Bipartisan Strategy: Selling the Marshall Plan

By Wood, Robert S. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Bipartisan Strategy: Selling the Marshall Plan


Wood, Robert S., Naval War College Review


Bonds, John Bledsoe. Bipartisan Strategy: Selling the Marshall Plan. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. 256pp. $64.95

When we look back on great historical events, we often ascribe an inevitability to things that were, in fact, anything but. In this lucid and comprehensive study of the formulation and enactment of the Marshall Plan, John Bonds recounts how this great pillar of American post-World War II policy was anything but inevitable. Bonds, a retired captain of the U.S. Navy and professor of history at the Citadel in Charlestown, South Carolina, concludes his penultimate chapter on the final legislative approval of what was to be Public Law 793 with the words: "So it was finally done. The country had made a significant commitment to Europe and to internationalism in general, consciously and with conviction, despite some difficult holdouts like Mr. John Taber, Chairman, House Appropriations Committee. But to the last the issue had been in doubt." On that last sentence (emphasis added) hangs the tale of this study.

The Republicans controlled Congress, the president was seen as weak and was opposed by prominent members of his own party, and the Republicans smelled a White House victory in 1948, for the first time since 1928. On partisan grounds alone, then, 1947-48 did not seem a propitious time for a major bipartisan initiative. Beyond considerations of party, however, there were large substantive policy issues that divided the nation: how best to deal with the erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union; fear of inflation and the ultimate cost of European recovery; concern for balancing the budget; and how to meet the public desire for "normalcy" after years of depression and war.

Bonds gives an impressive account of the extraordinary skill of the Truman administration and the rightly celebrated Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in mobilizing business, labor, intellectuals, and public opinion in support of what many correctly perceived as a decisive break with traditional American foreign policy. In this mobilization of external opinion and lobbying of congressional support (at a time when such lobbying was seen as improper), there were mutually countervailing pressures tending to minimize President Truman's public engagement, which was seen as raising partisan hackles, but also to maximize the president's public role, the better to position him for the 1948 election. Bonds correctly concludes, however, that such considerations and skills were insufficient to account for the final enactment.

A fundamental change of perspective was required, and skillful alliance building and sales strategies were inadequate. …

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