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Friday, April 19, 2024

The Myth of the Marshall Plan and US Imperialism

One of the signal events of the post-World War II era-- an event that helped shape the subsequent course of US imperialism-- was the implementation of the European Recovery Act of 1948, the so-called Marshall Plan. Not only was the Marshall Plan a maneuver to tie Western Europe economically to the US-- though Europe would play a subordinate role-- but it also served in the early days of the Cold War as a massive propaganda triumph for the US ruling class. Every US school girl and school boy marveled at the generosity and selflessness of the US government’s assistance to the impoverished people of Europe. The fact that the Eastern European people’s democracies refused US magnanimity only underscored the stubbornness of the Cold War antagonists.
Of course, there have been alternative accounts of the intent and efficacy of the Marshall Plan from its very beginning-- skeptical accounts that challenged US motives, questioned attached terms and conditions, and offered alternative schemes for European recovery. As early as 1947, Henry Wallace, former US Vice-President, for example, sought to remove aid to Europe from Cold War politics by creating a UN-administered reconstruction fund, prioritizing financial aid according to the recipient countries’ war-related needs regardless of ideology before or after the war, guaranteeing that no political or ideological strings were attached, and ensuring that aid not be used for military or aggressive intent. His proposals were met hostilely in the escalating confrontational climate pursued by the Truman administration.
Genuflecting to ‘victory’ in the Cold War, Western commentators have largely accepted the Marshall Plan as the profound act of sacrifice and generosity portrayed by its creators.
Thus, an alternative perspective on the Marshall Plan is both essential and welcome. A new book by French Communist historian Annie Lacroix-Riz, Les Origines du Plan Marshall: Le Mythe de “l’Aide” Américaine promises to address that shortcoming.
Thanks to a thorough and well-argued appreciation of Lacroix-Riz’s book by Jacques R. Pauwels in Counterpunch, those of us with rusty French reading skills do not have to sit with our copy of Collins Robert French Dictionary in our lap and struggle through a translation.
Pauwels is a discerning critic of the many myths that abound in the history of the US, including the Marshall Plan. He describes the myth thusly:

… after defeating the nasty Nazis, presumably more or less singlehandedly, and preparing to return home to mind his own business, Uncle Sam suddenly realized that the hapless Europeans, exhausted by six years of war, needed his help to get back on their feet. And so, unselfishly and generously, he decided to shower them with huge amounts of money, which Britain, France, and the other countries of Western Europe eagerly accepted and used to return not only to prosperity but also to democracy.

Simplistic as it reads, this is certainly the prevailing understanding of the 1948 European Recovery Act and its motivation. But as Pauwels acknowledges, the Marshall Plan was actually a door opener for US capital, US products, and US political influence.

Pauwels credits Lacroix-Riz with explaining US imperialist outreach as a long process, rooted in the late-nineteenth-century scramble for colonies by the great powers, as described by Lenin in his pamphlet, Imperialism. He writes: “The imperialist powers thus became increasingly competitors, rivals, and either antagonists or allies in a ruthless race for imperialist supremacy, fueled ideologically by the prevailing social-Darwinist ideas of ‘struggle for survival.’” (It should be noted the US was the first economic power to attempt to acquire colonies in an already divided world, according to prominent Soviet economist, Eugen Varga).

Thanks to war-time loans to belligerents, exploding military production, and immunity to invasion, the US economy leap-frogged ahead of its European counterparts after World War I. As a result, US economic ascendency was rewarded with new markets, new targets for investment, and a strong commitment to open doors and free markets: “...American industrialists were henceforth able to outperform any competitors in a free market. It is for this reason that the US government… morphed into a most eager apostle of free trade, energetically and systematically seeking ‘open doors’ for its exports all over the world.”

With all its industrial might, the late-to-the-colonial-game US pioneered a new form of imperialism: neo-colonialism. The former first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah-- himself a victim of imperialist intrigue-- conceived of neo-colonialism this way:

Faced with the militant peoples of the ex-colonial territories in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, imperialism simply switches tactics. Without a qualm it dispenses with its flags, and even with certain of its more hated expatriate officials. This means, so it claims, that it is ‘giving’ independence to its former subjects, to be followed by ‘aid’ for their development. Under cover of such phrases, however, it devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism. It is this sum total of these modern attempts to perpetuate colonialism while at the same time talking about ‘freedom,’ which has come to be known as neo-colonialism.

With the world already divided among great powers, it was natural for the US to fight to loosen the stranglehold of its rivals by advocating national self-determination (Woodrow Wilson), decolonization, and free trade after World War I (I have written about this “new” imperialism here). This was the US answer to a world divided into colonial empires and it became the template for the future of imperialism.

This US neo-colonial offensive in the interwar period gives the lie to the popular impression of an indifferent, isolationism fostered by many historians. As Calvin Coolidge boasted at his 1928 Memorial Day address at Gettysburg: “Our investments and trade relations are such that it is almost impossible to conceive of any conflict anywhere on earth which would not affect us injuriously.”

