BLS and the Marshall Plan: The Forgotten Story: The Statistical Technical Assistance of BLS Increased Productive Efficiency and Labor Productivity in Western European Industry after World War II; Technological Literature Surveys and Plan-Organized Plant Visits Supplemented Instruction in Statistical Measurement

By Wasser, Solidelle F.; Dolfman, Michael L. | Monthly Labor Review, June 2005 | Go to article overview

BLS and the Marshall Plan: The Forgotten Story: The Statistical Technical Assistance of BLS Increased Productive Efficiency and Labor Productivity in Western European Industry after World War II; Technological Literature Surveys and Plan-Organized Plant Visits Supplemented Instruction in Statistical Measurement


Wasser, Solidelle F., Dolfman, Michael L., Monthly Labor Review


The European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan) has been recognized as the most successful foreign-aid program ever undertaken by the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) role in the accomplishments of the Marshall Plan's Technical Assistance Program has largely been ignored. This article highlights the BLS achievements in the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan was named for then Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who, on June 5, 1947, proposed his solution to war-devastated Europe. The proposal was enacted into law in April 1948 as the European Recovery Program, which created an Economic Cooperation Administration Agency to organize and administer the program. The Marshall Plan recognized that the economies of Western European countries had continued to deteriorate in the immediate post-World War II period and that provisions of massive loans to individual countries had proven to be a failure. (1) Marshall's recovery plan proposal was revolutionary in that it required mutual cooperation among those 16 countries (a 17th, the German Federal Republic, joined in 1949) that responded to the invitation to participate. Recipients of American assistance under the Marshall Plan joined together to produce multilateral solutions to common economic problems. The result was a massive effort to improve the economic condition of 270 million people in Western Europe through increasing their domestic production by collaborative effort. The participants proposed to do this by strengthening the economic superstructure of Western Europe.

An important component of the Marshall Plan was the statistical technical assistance offered by BLS and directed at increasing productive efficiency and labor productivity in Western European industry. Because of the special circumstances caused by the war crises, BLS efforts widened to include foreign assistance. These efforts "reached almost every plant in every industry, marketing agency, and agricultural entity in Western Europe, introducing them to a technology more than a generation in advance of what they were using." (2) Increases in industrial efficiency and productivity have been acknowledged as a major contributing factor to Western Europe's postwar economic recovery. Analysis by BLS of dislocations caused by the crises of war gave it good preparation to analyze post-war production problems. Therefore, BLS was not only capable of using its statistical measures to identify problems of inefficiency, but also could instruct Europeans in the most modern American industrial practices. Surveys discussed in technological literature and, more directly, plan-organized plant visits supplemented BLS instruction in statistical measurement.

On June 7, 1940, Congress passed an act authorizing BLS "to make continuing studies of labor productivity" and appropriated funds for the establishment of a Productivity and Technological Development Division. The vehicle for the Marshall Plan's Technical Assistance Programs in each Western European country was a high priority national productivity drive, an area in which ms had developed expertise through congressional mandate. Two basic methods of productivity calculation were advanced by BLS: (1) calculation from existing figures by dividing a time series on output by a time series on labor input; and (2) preparation of productivity reports by direct collection of comparable data for output and labor input in special studies. The latter approach examined the labor requirements per unit of output. The direct collection methods were effectively used during the European Recovery Program, and the funding for this approach was eventually transferred to the Marshall Plan's Agency, the Economic Cooperation Administration. (3)

In retrospective comments on the productivity studies that BLS performed for the Marshall Plan, BLS Commissioner Ewan Clague remarked, "It would be a gross exaggeration to say that statistics did the trick, but it is fair to say that these studies played a significant role in the spectacular economic recovery of Western Europe. …

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BLS and the Marshall Plan: The Forgotten Story: The Statistical Technical Assistance of BLS Increased Productive Efficiency and Labor Productivity in Western European Industry after World War II; Technological Literature Surveys and Plan-Organized Plant Visits Supplemented Instruction in Statistical Measurement
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