European Affairs

michaelmosettig.newIn a sea of academic gowns on Harvard Lawn, he stood out, erect of military bearing, in a civilian gray suit. 

George C. Marshall was one of four illustrious honorary degree recipients on June 5, 1947.  He had been the military and logistics architect of the allied victories in World War II and was now serving as Secretary of State for President Harry S Truman. The others were Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb; General Omar Bradley and poet T.S. Eliot. But it would be Marshall’s brief speech at an alumni lunch following the commencement ceremonies that would make history. 

What he proposed that afternoon became known as the Marshall Plan, a  $13.5 billion (in 1947 dollars) program of grants, loans and material aid that represented a turning point in Europe’s post-war history, in trans-Atlantic relations and in the slow evolution of European integration. 

But only the sketchiest elements of a plan were in Marshall’s speech.  It was the product of a rapid evolution in the thinking of the U.S. administration, forced by rapidly deteriorating economic, social and political conditions in Western Europe. A brutal 1946-47 winter that would lead to even smaller harvests promised  more misery to a war-battered continent. Up until then, European nations were depending on a patch work of stop-gap American loans.

As historian Herbert Feis wrote of those days, “The smell of distress, discontent and disarray was in the air.”

Only months before, the United States had assumed the lead in the fight against Soviet communism in Europe after Britain had said it could no longer afford to play that role in the Greek civil war. Top U.S. officials grew more alarmed during trips to Europe. A core group of top State Department officials—Under Secretary Dean Acheson, Assistant Secretary Will Clayton and Charles Bohlen and George Kennan began drafting plans for a new American role in Europe.  In a remarkable difference from current U.S. government operations, when the White House controls even minute policy details, President Truman was kept abreast of only the broad outlines of State Department thinking.

Marshall determined the June 5 Harvard commencement was the right timing for the administration to tip its hand in more detail, both to the American public and to the Europeans. Acheson opposed the venue on the grounds that graduation speeches are more endured than appreciated. The Secretary was still tinkering  with the wording of his text on the flight to Boston. The British writer Richard Mayne, who would become one of his country’s most vigorous champions of European integration, noted that Marshall read from prepared text “rather badly” and in a soft tone that surprised his audience expecting a full-throated General.

The key elements of the Marshall proposal were that the program  “must be a cure, rather than a mere palliative,” that all European nations needed to work together and that it have the support of U.S. public opinion.

“The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products –principally from America—are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help, or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character.”

The European response was swift, led by Britain. The Labour government Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin has been briefed on the outlines by a Washington embassy official. (The embassy sent the full text to London by diplomatic mail). Three British correspondents also had a lunch briefing from Acheson, and the BBC correspondent that night gave a full report that Bevin was listening to.

Bevin dismissed the suggestion of a deputy that they inquire further if Washington really meant it and instead organized a conference ten days later with his French counterpart to start drafting a European response. The French government was initially divided, some like Herve Alphand (later Ambassador to Washington) enthusiastic, others more skeptical. But soon more European governments were swept up into Bevin’s enthusiasm.

While Marshall made clear the plan was open to all European nations, the Soviet Union balked, then ordered all the Eastern countries under its full control not to take part. Czechoslovakia, still under a coalition government, was ready to join until Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was summoned to Moscow and a Josef Stalin veto. As Masaryk remarked later, that was when he realized he was no longer the minister of an independent nation but a vassal. 

The American response was more positive than might have been anticipated. A key Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg came quickly aboard. Less than a year later, Congress approved what would be called the European Recovery Program. In the House, three future presidents just out of military service –Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republicans Richard  M. Nixon and Gerald Ford – were among the yes votes.

Two weeks after that April 3, 1948 vote, a freighter named the John H. Quick loaded with 9,000 tons of wheat departed Galveston Harbor for Europe.  As Mayne wrote:

“It was the first of many such argosies from the West. They carried all kinds of commodity, from Spam and dried eggs to John Deere tractors, from animal feed stuffs to semi-finished products, from raw materials to machine tools.”

When the products were sold, the money went into so-called counterpart funds which were part of the European economy for decades. For instance, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington and Berlin based think tank, was initially funded three decades ago from counterpart funds.

The direct link between the Marshall Plan and European integration is more debatable. It certainly provided a spark for the French planning efforts of Jean Monnet, who became one of the founders of modern Europe.  As historian Tony Judt wrote in his monumental Postwar:

“ is true that whatever collaborative habits and institutions the Europeans did eventually acquire were only indirectly indebted to American efforts, if at all. But in the light of Europe’s recent past, any moves in this direction represented progress: and Marshall’s invitation did at least oblige the mutually-suspicious European states to sit down together and co-ordinate their responses and, ultimately, much else.”

As Judt went on, the real benefits of the program that would represent more than $200 billion in current  dollars, were psychological, helping Europeans feel better about themselves and helping them break from a legacy of chauvinism, depression and authoritarian solutions.

And as for Acheson’s comments about the lasting impression  of graduation speeches,  the Marshall address become  mythologized  for a  Harvard graduating class that certainly had its share of stars—two Nobel laureates, two Pulitzer Prize winners, a U.S. attorney general, a state governor and one actor probably far better known to a wider American public than Marshall –Jack Lemmon. Several would dine out  years later on stories of sitting under a hot sun enduring a speech about Europe, even though as Marshall biographer Forrest Pogue carefully detailed, the historic address was delivered inside in cooler surroundings to a collection of alumni,

Now, 70 years later, and at a time of uncertainty in Europe and about  trans-Atlantic bonds, there will be numerous commemorative gatherings. Two of the biggest will be an all-day program June 5 at Marshall’s home in Leesburg, Virginia, and an EU Delegation program the next day on European and trans-Atlantic security.

Michael Mosettig is former Foreign Editor of the PBS News Hour and a member of the Board of Advisors of European Affairs.