While the world prepares for the conclusion of the television program Mad Men next year, we ought to stop and think about what prepared the world for Mad Men. In a recent interview (relevant quote begins around 4:15), Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said that he first became interested in the late 1950s and early 1960s when drafting the pilot for his show because New York had become “the center of the universe” by that time. This era, Weiner added, was also “the height of America’s influence, of America’s goodwill,” thanks in large part to the continuing “benefits of the Marshall Plan” in all aspects of American life, even almost a decade after the official end of the plan.
The massive economic impact of the Marshall Plan within the United States often gets overlooked because of its official name: the European Recovery Program. More than $13 billion of US aid in the forms of grants and loans was provided to Europe but was used to purchase American goods. In fact, assurance of this cycle was crucial to Marshall’s success in garnering public support for the plan. American farmers and industrialists were hesitant to offer their support, because they feared that a recovered Europe that could produce its own goods would reduce demand for American goods abroad. (See, for example, Marshall’s speeches to the Congress of Industrial Organizations on October 15, 1947; National Cotton Council on January 22, 1948; and the National Farm Institute on February 13, 1948 in volume 6 of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall.) Marshall would later comment that he fought for the establishment of the ERP “as hard as though I was running for the Senate or the presidency.”
It was not just Marshall who was concerned about garnering popular support to pass the program. One of the Marshall Foundation’s collections, Marshall Plan Resources, includes many official reports from this period analyzing the domestic effects of increased foreign aid. One of these, commissioned by President Truman and written by the Council of Economic Advisers, predicted that without the proposed foreign aid, “it was likely that the U.S. export surplus would sink to an annual rate of 4 to 5 billion dollars” in 1948, “contrasted with the 13 billion dollar annual rate in the second quarter of 1947.” The report went on to warn that while the short-term effects of this decrease “would probably not inflict serious short run damage on the U.S. economy, substantial problems of readjustment would be generated. Moreover, the industrial paralysis which could be expected to result in some other countries would have repercussions of major proportions upon our own economy and upon world stability” for years to come, leading well into the early years of the Mad Men era.
It is precisely because of Marshall’s long-term vision in seeing the extensive domestic benefits of foreign aid that the American economy experienced the growth and success that it did in the 1950s and early 1960s, which in turn inspired one of the most iconic television programs of our own era.