Marshall’s Plan

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, June 5, a frequently momentous date in the life of our country. On June 5, 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the order of the day to paratroopers prepared to begin the invasion of Normandy, along with a dauntless exhortation: “Full victory — nothing else,” Ike said.

It was also on a fifth of June that Robert F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, the same night he won California’s Democratic presidential primary. RFK would die the next day, plunging the country even further into the abyss of 1968.

On this date in 2004, America lost another hero. Ronald Reagan finally succumbed to the Alzheimer’s disease that had robbed him of his memories. That June, like this one, came in an election year, but partly because the Gipper and his wife had faced this cruel condition so bravely, his death transcended partisan politics.

“Whether you agreed or disagreed with Ronald Reagan, you can’t deny he was honest, fought hard for what he believed in, and had the courage of his convictions,” said Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. “He will be remembered as one of our finer presidents.”

But it was a fourth event on a June 5 that I’d like to focus on this morning. It came three years after the day Dwight Eisenhower walked among the men to buck up their spirits for the bloody invasion that would take place the following morning. It was a speech in Harvard

Yard by the only Army general who outranked Ike on D-Day, and its purpose was peace, not war.

Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, along perhaps with Douglas MacArthur, are the “Greatest Generation” U.S. military commanders whose names might still resonate with Americans today. In 1944, however, all three of those Army officers reported to a five-star general named George C. Marshall Jr. It was on this date in 1947 that Marshall outlined the Truman administration’s plan to save Western Europe from the stark economic deprivation that threatened the civilian survivors of World War II.

Even when he was a household word in this country, many Americans assumed that George Catlett Marshall was a Virginia patrician. He attended Virginia Military Institute and was a blood relative of several ranking officers in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Another Virginian, Chief Justice John Marshall, was also distant relative. But George C. Marshall’s father was born in Kentucky and saw limited action in the Civil War as a 16-year-old rifleman who volunteered in an Augusta, Kentucky militia.

When rebels sought to occupy that Ohio River town, young George Sr. found himself in combat against the Confederacy. After the war, he settled in Pennsylvania, where his son and namesake was born. Nonetheless, as a Pennsylvania Democrat (the state was Republican-controlled) after the war, the elder Marshall couldn’t get his sons into West Point, so off they went to VMI.

There, George Jr. distinguished himself and was named senior captain of the Corps of Cadets. After graduation, he sought — and received — an audience with President McKinley to make his case for a commission in America’s small peacetime army.

His dedication was rewarded — it was not the last time he would impress a president — and Marshall worked his way through the ranks, teaching at the Army Staff College, serving in the Philippines, and as Gen. John J. Pershing’s adjutant during World War I.

Planning and logistics were his conspicuous talents, but he was universally respected inside the Army and out for his foresight, probity, and non-partisanship. “When General Marshall takes the witness stand to testify, we forget whether we are Republicans or Democrats,” House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said. “We know we are in the presence of a man who is telling the truth about the problem he is discussing.”

The respect he commanded inside the Army was, if anything, greater. Marshall’s style of command inspired confidence. He didn’t do it by glad-handing or fraternizing; he adhered to formality and took pride in not showing emotion. (“I have no feelings,” he once said, “except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall.”)

This was not strictly true. He could be fiercely protective of the troops under his authority — and they knew it. Informed that blankets needed at Fort Benning were stalled due to paperwork, Marshall told the officers under his command: “Get those blankets and stoves and every other damn thing that’s needed out tonight. Not tomorrow, tonight! We are going to take care of the troops first, last and all the time.”

He was 55 years old before he made brigadier general, but when Franklin Roosevelt made him chief of staff on September 1, 1939, he leapfrogged Marshall over several senior officers. It would prove to be one of FDR’s best hunches.

Hitler’s Panzer divisions had invaded Poland the same day Marshall took his post, and the Third Reich had more men on Germany’s eastern front than the U.S. Army had in uniform all over the world. Under Marshall’s direction, the United States forces would grow from 200,000 to some 8 million. This mammoth Army would truly need “blankets and stoves and every other damn thing” — and it needed George C. Marshall to make it happen.

In the 21st century, however, this career soldier is known more for his two-year stint as secretary of state. World War II had left Europe’s cities and economies in ruins. The winter of 1947 had been especially cold, highlighting the need for food, fuel, clothing, and housing in nations that were simply unable to provide it.

And so, four months into his job as a statesman, Marshall spoke at Harvard in his affectless monotone to outline an ambitious and humanitarian role for America in the postwar world: The United States would rebuild Europe. It was an effort already being called the Marshall Plan.

“I need not tell you that the world situation is very serious,” he began. “People in the cities are short of food and fuel and in some places approaching the starvation level. The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.

“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos,” Marshall said. But then he added, in a reference to both the Soviet Union and localized communist organizations in Western Europe, that “governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit … politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.”

The Cold War would start soon enough. For now, the U.S. was committed to helping other nations in need. Marshall would be Time magazine’s 1947 “Man of the Year,” and win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. For him, though, the idea of the Marshall Plan — let alone the fact that it was named after him — was never really the issue. The crux of the matter was that the program be was implemented effectively.

“I worked on that as hard as though I were running for the Senate or the presidency,” he said later. “It wasn’t the idea of the so-called ‘Marshall Plan.’ There’s nothing so profound in the logic of the thing. But the execution of it, that’s another matter. That’s the thing I take pride in — putting the damn thing over.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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