Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened February, 1982
Oral History Interview with
August 18, 1970
by Theodore A. Wilson
WILSON: There are two or three questions that I might ask you.
ROLL: Go ahead please.
WILSON: Since you have been suborned before by the Truman Library people dealing with the origins of the Marshall plan, I'm involved in a what I've come to realize is a very ambitious project. That is to try to do a study of all of the economic aid programs of the Truman administration. And you were involved in some very important ones. The
first question might be to ask how you view after 25 years your role in the food problem? What relation did it bear to the later activities? Did it give you any insight into what might be the United States role, to show that Americans understand or failed to understand the problems, economic problems generally in Europe?
ROLL: You mean in relation to the Marshall plan.
WILSON: Yes, Marshall plan.
ROLL: Of course, I was concerned with food during the war. In the Marshall plan I was concerned with food first and then the more general things after that. This may be merely personal, because I moved on from food per se to start with being an economist, an academic economist by training, but I happened to do my first work in public fields in food and then I went out again, so in a sense food was for me sort of something I passed through. And therefore I'm a little inclined to look upon it more as something
indicative of and instrumental to other things rather than as a problem in itself. Others may take a different view. For instance I think we overemphasized all of this and overrated the duration of the wartime and immediate postwar food problem. And this is incidentally a fault that academic analysts often make -- the economist perhaps as much as anybody else, compared with practical people, that is to say, people actually in the food trades. For example, I remember vividly they would say after the war, "You just wait and see, you've no idea how quickly these things can change." And if governments think they've got to go in for expensive plans to grow peanuts in Tanganyika (as you know, our famous ground nuts scheme), because there will be a fat shortage forever and ever and ever, they'll soon be disillusioned because within two years heavy demand and high prices are the finest fertilizers there are and food will be running out of our ears and there will be, if anything, surpluses here and there.
Well, that was exaggerated but nevertheless there was more truth in that attitude than in the attitude we adopted during the Marshall plan while still under the influence of war and relief needs. And we were a little inclined, I think, not to exaggerate the intensity or gravity of the food problem at the time, but rather as to how long it would go on. It was extremely important, because in the Marshall plan food was the great ingredient, certainly for this country, but even for the whole of Europe that was the great missing component. And it happened to fit in very well with United States interests, with the establishment of freer markets. I often wondered whether to some extent the present hostility to the common agricultural policy on the part of the United States under pressure of its agrarian interests isn't in a sense a sort of reflection of a disappointment with what was thought to be the opening up of a great permanent market for U.S. food in the wake of the Marshall plan. I mean, the interest and
generosity going hand in hand as they usually do where public affairs are concerned. It's only private people who can be generous without any arrière-penseé. Not always they either; but in governmental politics, moral factors, principle, generosity, and interest do tend to go together. That was certainly to some extent the case as far as the agricultural and food aspects were concerned. And you know, you find in the case of the Marshall plan, other examples of what I'm thinking of, such as tobacco.
As you will remember, one of the great methods by which we tried to reduce the claims for assistance under the Marshall plan was to switch import requirements from North and South American sources, dollar sources, to European sources. This was part of the parcel of the self-help principle, that is not to aggravate the balance of payments. Tobacco was a good example, where you got a tremendous criss-cross of interests and conflicts. The Greeks would have loved to
have sold more of their tobacco (and the Turks too but particularly the Greeks). And they would say, "Here you are, you are constantly telling us, the Greeks, not to import so much from the dollar area. What about your doing the same thing, you, the other Europeans? And instead of buying Virginia and Kentucky tobacco why don't you buy ours." And, of course, the Americans didn't like that, although they were constantly saying switch -- that was the technical phrase -- sources of supply so as to reduce your demands for dollars and therefore the extent to which we have to go and enlarge our Marshall plan program. But in this instance, they would have been only too glad to go on selling tobacco. In Britain particularly we were used to North American tobacco and hated the thought of having to have Greek tobacco. And invented, or at any rate stressed, all kinds of consumer resistance arguments. I remember the Irish were the worst because apparently the Irish cigarettes were traditionally made of 100 percent Virginia
tobacco. They wouldn't or didn't use any mixture, even Empire tobacco, as it was then called, that is Rhodesian. And they were furious at the thought of having to mix their tobacco. They only wanted what they were used to.
I would generalize from this, to this extent: I would say if you take any one sector or commodity or groups of commodities or sector of industry, you are bound to focus much more on these ancillary problems and interests and conflicts. They loom much larger on an individual front, such as food or tobacco, than they do if you survey the scene of the Marshall plan as a whole. The whole balance of payments problem. There are, of course, things that loom much larger, above all the political aspects, such as the fight against communism, the strengthening of the anti-Communist regimes particularly in France and Italy and so on. All the other things tend to be moved into the background. But once you start picking out machine tools or tobacco or what have you, you begin to get all kinds of other factors to operate.
WILSON: You would not then -- this is very helpful -- you would not then, do I understand, support the argument which is current in the United States in the last few years that a basic motivation, one basic motivation for the Marshall plan was general concern or fear of an onset of another depression unless the United States...
ROLL: Is this very common now?
WILSON: Yes, it is.
ROLL: It's odd that it should be common now because I remember it must have been 1950 or '51 I spoke at Williams College at a very, very large meeting at which I think Emile Dupres (Professor at Williams at the time), was the moderator, and the two protagonists were Fred Schumann and I. And Fred Schumann produced this idea. This was right in the middle of the Marshall plan. The great argument was that the Marshall plan had nothing to do with generosity. It was partly political, i.e. to prop up a lot of anti-Soviet,
anti-Communist regimes which would otherwise be swept away by popular movements; and partly to provide an outlet for United States commodities in order to counter the onset of depression. Well, I didn't believe in that at the time and don't believe in it now. I don't know what went on in the heads or breasts of Dean Acheson and General Marshall and maybe President Truman himself or what was said in the most intimate conversations between them. Whether at some point or another somebody might not have dropped the phrase, "Yes, and moreover it will help the redeployment of resources after the war. In the next two or three years we shall probably be faced with great difficulties and slackening demand and therefore it would be very useful to have this outlet, etc., etc." This could have been said or have been in the minds of one or other of the principal policy makers. But the actual facts don't support them. In terms of balance of payments, the United States was a surplus, the only surplus country at the time.
Therefore, the balance of payments didn't enter into it at all as far as the