Postwar Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe marks 70th anniversary

Group of men mostly dressed in graduation cap and gown (© AP Images)
Secretary of State George Marshall joins in a procession before speaking at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. (© AP Images)

In an 11-minute speech at Harvard University 70 years ago, general-turned-statesman George Marshall laid the groundwork for a recovery plan for Europe which created bonds that have linked the continent with the United States ever since.

Marshall chose that low-key occasion on June 5, 1947, to announce the massive U.S. aid program to reconstruct Europe from the ruins of World War Two. The European Recovery Program — which came to be known as the Marshall Plan — heralded a new, expansive U.S. foreign policy and helped create the bonds that still tie Europe and America together.

The ideas that Marshall’s speech embodied — of reconciliation, American responsibility and generosity, and the interconnected world economy — still reverberate.

Marshall, who as U.S. Army chief of staff had helped organize the 1944 allied invasion of France that led to the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s German forces, was serving as secretary of state to President Harry Truman when he went to Harvard to receive an honorary degree.

His speech made clear that the motive for the program, which channeled more than $13 billion to Europe over the next four years, was not just humanitarian but also pragmatic.

Long line of children passing table and receiving food (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
Children in Greece line up for bread made from flour distributed under the Marshall Plan. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

It was critical, Marshall believed, for Europe to recover as a stable democratic region to counter the expansionist ambitions of communist Russia and become an essential economic and trading partner for the United States.

“Our policy is directed not against any policy or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” Marshall said. “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.”

He reflected a belief in Washington that a prosperous future for America, still scarred by its own economic depression, was linked to the fate of Western Europe.

New hope for Europe

America, which had already sent troops and arms to defeat Hitler in Europe, would provide the money, food and energy supplies, but Marshall made clear that European states themselves had to take responsibility to implement the reconstruction. “This is the business of the Europeans,” he said.

Vehicle being lowered from ship to dock crowded with people (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
A snow plow donated by the residents of Jersey City, New Jersey, delivered in Italy in 1950. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

He challenged European countries to cooperate, to break down the political and trade barriers of the past. “The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations,” he said.

The speech sparked an immediate sense of hope in Europe. Representatives of 16 Western European states met in Paris and by September they had presented to the U.S. government a joint document estimating the needs for European reconstruction. On April 3, 1948, Truman signed the Foreign Assistance Act enabling the Marshall Plan to go ahead. The aid started immediately.

West Germany was included in the plan in 1949 after a measure of self-government had been restored. Postwar German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, assessing the Marshall Plan in 1964, said, “Probably for the first time in history a victorious country held out its hand so that the vanquished might rise again.”

The plan generated a resurgence of European industries including coal and steel. Countries recovered far more quickly than anticipated. It also stimulated the U.S. economy, because the bulk of the money given was allocated to goods being provided by American factories and providers.

Historic departure in U.S. foreign policy

Veteran U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger wrote later of the simplicity of Marshall’s Harvard speech: “Marshall invoked no self-deprecating anecdotes or poetic metaphors to illustrate the importance of the occasion.”

Kissinger said Americans had regarded foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be solved case by case, but this speech marked a historic departure.

Man sitting at desk (© AP Images)
George C. Marshall in 1950 (© AP Images)

Marshall’s speech, though spare in details, set out the principles of the transatlantic relationship that developed in the coming decades.

President Bill Clinton, marking the 50th anniversary of the speech in 1997, said: “The Marshall Plan transformed the way America related to Europe, and in so doing transformed the way European nations related to each other.

“It planted the seeds of institutions that evolved to bind Western Europe together, for the OECD, the European Union and NATO. It paved the way for reconciliation of age-old differences,” he said.

In 1953, Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize for his promotion of the plan.

This article was written by freelance writer David Storey.