How the Marshall Plan Emerged From Failure

The Real Roots of a Foreign Policy Success

George C. Marshall, 1940. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

One of the United States’ greatest foreign policy achievements started with an 11-minute commencement day address 70 years ago this week. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, at Harvard to receive an honorary degree, called on Americans to “face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country.” World War II, he explained, had left Europe in ruins, and broken economies and starving populations invited unrest (which would, among other things, allow Soviet domination). So it was up to the United States to help Europe recover. “Our policy,” he declared that day, “is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.”

The Marshall Plan, as it became known, would be the largest foreign-assistance effort in history, totaling $13 billion over four years. (As a percentage of GDP, that would be about $900 billion now.) To this day, politicians and policymakers invoke the plan as both model and inspiration. It has come to represent American power at its best—generous, bold, and wise. And Marshall himself stands as a founding father of American global leadership, the stoic embodiment of a better time—a time when “we used to win,” as U.S. President Donald Trump puts it, and when we built transatlantic alliances, sent our tax dollars to help devastated countries, and accepted that we could not rely on America-first policies to keep us safe. As a general, Marshall had helped his country win World War II; as a statesman, he helped it win the peace.

Observers noted how closely Marshall’s statements about Europe tracked with what he had been saying about China.

But collective memory tends to omit a crucial piece of the story. As a result, it obscures some key lessons of Marshall and the Marshall Plan.

Just before launching what would become one of his and his country’s greatest successes, Marshall had undergone what would be considered his greatest failure. Five months before his Harvard speech, he had

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