Just six months after the American invasion of Iraq began, President George W. Bush went before the United Nations General Assembly to announce that he was prepared to make “the greatest financial commitment of its kind since the Marshall Plan” in order to rebuild Iraq. The president’s decision to link his policy in Iraq with George Marshall’s policy in post–World War II Europe reminds us of how influential the Marshall Plan remains sixty years after it was conceived. But the president’s effort at linkage also reminds us of how enormously talented the men around Marshall were in the 1947–48 period in which he served as secretary of state.
The list of those in the State Department on whom Marshall relied for formulating his plan to aid Europe reads like a diplomatic Who’s Who. George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, and Will Clayton come to mind immediately, but below them were a series of figures who, in their roles as ambassadors and mid-level aides, were also impressive.
How did this confluence of talent—and the gap it represents between past and present—happen? Did America just get lucky? Or is there a deeper explanation? Luck certainly cannot be ruled out. But what luck cannot explain is why the talented men around Marshall worked so well together.
Part of the explanation lies with Marshall. As Army chief of staff during World War II, Marshall was the prime organizer of victory, the man whom President Roosevelt once told, “I feel I could not sleep with you out of the country.” During the war, Marshall refused all decorations from the United States on the grounds that it wasn’t right for him to accept honors while others were risking their lives. After the war, the selfless dedication that surrounded Marshall touched all who worked with him.
But equally important, the Marshall Planners succeeded as policymakers because of the humbling view of history they shared with each other and Marshall. As a group, the Marshall Planners were haunted by America’s post-World War I isolationism. They believed that America could not succeed in the cold war unless it made alliances, and they were equally sure they could not help Europe get back to normal unless they first owned up to the risks and burdens the Marshall Plan would impose on ordinary Americans.
MARSHALL ARTICULATED these views as secretary of state without pulling his punches. Shortly after taking office, he observed in a talk he gave at Princeton University, “I think we must agree that the negative course of action followed by the United States after the First World War did not achieve order or security and that it had a direct bearing on the recent war and its tragedies.” In his famous Marshall Plan speech at Harvard’s 1947 commencement, he declared, “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet e...
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