The Marshall Plan at 75: What Republicans Could Learn from Arthur Vandenberg
Seventy-five years ago, when Harvard College opened on June 5, Secretary of State George Marshall was among those awarded an honorary degree. Other recipients on the podium included TS Eliot, J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Omar Bradley.
In a brief acceptance speech that received only pro forma media coverage, Marshall challenged America to take responsibility for nothing less than the future of post-war Europe and the western economy.
“It makes sense that the United States is doing all it can to help restore normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and assured peace,” he said. he declares. “Our policy is not directed against a country or a doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, despair and chaos.”
With these words both ambitious and discreet, the secretary announced the launch of the European recovery program, better known as the Marshall plan.
There was no prospect of a Russian invasion of Europe in 1947. But European economies were not recovering from the devastation caused by the war, the fortunes of the Communist parties in France and Italy were on the rise and the future of a divided Germany was still in the balance.
After a lengthy drafting process, spearheaded by the State Department in conjunction with European governments, and negotiations with members of the 80th Congress, President Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act (ERP) of April 3, 1948. In Over the next four years, Western Europe received $13.3 billion in grants and loans, a sum equivalent to 5% of postwar US gross national product (GNP).
Although the plan is not solely responsible for this, Western European economies grew by 32% in those four years. And perhaps most importantly, ERP restored confidence to European governments and societies, helping to realize a vision of economic and political integration that endures to this day.
But looking back to those events of 1947 and 1948, there were factors at play that, had they gone the other way, could have stopped the creation of the ERP in its tracks.
First, the adoption and implementation of the plan required bipartisan support. More than just support, Republican leadership was needed at a time when the country had lost faith in President Truman.
The transition from war to peace has caused supply chain disruptions. Inflation reached 18% in 1946. The unions responded with a wave of strikes; in 1946, the country lost 16 million working days, three times the total reached in any previous year. Struggling to find solutions with his own party in Congress, Truman was seen as in over his head.
The Democrats suffered a crushing midterm defeat in November 1946, losing control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1930. The same month as Marshall’s speech at Harvard, Republicans passed the veto of Truman to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, reducing power. unions enshrined in the Wagner Act of 1935. The GOP, led by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, sought to roll back the New Deal.
But at this crucial moment, politics stopped at the water’s edge.
In the summer of 1947, Marshall sought help from Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A transformed isolationist who once harbored presidential ambitions, “Van” thought the plan was crucial “from the standpoint of intelligent American self-interest.” “He ironed out key details in tandem with Assistant Secretary of State Robert Lovett and championed the Economic Recovery Act through the Senate.
The Republican éminence grise, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, chaired a bipartisan citizens’ committee for the Marshall Plan. Even New York Governor Thomas Dewey, Truman’s presumed opponent in the 1948 election, provided qualified endorsement. Following a Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia in March 1948, two GOP resisters, former President Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft himself, abandoned their opposition.
And second, the plan could not be seen as a plan to further divide Europe into American and Soviet spheres: the Russians and their satellites must be invited to participate. But that openness would carry the risk that they would sabotage the program, a risk that the State Department’s Chip Bohlen called “hell of a gamble.”
It was Soviet pundit George Kennan who opined that Stalin would never allow Russia to participate in a global free market system – but that satellites might be able to participate and weaken Moscow’s grip. The father of the “containment” strategy urged Marshall to “play it straight” and approach the Soviets with the offer.
The threat was lifted when, at the right time, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov walked out of the July 1947 Paris conference that had met to discuss the plan. Moreover, Stalin crushed the aspirations of the Eastern Bloc states, especially Czechoslovakia, who had hoped to participate. Economically and militarily, it was the Soviets who made the fateful decision to divide Europe.
How do these post-war echoes inform today’s events?
Like Truman, President Biden could suffer the loss of both houses of Congress in November. Republican leaders will need to step up and provide a Democratic administration with the foreign policy support and collaboration that Vandenberg, Stimson and others demonstrated 75 years ago. In the words of George Marshall at Harvard, “Political passion and prejudice should have no part.”
And following in Stalin’s footsteps, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the fortunes of Greater Russia are incompatible with an international order based on Western values. In 1947, Czechoslovakia was banned from participating in the Marshall Plan. Today, Putin fears not only Ukraine’s NATO membership but even its economic integration into the European community.
Despite the success of the Marshall Plan, Europe will not achieve security without the creation of NATO and the subsequent strengthening of American defense capabilities. Today, both sides in Washington must again recognize and act on the assumption that a long-term division of Europe is once again in sight.
Paul C. Atkinson, a former Wall Street Journal executive, is editor of the New York Sun.