Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Marshall Plan in Context

America's famous effort to assist in the rebuilding of war-torn Europe in the late 1940's has become a prime example of the type of help which western democracies lend to other countries. Between 1948 and 1951, $12.7 billion dollars, in the forms of loans and grants, went to France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and other nations.

The thinking behind the Marshall Plan was complex. The primary impulse was altruistic - western civilization's peculiar desire to help others. But there were political motives as well. Introducing the plan in a speech given at Harvard University, Secretary of State George Marshall noted that parts of Europe had been so devastated that "The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down." He continued:

Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Any government that is willing to assist in recovery will find full co-operation on the part of the U.S.A. Its purpose 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.

In its historical context, the Marshall Plan was both forward-looking and backward-looking. In terms of the past, it had become undeniable by 1947 - the year of Marshall's speech at Harvard - that the Versailles Treaty of 1919 had created not only economic misery in the 1920's and 1930's, but it had also created the political climate for WWII. The treaty that ended World War One had essentially created World War Two, or at least the European part of it. The Marshall Plan would avoid repeating that mistake by creating a more cooperative and optimistic postwar era.

In terms of the future, the Marshall Plan would strengthen the prospects for a free Europe in three ways: it economically and politically fortified the free nations of western Europe, giving them greater capacity to resist not only a direct military invasion by Stalin's Soviet Union, but also the indirect influences of communist propaganda and internal subversion. It boosted morale among the western nations, ensuring their solid participation in NATO and diminishing any chances for home-grown socialism or communism within them. Finally, it created an object lesson which nations of eastern Europe, suffering under Soviet communist oppression, could not overlook - they would understand what a price they were paying to be part of what would become the Warsaw Pact.

Although the idea of the Marshall Plan may appeared simple, there were a variety of complex thoughts behind it.