Review of The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil

Posted by in netgalley copy

I did it -- I read the beast! Five hundred plus pages detailing a specific time period and specific policy, in which I was disabused of the notion that The Marshall Plan was merely a large airdrop of food to Berlin and a front to siphon off funds for the CIA. I don't know why I had the food-drop impression, but before reading Steil's book, literally, the Marshall Plan, in my brain, was a huge crate of food suspended from a helicopter and dropped into a field somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin. I also learned redound is a word, not a typo, and looked up autarky every time it appeared because that definition could not stay in my brain (my brain is a closed-economy for new words ha ha ha economics joke).

And ... I read this big-ass book on that Marshall Plan and I don't know how much I really got out of it (although that economic joke in the previous paragraph wouldn't exist without it, so ...). Most of the book is a historic detailing of what went on to get the Marshall Plan up and running, which old white dude met with which other old white dude, which old white dude was like "No way!", which old white dude was like "Come on!", which old white dude was put in charge of running things, which old white dude had just pissed off Stalin, etc. History is okay and all, but it isn't, let's just say, thrill-a-minute exciting detailing what had to be added onto the bill in regard to subsidies to appease constituencies, especially since (a) it was all in the past and (b) I'm not American so the whole Congressional/House system is already kind of fuzzy in my mind (my sketchy understand of the Marshall Plan, pre reading this book, should probably give you a hint that American politics and policy are not my forte). It's all information, essentially archival rather than plot driven, and after a few hundred pages of this, I started to ask Couldn't we have just gotten a timeline? Why present all this if there isn't going to be any sort of analysis?

Ah me, be careful what I wish for.

So then comes analysis. Did the Marshall Plan succeed? Well, Western Europe didn't collapse in 1949 and Soviet expansion didn't make it all the way to Ireland, so yes. Didn't need three hundred-odd pages to tell me that; I could have just dug up my map from my 1988 copy of Where In Europe is Carmen Sandiego. Would Europe have recovered as non-Communistly without the Marshall Plan? That analysis, which could have been an entire book itself, is sort of meandering, written like a last-minute history paper. The change in tone is staggering compared with the earlier sections, and the book falters. Then there's some talk about NATO in the 90s and beyond that doesn't tie in very well with either a historical recounting or analysis of the Marshall plan, and then it ends with a big, long, list of old white dudes who were important to the Marshall Plan and I was like huh. Okay. Good to know.

So I learned words, had my incorrect historical assumptions smacked up the side of the head, then forced myself to the end. A middling success for the book. Too bad I already used up my funny quota for the day because I feel like this should close with some sort of silly Marshall Plan joke (Marshall my resources?), but I'm spent.

The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil went on sale February 13, 2018.

I received a copy free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.