Like the Gettysburg Address, it was a short speech. It took George Marshall just 12 minutes to read his Harvard commencement address, which on June 5, 1947, introduced the United States and Europe to the Marshall Plan. Firsthand reports of the commencement describe Marshall as a speaker who played with his glasses, kept his eyes focused on his text, and was often difficult to hear. But by the time he was finished, he had set in motion America's coming of age as a superpower in a way that would take the United States far beyond its World War II triumphs.
Today, 60 years later, the left and the right compete in their praise of the Marshall Plan. Even the Bush administration has sought to link itself with Marshall. On September 23, 2003, just six months after the American invasion of Iraq began, George W. Bush went before the United Nations General Assembly to announce that he was prepared to make "the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan" in order to rebuild Iraq.
But in contrast with the Gettysburg Address or John F. Kennedy's inaugural, Marshall's speech is one that few Americans have ever read, let alone can quote from memory. We admire the Marshall Plan for the role it played in helping Europe recover from World War II, but we have lost sight of the way in which the plan -- with its call for both greater American engagement in international affairs and greater acceptance of the limits of American power -- has acquired new relevance for our post–September 11 world.
"I need not tell you gentlemen that the world situation is very serious," Marshall began his Harvard address. He believed the "long-suffering peoples" of Europe faced a crisis with no end in sight, a crisis that Americans -- living in a land untouched by recent war -- found difficult to comprehend. To make matters worse, the media had only scratched the surface with their reporting. Europe's problem, Marshall insisted, was "one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation."
What was wrong, Marshall went on to say, was not merely a consequence of the death and the destruction brought on by the war; the primary difficulty was "the dislocation of the entire fabric of European economy." Raw materials and fuel were in short supply; machinery was not working; and Europe's farmers, rather than plant crops they could not sell, were withdrawing their fields from cultivation and using them for grazing.
The governments of Europe, Marshall believed, had no choice but to use their limited supply of American dollars to buy imports for the basic needs of their people. Once they took this step, however, they were trapped in a no-win situation: Instead of improving their long-term prospects, they were exhausting the funds required for postwar reconstruction.
The only way out of this situation, Marshall argued, lay in using American aid to help break the "vicious circle" in which Europe found itself, using funds without reinvesting in infrastructure. "The United States," as he would later tell Congress, "is the only country in the world today which has the economic power and productivity to furnish the needed assistance."
Marshall believed in the humanitarian case for helping Europe, but he understood the political realities of 1947 well enough to know that if his plan were to win backing, he also had to argue for increased European aid on the basis of American self-interest. He did so without hesitation. If Europe remained weak, he warned, "the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of the normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace."
In making this appeal to American self-interest, Marshall was unwilling to play the anticommunist card so present in the Truman administration's earlier proposals for dealing with Soviet Union's threats to Greece and Turkey, opting instead for a different political emphasis. "Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos," Marshall insisted, before going on to declare, "Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us."
But what form should such aid take? Here Marshall, who as an Army officer in the 1930s had helped run the Roosevelt administration's Civilian Conservation Corps camps, showed how much he had absorbed the ideas of the New Deal, even while remaining personally nonpartisan. In language that applied New Deal thinking to international politics, Marshall argued that the goal of American aid to Europe should be nothing less than "the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist." Halfway or stopgap measures would not do. "Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative."
It was a bold proposal, but Marshall saw no alternative: At stake, he believed, was "the whole world's future." Three months earlier, in a speech at Princeton University, Marshall had observed of the postwar world, "We have had a cessation of hostilities, but we have no genuine peace." At Harvard, Marshall returned to the same theme, arguing that despite being "distant from the troubled areas of the earth," Americans must avoid turning their backs on the values for which they had fought World War II.
As he neared the end of his speech, Marshall assured his Harvard audience that "the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome." But doing so, he cautioned, would require "a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibilities which history has clearly placed upon our country." The United States had to acknowledge that "there can be no political stability and no assured peace" without "the return of normal economic health in the world."
The challenges that lay ahead, Marshall did not doubt, were as much matters of psychology and vision as economics. In a passage that he added to his original text, Marshall emphasized the need for Americans to see the crisis in Europe as a test of their patience. "To my mind it is of vast importance," he declared, "that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment."
From Marshall's Harvard speech there flowed not only a sophisticated view of the requirements needed to achieve postwar peace, but an expanded definition of America's national security. Since the end of the war, military leaders such as James Forrestal, who in September 1947 would become America's first secretary of defense, had argued, "Our national security can only be assured on a very broad and comprehensive front." In his Harvard speech, Marshall gave fresh credibility to these same ideas by linking national security to humanitarian aid and economic redevelopment.
