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Triumph for U.S. : Marshall Plan: Savior of Europe

June 02, 1987|DON IRWIN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It was, says former Democratic Rep. Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, "the finest hour in the golden age of American foreign policy."

To Richard M. Bissell Jr., a former deputy CIA director, it deserves "major . . . responsibility for the relative prosperity of modern Europe and the stability . . . of the Atlantic Alliance."

Forty years ago this summer, under threat of the economic disintegration and political chaos stirred by World War II, the nations of Western Europe joined the United States in a calculated risk that changed the face of the postwar world.

They gambled on the Marshall Plan, a cooperative venture that set as its goal the wholesale rebuilding of a continent left in ruins by World War II. No foreign policy undertaking of such grand pretensions had ever been attempted in modern times. None has been attempted since. None can boast of its results.

A Simple, Ambitious Goal

The plan, which bore the name of its chief architect, George Catlett Marshall, President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state, had a simple, ambitious goal: to use careful infusions of American aid to stimulate the shattered economies of more than a dozen nations whose factories had been bombed, whose business structures were in shambles and whose immediate prospect was starvation and political upheaval.

The amount to be expended was stunning for the time--$13.3 billion, equivalent to about $60 billion in today's inflated dollars. The idea was unprecedented--that a country, weary from four years of fighting abroad, should deeply tap its hard-won prosperity to revive some of the very nations that had cost it so many lives during the war.

Amazingly, the plan succeeded, and with breathtaking speed.

Foreign Policy Landmark

In the process, the Marshall Plan became much more than an acute financial investment that paid off. It became a foreign policy landmark for the century.

Symbolically, it represented a renunciation of the centuries-old traditions of warfare--that after victory was won, the victors would exact tribute and leave the vanquished and other parties to put themselves back together as best they could.

And historically, it largely redefined the United States' view of its role in the Western Hemisphere and the modern world.

The plan forged economic bonds that developed into mutual defense partnerships and laid the foundation for the modern geopolitical world--a Western society counterbalanced by an Eastern adversary, each dominated by a superpower.

"The legacy has been immense," said Robert L. Frost, professor of history at American University. ". . . The wisdom of the Marshall Plan was the recognition that a debt cycle would fundamentally weaken the political and economic structures of Western Europe."

The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, had taught a painful lesson. From Germany, the loser, the United States demanded traditional war reparations; and from France and England, the victors, it sought compensation for the American support they had received. None could pay. Subsequently, overseas markets for U.S. goods collapsed, a major factor in the onset, depth and duration of the Great Depression.

The genius of the Marshall Plan, Frost said, was providing "a way to take the taxpayers' money and give it to the Europeans so the Europeans could buy American products and employ Americans in the process."

Funds Sent to 17 Nations

They did. Between 1947 and 1951, American funds were funneled to 17 nations so crippled that they were doomed to become financial wards of the United States--vitally dependent on U.S. food and supplies to subsist, but with no hope of paying for them.

Likened by many observers to "priming a pump," the aid bolstered factories and farms that could use their production to pay for more investment, more expansion and more employment in the beneficiary nations.

Soon, most of the countries were well on their way to economic self-sufficiency. In a three-year period, their per capita gross national product increased by fully a third.

Inside the United States, the success of the ambitious venture has left an imprint on a people and a government that remains clear today. The Marshall Plan's record of achievement provides a tantalizing example of what the government can do if it addresses a problem directly and takes action.

In recent years, there have been recurring demands for new "Marshall Plans" to invigorate urban slums, boost poverty-stricken Third World economies and rebuild war-torn regions.

The result has been only frustration. The Marshall Plan has not been duplicated or equaled.

'Superbly Suited' Program

"It was a program superbly suited to a particular moment of history," wrote Truman biographer Robert J. Donovan in "The Second Victory," a forthcoming book marking the plan's anniversary.

Its "rare combination of elements," he noted, included "the enormous wealth of postwar America, the productive skills and natural resources of Europe (and a) similarity of laws, government institutions and culture."

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