a breeding ground for pestilence and hate -- 10/29/14

Today's selection -- from George Marshall: A Biography by Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshson. In 1945, virtually all of Europe was in economic chaos and its citizens were vulnerable to the promises of communism. The fear was that "economic, social, and political disintegration [would] overwhelm Europe." And so a plan was announced that was a triumph of enlightenment designed to help resurrect Europe, a plan that was "not be directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, desperation, and chaos"-- the U.S. led Marshall Plan of financial aid to European countries, named for George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, Secretary of State, and the third Secretary of Defense:

"In May 1945 Winston Churchill had famously described Europe as 'a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate.' By 1947, some scholars believe, recovery was already under way -- there was no need for American intervention -- and they ascribe the American response to Europe's postwar plight to expansionist American economic policies dating back to the 1920s. But to contemporaries the prostrate nations of Europe did not seem in much better economic shape in mid-1947 than they had on VE Day. But beyond the purely humanitarian realities, by the time Marshall moved into his new Washington office [as Secretary of State] the political fallout of cold, hunger, lawlessness, and despair had grown ominous. Everywhere within the still-free nations, but particularly in France, Italy, and the Western occupation zones of Germany, the Communists and their allies, playing on desperation and drawing on Soviet prestige, were making deep inroads into the support of conservative, centrist, and even socialist parties, with their goal of converting the free societies into subservient Soviet allies if not de facto Soviet puppets. In early March, before he left with Marshall for Moscow, Will Clayton had sent an urgent memo alerting the State Department to the consequences of failing to grapple with Europe's predicament. 'Feeding on hunger, economic misery, and frustration,' he wrote, attacks to undermine independence were multiplying, and these 'had already been successful in some of the liberated countries.' They were imperiling America's security and must be countered with generous American largesse....

The ruins of the Church of the Holiest Savior in Warsaw, Poland

"The undersecretary of state [Dean Acheson] had little doubt that without substantial American aid in these difficult months, European democracy could collapse. But he also knew that after three and a half years of war, Americans were weary of further obligations to Europe and reluctant to pay for its seemingly endless needs. His task, then, as he conceived it, was to make the nature of the growing crisis comprehensible to ordinary Americans, and he found the occasion in a talk he delivered in early May 1947 to an influential Southern business group, the Delta Council of Mississippi.

"Acheson's remarks at Cleveland, Mississippi, were in fact tailored to the interests of American businessmen, specifically those who managed the extractive agricultural exports of Dixie. He laid out the economic difficulties being experienced by Europe, with emphasis on the devastated Continent's need for American supplies of food, fuel, fiber, and raw materials generally, but without the means to pay for them. With a severely unfavorable balance of trade, the damaged European economies would need large American loans or gifts to make up the deficits -- funding beyond the sums for relief already expended or lent through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Export-Import Bank. Such new grants, he told the Mississippi planters, bankers, and merchants in his audience, would make up for Europe's dearth of American dollars and revive markets for American exporters. But Acheson did not ignore the humanitarian, political, and ideological benefits of American generosity. Human beings, he concluded, existed 'on narrow economic margins,' but so too did 'human dignity, human freedom, and democratic institutions.' It was 'one of the principal aims of [American] foreign policy today to use our economic and financial resources to widen these margins.' It was 'our duty and our privilege as human beings.' ...

"[Undersecretary of state for economic affairs Will] Clayton proposed a six- to seven-billion dollar three-year grant from the United States with the specifics to be drawn up by the principal European nations themselves. 'Without further prompt and substantial aid from the United States,' he warned, 'economic, social, and political disintegration will overwhelm Europe.' ...

"In late May Marshall entered the debate, ... [and gave a speech] at Harvard University's 286th commencement, where, along with Gen. Omar Bradley, the poet T. S. Eliot, the atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other prominent Americans, he came on June 5 to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

General Charles de Gaulle (center) shaking hands with children, two months after the
German capitulation in Lorient, France, in July of 1945.

"His brief speech, of course, would become famous. ... It was here that Marshall sought to alert Americans to Europe's quandary and their government's need to cope with it. The text of the ten-minute speech was still incomplete when the secretary left Washington for Cambridge. He had not told the president of his intention, nor had he provided the State Department with a copy of its final form. The address, Marshall later said, drew on the thoughts of [Policy Planning Staff head George] Kennan and [foreign service officer Charles] Bohlen, plus his own ideas, and was hastily cobbled together while he was on the plane from Washington.

"Marshall's actual words had little passion or music. ... The 'world situation' was 'very serious,' Marshall declared. ... He then noted Europe's dearth of dollars to buy necessities from the United States. ''Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all.' Adopting the Kennan view that American policy should avoid overt attack on the Soviets, he suggested that it should 'not be directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, desperation, and chaos.' ...

"Though the New York Times printed the speech on its front page, the American public scarcely noticed the occasion. For Acheson and others in Washington, however, it was an opportunity to start the process of rallying the European nations themselves to the planning process."


Debi Unger


George Marshall: A Biography


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2014 by Debi and Irwin Unger


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