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U.S. Public Diplomacy After World War II

Did Spain's exclusion from the Marshall Plan inspire its citizens to change on their own?

September 14, 2005

Did Spain's exclusion from the Marshall Plan inspire its citizens to change on their own?

Spain was the only country in all Europe excluded from the Marshall Plan.

Until Stalin turned down the offer of aid, even the Soviet Union was eligible for the grants, credits and supplies that the U.S. government started sending abroad in June 1948 under the terms of the European Recovery Program.

Spain was barred because Francisco Franco's dictatorship — now firmly ensconced — continued to be regarded as a "squalid offshoot of Nazism."

To include this pariah among nations along with the fifteen other countries finally declared eligible, President Harry S. Truman determined, was "not only a bad credit risk" but "a moral risk" as well.

In Spain's exclusion lies the plot of a whole movie, titled with self-evident irony Bienvenido Mister Marshall! Made in 1952 by the gifted young director Luis Garcia Berlanga, the film was loosely based on an actual event.

This was the mission of U.S. Army Major General James W. Spry — conducted from August to November 1951 at the head of a survey team of ninety — to reconnoiter the country for Cold War military bases.

Mixing the fond populism of contemporary Italian neorealism with the Spanish taste for grotesque caricature, Berlanga satirized official Spain's subservient quest for handouts.

Belatedly, under the terms of the Mutual Security Act of 1951 in recognition of Spain's newfound usefulness as an ally, the dictatorship began to collect the aid it had been begging for since 1949.

Welcome Mr. Marshall! slyly succeeds — where written records fail — in telling of a Europe coming face to face with this behemoth of well-being.

It tells of the fanciful expectations the Marshall Plan aroused that Europeans would soon enjoy American standards of living and of new alliances formed in the name of the consumer, dynamized by Cold War politics and toothed by U.S. economic and cultural capital.

But it also tells of the travailed journey most people took over the next two decades from the ruins of the bourgeois regime of consumption to the jerry-built foundations of what Europe too by 1960 was known as "the mass consumer society."

Berlanga's film opens as a rundown Castilian village rouses itself from secular slumber at the early-morning news that the Americans are due visit.

The mayor prepares to welcome this "Mr. Marshall" in the time-honored fashion with toasts of lemonade and sangria, only to be persuaded by a passing entertainment agent that Villar del Rio as it really is — with its dried-up fountain, broken-down town clock, scrawny animals, black-shrouded women, and listless men "sitting around the central square dreaming about harvests they'd never planted"— will never attract the Americans' benefaction.

The whole world knows — Manolo, the flashy impresario, argues — that people need to package themselves properly to become the objects of America's generosity.

With an alacrity that confounds the deadbeat local elite, the townspeople transform their desiccated fiat land into an enticing Andalusian stage set, of the kind familiar to aficionados of Carmen and to American tourists with a picture-postcard image of Spain.

As the full-dress rehearsal of their new identity reaches its climax — the sun-bleached cow patch now a sun-drenched Potemkin Village of chorale-singing school children, Flamenco-dancing women and bull-fighting men — the Yankee cavalcade whizzes through.

It doesn't even slow down enough to register the town's existence, much less respond to its ingratiating display of creativity.

Hollywood condemned the film as anti-American when it was shown at the Cannes Festival in 1953 — where it was acclaimed for its humor. The industry's dour emissary, Edward G. Robinson, missed its point — which was not at all to castigate U.S. indifference, but to chide public illusions about quick fixes.

The film showed the people who had formerly stood in the shadows of back-street doorways stepping into the foreground, raggedly lining up in the central square to voice their hodgepodge of wants.

It showed the town intellectual petitioning for a telescope to enable him to see further, an old peasant lady — prodded to make her choice — screeching out "chocolate," the ancient craving of the poor and two working women squabbling over whether both can list a mass-produced good — the sewing machine.

The peasant Juan's longing for a tractor is shown consummated in a dream sequence that has the machine delivered from an airplane.

Its bearers, the Three Magi — bearded like Santa Claus and mustached like Stalin — parachute it to earth, where Juan — smiling seraphically like a Five-Year Plan hero — throws it into gear and speeds off to plow his hardscrabble lands.

All fantasies to naught: The final scene shows the chastened villagers straggling into the central square to pay for their frilly costumes, paper garlands, potted plants and other props — not with money, for they have none, but with trussed-up chickens, candlesticks, mirrors, copper water jugs and the other bric-a-brac of humble lives.

The last to arrive, the stiff-legged old Hidalgo, obliges by donating his rusted sword — emblem of his own onetime grip over Villar de Rio and his conquistador ancestors' long-lost hegemony over the American "cannibals."

Silly deluded ones, the omniscient narrator gently chides them: Change, when it comes, will occur at your own tempo, through your own resources and be in your own image.