On June 5, 1947, then-Secretary of State George Marshall delivered Harvard University’s commencement speech and used the opportunity to outline the ideas behind the foreign aid program that would help Western Europe recover from World War II and come to bear his name.
Now, 75 years later, when an updated version of the Marshall Plan is being widely called for as a guide to how the United States and its allies should respond to the Ukraine crisis, the Marshall Plan and its origins deserve our renewed attention.
America had come to the aid of other countries before, of course. It contributed to Belgian relief in World War I, and through the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 provided Great Britain with military aid before we entered World War II. But the Marshall Plan was different in scale and intent from these earlier ventures. It was designed to get Europe back on its feet with sustained help, much as the New Deal was designed to help America recover from the Great Depression.
Marshall’s Harvard speech took him just 12 minutes to read, but in it he made the urgency of the moment clear. “I need not tell you the world situation is very serious,” Marshall began by saying. America could not afford to watch events from the sidelines. What happened in Europe had consequences for us if we wanted to live in a world in which there was “political stability.”