Seventy-five years later, as Russia’s war on Ukraine tests the historic bond between Western Europe and the United States, the legacy of the Marshall Plan has gained in relevance – as the need to understand the often misguided initiative.
“The Marshall Plan has become a favorite analogy of policymakers,” said Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison, “but few know much about it.”
One reason for the confusion was the innocuous nature of Marshall’s own speech. “It makes sense that the United States is doing all it can to help restore normal economic health around the world,” Marshall told his receptive, if somewhat perplexed, audience that day. “without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. It was about as exciting – or as precise – as his short speech.
There was no mention of the Soviet Union, against whose influence the plan was directed. “Any government maneuvering to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us,” he said. That was it.
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Marshall’s speech was worded vaguely for two reasons, said Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War.” “First of all, Marshall wanted to impose on European countries themselves the burden of coming up with an integrated recovery plan. Moreover, Marshall wanted to avoid the impression that he was trying to divide Europe.
The Soviet Union was also welcome. “Moscow was carefully not excluded,” Steil said, but behind the scenes he “was pressured into excluding himself.”
European leaders have certainly gotten the message. Hours after Marshall’s speech, the British and French foreign ministers were discussing how much aid they needed to restore their “economic health” and in what form. This collaboration – and the economic ties that unite the 16 countries that eventually received US loans, grants or products during the four-year plan – laid the foundations for European integration.
Marshall has recently been criticized by revisionist historians for claiming primary authorship of the plan. But Marshall has never denied that the European recovery plan – the official name of the policy, which he has always used – was the work of several hands.
The real sponsor of the plan, according to Steil, was Marshall’s boss, President Harry S. Truman. Truman laid the ideological foundation for this in a March 1947 speech in which he asked Congress to provide financial support to the Greek government against a communist insurrection. Articulating what would become known as the Truman Doctrine, the president argued that the United States was “obligated to assist free peoples in their struggles against totalitarianism” lest its “propagation undermine the foundations of international peace and therefore the security of the United States”.
Truman’s belief that the Soviets would meddle in Greece proved wrong. But when Marshall led a delegation to Moscow the following month, he came away convinced that the Kremlin had little interest in helping Europe, which was in the midst of social and economic turmoil and had just been through “the Hunger Winter” of 1946-47.
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“The patient is sick,” Marshall said in a nationally broadcast address upon his return from Russia, “while doctors debate the cure.” Something had to be done to help Europe and thwart Moscow’s efforts to spread communism. Piecemeal aid of the type that Congress had just granted to Greece would no longer suffice.
Marshall enlisted the big thinkers in the State Department’s planning team, led by George Kennan, known as the author of the “containment” policy to deter the USSR. The result was the Marshall Plan – a nickname Truman encouraged “because I wanted General Marshall to receive full credit for his brilliant contribution to the measure he helped formulate,” the president said in his memoir. .
Marshall waged a furious campaign to push the plan through, traveling the country giving pep talks and interviews. “I worked on this like I was running for Senate or for President,” he said later.
On November 11, 1947, Marshall argued passionately for the plan before a joint session of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees. Now his words were anything but innocuous.
“We must not allow the free community of Europe to die out,” he said. “If that happened, it would be a tragedy for the world.”
There was no need to mince words about Moscow either. After briefly flirting with the idea of cooperating, Joseph Stalin made his opposition to the plan clear, forcing the European communist bloc to reject it.
“It is now clear that only one power, the Soviet Union, does not share for its own reasons” the goal of restoring Europe, Marshall said.
The Cold War, a phrase that had just been used in the fall, was underway. The same was true of America’s first line of defence: the Marshall Plan.
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Seven months later, Congress enacted the Economic Cooperation Act, providing $17 billion ($160 billion today) in loans and grants to the 16 participating countries.
Did it work? On the economic level, it is not clear: the accounts of the plan showed that aid to the beneficiary countries represented barely 3% of their combined national income between 1948 and 1951. “The importance of the plan for the recovery of Europe remains a point of contention among historians,” said Fredrik Logevall, Harvard historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.
But there is no doubt that it will succeed in strengthening European unity and democracy. “It reinforced Western Europeans’ belief in democracy and capitalism and bound the region more firmly into a US-led economic union and later into a military alliance,” Logevall said. “Moreover, it contributed to undermining Soviet influence in Europe.”
Logevall added, “It served America’s strategic purposes, but it was also charitable to a degree rarely seen in international politics.”
“It is impossible to imagine the The EU or NATO without the Marshall Plan,” Steil said.
However, the political and moral legacy of the plan has been undermined by the Donald Trump administration’s derisory treatment of the US-European alliance, Steil said. And now it is being tested again by Vladimir Putin’s Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
In the midst of this fight, Marshall’s successor, current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, invokes the Marshall Plan in an effort to maintain the transatlantic unity that has bound the United States and its European allies together for three-quarters of a century.
In June, on the anniversary of Marshall’s speech at Harvard, Blinken tweeted that in 1947, “European nations rallied in the call to come together, united in purpose, contributing to the rebirth from Europe. By answering the call together, we can prevail again, just as the United States and Europe did together 75 years ago.