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Last Updated: 04/14/2003
The Marshall Plan Mystique
David Ekbladh

The war in Iraq had not even begun when public discussion began on the rebuilding of Iraq by the US. Is this to be another "not the Marshall plan"? David Ekbladh calls for rethinking the approach to so-called Marshall Plans.

In the last year, international development has been propelled back into the mainstream of international politics. In the United States, the concept had been consigned to the fringes by the latest Bush administration that had derisively dismissed the concept of "nation building" as not worthy of American energies. However, since Afghanistan became an important front of the "War on Terror" the imperative of building a nation has reared its head. War against Saddam Hussein's regime has brought promises that the United States will reconstruct Iraq economically as well as politically after the struggle. The U.S. government response to the changing world situation has been to again make foreign aid into a rhetorical symbol of American global commitments. Not only were there promises that Afghanistan would be rebuilt, but at Monterrey, Mexico in March of 2002 there was a commitment by George W. Bush that the U.S. would make significant increases to its foreign aid allowances for the first time in decades as a means to fight the depravation that is now billed as a cause of terrorism. Bush's announcement of a "Millennium Challenge Account" brought considerable excitement in international development circles. Among the early field of hopeful Democrats jockeying for position in the 2004 presidential election in the U.S., discussion of the importance of "nation building" to foster democracy, peace, and stability could be heard-hardly an issue that would have endeared many supporters in the preceding presidential campaign.


In these plans and promises there are more than echoes of development ideas that held sway for much of the twentieth century. Perhaps the clearest connection is the constant comparison of present-day plans to the Marshall Plan. Continuously invoked as one of the best examples of the largess of the United States on the world stage in recent history, the Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program or ERP) has again been lined up with ideas for how American economic aid can be a means to promote development that will set areas of the world on a path that will have a terminus compatible with the interests of the United States.

These sorts of comparisons, of course, are not new. George C. Marshall, in his capacity as Harry Truman's Secretary of State, announced the European Reconstruction plan on June 5, 1947 in a now canonical speech at Harvard University. The speech kicked off a major program of economic aid meant to accelerate the reconstruction of a Western Europe, which was still struggling to rebuild after the trauma of World War II. Rather quickly after the inception of the program, Western Europe overcame the catalog of bottlenecks, shortages, and financial woes that were barring recovery. Although some disputed (at the time and since) the effects of the ERP, the perception of prompt success lead many to see the Marshall Plan as a prime example of how U.S. government aid programs should operate elsewhere.

The Marshall Plan has held a prominent place in discussions of U.S. foreign policy ever since. Aid programs based on it have been called for every part of the globe, not only by advocates in the United States but also by various nations and interest groups internationally. An "Asian Recovery Plan" was considered in the late 1940s, Latin Americans asked for a Marshall Plan in the 1950s, Central America was promised a Marshall Plan in the crisis years of the early 1980s. Besides these regional proposals, various individual aid programs were regularly compared to the ERP benchmark throughout the Cold War. But the Marshall Plan's appeal was more than just international. It insinuated itself into economic and public policy discussions within the United States itself. There were demands for a domestic Marshall Plan to aid America's struggling urban areas during the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, there were calls for Marshall Plans to catalyze economic growth and opportunity for the African-Americans-requests that can still be heard today, phrased in the same idiom. Many of these ideas never got past the rhetorical stage, but they show the power of Marshall's plan as an idea and motivator. It has long since achieved the power of a readily accessible metaphor. In debates about international and domestic policy the Marshall Plan can be easily invoked and understood as the best example of how aid provided by the U.S. government can promote economic development through financial support and technical assistance on a large scale.


This is not to suggest the Marshall Plan idea has not had its critics. Detractors have long disputed elements of the Marshall Plan mystique. Some have challenged specific elements within development plans that have claimed their inspiration from the ERP. Others have regularly questioned the overall applicability of a program molded for post-World War II Western European needs to other regions and peoples.

Here critics have a point. The Marshall Plan was tailored to Western European needs of a particular historical moment. Americans understood that Western Europe in the 1940s had a mature technological infrastructure. Even if they had been damaged by global war the remnant roads, electricity grids, and factories provided a foundation on which to build upon. Even more importantly, American planners saw a Western Europe that had deep and experienced ranks of engineers, managers, and bureaucrats who provided the sinew that held modern industrial society together. These human resources were believed to be mated with a powerful modern outlook within these societies, one that, even after the shocks of two world wars, had a basic faith in technology and was forward looking. These elements decided that what Europe needed was basically a recovery of its previously existing capacities, not the development of new ones.


Nevertheless, for the Americans, such assets did not mean Western Europe did not have to be altered in significant ways. Michael Hogan, in his outstanding history of the Marshall Plan, has noted how American planners attempted to graft ideas they felt had been proven in the domestic New Deal into the European political economy (this provides a dram of irony when those who opposed the New Deal or its legacy supported a program derived from the Marshall Plan for some other part of the globe). These ideas, grouped under the heading of "productionism," promised that supposedly impartial forces of state and regional planning, engineering, and scientific management. Political problems could be dealt with by these ideas as mere technical questions and this would reduce industrial conflict between capital, the state, and labor. Easing tensions in this manner would allow production to increase and all would share the benefits from a bigger economic pie. From the American perspective, just as important was the significance of the ERP in strategic plans to contain communism. Money and technical assistance, provided by the United States, would assure that any chance of communist subversion (a threat more feared than outright Soviet invasion) would be broken on an increasingly prosperous, and therefore harmonious, Europe.


