Economic Ideas and Government Policy: Contributions to Contemporary Economic History

By Alec Cairncross | Go to book overview

8

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MARSHALL PLAN*

Life in postwar Europe begins for the average historian with the Marshall Plan. He hurries past the first two postwar years as if nothing much happened and fastens on the more dramatic episode that followed. Europe is seen as rescued from the verge of catastrophe by American generosity and steered in the direction of the Common Market (now promised at last). Was it really like that? Was it indeed the Marshall Plan that turned the postwar years into a Golden Age in which all Europe moved forward together, free from any major depression for thirty years and from war for longer than ever before? Do we owe it to the Marshall Plan that things turned out so much better after the Second World War than after the First?

To answer these questions we need to go back before the Marshall Plan and see why the Marshall Plan was needed. Why, to begin with, was it introduced in 1947 and not 1945?

The answer is in part that in 1945 plans for the postwar world were couched in international, not regional, terms. The victors in the war, the USA and the UK, regarded themselves as world powers with international responsibilities. They sought to establish international institutions and international rules to regulate international trade and investment in the postwar years: the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Trade Organization that never was. There was no thought in either country of European institutions and European rules designed to bring Europe closer together and encourage joint action on a European scale to hasten recovery. There was interest in, and sympathy with, the problems of individual countries. But it was Germany and the future of German industry that was the centre of attention, not France or Italy or the Low Countries and certainly not Europe. During the war the governments in exile in London had given some consideration to a proposal for a European Customs Union. But it was a proposal made by Alphand of the French Foreign Office not by the American or the British government; it excited little interest in Britain.

* Unpublished essay written in the late 1980s.

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