Pauwels confirms this offensive:

In the 1920s, the unprecedented profits generated by the Great War had allowed numerous US banks and corporations such as Ford to start up major investments in [Germany]. The “investment offensive” is rarely mentioned in history books but is of great historical importance in two ways: it marked the beginning of transatlantic expansion of US capitalism and it determined that Germany was to serve as the European ‘bridgehead’ of US imperialism.

This “new” imperialism allowed the US to dominate other economies without the immense costs of stationing troops, administrators, and overseers in restive colonies or bearing the responsibility for infrastructure in dependencies. Also, without formal colonies, the US could continue to laud its commitment to Wilsonian self-determination. This proved to be an enormous propaganda asset during the Cold War. Quoting historian William Appleman Williams referencing our ruling elites, “These men were not imperialist in the traditional sense.…” But they were imperialist nonetheless.

The “new” imperialism engaged the historical great powers. Pauwels notes the interwar US investment in Nazi Germany: “The United States had no desire to go to war against Hitler, who proved to be so ‘good for business.’”

Likewise, Britain was as much an investment target as an ally:

The first country to be turned into a vassal of Uncle Sam was Britain. After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, when left alone to face the terrifying might of Hitler’s Reich, the former Number One of industrial powers had to go cap in hand to the US to loan huge sums of money from American banks and use that money to buy equipment and fuel from America’s great corporations. Washington consented to extend such “aid” to Britain in a scheme that became known as “Lend-Lease”. However, the loans had to be paid back with interest and were subject to conditions such as the promised abolition of “imperial preference”, which ensured that Britain and its empire would cease to be a “closed economy” and instead open their doors to US export products and investment capital. As a result of Lend-Lease, Britain was to morph into a “junior partner”, not only economically but also politically and militarily, of the US. Or, as Annie Lacroix-Riz puts it in her new book, Lend-Lease loans to Britain spelled the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Eugen Varga, in his 1960 Twentieth Century Capitalism, makes the same point, but in the context of inter-imperialist rivalries:

The struggle between the imperialists of each of the belligerent blocs did not cease during the war. Italy, Hitler’s chief European ally, practically did not take part in the war before the defeat of France, she carried on “her own” war with Greece for the conquest of Albania. Japan had “her own” war in East Asia and against the U.S.A.; although Japan had been a party to the “anti-Comintern pact”, she concluded a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union. The chief U.S. aim in the anti-fascist alliance was to defeat Japan and, parallel, to defeating Hitler, to weaken Britain and abolish the British colonial empire. With this aim in view the U.S.A. at first supplied Britain with war materials for cash (i.e., for gold), thus taking away from Britain her gold reserve and her American securities. The U.S.A. went over to the lend-lease system only when Britain’s reserves were exhausted and then stopped the lend-lease at the end of the war without any warning. During the war Roosevelt took advantage of every opportunity to demand the abolition of the British system of preferential tariffs, one of the main economic supports of the British Empire, the granting of political independence to India, and so on. (p. 49-50)

So, by the end of World War II, the US had an established policy and practice of using its economic strength and free-trade advocacy to impose its dominance over weaker, vulnerable countries-- a form of streamlined, but opaque neo-colonialism suited for the post-colonial era to come. Would it come as a surprise that the US continued, refined, and expanded its imperial designs?


Pauwels spells out the architecture for the US postwar neocolonial advance: the Bretton Woods agreement, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank-- all supportive of US economic interests and designed to create subordination to US political and economic goals.

For a detailed look at how these policies were implemented, we have Lacroix-Riz’s account of their French application. We learn that the US threw its support behind corrupted, thoroughly anti-Communist Vichy officials, rather than the London-based exiles around Charles de Gaulle, a strongly nationalist, independent figure untarnished by collaboration. Pauwels writes: “[T]he Americans understood only too well that these former Pétainists [Vichyites] would be agreeable partners, ignored or forgave the sins the latter had committed as collaborators, labelled them with the respectable epithet of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’ and arranged for them, rather than Gaullists or other leaders of the Resistance, to be placed in positions of power.”

Establishing Vichy Admiral Darlan, a born-again anti-fascist, as the leader of a provisional French government served US purposes. As Pauwels retells:

The American “appointment” of Darlan paid off virtually immediately, namely on September 25, 1943, when the French provisional government signed a Lend-Lease deal with the US. The conditions of this arrangement were similar to those attached to Lend-Lease with Britain and those that were to be enshrined one year later at Bretton-Woods, namely, an “open door” for US corporations and banks to the markets and resources of France and its colonial empire. That arrangement was euphemistically described as “reciprocal aid” but was in reality the first step in a series of arrangements that were to culminate in France’s subscription to the Marshall Plan and impose on France what Lacroix-Riz describes as a “dependency of the colonial type.”

