Courtesy Reuters

Marshall Plan Commemorative Section: Lessons of the Plan: Looking Forward to the Next Century

Three dimensions of the Marshall Plan increase in significance with the passage of time. The first is the plan's role in producing a postwar global economy that would avoid the problems that plagued the West between the two world wars, including those that led to the Great Depression. The best economists of the United States and Europe felt that severe unemployment was the major danger in the wake of the war. Moreover, many feared that countries might again embrace protectionism as the world spiraled into the grasp of economic nationalism. To build a trade and monetary system that would bring their hopes to life, American planners tied their aid to the liquidation of the wartime debt that Western European countries had incurred with their colonies and other developing nations.

Second, the Marshall Plan helped shape the military and political events of the late 1940s and early 1950s and was in turn shaped by them. These included the communist pressure on Greece and Turkey, which led to the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 and Marshall's more constructive proposal in June of that year; the decolonization crises experienced notably by France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, which strained those countries' economies; the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which flowed directly from the extension of West German currency reform to West Berlin; and the Korean War, which led the United States to commit four divisions to NATO, raised the question of West German disarmament, and converted the Marshall Plan into a military support program.

The final aspect is the Marshall Plan's role in promoting the move toward European unity. Europeans took the lead in this effort, but they received critical support from both major parties in the United States, despite integration's implicit anti-American rationale. This anti-American undertone may surprise some today, but it was at the time understood with some subtlety on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Americans undertook the Marshall Plan as a national effort.

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