Lessons from the Marshall Plan: Liberty and faith, not money and power

Lessons from the Marshall Plan: Liberty and faith, not money and power
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During today’s discussions about tariffs, free trade, and the limits of internationalism, much of the debate focuses on national power and self-interest. It’s worth remembering the Marshall Plan — approved 70 years ago this month — which also considered values.

The plan helped rebuild Europe after World War II. Rather than call for retribution, this humanitarian venture provided massive amounts of aid — $13 billion, the equivalent of $135 billion today (or a whopping $800 billion if calculated as a percentage of GDP).

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Secretary of State George C. Marshall spearheaded the effort, technically called the European Recovery Program (ERP), but known to everyone but him as the Marshall Plan. Yes, the Marshall Plan supported both wartime allies and former enemies, pursuing the larger geopolitical strategy of containment to defy the Soviet Union. While sometimes called an economic pump-primer or an industrial lubricant, ERP funds also resembled a vaccine: they stimulated host bodies to develop their natural powers of resistance.

To construe the Marshall Plan exclusively in these ways, however, is to overlook both its larger purpose and its deeper sources of inspiration.

Marshall was a five-star Army General who helped plan D-Day, and before that, he worked with the most senior Army officer during World War I. He understood that the first war’s peace agreement, the Treaty of Versailles, backfired.

While the treaty delivered a brutal punishment to Germany for its role in the war, it also spurred the next conflict. Germany’s post-war poverty and the growing resentment from its European neighbors helped pave the way for Adolf Hitler.

“Wars are bred by poverty and oppression,” Marshall said in a 1947 radio speech. “Continued peace is possible only in a relatively free and prosperous world.”

After World War II, Marshall grew determined to avoid post-war chaos and revolt. He worked for a Democratic president and with a Republican Congress, but he focused on a faith-based spirit of generosity, not partisanship.  As he often said, “My father was a Democrat, my mother a Republican, and I am an Episcopalian.”

The Marshall Plan was in accord with the American tradition of democracy. It was not simply — or even primarily — a large-scale humanitarian program. An instrument of structural economic reform, it functioned as a weapon in the Cold War. But deep down, this program embodied Americans’ great tradition of freedom.

Marshall argued that maintaining free, autonomous governments would reaffirm western Europeans’ bonds with the United States: their shared traditions and common values. But freedom and democracy alone were also desirable ends. Securing democracy would help keep the peace. Keeping the peace would help democratic governments grow. And boosting confidence, both in the economy and in democracy, would help prevent a desperate lurching into the Communist brand of stability and social harmony. The Marshall Plan affirmed that free markets, basic human rights and food security were mutually reinforcing: good in and of themselves, and contributory to a just and lasting peace.

“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 in a Harvard University speech where he unveiled the Marshall Plan. “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

What was the source of Marshall’s commitment to basic human rights? Beneath his training as a citizen and a soldier was his ongoing engagement with mediating institutions that are schools of courage and compassion, primarily the family and the church. Marshall was formed by the Book of Common Prayer and its biblical ideas about flawed human beings, the need for contrition and repentance, and renewal with humility and gratitude for mercy and grace. His core convictions were threaded all through his ethical leadership. The way his most basic beliefs shaped his vision helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize — the only career officer in the U.S. Army to receive this honor.

Prudence and promise characterize the Marshall Plan: balance-of-power realism wedded to compassionate intervention, all in defense of freedom and human flourishing. He achieved outstanding results by two principal means: altruistically assisting other nations, thus building up the liberal order; and safeguarding the national interest, thus fortifying American power.

During today’s policy debates, let’s have more of that conviction.

David Hein is a senior fellow at the George C. Marshall Foundation (Lexington, VA) and an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (Philadelphia).