Enduring Lessons of the Marshall Plan

Article excerpt

Sixty years ago today, US Secretary of State George Marshall publicly called for a grand aid package that would transform European postwar politics. The European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan as it became known, was crafted to accomplish three priorities of the Truman administration: help restabilize the European economy, encourage European postwar integration, and, ultimately, stave off the westward spread of communist ideology.

That all three objectives have been largely realized is beyond question. His-torians may question how much credit the Marshall Plan deserves for these accomplishments, but it is unlikely that Europe would stand now as an ideologically integrated economic world power without it.

Today, transatlantic relations are marked by a mix of obvious successes and abundant challenges. So the United States and Europe would do well to commemorate the Marshall Plan's 60th anniversary with a blend of humility and satisfaction. Recent strains between the US and its closest European allies make it impolitic for Americans to tout too loudly their contribution to Europe's postwar recovery. (What marriage can endure too many "look at everything I have done for you" reminders?) Still, there is value in reflecting on the plan's lessons for today.

Its economic dimensions were massive - in four years, the US gave some $13 billion in aid - but its political dimensions were even more consequential. "Marshall aid was about hearts and minds, not just mouths and bellies," historian David Reynolds wrote in the May/ June 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs, and it was only effected by what we now call a "public diplomacy" program of massive proportions. Few efforts were spared to convince Europeans that the plan was in their interest.

In this sense, there is a spirit of the Marshall Plan that suggests economic aid in certain conditions can result in ideological victory and cultural transformation. The transition of postwar Europe from a handful of democracies in 1947 to a 27-member European Union and 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with others vying for membership, re-inforces the good feelings surrounding Marshall Plan discussions.

But aside from enduring goodwill, what is the Marshall Plan's legacy in 2007? Can the program's principles be applied to the very different, but equally complex, conditions of the Middle East? Five timely reminders of the plan's most enduring principles come from the Harvard commencement address of 1947 in which Marshall outlined his vision for European renewal.

First, "the world situation is serious" and enormously complex. "That must be apparent to all intelligent people," Marshall stated, with clear resonance in 2007. …