Thursday, June 5, 1997
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
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
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
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
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,
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