Provided his confirmation hearings to be the new secretary of state go smoothly, Mike Pompeo will have the start of the Marshall Plan to celebrate during his first month in office. Seventy years ago on April 14, 1948, grain elevators in Galveston, Texas, began pouring wheat into the John H. Quick, the first of six ships that formed the vanguard fleet carrying food to Europe as part of the Marshall Plan.
The most successful foreign aid program in American history was underway just 11 days after being signed into law by President Harry Truman. The speed and efficiency with which the Marshall Plan began foreshadowed its history. Today, the Marshall Plan remains a measuring rod for America’s ability to balance toughness in foreign policy with the cultivation of alliances.
How Mike Pompeo, best known during his tenure as CIA director for his disapproval of the Iran nuclear deal and his support for America’s prison at Guantanamo, treats the legacy of the Marshall Plan should provide an early indication of what kind of secretary of state he intends to be and whether he will provide a counterweight to the president’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, who has declared “talking to the North Koreans is a waste of time.” It will be important for Pompeo to show, as Marshall did, that he is more than a product of his military background.
From 1948 to 1952, the Marshall Plan provided over $13 billion (roughly $579 billion today as the equivalent share of four years of America’s current gross national product) in aid to 17 countries and set Western Europe on the path to recovery from World War II.
The Marshall Plan, which averaged 2.5 percent of the combined national incomes of its recipient countries, did not “save” Europe, but it gave Europe the breathing room to start recovering from the ruins in which it still lay in 1947 when food intake in Western Europe was below 2,000 calories a day for most people. “It was like a life-line to sinking men,” Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary would say of the Marshall Plan.
By the end of 1951, the Marshall Plan had supplied Europe with a crucial margin of aid that let it get back on its feet. Industrial production in Western Europe was 64 percent above 1947. Food production was 24 percent above 1947, and steel production had nearly doubled.
At a time in our history when so much American foreign aid seems wasted, it is easy to feel nostalgic about the Marshall Plan. It not only made a return to economic normalcy possible in Europe. It helped unify nations that since the days of Napoleon had fought each other in a series of destructive wars. The pressure to build a European recovery on reparations from Germany, as had been done in the wake of World War I, diminished thanks to the Marshall Plan.
We cannot go back in time and replicate the economic dominance America had in 1948 when it was the only major power to emerge from World War II with its farms and manufacturing intact. Nor can we find a contemporary comparable in stature to Marshall, who before becoming secretary of state earned the nation’s trust as Army chief of staff from 1939 through the end World War II.
But what made the Marshall Plan a success and makes it relevant for today are the principles on which it relied. Beginning with his Harvard commencement speech of 1947 outlining the reasons for a European aid plan, Marshall made it clear that only through mutual cooperation at home and abroad could Europe’s health be restored and America be made safe internationally.
For Marshall, such a complex effort required good relations with Republicans as well as painstaking diplomacy. “That’s the thing I take pride in, putting the damned thing over,” Marshall would later say. He went out of his way to gain the trust of Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and maintain a good relationship with another key Republican, Paul Hoffman, the former president of the Studebaker Corporation who became the first administrator of the Marshall Plan.
At the core of the Marshall Plan was Marshall’s realism about the Soviet Union. Marshall had known Soviet premier Josef Stalin as a result of the World War II allied conferences he attended with Franklin Roosevelt, but after meeting with Stalin in 1947 in Moscow, Marshall became convinced that Stalin “was not negotiating in good faith and could not be induced to cooperate in achieving European recovery.”
Marshall, who later in 1948 would employ an airlift to counter the Soviet Union’s decision to cut off rail and highway access by the West to Berlin, did not see his plan as provoking a Cold War but rather as a response to a Cold War that had already been declared. America had to act quickly, Marshall believed, if it did not want Western Europe to become weaker and more vulnerable than it already was.
The key for Marshall was reaching out to the nations of Europe in a way that respected their history and made them willing partners in the Marshall Plan. As Marshall observed in his Harvard speech, “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally program designed to place Europe on its feel economically.”
For Marshall, this respect was not window dressing. If Marshall aid turned into a competition in which the nations of Europe simply vied to see which one could get the most dollars from the United States, the Marshall Plan could never succeed in breaking down the trade and military barriers that had pitted Europe’s major powers against each other in the past.
Marshall made it clear that in aiding Western Europe and building up European trade and currency exchanges, America was not supplying charity in the tradition of the international relief efforts Herbert Hoover had led during and after World War I. The Marshall Plan was the New Deal internationalized. Marshall made this distinction clear when in his Harvard speech he argued against halfway measures for helping Europe. “Any assistance that this government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative,” he insisted.
Marshall never wavered in his belief that America could in the long run only be safe in the postwar world if that world rested on a sound economic base. America could not escape the fact that “democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs,” Marshall warned in his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. A Pax America that depended on America military strength would end as soon as voters tired of supporting a huge standing army.
What Marshall, who served as secretary of state from January 1947 to January 1949, did not anticipate is a moment like the present one in which a sitting president disparages longtime allies, turns a blind eye to a Russia as hostile as the old Soviet Union, and makes “America First” the slogan of his foreign policy.
But for Marshall, who as a young army officer had witnessed America’s reversion to isolationism in the wake of World War I, the current moment would not be a time for retreat. It would instead be a reminder for Mike Pompeo and John Bolton that American foreign policy constantly requires us to rethink our strategy about which nations we should oppose and which, in the name of self-interest, we should help either with soft aid or military aid.