Reflections on the Marshall Plan

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In June 1947, Gen. George C. Marshall — revered as the “organizer of victory” and Army Chief of Staff during World War II and now five months into his tenure as President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State — addressed the Commencement audience in Harvard Yard. Describing the devastation of Europe’s economies and societies, Marshall pledged the United States would do “whatever it is able” to help rebuild the continent and restore its “normal economic health,” without which there could be “no political stability and no assured peace” throughout the world.

His speech marked a historic departure in American foreign policy.

Marshall invoked no self-deprecating anecdotes or poetic metaphors to illustrate the importance of the occasion. Not for him were adjectives to describe the attributes the graduating students were expected to display. Duty was its own justification; it could only be impaired by embellishment.

After a brief preface recalling that, as the graduates knew well, “the world situation is very serious,” Marshall outlined “the requirements for the rehabilitation of Europe.” Rarely looking up from the text he had carried to the podium in his jacket pocket, he offered a revolution in American foreign policy in the guise of a practical economic program. Toward the end of the speech, he apologized for entering into a “technical discussion” that had likely bored his listeners. Indeed, Commencement attendees, including Harvard President James B. Conant, would later confess they had not immediately understood the historical significance of what Marshall had outlined. He had in fact proposed a new design for American foreign policy.

Marshall’s premise was straightforward: Economic crisis, he observed, produced social dissatisfaction, and social dissatisfaction generated political instability. The dislocations of World War II posed this challenge on a massive scale. European national debts were astronomical; currencies and banks were weak. The railroad and shipping industries were barely functional. Mines and factories were falling apart. The average farmer, unable to procure “the goods for sale which he desires to purchase,” had “withdrawn many fields from crop cultivation,” creating food scarcity in European cities. ...




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