Lifeline To A Sinking Continent

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Secretary Of State George C. Marshall received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the Harvard commencement exercise on the morning of June 5, 1947. That afternoon he spoke to a group of alumni. His message was short and grim. World War II and its aftermath had brought Europe to the brink of disaster. The Continent’s requirements for the next three or four years were so much greater than its ability to pay that only “substantial” assistance from the United States could prevent “economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character.” Since the piecemeal help already being given was inadequate, Marshall called upon the European nations to get together to draw up a comprehensive aid package that the United States would do its best to implement. His speech unveiled what would become the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. It was the most momentous and successful peacetime foreign policy initiative in American history.

Marshall’s offer gained immediate attention. MARSHALL PLEADS FOR EUROPEAN UNITY, ran a New York Times headline, and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin later recalled his intense gratification when he heard of Marshall’s speech on a BBC broadcast. “It was like a lifeline to a sinking man,” he remembered. “It seemed to bring hope where there was none.” Bevin hurried to Paris, where he secured French support for a European conference like that which Marshall had proposed. Time was running short.

Marshall had not exaggerated Europe’s distress. To the former British prime minister Winston Churchill, Europe was “a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.” The war had caused enormous damage to cities, factories, mines, and railroads. In the countryside a great deal of livestock had been killed and farm equipment destroyed. And as if nature itself were conspiring to retard recovery, droughts during the summers of 1946 and 1947 had drastically reduced crops, and the winter of 1946–47 had been a disaster. The greatest blizzard in centuries had combined with freezing temperatures to paralyze whole regions of Europe for months.

As Marshall pointed out in his speech, more important even than the physical damage was the “dislocation of the entire fabric” of the European economy. Cities, lacking fuel and raw materials for what machinery still functioned, could not produce goods to sell to farmers. Farmers, for their part, were unwilling to exchange foodstuffs for unstable currency they could not dependably spend to purchase the products they desired. They therefore used much of their land for grazing rather than crop production and kept what they did grow for themselves. This in turn forced governments to spend money purchasing necessities from abroad instead of using it for reconstruction.

There were further impediments to economic rehabilitation. At war’s end the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and part of Central Europe, including half of Germany. Relations between the United States and Great Britain on the one hand and the Soviets on the other had begun to deteriorate even before the fighting stopped. By 1946, as Churchill famously put it in a speech he gave in Fulton, Missouri, an Iron Curtain had descended across the Continent. In March 1947 President Harry S. Truman had proclaimed what became known as the Truman Doctrine, pledging American support for “free peoples” threatened by outside pressure or subversion. Everyone understood that the doctrine was aimed at the Soviet Union and its allies. Trade between Eastern and Western Europe could not revive under such conditions.

HALF A CENTURY AGO a victorious nation spent billions rescuing its shattered enemies and ailing allies. Here is a succinct anniversary reminder of an effort unique in history.

Marshall later recalled that he had become convinced of the need for decisive action during a trip to Moscow for a foreign ministers’ conference two months before his Harvard speech. That conference, called to draw up a peace treaty with Germany, had quickly stalemated. Marshall met with Joseph Stalin on April 15 in a vain effort to break the impasse and came away with the impression that the Soviets hoped to profit from continued drift and dislocation. Visits to Germany and France on his way home impressed Marshall with how bad the situation was. He conveyed his sense of urgency to a receptive Truman and a few days later went on national radio to speak to the American people about Europe’s terrible straits. “The patient is sinking,” he told his listeners, “while the doctors deliberate.”

The Harvard speech was a synthesis of ideas put forward by various individuals and groups. Two sources were most influential: a memorandum by Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs William L. Clayton, who had been advocating something like the Marshall Plan for months, and a report from the State Department’s recently formed Policy Planning Staff, headed by the career diplomat George F. Kennan. Charles E. Bohlen, a Soviet expert, drafted the speech, and Marshall worked on it during his trip to Harvard.