I would have been a socialist back in 1946. Who could have believed that we could have done so remarkably well with the free market, with “capitalism?” The world was really in sorry shape right after the world’s greatest and most destructive war. And if you looked to the fascist/communist dreadful economics of the decades immediately past, you would not have had reason to expect better.
Never before or since in the history of the world has a country or a group of men acted with such wisdom and generosity as Americans did after World War II. I understand that this is a bold statement, but I think it is easily defensible with the simple challenge to name a more enlightened ending of a great war. Of course, there is a lot more to it. We could make a long list of leaders in Europe who were necessary for the success and a longer list of various contingencies of history that could have gone the other way.
Like any pivotal time in history, the closer you look, the less magisterial it looks. As the saying goes, it is not pleasant to watch laws or sausages being made.
We talk today about the Marshall Plan, but this is much easier to see something that looks like a logical plan with the perspective of history than it was at the time. At the time, there were a lot of false starts, improvisations and muddling through. It was much more an evolutionary process than it was an intelligent design. We are often beguiled by “plans”, when what is really happening is process.
“The Marshall Plan” by Benn Steil is a great book because it goes into detail about the process, personalities, conflicts and uncertainty w/o getting lost. It is a superb book.
It is hard for us to look back at those times w/o reference to subsequent history. We know how it came out. We know that Western Europe recovered, that the world recovered from the worst war in history. We know that NATO succeeded in its fundamental – if not officially stated – goal of keeping the USA in Europe, the Communists out and the German under control. People at that time knew none of this.
The war destroyed a lot more than the buildings, bridges and factories. They system in general was broken. Society was torn. Habits and spirits were broken. The author points out that people in occupied Europe faced a moral problem. During occupation it had been moral and patriotic to resist the occupation. Not working hard, stealing, lying to the authorities and actual sabotage had been positive virtues. Trust & habits required for a functioning market democracy were damaged or lacking. Rebuilding physical structures may be easier than building culture and human capital – the habits of the heart that make society work.
Europe was on the edge. Communists thought – and the Soviets actively tried to make it happen – communism would take over in Europe. The Soviets actively tried to sabotage recovery. Their goal was to keep the ruin and rule those ruins. Communist propaganda portrayed the Marshall Plan as a way for the USA to enslave Europeans. It is amazing that it turned out as well as it did.
Of course, this period was also the start of the Cold War. Could the Cold War have been avoided? I don’t think so. Communism is antithetical to free market democracy and Stalin’s regime was truly evil. He really did want to establish communist control. We were not wrong to think that about them. On the other side, the USA DID want to get communists out of governments in Western Europe. We DID want to reestablish market democracies. Stalin was not wrong to think this about us. There was no middle ground. The Marshall Plan helped the good guys win.
I enjoyed the ending – the coda – talking about the fall of the Soviet Empire and the birth of our world. I recall those events. They were momentous. This was also a time of great risk. Things could have turned out a lot worse, and many feared they would.
The world is never as good as we could imagine, but it is better than we could logically have expected in 1988 and worlds better than we feared in 1946. Lots of people made good choices and we were lucky.