Remarks on the Marshall Plan

The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton

Marshall Foundation Award

June 5, 2007


Thank you, Dick, for those very generous words. Dick Lugar is by any measure one of America’s most experienced and able leaders on foreign policy.

Let me also acknowledge John Warner. His commitment to the U.S. military, his sound judgment, and his leadership in the Senate are enormous assets to the Congress and the country. He follows in the footsteps of George Marshall in his dedication to public service and the national interest. 

It is an honor to be with you tonight because it is an honor for me to be associated with the namesake of this foundation: George C. Marshall – a man who made his name leading Americans in a time of war, and who made his legacy by helping to secure a lasting peace.

The Marshall Plan is a crowning achievement in the history of American foreign policy. It reflected America’s generosity of spirit while also advancing America’s interest in peace and prosperity.

Whatever our differences may be today, the leaders of the G-8 nations will be meeting this week in a Germany – and a Europe – united in peace and prosperity. It is easy for us to take these circumstances for granted. Often, success causes us to overlook the difficulty of a task once it has been accomplished.

But here is how Churchill described Europe at the end of the war that Marshall helped to win: “It is a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”

How, then, did this rubble heap rise into prosperity? How did a breeding ground for war turn into a continent united in peace? How did the very enemies that George Marshall fought against come to be among America’s closest friends?

For our purposes tonight, let me focus on one aspect of this puzzle: How did the Marshall Plan succeed, and what general lessons might we draw from that success as we reach this 60th anniversary of its launch? Here are a few brief comments.

The Marshall Plan emphasized a collective security and a common humanity. It was in America’s interest that Europe be rebuilt, so that the cauldron of resentment that followed World War I and the Treaty of Versailles was not revived. But Marshall was clear that this plan served the common interests of mankind – not just America’s interest:

“Our policy,” he said at Harvard, “is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” In other words, America could look at the people of Europe, and in very clear terms say: “I’m on your side. I support your aspirations for a better life.” This was a message that was heard – and appreciated – for decades across Europe, and around the world.

The Marshall Plan demonstrated a mastery of public diplomacy. Both at home and abroad, Truman, Marshall and others skillfully built a case to support their approach – with facts, figures, and substantive arguments, not spin. They cultivated members of Congress, the press and the public. They reached out to foreign capitols and citizens, and listened as well as they lectured.

The Marshall Plan was flexible. There was not a black or white, “one size fits all” order imposed upon the countries of Europe. Nor was there a blank check – aid could be conditional. Instead, it was planned and applied pragmatically. It mixed government and private resources. What worked for the Netherlands did not work for Greece.

The Marshall Plan emphasized a multilateral approach to a transnational challenge. We did not rebuild Europe – we helped Europeans rebuild Europe. We did not dictate our terms with arrogance or pretend to have all the answers. We developed habits of cooperation and burden sharing that stood us in good stead for decades.

The Marshall Plan understood the importance of good people. It was about more than vision – it was about implementation. At the helm were the best and the brightest – Kennan, Clifford, Nitze, Acheson. In the field were industrious, educated, determined, professional, accountable Americans who stuck with the job, adapted to changing circumstances, and saw it through.

The Marshall Plan was also guided by leaders with a strong sense of public purpose. George Marshall’s own life was a model of humility – he saw himself first and foremost as a public servant. Instead of special interests, the Marshall Plan catered to the common good.

Finally, the Marshall Plan reflected the best values of the American people. After the devastation of World War II, it would have been easy to be angry, to be vengeful, even to be fearful – fearful of chaos in Europe, or creeping Soviet power. Instead, we chose to be generous, to be visionary, to be invested in the success of our former enemies as well as our friends.

As President Truman said after Congress approved the plan – “In all the history of the world we are the first great nation to feed and support the conquered.”

His words ring true, and more. As we scan a world of swelling turmoil, we are reminded that bold action can replace fear with hope, chaos with opportunity.

So tonight, the man we really honor is George C. Marshall. We honor his service. We honor his achievement. And we honor the fact that he showed Americans – and the world – what America, at its very best, can achieve in the world.

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