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by Thomas E. McNamara

We persistently promote each major development assistance plan or nation-building project as “a Marshall Plan for _(fill_in_name)_.” Once a plan is underway supporters and opponents play out their different agendas. Supporters of foreign assistance downplay “Marshall Plan” comparisons because expectations cannot be met. Opponents stress the comparison to highlight shortfalls. This happens because none of the nation-building plans ever measures up to the original, successful, real, Marshall Plan. And they never will. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Ukraine, not in Latin America, not in Africa.

They won’t because the original Marshall Plan, contrary to popular myth, had nothing to do with development or nation building. It had everything to do with accelerating the reconstruction of already developed nations in Europe after two massively destructive wars.

Left alone and given time, post-WW II Europe could have recovered on its own. Indeed, it was already beginning the recovery in the years before the plan’s startup in April 1948. The European economy was on its back in 1945, got to its knees in two years, and was poised for further recovery.

The problem was that Europe was not left alone, and time was short. The Cold War was well underway. Doors were slamming shut in Eastern Europe, where Red Army occupation and control was well underway. In February 1948, the Prague coup decapitated Czechoslovakia, and subversion threatened Western Europe. Emergency action was called for.

What has often gone unnoticed is that the Marshall Plan was a final effort to avoid a full-fledged Cold War. President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall offered the plan to all of Europe, including the East Europeans and the Soviet Union. The chance that a paranoiac Joseph Stalin would agree to join the effort was slim to none. Yet, hope remained that the nations of east-central Europe might participate. That none of these did join demonstrated that they lacked the independence to follow their national interests and were, in fact, already satellite states of the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan did not start the Cold War, but the Marshall Plan rejection by the Soviet Union starkly revealed it.

The Plan was an emergency rescue proposal, not a development plan. the “European Recovery Program,” (its official title) aimed to alleviate suffering and speed recovery, which it did beyond all expectations. Europeans were responsible for developing the planning and for organizing national programs.  The U.S. funded them and provided a security umbrella for participants, so they could focus on economic problems. The umbrella was a civilian and military presence in occupied Germany that ensured sufficient stability for success. Elsewhere in Europe, governments recognized that the U.S. had a mostly common culture and history, which promoted a common interest in rebuilding Europe. They most assuredly knew that the Soviet Union did not have either.

Although Americans tend to forget, before the two great European civil wars, Western Europe, was the most developed region of the globe. The United States, Europe’s closest competitor, was behind Europe at the start in most measurements. Prior to 1939 in several industrial and agriculture sectors, the U.S. was the lead nation, but of course the lead nation did not exceed all of Europe combined. WW II catapulted the U.S. over Europe, creating the industrial “superpower” that rescued a prostrate continent.

The most important factor that made the original Marshall Plan a success was that Europe had a solid historical base on which to build a recovery. Since early in the 17th Century, and through the early decades of the 20th, Europe was the globally expansive force in world affairs. It was the world center of science, of financial power, of industrial production, of intellectual creativity, of military and political expansion, and of cultural activity. Europeans had the knowledge, confidence, and experience needed to rebuild because they had been at the top. Most importantly, Europe had the world’s best-trained, best-educated, and highly motivated population, albeit temporarily depleted and exhausted.

Thus, Europeans, together, rebuilt—not developed—Europe with U.S. financing, and then took that cooperation many steps further, resulting in today’s European Union.

The Marshall Plan was, in one sense, a reversal of roles from the immediate post-Civil War period (1865-75) in the United States. In that period European capital invested in the rebuilding of American industry, agriculture and transportation devastated by that horrific conflict. On a smaller scale than the Marshall Plan, that foreign investment helped to jump-start the post-war American economy and society so that by the end of the century, the United States became a great power, the first non-European great power in several centuries.

Japan having similar qualities to build on after WWII, was similarly successful with its U.S. assistance program. As in Europe, Japan benefitted from the additional factor of a U.S. occupation.

None of this history and none of these conditions exist today in the developing world. It is folly to consider development plans and nation-building as “Marshall Plans.” To do so creates excessive expectations. The hyperbole ensures a sense of failure. Recipients lose confidence and hope because they repeatedly fall short. Congress becomes frustrated when sums that exceed Marshall Plan levels produce less than Marshall Plan results. U.S. taxpayers lose patience. It’s like expecting college pre-med graduates to immediately become successful medical doctors. Europe, to continue the metaphor, was a practicing physician before WW II. The Marshall Plan helped it to reopen that practice.

What’s in a name? In this case there is plenty of history in a name. The Marshall Plan was a brilliant political, economic, and social effort that matched the circumstances of that time and place. It is often called the most unselfish act in history. Let us salute the American and European authors of that act by retiring the name with the high honors it deserves and agreeing that there was only one Marshall Plan.

Future development and nation building, which the United States must and will undertake, should consider the circumstances of the new times and places and not be burdened with inappropriate, confusing, and self-defeating comparisons with that noble effort.

Thomas E. McNamara has served as Assistant Secretary of State for political-military affairs, Ambassador to Colombia, Ambassador at Large for counterterrorism, and Special Assistant to President George H.W. Bush.

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