The Marshall Plan speech at Harvard was a remarkable offer of help, but it was made with the proviso that the European states must get their act together if the U.S. were to come to their aid. The British embassy in Washington did not think it was even wo rth the cable charges to send a copy of Marshall's speech in advance. Fortunately, the BBC correspondent in Washington sent a report, which was heard on the morning news by Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary. Bevin flung the bedclothes off and sa id, "This is it, and we will do the marshaling of the Europeans."
Bevin was as good as his word, and Britain played a leading part in securing the response from Europe, which Marshall had made a condition. But it soon became clear that economic aid alone would not be enough, that recovery required a guarantee of securit y. No one, however, believed Truman would be re-elected in 1948, and until this was known, little progress could be made with the idea of a North Atlantic Treaty. The most that Britain's envoy, Sir Oliver Franks, could get out of the State Department was, "We hear you, Mr. Ambassador." Only when the election was settled was the way open to negotiate NATO.
Some critics say the U.S. was motivated at the time by self-interest, taking advantage of the weakness of Europe and Britain to establish its own hegemony. But it was the long-sighted view that Truman and Marshall took of those interests that counted, and the recognition that it was in the U.S.'s interest not to let Europe fall under Soviet domination. The critics retort that we now know there was no real danger from Russia, but that is wisdom after the event. What counted was the fear of Russia, and I saw enough of Europe in those years to know that this was a reality.
What is more, Stalin understood that fear and how to exploit it. Although the Soviet Union had not yet acquired atomic weapons and knew very well that the Americans had, Stalin was prepared to take the risk and pressure the West into withdrawing from Berl in. If the U.S. and Britain had not given a sharper response than Stalin expected, he might have succeeded. When he realized that he had gone too far, he backed down in a characteristic sideways movement. No one who lived through the Berlin blockade and a irlift can have any doubt of how real was the fear that we were on the edge of a Third World War. If Europe went on to achieve a remarkable recovery, it was thanks to the resolution of the U.S. and its allies.
Alan Bullock is the author of "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny". Lord Bullock was vice chancellor of Oxford University from 1969 to 1973.