This July 4, as we mark the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the declaration of independence we most need to be taking stock of is Britain’s from the European Union. At the moment, the biggest Brexit winner stands to be Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who now faces a weakened Western Europe.
In the past the U.S. has not been neutral about the European Union. The E.U. has historic roots in the Marshall Plan of 1947, when America came to the aid of a Europe struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II and made one of the conditions of our aid European economic cooperation.
The Marshall Plan was the brainchild of General George Marshall, Army chief of staff throughout World War II, who became President Harry Truman’s secretary of state in 1947. By virtue of his military record, Marshall was eminently qualified to put such an aid plan into effect and not have his political motives questioned.
Prior to the Marshall Plan, America had sent help to Europe in the form of relief during and after World War I and Lend Lease military equipment prior to World War II. But the Marshall Plan was different. It was not conventional aid. It was the New Deal applied to foreign policy. The Marshall Plan sought, as Marshall observed in his1947 Harvard commencement speech outlining his plan, to provide a “cure rather than a mere palliative” to Europe’s ruined economies.
In the wake of World War II, Europe was struggling to feed itself. Its factories and infrastructure had been decimated, and European governments did not have the capital on hand to begin rebuilding and meet their citizens’ daily needs.
Marshall’s motives in coming to Europe’s rescue were humanitarian ones, but they were driven by American political self-interest as well. The Marshall Plan was designed to thwart the danger posed to Western Europe by a hostile Soviet Union that sought to advance its interests by supporting indigenous Communist parties, particularly in France and Italy, and by threatening military intervention.
After meeting with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in the spring of 1947, Marshall was convinced that Stalin was buoyed by the suffering going on in postwar Western Europe, believing that it worked to the Soviet Union’s benefit. Marshall also had no doubt about the Soviet Union’s willingness to exploit Cold War military tensions. He used the Berlin Airlift in 1948 to deal with the Soviet Union when it cut off ground access to West Berlin, and in 1949, the second year of the Marshall Plan, with Marshall no longer secretary of State, America championed the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The response to the Marshall Plan by the British Labor government of Clement Attlee, which in 1945 had replaced Winston Churchill’s Conservative government, was enthusiastic. “I felt that it was the first chance that we had been given since the end of the war to look at the European economy as a whole,” British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin declared.
Britain, along with France, took the lead role in bringing about a gathering of European nations to figure out how to make the best use of Marshall Plan aid. On July 4, 1947, Britain and France sent out invitations to 22 European nations to meet with them in Paris. Sixteen countries responded favorably to the invitations, and on July 12, they met. The first steps toward a European Union were under way, as was the West’s growing division with the Soviet Union, which regarded the Marshall Plan as an example of “American imperialism” and kept the bloc of Eastern European nations that it controlled from joining it.
The 16 countries formed themselves into the Committee of European Economic Cooperation, and from this initial committee, a series of much tighter organizations emerged. In 1950 the European Payments Union was formed and with heavy American backing, the EPU created a clearinghouse from which its members could draw credits that allowed them to treat one another as members of an integrated market.
A year later an even greater step toward economic cooperation was taken when France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg formed themselves into the European Coal and Steel Community. As a result of this step, Germany was integrated into the European economy as a good neighbor with no independent capacity for rebuilding its war industries.
America’s diplomatic role in this process was to do whatever it could to make European cooperation possible, but the United States also backed up its diplomacy with its money. Over its four years, the Marshall Plan cost America more than $13 billion (roughly $579 billion as a comparable share of four years of our current gross national product), and in its first fiscal year the Marshall Plan absorbed more than 10 percent of the federal budget.
Marshall put his prestige on the line to campaign for the Marshall Plan, and by February 1948 a Roper Poll showed that 86 percent of those questioned knew about the Marshall Plan, and 77 percent of them approved of it.
In addition Marshall managed to win over key Republicans. Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a crucial supporter of the Marshall Plan. John Foster Dulles, who would become President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, testified before Congress on behalf of the plan, and the first administrator of the Marshall Plan was Paul Hoffman, a former Studebaker Company president and lifelong Republican.
Today, that kind of Republican support for a Democratic foreign-policy initiative is impossible to imagine. But what has not changed is the need for European countries to deal jointly with the challenges they face.
Since the end of the Marshall Plan, the road to European unity has often been bumpy. When in 1957 France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, better known as the Common Market, Britain opted not to join in.
Then in the ’60s, when the British changed their minds about joining the Common Market, their entry into it was vetoed twice, once in 1963 and again in 1967, by French President Charles de Gaulle. It was not until 1973 that Britain finally made it into the Common Market, setting the stage for the formation of the European Union in 1993.
As Britain struggled to get into the Common Market, its efforts had no greater advocate than President John Kennedy. “The United States government, under the leadership of both parties, has steadfastly supported the political and economic integration of Western Europe,” Kennedy declared in his first year in office.
Kennedy’s words might easily have been borrowed from one of Marshall’s speeches on the importance of aiding Europe. Kennedy’s thinking reflected his desire to make America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union as much about the economy as about armaments, but Kennedy also knew that in the ’60s Americans remembered how Europe’s divisions had led to two world wars that cost thousands of Americans their lives.
Marshall Plan nostalgia is of no use today, but the internationalism of the Marshall Plan can guide us as we seek a foreign policy that will help Europe and Great Britain make the best of Brexit or even rethink it. Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was not engaging in hyperbole when on the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan he observed, “The United States ought not to forget that the emerging European Union is one of its own greatest achievements: it never would have happened without the Marshall Plan.”
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.