune.

He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Politics and a certificate in Political Economy from Princeton University. He graduated with an M.Phil in International Relations from Oxford University. He also worked in the Principal Investment Area at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York City for several years.

Behrman has held a world record in fly-fishing and has completed the New York City Marathon. An avid mountaineer, he has summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Elbrus, in Africa and Russia, respectively. He is a member of The Explorer's Club in New York City, where he also resides.

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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

JUNE 5, 1947.

The bell tolled at 9:30 a.m. The midmorning sun made its arc in a clear blue sky, a warm salutation to the crowd of seven thousand — mostly parents of graduates, scholars and selected guests — as they filtered into the yard between Widener Library and Memorial Church. The day marked Harvard University's 286th Commencement, and the first "fully normal" graduation ceremony since the United States had entered World War II five and a half years earlier.

The war had claimed 300,000 American lives; it had cost $300 billion in treasure; and it had demanded immeasurable sacrifice. Now it was over. The crimson robes, the Latin perorations, the diplomas, the handshakes and the celebrations — all the customary features of that day were meant to mark a return to normalcy.

It was generally recognized that one man, more than any other, had delivered America victory and had made the return to peace possible. As the procession came into view, the crowd caught a glimpse of him. They sprang to their feet and offered a rousing ovation. To many, it was odd to see him without the military uniform in which they had come to know him. It was the uniform he had worn as Army chief of staff in September 1939, the month Germany invaded Poland; he wore it when he was recognized as Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1943, lauded as the man who transformed the United States military into the most dominant fighting force in the world; and the same one he wore when the war had ended and Winston Churchill called him the "organizer of victory."

Appointed secretary of state five months earlier, he was a civilian now. The military uniform, if not the man, had been retired. In its stead George Catlett Marshall wore a gray suit, a white shirt and a blue necktie. Old habits remained, though. As he walked past the crowd, his head moved sharply but rhythmically left to right, as if he were reviewing the troops. The lean six-foot frame was familiar, as was the short white hair, pressed back firmly and neatly; and the pale blue eyes still cut a piercing gaze.

The prolonged ovation ended only when Marshall and his fellow honorees were seated under a canopy of maple, beech and hickory trees, on a platform set up on the steps of Memorial Church. When it was his turn to receive his degree, Marshall stood to another standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Harvard President James Conant read the citation in both Latin and English. Conant said that Marshall was "an American to whom Freedom owes an enduring debt of gratitude." He was "a soldier and statesman whose ability and character brook only one comparison in the history of the nation." The comparison was to George Washington.

It was the sort of heady stuff in which many of Marshall's subordinates — MacArthur, Patton, even Eisenhower — reveled; but not Marshall. During the war, he had refused the plentitude of awards offered him. It was unfitting, he said, to accept decorations when American men and boys were fighting and dying. It was dispositional as well. Marshall had always shunned ceremony. He had twice turned down Harvard's offer to receive the honorary degree of doctor of laws.

On this day, though, there was a purpose to Marshall's attendance. A week earlier he had written to Conant, finally accepting Harvard's offer. He would not promise a formal address, but he would be pleased to make a few remarks — and perhaps "a little more," he wrote. The content of those remarks lined seven typed and crisply folded pieces of paper in Marshall's jacket pocket. No one had seen the final draft of the speech that Marshall had come to deliver, save the general himself; not even the commander in chief, President Harry S. Truman. On that early June morning, no one in attendance knew it, but Marshall had come to give an address that would transform Europe, dramatically reconfigure the international political landscape, and launch America forward as a modern superpower with global responsibilities.

The speech was delivered not on the steps of Memorial Church, as most historical depictions suggest, but later that day, at 2 p.m. in Harvard Yard at a subsequent luncheon given for alumni, parents of alumni and select guests.

During the war, Marshall had held regular weekly press conferences in his office. He would go around the room, fielding questions from dozens of hardened, cigar-chomping reporters. His command of grand strategy and minute detail was dazzling, and the press conferences helped to fuel his legend. As it was, he much preferred to speak extemporaneously. But those wartime conferences were meant to provide reporters with background, and were strictly off-the-record affairs. When Marshall became secretary of state, however, remarks were on the record, meaning that the smallest utterance would constitute a policy pronouncement. Marshall spoke in a low and monotonal voice, and so read speeches poorly. Thus when Dean Acheson, Marshall's undersecretary, recommended that as secretary of state Marshall should deliver policy addresses strictly from texts, he found Marshall as "disappointed as a small boy," but duly in agreement.

And so it came to be that as Marshall began to speak on that early June afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was said not to have looked up from his text once. With J. Robert Oppenheimer and T. S. Eliot both in tow as fellow honorees, Marshall adumbrated for his audience Europe's dire economic condition, its postwar dystopia — a new wasteland, dysfunctional and intensely vulnerable. The period of drift would have to end, Marshall explained, and the time for action had come. And then, it was all there, in only a few simple paragraphs. Not the details, as many would later point out — errantly suggesting that it was not even "a Plan" at all — but the elements and the contours of the Plan that would come almost immediately to bear his name.

