Seventy years ago, in what initially was a barely noticed speech at Harvard, Secretary of State George C. Marshall launched what would become the Marshall Plan. Two years after the end of the Second World War, Europe was still in shambles. Malnutrition, demolished infrastructure, and widespread unemployment created conditions ripe for the spread of communism. The purpose of our policy, Marshall said, “should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.”
A student of history, Marshall knew the failure of the United States to foster a just and productive peace at the end of the First World War created conditions which led to the second. Yet, his speech was no blank check. He made no mention of the amount or length of foreign assistance the U.S. would provide. But he did have one key condition. For centuries, European wars had resulted from economic and military nationalism, so he said that “[T]he initiative . . . must come from Europe” and “there must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take . . .” The United Stated would require European cooperation as the price for American aid. “The program should be a joint one,” he said, “agreed to by a number, if not all, European nations.”
Marshall was no touchy-feely statesman. He had been Army Chief of Staff during the war and credited by Winston Churchill with being “the organizer of victory.” He had supported use of the atomic bomb. Yet he believed an American retreat into isolationism or its own brand of nationalism was dangerously shortsighted.
The resulting European integration, economic progress, military stability, and containment of an expansionist Russia that was launched with the Marshall Plan provided the longest period of secure peace on the continent for hundreds of years. Yet it, and the U.S. commitment to an integrated world order in which the forces of an overly insular nationalism take a back seat, seem threatened today. The Trump Administration, with its lukewarm acceptance if not opposition to international agreements, seems intent on putting economic nationalism and “America first” in the forefront of its approach to world affairs. Its fondness for Brexit and its indifference at best to the fate of the European Union supports the weakening of what Marshall began.
The Trump Administration, with its lukewarm acceptance if not opposition to international agreements, seems intent on putting economic nationalism and “America first” in the forefront of its approach to world affairs.
Within hours of Marshall’s speech, England and France took leadership in launching the economic collaboration across Europe that the United States sought. Ironically, it is now England - and possibly soon France - that may be launching the end of European Union (EU). While the current structure and operation of the EU may not be the very best answer for the future of its citizens, its abandonment without a replacement that prevents ugly nationalism to resurface is likely a worse one.
Many Americans do not seem disturbed at the prospect of nations, including the U.S., going it alone. They believe we do too much for other countries already. According to polls, Americans believe we spend nearly a quarter of the federal budget on foreign aid, though the actual figure is less than one percent. Many also believe it is time to pay more attention to our own interests, misunderstanding that this is exactly what Marshall did when he sought to avoid another world war, prevent more loss of American lives and treasure, and create re-energized markets for American goods.
At the end of his speech, in which he sought to help Americans understand the forces existing in Europe and their implications, Marshall said, “it is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment.” He knew, after a Depression and two world wars, that they longed to wall themselves off from foreign troubles. He also knew that was unwise and, as history had proved, impossible. The only choice was active, thoughtful, collaborative engagement. As he neared the conclusion of his speech, he said, “the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment.”
Marshall would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the first career soldier ever to do so. Proper judgments are no less important today, and the world of the future hangs on them, as it always has.