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Book Mark : The Marshall Plan, to rebuild a war-devastated Europe, changed America's role in the world. But when George Marshall announced the program, few realized what his remarks would mean. Ed Cray, in his book 'General of the Army,' explains.

June 24, 1990|Ed Cray | Ed Cray, author of the new book "General of the Army" (W.W. Norton, 1990), from which this is excerpted, is an associate professor of journalism at USC.

This is the debut of a new Opinion feature--an excerpt of a major non-fiction work timed to coincide with the publication of the book's review in The Times. Mark A. Stoler's review of "General of the Army" appears on Page 11 of the Book Review section.

The applause began at the far end of the maple- and elm-shrouded quadrangle. The sound rolled toward the platform on the steps of Memorial Church, swelling as the 8,000 in the audience recognized the tall figure heading the column of men to be awarded honorary degrees this pleasant June morning in 1947. George Catlett Marshall had come to Harvard Yard for its 286th commencement, to be proclaimed a doctor of laws, honoris causa .

Harvard President James B. Conant read the citations, first in Latin, then in English. The last was Marshall's, the honorary degree, Conant announced, going to "an American to whom freedom owes an enduring debt of gratitude, a soldier and statesman whose ability and character brook only one comparison in the history of this nation."

Marshall had agreed to speak, but insisted his not be the major address of the day. For all that, Marshall, never a very effective speaker when reading a prepared address, was to give a speech that Harvard has silently hoped succeeding honorees might match perhaps once a generation.

Fumbling with his reading glasses, Marshall began with a softly spoken thank you for the implied comparison to George Washington.

Then, the secretary of state set his glasses on his nose and began reading, slowly. "I need not tell you that the world situation is very serious . . . ."

Seeking just the right forum, Marshall had agreed to accept the honorary degree shortly after his return from the Moscow foreign ministers conference six weeks earlier.

On Tuesday, April 29, 1947, the secretary of state summoned George F. Kennan to his office at New State.

"Europe is in a mess," Marshall told Kennan, the head of State's new Policy Planning Staff. "Something will have to be done." Kennan was to draw up a plan.

Privately, Marshall was gravely concerned about Soviet intentions in Europe. "It was my feeling that the Soviets were doing everything possible to achieve a complete breakdown in Europe," he explained later, "that is, they were doing anything they could think of to create greater turbulence. The major problem was how to counter this negative Soviet policy and restore the European economy."

In mid-May, Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs William L. Clayton returned from Europe, warning of impending collapse. Clayton drafted a memorandum that made its way to Marshall on May 28: "It is now obvious that we have grossly underestimated the destruction to the European economy by the war." His memorandum proposed substantial economic assistance to encourage European industry--a grant of "$6 to $7 billion worth of goods a year for three years."

That same day Marshall met with Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, Clayton, Kennan, State Department Counselor Ben Cohen and diplomat Chip Bohlen. In view of the situation, Marshall said in opening the discussion, they could not simply sit back and do nothing. What should they do?

(Harry Truman would not play a direct role in drafting the new policy, leaving that to Marshall and the State Department. The President's single contribution was to name it. "If we try to make this a Truman accomplishment, it will sink," he cautioned a White House adviser. The Marshall Plan would sound "a whole hell of a lot better in Congress.")

The following day, Marshall told Acheson he had accepted an invitation from Harvard to receive an honorary degree and would probably have to give a short speech. He wanted to discuss the economic crisis in Europe. From proposals by Clayton, Kennan and Bohlen, the secretary himself compiled his speech.

A week later, Marshall stood in Harvard Yard. The breakdown of the economic structure of Europe during the war was complete, Marshall told the assembly, and recovery seriously retarded by the lack of a peace treaty with Germany and Austria.

Production was niggardly. Unable to buy goods they wanted, farmers were turning crop lands to grazing while people in the cities went hungry. Europe was forced to spend foreign credits on food, thereby slowing reconstruction.

"The truth of the matter is that Europe's requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products--principally from America--are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character."

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