As matters developed, the Vichyite-heavy government was too much for anti-fascist French and the active Resistance to stomach, and the sufficiently anti-Communist de Gaulle became acceptable to US elites. The problem with de Gaulle, however, was that he agreed with the Soviets that reparations should be extracted from Germany, contrary to the wishes of the US. US industrial and financial interests were too deeply embedded in Germany to force them to pay for their aggression. Quoting Pauwels:

Thus we can understand the stepmotherly treatment Washington meted out in 1944-1945 to a France that was economically in dire straits after years of war and occupation. Already in the fall of 1944, Paris was informed that there were to be no reparations from Germany, and it was in vain that de Gaulle responded by briefly flirting with the Soviet Union, even concluding a “pact” with Moscow that would prove to be “stillborn”, as Lacroix-Riz puts it… As for France’s urgent request for American credits as well as urgently needed food and industrial and agricultural supplies, they did not yield “free gifts” of any kind, as is commonly believed, …but only deliveries of products of which there was a glut in the US itself and loans, all of it to be paid in dollars and at inflated prices. Lacroix-Riz emphasizes that “free deliveries of merchandise to France by the American army or any civil organization, even of the humanitarian type, never existed....”

Foretelling the future of US-France relations, the Blum-Byrnes Agreement of 1946 “was widely perceived as a wonderful deal for France… and was proclaimed by Blum himself as ‘an immense concession’ from the Americans.”

Instead, it was a surrender to US demands, involving agreement to purchase left-over military equipment and other products that US capitalists were anxious to get off their books. Payment for these goods were to be in dollars, hard to acquire without bargain-basement prices for French goods exported to the US. The French were made to compensate US corporations for their losses on French soil (ironically, losses most often the result of US bombing). Lacroix-Riz maintains that, in fact, lend-lease loans were not forgiven and that the Agreement “produced no credits whatsoever.”

When de Gaulle left the government in early 1946, his successors followed the US lead in attacking the French Communist Party, the most popular political group in the immediate aftermath of the war. With their expulsion from the French government in 1947, the road ahead was cleared of a powerful obstacle to the further penetration of US capital, exports, and culture.

The conclusion to be drawn, according to Pauwels and Lacroix-Riz:

That France’s postwar economic recovery was not due to US “aid” is only logical because, from the American perspective, the aim of the Blum-Byrnes Agreements or, later, the Marshall Plan, was not at all to forgive debts or help France in any other way to recover from the trauma of war, but to open up the country’s markets (as well as those of her colonies) and to integrate it into a postwar Europe — for the time being admittedly only Western Europe — that was to be capitalist, like the US, and controlled by the US from its German bridgehead. With the signing of the Blum-Byrnes Agreements, which also included a French acceptance of the fact that there would be no German reparations, that aim was virtually achieved. The conditions attached to the agreements did indeed include a guarantee by the French negotiators that France would henceforth practice free-trade policy and that there would be no more nationalizations like the ones that, almost immediately after the country’s liberation, befell car manufacturer Renault as well as privately owned coal mines and producers of gas and electricity…

The Marshall Plan repeats the template established with the Blum-Byrnes Agreement, which itself was a consistent development of the US neo-colonial program created in the aftermath of the First World War. Thus, we see the continuous development of a US imperialist strategy. What was unique at each step was the growing scale of the project. Later elaborations of this initiative, like the Point Four Program, the Alliance for Progress, USAID, and a host of other agencies and plans spread US corporate tentacles throughout the rest of the world.

As I wrote in 2015: “In the post-World War II era, the Marshall Plan and The Point Four program were early examples of neo-colonial Trojan Horses, programs aimed at cementing exploitative capitalist relations while posturing as generosity and assistance. They, and other programs, were successful efforts to weave consent, seduction, and extortion into a robust foreign policy securing the goals of imperialism without the moral revulsion of colonial repression and the cost of vast colonies.”

Pauwels and Lacroix-Riz add to our understanding of this critical juncture in the elaboration of US neo-colonial policies. Puncturing the Marshall Plan myth, Pauwels concludes:

The integration of France into a postwar (Western) Europe dominated by Uncle Sam would be completed by the country’s acceptance of Marshall Plan “aid” in 1948 and its adherence to NATO in 1949. However, it is wrong to believe that these two highly publicized events occurred in response to the outbreak of the Cold War, conventionally blamed on the Soviet Union, after the end of World War II. In reality, the Americans had been keen to extend their economic and political reach across the Atlantic and France had been in their crosshairs at least since their troops had landed in North Africa in the fall of 1942. They took advantage of the weakness of postwar France to offer “aid” with conditions that, like those of Lend-Lease to Britain, were certain to turn the recipient country into a junior partner of the US. This became a reality, as Lacroix-Riz demonstrates in her book, not when France subscribed to the Marshall Plan, but when her representatives signed the agreements that resulted from the unheralded Blum-Byrnes Negotiations. It was then, in the spring of 1946, that France, unbeknownst to the majority of its citizens, waved adieu to her status of great power and joined the ranks of the European vassals of Uncle Sam.

One can hope that Lacroix-Riz’s important book will find an English translator and publisher.

Greg Godels