Joanna Shelton: Rebuilding Europe after World War II | Columnists
Seventy-five years ago today, on June 5, 1947, five-star Secretary of State and General George C. Marshall delivered a momentous speech at Harvard University. In it he described the destruction of European cities, factories, mines and railways during World War II and the “less visible dislocation of the whole fabric of the European economy”.
With famine threatening a large part of the European population; the Soviet Union expanding its authoritarian control over Eastern Europe; and the increasingly popular communist parties in some Western European countries, a sense of crisis led Marshall to call for massive economic aid to help Europe recover from its wartime devastation.
But, Marshall added, “the initiative, I think, has to come from Europe.” He wisely felt that for a reconstruction program to succeed in the recently war-torn and divided region, the recipient countries themselves would have to take the lead in determining how U.S. aid could be used most effectively – l America retaining a strong voice on the matter.
People also read…
The Economic Recovery Act of 1948, commonly known as the Marshall Plan, promised generous aid for four years – around $160 billion today – but only on the condition that members of a newly created Organization for European Economic Cooperation s agree unanimously on the allocation of funds to member countries. .
Requiring countries to cooperate in this concrete way helped them abandon the prevalent pre-war practice of dealing with each other primarily bilaterally and preferentially, which had acted to divide countries and also prevented them from achieve greater shared prosperity.
Although the Soviet Union was invited to participate, its leaders not only refused to participate, but they also prohibited the participation of Eastern European members of the Soviet bloc. Their refusal reinforced the division of Cold War Europe into communist and democratic, market-oriented camps.
After the launch of the Marshall Plan, far-sighted European leaders took other important steps to bind former enemies together. For example, the European Coal and Steel Community, created in 1952, united France, West Germany and four other countries into an integrated market, preventing one country from secretly increasing production of this crucial war material.
But by promoting a habit of cooperation and helping to break down barriers to the movement of trade and capital, the Marshall Plan sowed the seeds of post-war European recovery and integration. It contributed directly or indirectly to the creation of institutions that continue to play a role today, notably the European Union and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, successor to the Organization for European Economic Co-operation.
The Marshall Plan has also benefited America by expanding markets for our goods and services and supporting the establishment of democratic governments in countries that still serve as trusted allies and partners.
Of course, economic assistance was not the only factor contributing to Europe’s rapid revitalization and a more cooperative approach. The creation of NATO in 1949 provided important security guarantees for countries concerned about Soviet encroachment and the resurgence of Germany.
The North Atlantic Treaty provided that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all – and crucially extended US defenses and the “nuclear umbrella” to all of Western Europe. America has also increased its military assistance to help strengthen the defenses of Western Europe.
The Europe that emerged from the ashes of World War II enjoyed growing prosperity, great political stability and, for many years, the longest period of peace in its history. Although there have been a number of deadly military conflicts in Europe in recent decades – from the war in Bosnia to Russia’s repeated seizure of territory in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – Europe has generally enjoy peace.
We are now witnessing a devastating shattering of that peace by Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, the scale of which recalls the widespread and indiscriminate destruction of World War II.
Looking to a post-war future, a number of leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and European Council President Charles Michel, have called for a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine. There is no doubt that Ukraine will need large amounts of aid and assistance to rebuild its cities, factories, roads and other infrastructure. And I hope that such help will come.
But Marshall Plan expert Benn Steil argues that Ukraine’s proximity to Russia, which adamantly opposes Ukraine’s NATO membership, drastically reduces the prospect that aid and investment can help Ukraine replicate the experience of European Marshall Aid recipients. Without the security component, he argues, economic aid alone will not propel Ukraine into the ranks of stable, prosperous and democratic nations. Unfortunately, I believe he may be right.
Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris; held senior executive and congressional positions in Washington, DC; and occasionally teaches at the University of Montana.