Full Flaps | Tailspin | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com

Thursday, June 5, 1997

Full Flaps

Marshall and His Legacy

With the conclusion of the final tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. will finally have obliterated any lingering self-doubts about its promulgation of the Cold War. The efficacy of the 1947-1951 program in rebuilding postwar Europe in accordance with our dictated terms is unquestioned, and this week America's policy prelates are convoking the appropriate ceremonies with which to pat themselves on the back.

Retrospect binds all wounds, except those it doesn't, and the success of Secretary of State Marshall's $13 billion plan still begs the question. A half-century later Russia is still considered a nemesis, and finds itself in economic peril similar to that of 1945. The rash and unfounded U.S. diplomatic assumptions through 40 years of superpower rivalry remain unabated, as witnessed by Clinton's current urging of NATO expansion to the edge of Russia's borders.

The tautology of democracy-as-ideal, as expressed by America in the immediate postwar world, covered a multitude of sins. Most prominent among them, of course, was the system of America-led global free trade which emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, and the onset of the U.S. mission to persuade friends and rivals alike that free markets and democratic procedure were inseparable.

The Soviets, newly ordained as systemic other, weren't buying, having sufficient and long-standing reason not to. Not the least of their difficulties was their inability to seriously consider the offer of inclusion in the European Recovery Plan -- which would have been an intrusion into their industrial sovereignty -- and which came less than three months after the blatant belligerence of the Truman Doctrine announcement. The effrontery of the Soviet response to the U.S. proclamation of containment and atomic quarantine further abraded American sensibilities. In assuming the role of world hegemonic cop, the U.S. solidified and enhanced the dimension of the economic system it would soon put in place, and seeded the division of Europe. Given their full-blown pariah status, the subsequent refusal of the Soviets to partake in the recovery plan branded them as the heavy in the continent's cleaving. It can be argued that perhaps their reaction was premature and even petulant, though few believed that a demonstration of the requisite pliancy would have prompted the U.S. Congress to assent to Soviet participation in the reconstruction.

* * *

The voice-over to the deserving paeans to European recovery in the next few days will be the old narrations: American selflessness and constancy contrasted with Soviet perfidy and intransigence. None of the reassessment of Soviet intentions which seeped into the American discourse during the Gorbachev era survives, and this commemoration affords the policy clerics an uncontested final draft for excising the nuances of the past five decades.

There'll be no mention of the fact that during the 1930s, when the capitalist market for American goods had collapsed, the Soviets imported two-thirds of U.S. agricultural and metal-working equipment; and consequentially no reference will be made to the body of postwar scholarship which posited that the two disparate economies had the basis for imposing a working methodology even under the stipulations of the Bretton Woods accord. Ignored, as was the case in 1946 when Lend-Lease ended, will be the Soviet request of the U.S. for a continuing economic arrangement in the form of a $1 billion loan. And of course, no one will touch on the legitimacy of the postwar Soviet concern that Eastern Europe not revert to its prewar status as colonial funnel for the West's raw materials. I cite the last two examples as expressly pertinent to today's highlight reels: The democracies' massive financial infusions into their endorsed and fetid Russian sinkhole, and East Europe's incremental disillusionment with savior capitalism.

From the daises and editorial pages George Marshall will be recalled as symbolic of the American magnanimity of that period. And they will probably be fair encomiums to the basic decency of the man (anyone who is targeted by a 60,000-word tract of invective from Joe McCarthy has earned an accolade or two). Lost in the verbal exudation, though, will be a sense of the sclerotic Europe of 1947 and how it figured in the U.S. grand diagram for the future. The Marshall Plan was a design of scale, pared down to a sector of the world then tractable to American influence and essential to its economic raison. Maintaining economic leverage through 40 years as a commercial overseer necessitated a constant replenishing of the formative military and political posture, however, and regular alarums invoking Ivans terribles poised on the other side of the Fulda Gap became an exquisitely fine art.

In the end, the integration and rebuilding of Europe became a repudiation of the principles of pure free trade. Success prescribed that the free market abstractions dear to American planners yield to state intervention and industrial cartelization proper to indigenous conditions. This echo of the command economies the U.S. had emptied its purse to vanquish probably won't be a scheduled item among the anniversary's panegyrics either.

* * *

Central and crucial to the Marshall Plan's implementation was eroding support for Communist parties and Communist-controlled labor unions. However, the compact fashioned with socialist and Catholic trade unions to replace Communist influence eventually expanded the number and impact of socialist and labor parties throughout Europe. The unprecedented full employment and steady growth provided by the Marshall Plan spurred rising living standards for workers and cemented Europe's already substantial heritage of welfare state legislation.

It should be of no surprise that these workplace and social welfare guarantees are under attack as Clinton pursues NATO expansion and evokes the memory of George Marshall. The primary reason for the economic crisis of the postwar era was the disruption of traditional trade patterns between Western and Eastern Europe, and the truncation of the flow of food, coal and raw materials. The effort to dampen Communist sway over trade unions was intended to frustrate any potential labor hostility to the U.S. as it contoured the new economic order.

