How One Man's Short, Vague Speech Shaped the World

The sum of western Europe today is greater than its parts. That was demonstrated yet again this past week when NATO signed a cooperation and mutual-security pact with Russia. That event, along with much other contemporary history, can be traced to the short address delivered 50 years ago today by Secretary of State George Marshall.

On June 5, 1947, Secretary Marshall gave a commencement address beneath sun-dappled oaks in the yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His speech was nine paragraphs long and so vague that most reporters missed its principal point: the US was prepared to launch what Winston Churchill called "the most unsordid act in history" - the Marshall Plan.

Ravaged by World War II, Europe was in shambles. The Soviet Union was a political wreck, subjugating eastern Europe and pressuring communist parties in western Europe - especially in France and Italy - to subvert their local governments and economies. Europe had suffered its worst winter in recorded history - railroad trains froze to their tracks, cattle died by the millions. In Germany, graves were dug in the fall for people who would starve to death before spring.

Marshall's Harvard address led to a $13.15 billion aid program ($88 billion in today's dollars) to 16 Western European nations.

Before 1947, the US had already appropriated millions for foreign aid and President Harry Truman knew the plan would be a hard sell to Congress and the American public.

But his administration knew a financially and politically strong Western Europe was essential to US security, as aid would counter communism's appeal and eventually make Europe a profitable customer for US goods and services.

All of this and much more has come to pass in the half century since Marshall's commencement address. The Marshall Plan began sending money, technical assistance, hardware, vehicles, and food to Europe in 1948. By its end in 1952, great industries were rebuilt or in the process of rebuilding, bombed cities were repaired, and intra-European commerce was flowing thanks to fiscal provisions in the Marshall Plan. In 1953, Secretary Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Marshall Plan sculpted the geographic, political, and economic shape of contemporary Europe. Both NATO and the European Union evolved in its aftermath, and it yielded two crucial political effects - West Germany was fully integrated into Europe, and the US clearly and permanently tied itself to Europe's military, political, and commercial destiny.

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