Last Tuesday, May 28th, I watched intently as ex-KGB intelligence officer Vladmir Putin signed an agreement as president of Russia that ended his nation’s 53-year status as the NATO Alliance's principal foe. The event, creating the unprecedented NATO-Russia Council, served to welcome Moscow into the alliance as a junior partner. The "Rome Declaration" effectually removed the last vestige of the adversarial relationship that existed between the Soviet Union (later Russia) and the West since the closing days of World War II. It’s worthwhile to recall how we arrived at this important juncture in history. In June 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall – who had served as U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II – offered unparalleled American economic assistance to the European countries still devastated by the destruction of the war two years after the surrender of Nazi Germany. His plan was simple: a blueprint for the economic recovery of Europe. Marshall first outlined the concept of the recovery plan at a graduation day at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. This initially vague proposal quickly evolved into a detailed program within ten months, and became law with the support of the Truman administration and Congress. A total of $13.3 billion in grants, loans and material aid flowed across the Atlantic Ocean. Large crates that were identified by the label "European Recovery Program" (ERP) became familiar sights in Western Europe. Historians have unanimously concluded that the Marshall Plan was a large success. It fueled the energetic recovery of Europe at such a rapid pace that its success was termed "unpredictable" and beyond expectations. The Marshall Plan served as the economic and political underpinning for the Western alliance that would go on to wage the Cold War. This fractious period in world history would lead to an arguably successful conclusion almost a half-century later with the dissolution of The Iron Curtain. Under the Marshall Plan, for the first time in American history, the United States fully engaged itself in the international arena in peacetime, committing money and foreign aid instead of the blood of its soldiers. At the same time, the United States safeguarded its investment in rebuilding Europe by means of an occupational military force. Eventually, that "Army of occupation" was called on to resist aggression in Berlin, an event that later would prove pivotal to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. By providing the initial monetary investments for the recovery of Western Europe, the Marshall Plan transformed its beneficiaries from nations of poverty and hopelessness into thriving global partners. In the 25 years following 1948, Western Europe recorded its highest rate of economic growth ever. The Germans even created a word – Wirtschaftswunder – to describe this unbelievable level of national progress (literally translated as "economic miracle"). West Germany’s progress stood in stark contrast to the communist state of East Germany that was saddled by the inefficiencies and central planning of Soviet communism. The "other" Germany simply ceased to exist in 1989 when the Soviets allowed a peaceful revolution to sweep throughout Eastern Europe. From the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, to the fall of the Iron Curtain 28 years later, scores of East Germans attempted to flee to the prosperous West. They all risked life and limb, and a large number died seeking a better future in The Bundesrepublik Deutschland. In this Cold War game, with its deadly underpinnings, those who were least in control often suffered the greatest losses. The Marshall plan provided for the necessary financial recovery and political stability that would result in national success and autonomy. Military security followed suit and the Americans envisioned that the Europeans would be potential contributors to their own protection. Washington became increasingly committed to the alliance. Western European nations could emulate the United States and provide their citizens the good life, comfort, autonomy and security because of the Marshall Plan. Meanwhile, the Warsaw Pact nations lacked the economic and political freedom needed to replicate the winning NATO strategy in the decades that followed. The Marshall Plan, like any other large-scale undertaking that is subject to political debate, was not without controversies from the very beginning. The future of Germany, and the overall European economic integration, was an initial point of debate, with some France and Great Britain questioning why the former aggressor in World War II should enjoy the benefits of the Marshall Plan. At this time, Paris and London were still receiving reparations from Germany, which actually threatened the struggling German economy and undermined the Marshall Plan by making Germany a de-facto conduit for American aid to France and Great Britain. American officials correctly believed and stressed that German recovery was absolutely essential for overall stability in Western Europe. The Soviet Union itself unwittingly assisted in resolving this initial glitch in the implementation of the plan. In June 1948, the Soviets blocked ground access to Berlin, which, at that time was occupied in zones by the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, but which lay hundreds of miles within the Soviet occupation zone of eastern Germany. This may very well be go down in history as one of the greatest political and military blunders of all time. The Americans and the British ultimately refused to concede to the Soviet demand for exclusive control over Berlin. An armada of British and American aircraft began supplying and sustaining Berlin by air, which came to be known as the "Berlin Airlift." This massive, but non-combat operation, designed to help the beleaguered residents of Berlin, solidified NATO resolve against the Soviet Union for many years to come. In May of 1949, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin finally realized that the British, the French and the Americans were not going to allow his exclusive domination of Berlin. He backed down on the blockade, and ground transportation resumed on the corridors that had been negotiated in 1945. The die had been cast for The Cold War and relations between Western powers and the Soviet Union would continue to degrade. Because of the Soviet aggression against the city and people of the former (and future) German capital, Berlin itself became a living symbol of Western resistance to Soviet antagonism. But in the short term, the confrontation resulted in Great Britain and France taking a far more conciliatory stance on aiding in the recovery of Germany. A second question, pertaining to the overall economic integration of the Western European countries, remained unsettled. Many American officials argued that the European allies should move to create a common currency. But in 1949, nobody really knew whether members of the fledgling NATO Alliance could successfully set aside centuries of economic rivalry and political antagonism. The Truman administration and its congressional allies believed and asserted that multilateral inter-European cooperation, along with quid-pro-quo measures, were critical to the continent’s desired economic recovery. This approach aimed not only at eliminating duplication and waste, but would also American officials argued that a bi-lateral plan would eliminate duplication and potential waste. They envisioned that this approach would maximize "continent exclusive" European trade, increase economic efficiency, and minimize frictions that could lead to renewed competition within the alliance. There were hardcore security implications behind this push for a strategically leveled economic playing field. The threat to Western Europe from Soviet expansionism required firm and sustained military and economic commitments from all Western European nations for the long term. In early 1948, British and American policymakers first publicly aired the possibility of a security alliance between the United States and Europe. This alliance would counter Soviet policies and the perceived threat of from the Red Army. A year later on Apr. 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was born. Western Europe’s recovery made certain that the Marshall Plan would become the model for future foreign aid initiatives and programs. The recovery program led to a 32-percent increase of aggregate growth in Western Europe’s GNP, a 40-percent growth in industrial output, and an 11-percent rise in agricultural production during the four years the Marshall Plan was in effect. The Marshall Plan’s success in keeping Western Europe free from the Communist Bloc, and its political threat to the Warsaw Pact, clearly convinced American planners that economic weapons could solve contentious geopolitical issues. Even today, more than a half-century later, the Marshall Plan remains an exemplary model of positive economic diplomacy. The aid program not only lifted Western Europe from post-war destruction and hopelessness, but it also became the foundation of an America strategy to challenge the Soviet Union peacefully. The lessons learned from the Marshall Plan have taught us that investing to protect peace and prosperity abroad also safeguards prosperity at home. It is clear, on this 55th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, that judicious investment of American capital for foreign aid can be as effective – if not more so – than relying solely on military might to protect the vital interests of the United States. One belated legacy of the Marshall Plan occurred on January 1st. of this year with the launching of the "euro" as a common European currency under the European Union. But a far more important one occurred last week. The inclusion of Russia as a junior partner to NATO is a direct consequence of the Western European rebirth under the Marshall Plan. And coming 42 years after his death in October 1959, we can append a new line to the epilogue of the finest soldier-statesman in modern American history, General of the Army George Catlett Marshall: He created the instrument by which a formidable Cold War adversary finally became our friend.
J. David Galland, Deputy Editor of Defense Watch Magazine