Capital now enjoys carte blanche access to the former Soviet Eastern bloc, but the region's newly minted consumers are quite restless. The trinkets and promises of the new order are not what the populace had in mind, and for many the memories of life under satellitization seem rather benign by comparison. Clinton and his policy crew understand the East's enduring sympathy for the comparative beneficence of the Soviet era and with NATO expansion are attempting to reenforce stability by extending membership to new countries. The consequences for Western Europe of such a nascent shift in allegiance are readily apparent, occasioning the assault there on workers' rights and the safety net. And even as Washington fears the inevitable spillover into Eastern and Central Europe from an explosion of pent-up anger from tens of millions of unpaid Russian workers, it arrogantly moves up its military might flush with the Russian border.

Is there anyone around who might pose the question: Isn't this where we came in, Mr. Marshall?

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997



It Takes Your Breath Away

Imagine that you have just arrived in the United States from somewhere far away -- from outer space, perhaps. As you adjust to the earth's gravity, you pick up a newspaper and read the article by John H. Cushman Jr. that graced the front page of last Sunday's New York Times, hoping to get a handle on the society you have landed in the middle of. Beginning with very first words -- "Top E.P.A. Official Not Backing Down on Air Standards" -- you find yourself descending ever deeper into incomprehensible murk. What turns you into a babbling bug-eyed monster is not Cushman's presentation, which rather nicely untangles a complicated story, but the story itself.

Even humans with access to background information that an extraterrestrial could not have gotten are likely to be confused. Here's the situation. The Clean Air Act of 1990 requires the Environmental Protection Agency to keep track of recent scientific research on air pollution and to propose new federal standards if the old ones are hazardous to our health. That's exactly what the EPA did last November: it announced that the levels of smog (officially known as ground-level ozone) and soot (particulate matter) in the air are making too many of us sick and should be lowered. No rush, though. In good bureaucratic fashion, the EPA called for several months of public comment, and Congress followed suit with a series of hearings, all designed to explore the issue thoroughly before a final decision is reached in July. The EPA was mandated to consider only questions of public health; the economic aspects of reducing pollution are to be sorted out over the next few years as the states implement the new policy.

Why is it news for EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner to insist on the new standards that her own agency came up with after months of careful study? Surely, our government officials haven't become so incompetent that the Times provides them front-page coverage for simply doing their job. In fact, by refusing to budge, Browner has become the steady eye in the midst of a full-blown political hurricane. An attorney with a long environmental record in the service of, among others, Florida Senator Lawton Chiles, the Nader group Citizen Action, and then-Senator Al Gore (for whom she reputedly did much of the research on Earth in the Balance), she has consistently -- and sometimes maddeningly -- tried not to ruffle feathers, preferring progress through consensus and "common sense." But Gore, perhaps fearing that tattered coattails would drive away business backers in his move toward the presidency, has remained silent. So has Clinton, who may yet apply the same conciliatory approach to clean air that he used in welfare reform and the budget.

A cold shoulder from the White House that appointed Browner is only a minor irritation compared to the reaction her proposal has provoked on Capitol Hill. Congress is threatening in effect to veto the actions of the independent agency it established in 1970 to carry out the environmental legislation it passes. A persistent and wealthy league of representatives from companies like General Motors, General Electric, U.S. Steel, and Exxon is inundating the nation's lawmakers with its own spin on the scientific data collected by the EPA and its own version of grass-roots opinion, and the walls of Congress are reverberating with portentous discussions of micrograms per cubic meter and parts per million. In alarm, a bipartisan group of more than 100 Representatives wrote to President Clinton on May 6, asking him to delay in approving the plan because of "significant uncertainty" about its costs and benefits.

The industries' Day-Glo backdrop depicting the enormously expensive, disruptive process that they claim will be necessary to meet the new standards has blinded their audience to the actually quite manageable steps they were required to take in the past to reduce, for example, damage from acid rain. It has also distracted viewers from the real purpose of the performance. Like the NRA, the corporate coalition believes that no regulation is good regulation; it would ultimately like to maneuver the Republicans in Congress (and any Democrats they can take with them) into not only barring these standards but also nullifying earlier ones, or at least rendering them meaningless by depriving the administration of funds to implement them. In this drama, the hapless Carol Browner is cast as the Wicked Witch of the West: a Republican National Committee profile describes her as "pandering to the irrational fears of environmental extremists" in her pursuit of a "pro-regulation, anti-business agenda."

Throughout these histrionics the people who will be affected most have been strangely quiet. A few predictable nonprofits such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Lung Association, and the Sierra Club have sponsored radio and print ads. Groups of doctors have detailed the numbers of premature deaths (at least 15,000) as well as the cases of chronic bronchitis (60,000), aggravated asthma (250,000), and significant breathing problems (1.5 million) that can be prevented by instituting the higher standards. But they lack the funding and vigorous organization of their opponents. We, the breathers of the United States, have taken the air around us so much for granted that we were unprepared when its quality began to decline. Like goldfish in an aquarium, we have accommodated to our increasingly foul environment. Now, whether we like it or not, the air has acquired a price tag. We can budget a reasonable amount -- invest in some snails; buy a new filter for the fishtank -- and begin to clean up the mess. Or we can allow the polluters to have their way and pay for their greed through rising medical bills and declining health.

As I write this in Berkeley, a rare summer storm has dampened down the dust. A cool breeze is blowing in from the bay. I inhale. Clean air faintly scented with jasmine fills my lungs, delivering life-giving oxygen to every cell in my body. I envision the inside of my lungs coated with the residue from contaminated air. Breathing during an asthma attack, I have heard, is like trying to suck a very thick milkshake through a very narrow straw. The phrase "out of breath" takes on new meaning.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997
Home | Current Issue | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com