Sixty-eight years ago today, Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered remarks at Harvard University that would become known as the Marshall Plan Speech. Henry Kissinger, who, like Marshall, served as Secretary of State and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, recently wrote about the significance of the Marshall Plan and its continuing relevance today.
Kissinger wrote that Marshall’s speech, “marked a historic departure in American foreign policy.” He continued:
Marshall’s premise was straightforward: Economic crisis, he observed, produced social dissatisfaction, and social dissatisfaction generated political instability. The dislocations of World War II posed this challenge on a massive scale. European national debts were astronomical; currencies and banks were weak. The railroad and shipping industries were barely functional. Mines and factories were falling apart. The average farmer, unable to procure “the goods for sale which he desires to purchase,” had “withdrawn many fields from crop cultivation,” creating food scarcity in European cities.
He also noted that:
Marshall’s so-called “technical discussion” was in fact a clarion call to a permanent role for America in the construction of international order. Historically, Americans had regarded foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be solved case by case, not as a permanent quest. At the conclusion of World War I, domestic support for the fledgling League of Nations foundered and the country turned inward. Declining to involve itself in the latent crises in Europe, American isolationism contributed to the outbreak of World War II. But America’s traditional attitude was up for debate again following the Allied victory.
In his speech at Harvard, Marshall put an end to isolationist nostalgia. Declaring war on “desperation and chaos,” he invited the United States to take long-term responsibility for both restoring Western Europe and recreating a global order.
Kissinger concluded by writing:
The complexity of this challenge gives Marshall’s speech new significance today. In a moment of crisis, he stood up, boldly outlining a vision of reconciliation and hope and calling on the West to have the courage to transcend national boundaries. Now, the challenge of world order is even wider. Instead of strengthening a singular order on a continent with established political systems, the task has become global. The challenge is to devise a system in which a variety of societies can approach common problems in a way that unites their diverse cultures. This is why there is a special significance for the sons and daughters of Harvard of a speech delivered almost two generations ago. Universities are the residuaries of cultures and, in a way, the bridge between them. Twin calls to duty have emerged after almost 70 years from Marshall’s Commencement speech: that America should cultivate, with Western Europe, a vital Atlantic partnership; and that this partnership should fulfill its meaning by raising its sights to embrace the cultures of the universe.
A recognized expert on foreign affairs, Kissinger believes the Marshall Plan’s continued relevance provides an indication of the tremendous and lasting impact that Marshall’s vision for prosperity and peace has had on the world. George C. Marshall’s uncanny ability to understand the long-term effects of his decisions led to the Marshall Plan’s emphasis on what Kissinger described as “the expansion of the concept of human dignity as a universal principle, and self-reliance as the recommended method of promoting it.” The advancement of these basic values, shared by the vastly diverse cultures of today’s world, has elevated the Marshall Plan to unparalleled status among foreign policy programs and will ensure its continued relevance as the United States and other countries throughout the world seek to establish “political stability” and “assured peace.”
To learn more about the Marshall Plan, please visit the Marshall Foundation curated exhibit “The Marshall Plan Speech” on the Google Cultural Institute and the Marshall Plan section of the Foundation website.