NEXT week's seven-nation Venice economic summit comes at a propitious time: the 40th anniversary of perhaps the greatest foreign policy success in American history, and one of the truly noble moments of Western political and economic cooperation, the Marshall Plan. Western unity, not to mention the world's prospects, did not look all that secure when Secretary of State George Catlett Marshall delivered his carefully chosen words at Harvard's commencement exercises on June 5, 1947. Europe lay in shambles, torn by war. Millions were unemployed, many others starving. America's factories were humming, but who would buy their output? Fellow Americans alone? And what about the communists, eager to assume control, not only of Eastern Europe, but parts of Western Europe as well, where vocal communists could be found?
The amount of United States taxpayer dollars eventually earmarked for the European Recovery Program, designed to rebuild Europe economically and politically, was remarkable for those times: $13.3 billion, to be transferred to 17 nations. In today's inflation-stretched dollars, that would represent some $60 billion. Imagine Congress, or the American people, appropriating $60 billion, not only for a new public-policy program, but one pegged to rebuilding another part of the world! No wonder Marshall's legacy is praised to this day, as well as the foresight, the generosity, the sheer decency, of the American people of that period.
And what about Americans - and Europeans and others - in this world of the 1980s? Are their vision and purpose equal to today's demands, when entire continents find themselves burdened by crushing public as well as private debt, when hunger and scarcity still differentiate vast swaths of mankind from their more affluent neighbors?
The Marshall Plan, of course, was unique. Duplicating it today would be presumptuous, if not impossible. Nor, as we know in retrospect, do public spending programs or investment programs necessarily lead to quick progress. That was one of the hard lessons of the 1960s. And yet it is the heart, the foreign policy creativity, of the Marshall Plan that calls out to us today from 40 years ago. George Marshall had been a man of war, a military leader. But for his finest achievement he is remembered as a builder, an architect of growth and progress.
The leaders of the Western alliance and Japan meeting at Venice should consider the legacy of the Marshall Plan. Political, economic, and military strains can be found in today's alliance. Too often the industrial nations seem more intent on going their own way than on progressing together - as the rush toward protectionism underscores. Foreign aid budgets, particularly in the United States, are under increasing pressure. And can it really be said that Western foreign policy in the '80s is marked by creativity?
It is useful to remember the Marshall Plan with appreciation - and as an incentive to a higher Western purpose.