Accessibility links

Breaking News

Europe: The Marshall Plan -- 'The Most Unsordid Act In History'

Washington, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plans to be at Harvard University on June 5, 1997, making a speech from the same spot as her predecessor, George Catlett Marshall, 50 years ago.

But no matter how eloquently Albright commemorates the occasion, her words are unlikely to ring down through the decades with the same resonance as Marsall's speech did on that June day in 1947.

The fame did not come from the way he spoke. Not much of an orator, Marshall read dryly from a text for some 20 minutes in a soft voice that some in the audience had difficulty hearing.

But what he said about America making a commitment to help Europe recover from the destruction of World War II came to be called after him "The Marshall Plan," and is acknowledged as a seminal point in the modern history of Europe.

It didn't sound very exciting at the time: from the opening words "I need not tell you that the world situation is very serious," through the description of what Marshall called "the dislocation of the entire fabric of European economy," and even the following key passage:

"It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. 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."

But with these words Marshall made history. Analysts say this was the first time the idea that economic growth promotes political stability was formally incorporated into U.S. policy.

The principle remains a tenet of U.S. foreign policy, along with the concept that aid should benefit the donor as well as the recipient, and that recipient governments should make a strong effort to help themselves, using assistance mainly as an economic stimulant.

As Marshall put it that June: "This is the business of Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe," and that "any government willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation ... on the part of the United States."

But Marshall warned in an understated reference to the rising political tensions in Europe that would soon crystallize in the Cold War: "Any government which maneouvers to bloc the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States."

Essentially, he was restating the Truman doctrine, first enunciated in March 1947, that made it U.S. policy to oppose Soviet expansionism and support countries threatened by communism.

The Marshall Plan was an economic extension of this policy and although it succeeded beyond expectation in its goal of European economic recovery, in a dark mirror image, it began the great economic division of Europe that persists to this day.

At the time, Marshall's speech was just a vague proposal. It took ten months before it became a detailed program, then U.S. law and aid began to flow to Europe.

When Marshall said at Harvard that U.S. assistance cannot be piecemeal to cope with various crises but "should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative," few people realized he was speaking about a program that would give more than $13 billion to 16 countries and take 1,500 people to administer on both sides of the Atlantic.

In today's monetary value, the Marshall Plan gave to Western Europe over a four-to-five-year period, from 1947 to 1953, more than $88 billion.

That is more than the entire annual economic output of Ukraine or even South Africa, and is double the gross national product of Greece.

Here's an even better comparison from U.S. congressional statistics -- the United States paid more for the Marshall Plan in four years than it paid for all economic, military and humanitarian aid to 146 countries in four years from 1992 to 1996.

British statesman Winston Churchill called it "the most unsordid act in history." British historian Norman Davies has improved on the quote, saying the Marshall Plan was "an act of the most enlightened self-interest in history."

U.S. officials readily acknowledge that the Marshall Plan was no act of charity. Although annual funding for the plan represented 13 percent of the U.S. national budget, more than two thirds of it went to American companies and businesses dealing with the Europeans.

The idea of helping American manufacture and business help foreign enterprises has also become a regular feature of current U.S. foreign assistance policy, along with the concept of "seeding" -- sprinkling a relatively small amount of money in key areas to jumpstart activity that will stimulate overall economic growth.

Additionally, none of the money that went directly to West Europeans 50 years ago was free. Each country was required to match the U.S. contribution dollar for dollar.

Some of the U.S. Marshall Plan money went into a special fund for technical assistance to send U.S. experts to Europe and bring thousands of Europeans to America to study management and production methods. The program was hugely effective in raising local productivity and has also since become a staple of U.S. foreign aid.

The countries that got the largest slice of the Marshall pie in the 1940s still have the strongest economies in Europe in the 1990s -- Great Britain, France, Italy, then West Germany and the Netherlands.

It was a different story in Central and Eastern Europe. Poles and Czechs had wanted to join the Marshall Plan but were pressured by Stalin into staying away from a key conference of aid recipients in Paris in July 1947.

The refusal of the Soviet Bloc countries to participate in the Marshall Plan drew an economic line across Europe and began the disparity between the two halves.

From 1948 to 1953 when Stalin died, in the same period that Marshall Plan aid was flowing to countries of the West, the Soviet Union was draining roughly the same amount of money from the economies of the East.

The economic line across Europe was soon followed by a political division, symbolized by the two Germanies and culminating in the founding of NATO in 1949.

The Marshall Plan's grand vision of a united democratic Europe froze in the Cold War and remained in ice for nearly 50 years.