He spoke in a soft, almost inaudible voice, "as though," it was written, "he did not care especially if they were listening." Future dignitaries in attendance that day — industrialists, acclaimed scholars, Conant himself, even future Marshall Planners — would concede that they did not comprehend the meaning or the historical salience of the Plan then unfurled. They were not alone. American networks did not broadcast it, and the American news agencies "dismissed it with a few lines." The New York Times and most other national papers led with other stories the next day. Even the British Embassy in Washington "did not consider it worth the cable charges to transmit to London."

But to British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, the man on the other side of the Atlantic on whom its fate would most depend, perched up in his bed, listening to a broadcast of the speech on the BBC: "It was like a lifeline to sinking men. It seemed to bring hope where there was none. The generosity of it was beyond my belief." For the British foreign secretary, its significance, its need and its transformational potential were unmistakable. To Bevin — who, as a wartime Cabinet member with Churchill had heard his share of exalted orations — it was "one of the greatest speeches made in world history."

In the years to follow what Senator Arthur Vandenberg called the "electric effect of a few sentences in quiet sequence," "history wrote with a rushing pen." And the story it told was of the Marshall Plan.

Historian and eyewitness Thomas Bailey described the Marshall Plan as "the greatest act of statesmanship in the nation's history." Cold War historian Melvyn Leffler determined that it was "probably the most effective program the United States launched during the entire Cold War." Journalist Arthur Krock wrote that "it was one of the great achievements of the century, as nearly everyone eventually saw." Combined, the encomiums seem almost to elevate reality into myth, offering perhaps well-deserved paeans, but quite possibly occluding the Plan's inherent nuance and granularity, robbing it of its historic depth and true meaning.

It has been twenty years since the last comprehensive history of the Marshall Plan was written. Since then a Cold War has ended and troves of archival material have been made available from the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and much new scholarship has followed. Winston Churchill, who delighted in writing history as well as making it — especially when it was about himself — once wrote: "When the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting." History's tides suggest this a fitting time to take another look.

The story of the Marshall Plan — and any of the Plan's success — belongs just as much to Europe as it does to the United States. Rather than a unilateral enterprise, or an initiative imposed upon one side or the other, the Marshall Plan is best viewed as a partnership in which the United States and Europe played co-leads. However, the main focus here is the story from the American side. Therein, a series of remarkable statesmen emerge. They are men like Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, Lucius Clay and David Bruce. However, as the story unfolds, six U.S. statesmen, more than the others, emerge as indispensable to the genesis, the execution and the ultimate success of the Marshall Plan. They are George Marshall, Will Clayton, Arthur Vandenberg, Richard Bissell, Paul Hoffman, and W. Averell Harriman. The story of the Marshall Plan is in large part their shared story.

From June 1947 to its termination at the end of 1951, the Marshall Plan provided approximately $13 billion to finance the recovery and rehabilitation of war-torn and postwar weary Western Europe. In today's dollars that sum equals roughly $100 billion, and as a comparable share of U.S. Gross National Product it would be in excess of $500 billion. It was a mammoth sum, more than the United States spent to govern itself in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century. More than the provision of dollars and aid, the Marshall Plan was the cornerstone of American foreign policy for much of those formative and consequential postwar years. It was a monumental undertaking and — echoing Walt Whitman's famous lines — it contained multitudes and contradictions.

An act of unprecedented beneficence, the Marshall Plan was an unabashedly strategic enterprise framed in the shifting and perilous geopolitical context of its time. Offered in humility as a hand in partnership, it sought nothing less than to refashion Europe in fundamental and audacious ways. Aiming at transparency and astoundingly free of corruption and scandal, its dollars financed — unbeknownst even to Cabinet-level officials — some of the first covert operations in CIA history. It employed U.S. capital and a free-market ideology to prop up socialist regimes, in the name of saving them from Communism. Proposed as an altruistic program to save the world from "hunger, poverty and chaos," it helped to trigger the Cold War.

Its apparent contradictions and the enormity of its scope and ambition notwithstanding — in fact, in large part because of these things — the Marshall Plan would become one of the most successful foreign policy enterprises in the annals of U.S. history. In the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, America has not yet responded to the challenges and opportunities of the present age with programs or efforts of comparable depth or imagination. It is my conviction that the story told here contains insights that speak to the current American moment with resonance and urgency; it is my hope that it might help to illuminate a brighter path forward.

When George Marshall was a boy, the United States of America was little more than a hundred years old. It was a nation so young that U.S. history was not commonly taught in school. In the course of Marshall's lifetime, the Plan that was to bear his name would launch America forward into a world fraught with perils, uncertainties and anxieties in a degree of engagement once thought unimaginable. Perhaps Dean Acheson put it best. For him, the Marshall Plan was "one of the greatest and most honorable adventures in history."

And it began with a trip to Moscow.

Copyright © 2007 by Greg Marc Behrman

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2008

    Good Read

    Excellent book. Probably not extremely balanced in its telling nor in its appraisals but a really good read.(I am not a fast reader and I was able to read a good chunk of it while traveling for a short business trip) I enjoyed reading the book and benefited greatly from the perspective being told.

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