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The Marshall Plan at 75: What Republicans might learn from Arthur Vandenberg

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Seventy-five years ago, at the June 5 commencement of Harvard College, Secretary of State George Marshall was among those awarded an honorary degree. Other recipients on the podium included T.S. Eliot, J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Omar Bradley.

In a brief acceptance address that received only pro forma news coverage, Marshall challenged America to take responsibility for no less than the future of postwar Europe and the Western economy. 

“It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” he said. “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

With those words, both ambitious and understated, the secretary heralded 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 wrought by the war, the fortunes of communist parties in France and Italy were on the upswing and the future of a divided Germany was still in abeyance.

After an extensive drafting process, driven by the State Department in collaboration with European governments, and negotiations with members of the 80th Congress, President Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act (ERP) of April 3, 1948. Over the next four years, Western Europe was provided with $13.3 billion in grants and loans, a sum that equaled 5 percent of America’s postwar Gross National Product (GNP).

While the plan was not solely responsible, the economies of Western Europe rose 32 percent over those four years. And perhaps more importantly, the 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 at those events of 1947 and 1948, there were factors in play that, had they gone the other way, might have stopped the creation of the ERP in its tracks.

First, the plan’s passage and implementation required bipartisan support. More than just support, it required Republican leadership at a time when the country had lost faith in President Truman.

The transition from war to peace had caused supply chain disruptions. Inflation reached 18 percent in 1946. Labor unions responded with a wave of strikes; in 1946 the country lost 16 million man-days of labor, three times the total reached in any year before. Struggling to find solutions with his own party in Congress, Truman was seen as over his head.

The Democrats suffered a crushing defeat in the November 1946 midterms, losing control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1930. The same month as Marshall’s Harvard speech, the Republicans passed over Truman’s veto the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, curtailing the power of labor unions enshrined in the Wagner Act of 1935. The GOP, led by Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, was looking to roll back the New Deal.

But at this crucial time, politics did stop at the water’s edge.

Over the summer of 1947, Marshall enlisted the assistance of Michigan’s Arthur Vandenberg, Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A transformed isolationist who once harbored presidential ambitions, “Van” believed the plan was crucial from “the standpoint of intelligent American self-interest. “He ironed out key details in tandem with Assistant State Secretary Robert Lovett, and quarterbacked the Economic Recovery Act through the Senate.

The Republican eminence grise, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, presided over a bipartisan citizens Committee for the Marshall Plan. Even New York Governor Thomas Dewey, Truman’s presumptive opponent in the 1948 election, provided a qualified endorsement. Following a Soviet sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia in March of 1948, two GOP holdouts, former President Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft himself, dropped their opposition.

And second, the plan could not be seen as one to further divide Europe into American and Soviet spheres: the Russians and their satellites must be invited to participate. But that overture would carry the risk of their sabotaging the program, one that the State Department’s Chip Bohlen characterized as “a hell of a gamble.”

It was Soviet expert George Kennan who reasoned that Stalin would never permit Russia to take part in a global free market scheme — but that the satellites might be in a position to take part 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 removed when, as if on cue, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov walked out of the July 1947 Paris Conference that had convened to discuss the plan. In addition Stalin quashed the aspirations of the eastern bloc states, in particular Czechoslovakia, which had hoped to participate. Economically as well as militarily, it was the Soviets who had made a fateful decision to divide Europe.

How do these echoes of the postwar period inform events today?

Like Truman, President Biden may 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 shown by Vandenberg, Stimson and others 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 the fortunes of Greater Russia are incompatible with an international order based on Western values. In 1947 Czechoslovakia was forbidden from participating in the Marshall Plan. Today, Putin fears not only Ukrainian membership in NATO but even its economic integration into the European community. 

Despite the success of the Marshall Plan, Europe would not achieve security without the establishment of NATO and the subsequent build up in American defense capability. Today both parties in Washington must again recognize and act on the assumption that a long-term division of Europe is again in the offing.

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

Tags George Marshall George Marshall Herbert Hoover President Truman Russia Russia-Ukraine war Soviet Union The Marshall Plan Ukraine United States World War II

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