Japan was also subjected to a vast economic and social reconstruction during its post-World War II occupation by the United States. Douglas MacArthur, who headed the American dominated Supreme Command of the Allied Powers that administered Japan, had a stable of New Dealers on his staff that was responsible for many aggressive reforms to Japanese society and economics during the occupation's first years. While the changes made to Japanese life were arguably more profound than those in Europe (to this day Japan's constitution holds a clause renouncing war, something put in place by the Americans) the unique circumstances, closely linked to MacArthur's autocratic occupation command and lacking the dramatic regional impact of the ERP, they have never held the cachet of the Marshall Plan as an example for international development.


While the Americans thought Europe had to change it did not necessarily have to be remade in a fundamental way. Planners inside and outside of the government at the time understood this. Even with the excitement over the early success of the Marshall Plan discussions of aid plans proposed to meet instability in other regions often were based in comprehension of the specific nature of Western European recovery. The proposal for an "Asian Recovery Program," that floated around the State Department in 1948 while capitalizing on the enthusiasm for regional plans like the ERP, nevertheless understood that poorer and less developed parts of the globe required their own approaches. Planners believed that Asian societies lacked the technological capacity to put large amounts of capital aid to work due to lack of infrastructure and trained personnel. There was also a feeling among many Americans that Asian societies were mired in "backward" or "traditional" cultural and political outlooks that slowed if not completely prevented economic development. Supporters of U.S. engagement in Asian development, both inside and outside the government, advocated what would currently be referred to as socio-economic development to provide modern technology while also forging the institutional, professional, and social outlooks that were necessary to put these technologies to work.

Like supporters of the ERP, they also thought the U.S. experience in the New Deal was exportable. However, it unlike the Europeanists, those focused on Asia typically turned to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as the Depression tempered mechanism to foster economic and social development. As a program that was seen to have produced remarkable economic and social change in a short period of time for the perennially poor and "backward" South, the TVA seemed to provide a good model for raising up countries that needed far more than just the means to recover lost economic capacity but to develop new institutions and capabilities throughout their societies. Many early foreign aid proposals aimed at areas outside of Western Europe, particularly Harry Truman's high-profile 1949 "Point Four" program, were directly compared to the TVA by enthusiastic supporters. Even Truman's critics understood this relationship and railed against the creation of what they saw as the concoction of a set of global New Deal "give aways" based on programs like the TVA and WPA. Such emphasis is a sign that many policymakers and commentators understood from very early stages that while the Marshall Plan was a great emblem of American aid, it was not necessarily the best means to actually catalyze the development they believed to be required in various regions of the world.


Accordingly, there is a need to rethink our enduring use of the Marshall Plan as a quick and easy synonym for U.S. foreign aid. It is, admittedly, one of the clearest and easily understood examples that can be brought out to show U.S. benevolence, or at least enlightened self interest, on the world stage. Helping to foster the reconstruction Western Europe was a key part of U.S. Cold War grand strategy, but it nevertheless had tangible and positive benefits for the Europeans themselves. This is particularly important when many of the international development programs that the U.S. has since sponsored in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have inspired ambivalence at best. Many of these programs did not deliver on their promises to build more prosperous, or even more stable, societies. As a concept, development itself has come under withering fire from many quarters in the last thirty years. Many international development programs that were products of the post-World War II period have been lashed for their unintended and often negative consequences, Cold War focus, lack of environmental sensitivity, failure to reconcile local needs, cultural imperialism, and simple economic unsustainablity.

It is perhaps unsurprising that many commentators fall back on the positive legacy of the Marshall Plan rather than, for example, the U.S. backed plan remake rural life in Iran, which had a catalog of negative effects there during the 1960s and 1970s or Lyndon Johnson's abortive Vietnam era promise to "turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley" for the benefit of the inhabitants of Southeast Asia. The continued aura of success that surrounds the ERP makes it easier to make a new policy understandable and justifiable to an often-skeptical U.S. public and global community. Yet, we should be aware that the ERP was not conceived of as an international development program as we now understand them. It was to support the recovery (and modification of) Western Europe after a major war, not to promote the fundamental restructuring of a society and the construction of new social and economic relationships and institutions.


In the last year development has recovered a role in U.S. foreign policy that rhymes with its employment during the Cold War. It now has a strategic use in curtailing the breeding grounds of terrorism, something that appears similar to use of development aid to contain communist influence. With this increased importance there is a need not only the retool international development in practice but in how it is discussed and understood. The appearance of the Marshall Plan as an emblem of the U.S. commitment to the development of Afghanistan-the plans for that country are much broader than mere reconstruction-and to a new program of international development worldwide is a good place to start. Perhaps, as a sign of the sincerity and depth of American commitment, comparing a new program to the Marshall Plan, even if the sums devoted to these programs are a smaller percentage of GNP than that devoted to the ERP in the 1940s and 1950s, is fair. But when it actually comes to the prolonged and determined business of fostering development (and with it more just and open societies) the United States would do best to forge a new model with the international community and the peoples of the globe that can best deliver what particular populations require according to their contemporary needs.

David Ekbladh recently completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University and worked for the Carnegie Corporation of New York on international affairs and conflict prevention issues.