Time Essay: The Marshall Plan: A Memory, a Beacon

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Britain's Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin called it "the most unsordid act of history." To Willy Brandt, speaking later as Chancellor of West Germany, it was "one of the strokes of providence of this century, a century that has not so very 'often been illuminated by the light of reason." It was launched upon the world in Harvard Yard just 30 years ago this week —in what was surely one of the most momentous commencement day speeches ever made. Sunshine tattered through the decorous elms as Harvard staged its first normal graduation exercises since the end of World War II. The morning ceremonies that spotlighted the new graduates concluded with the awarding of honorary degrees. T.S. Eliot was among the recipients. Another was a white-haired man in a plain gray suit who rose in response to President James Bryant Conant's swift and eloquent citation: "An American to whom freedom owes an enduring debt of gratitude, a soldier and statesman whose ability and character brook only one comparison in the history of the nation."

As the assemblage surged to its feet in a warm ovation, Secretary of State George Catlett Marshall, who had commanded all of America's military forces during the war, bowed, accepted his doctor of laws degree and sat down again. In his pocket, ticking off the day like a hidden bomb, was a speech whose content would shape a new world era and dwarf by its magnitude all the fame that Marshall had so far won. That afternoon, when his turn came to make a "few remarks" during the traditional alumni ceremonies in front of Memorial Church, Marshall quietly took out his speech and read it to his audience. Thus was born the Marshall Plan, an epochal —and magnanimous—undertaking unmatched in all of history. Through it, in the space of four years, the U.S. would spend an unheard-of $13.6 billion to underwrite the economic —and in a sense, the social and political—recovery of war-torn Western Europe, defeated enemies included.

When Marshall rose to read his speech, the war had long since been won, but not the peace. By early 1947 Soviet adventurism had inspired the Truman Doctrine, with its pledge of military help to any free people threatened by Communist aggression. By April, after a long and fruitless foreign ministers' conference in Moscow, the U.S. Government abandoned all expectations of obtaining cooperation from the Russians—even in balming the wounds of war let alone in fashioning a new world order. In Asia, China was on the verge of falling to Mao. Of most concern to Americans, however, was Europe, which teetered on the brink of a general economic collapse that seemed beyond the capacity of her ever divided nations to forestall.

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