But Marshall went further. He argued for a future that would have no room for American triumphalism. On his retirement from the Army, in 1945, Marshall had stressed the need for the United States, which had been spared the destruction of its homeland, to promote international peace. "Today this nation, with good faith and sincerity, I am certain, desires to take the lead in the measures necessary to avoid another world catastrophe such as you have just endured." By the time of his Harvard speech, these ideas had ripened to the point where Marshall now spoke of America's international obligations in terms of "the vast responsibilities which history has clearly placed upon our country." But even more revealing than his shift in tone was his unwillingness to downplay America's new superpower status.
In lesser hands such a view of American power might have amounted to arrogance. But Marshall did not call on Europe to accept a Pax Americana as it had once accepted a Pax Britannica. His description of the leadership role that he envisioned for the United States in postwar Europe was inseparable from his belief that the United States should act in concert with the European nations it sought to help.
Marshall was proposing that the United States respond to Europe's postwar vulnerability by seeking new ways to be an ally, rather than new ways to dominate European affairs. He wanted to make sure that the United States did not supply Europe with the kind of imposed generosity that inspired resentment. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made this point during World War II. With victory in sight, FDR observed, in his fourth inaugural address, "We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations, far away."
At Harvard, Marshall picked up where Roosevelt left off, insisting that the long-term interests of the United States were not served by imperial models of control. American success abroad rested, he believed, on shared power, and America's voice should not drown out those of other nations still weakened by war.
In a letter to Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marshall wrote, "But we should make it clear that it is not our purpose to impose upon the peoples of Europe any particular form of political or economic association. The future organization of Europe must be determined by the peoples of Europe." In his Harvard speech, Marshall made the same point in a passage that drew heavily on a State Department memo by Soviet expert George F. Kennan. Marshall was convinced: "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."
As far as Marshall was concerned, it was up to the Europeans, thinking collectively and regionally, to develop a plan of their own for using American aid even before it arrived. America's obligation was to provide "friendly aid" in the drafting of such a plan. "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," Marshall insisted. "The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations."
Vandenberg, borrowing Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, would describe Marshall's Harvard speech as a "shot heard 'round the world." Today that assessment does not strike us as hyperbole. Marshall's emphasis on multilateralism and bipartisanship, his insistence that the United States refrain from dictating to its allies, and his belief -- as he observed in his Nobel Prize speech of 1953 -- that "democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs" seem not only modern but a repudiation of the way the United States has conducted its post–9-11 foreign policy.
Getting the Harvard audience and the nation at large to grasp all that Marshall had put before them was no easy task. As Harvard President James Conant, who had entertained Marshall on the evening before he spoke and spent most of June 5 in his company, would observe of Marshall's speech, "I had not understood its meaning when I heard it."
It fell on Marshall to sell his plan to the United States, and he did not flinch from the task. "That's the thing I take pride in: putting the damned thing over," he would later say. As the general who was the Army's chief of staff from the beginning to the end of World War II, Marshall was the perfect Marshall Plan salesman. During the war he had always spoken candidly of the dangers the United States faced. Now he did so with regard to the Marshall Plan. In a speech he delivered shortly after becoming secretary of state, Marshall had insisted that "business as usual, politics as usual, pleasure as usual" posed a danger to postwar America, and in campaigning for his plan, he continued to make this point.
In his opening day of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1948, Marshall did not try to minimize the expense of his plan. "This program will cost our country billions of dollars," he said. "It will impose a burden on the American taxpayer. It will require sacrifices today in order that we may enjoy security and peace tomorrow," he warned the senators. "Either undertake to meet the requirements of the problem or don't undertake it at all."
Sixty years later, when we think of the scandal-plagued lessons that Iraq offers in how not to administer foreign aid, Marshall's refusal to oversell his plan remains as impressive as ever. To be sure, the biggest problems we face in foreign affairs today come primarily from regions that are far less familiar to us -- and far more unstable -- than Western Europe, with its democratic traditions, was two years after the Second World War. But so much of what Marshall did to win acceptance for the Marshall Plan, which would end up costing more than $13 billion (roughly $579 billion as an equivalent share of four years of our current gross national product), was not time-bound.
Marshall's calls on the nation for sacrifice, his refusal to underestimate the price of foreign aid, his appeals for bipartisanship, and his insistence on multilateralism would all be more difficult to manage now than they were in the late 1940s, but an updated version of such a policy is hardly beyond our reach. Indeed, such a policy, with its aversion to hubris, is essential at a time when our current "war on terror," like the Cold War in 1947, is being waged with no end in sight.