The Genius of Marshall’s Vision
To understand the Marshall Plan is to realize that its genius lay not in sending money but in shipping tangible goods fuel, fertilizer, food, farm animals, machinery that were essential for life and for economic recovery. At a time when most European currencies could not purchase goods internationally, the Marshall Plan paid U.S. companies to ship the goods. This astute way of structuring the aid also helped American business to navigate the transition to a peacetime economy. Europeans contributed to the cost of recovery by depositing the equivalent into local “counterpart fund” accounts, and the local currencies were invested in additional infrastructure. The entire film program was funded in this fashion.
Increasing productivity in manufacturing, mining, and agriculture was the overarching American policy goal. Reducing protective tariffs and increasing intra-European trade was considered essential to achieving that goal. On a social and political level, this posed a much larger philosophical challenge, that of getting postwar Europeans to embrace interdependence and actively cooperate with each other to overcome language, cultural and currency differences, not to mention the legacies of two world wars. The American campaign to create a European “melting pot” whether as a mirror of the ideal American democratic society or as a bulwark against Soviet hegemony, or both was clearly depicted in many of the Marshall Plan films.
The main, and most profound, principle of Marshall aid was to give the Europeans the means to help themselves. Marshall’s perspicacity and vision on this one point was embraced by those Europeans who, like Marshall, saw integration as an alternative to nationalism and war. Marshall’s philosophy, which was to create a “family of nations” -- one that would include Germany as a full-fledged member -- led directly, even if it took 40 years, to the European Union.
Marshall’s firmness on this issue the importance of European union is presaged in his very first remarks about the program that would come to bear his name. His understanding of the fact that the aid program would only succeed if it were structured by the aid recipients themselves ran deep, as we see in the now famous speech he gave in June 1947:
“It is already evident that, before the United States Government can proceed much further in its efforts to alleviate the situation and help start the European world on its way to recovery, there must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take in order to give proper effect to whatever action might be undertaken by this Government. It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe. The role of this country should consist of friendly aid in the drafting of a European program and of later support of such a program so far as it may be practical for us to do so. The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations…An essential part of any successful action on the part of the United States is an understanding on the part of the people of America of the character of the problem and the remedies to be applied. Political passion and prejudice should have no part. With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country, the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome.”
How would they be overcome? Harlan Cleveland (later Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to NATO) was one of the men charged with structuring and administering the Marshall Plan. In his words: “It was not, of course, a ‘plan.’ It was a continuous international happening, with frequent course corrections....Real planning is improvisation on a general sense of direction. The Marshall Plan was a brilliant series of improvisations on a deceptively simple theme: Europe needed help, and only America could supply it.” 2