The Marshall Planet

I saw the excerpt below in today’s The Writer’s Almanac and it raised some questions in my mind that I thought I’d throw out for comments. But first:

It was on this day in 1948 that President Harry Truman signed the European Recovery Program (known as the Marshall Plan) into law, which allocated more than $5 billion in aid to help revitalize the economy of European countries after World War II. That amount eventually grew to more than $18 billion, which is the equivalent of about $100 billion in today’s dollars.

At the time, Europe was on the verge of economic collapse. Whole cities had been destroyed. Factories had shut down. The winter of 1947 was one of the coldest on record and many Europeans were unemployed and homeless, freezing to death.

Though the plan to help Europe became known as the Marshall Plan, it was not George Marshall who came up with it. In fact, it was a small group of lesser-known American strategists and diplomats who realized that the situation in Europe could result in communist takeover of the entire continent. So they turned to Secretary of State George Marshall, who as a well-known war hero and public figure at the time, hoping he could sell the plan to the public.

Marshall immediately bought into the idea and became its spokesperson. He announced the plan at the commencement ceremony at Harvard on June 5, 1947. He then went on a countrywide tour, promoting the plan to ordinary Americans. He later said it felt like he was running for president.

It was a hard sell. Most Americans were tired of all the sacrificing they’d done during the war, and they weren’t too excited about continuing to sacrifice for the benefit of Europeans. The Marshall Plan might never have been enacted if a communist government hadn’t taken control of Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1948.

During the quarter century after the Marshall Plan was introduced, Europe experienced its highest economic growth ever. Western Europe’s gross national product increased by 32 percent. It was one of the most generous and one of the most successful acts of American foreign policy.

What occurred to me was to picture what today’s world would be like if there had been no Marshall Plan and Europe had indeed become Communist in the late 1940s. I’m not trying to make any point with these thoughts, but just trying to imagine how different the world might be today.

  • Would the continent have had enough critical mass to have survived, ala China, despite the inefficiencies of the Communist model, or would the sytem have collapsed even more rapidly than what happened in the Soviet Union?
  • Without NATO would a nuclear war have been more likely in the past 50 years? Without an arms race, would the Soviet Union (and/or Communist Europe) still be around?
  • Would Communist Europe have been under Soviet hegemony, or would each country have maintained it’s own government and a prickly peace with the USSR?
  • Having already ceded Europe to Communism, would the U.S. have fought for Viet Nam (and what would a Communist France have meant in Indochina in the 50s and early 60s?)
  • Let’s assume Communist Europe would have failed economically in the last 50 years; would these countries be better off today as a result of failure, followed by reform, or with the slower death by socialism that appears to be the present course?
  • What would have happened to the U.S. post-war morale and economy if the countries we had fought to free had become communist and if we didn’t have access to these markets?

Again, I don’t think I’m going anywhere with this; I’m just trying to imagine a different world than the one I grew up in. What do you think?

One thought on “The Marshall Planet

  1. I think that America would have become cynically isolationist. Two horrible wars to save Europeans and they end up being unfriendly dictatorships anyway?

    Or perhaps we would have concentrated our efforts on Asia and Latin America. Perhaps Mexico would have competent government and a powerful economy?

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