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The United States is so widely disliked that it's worth recalling a time when it wasn't. The U.S. cemented its worldwide reputation in the years after World War II. Americans spent billions to rebuild Western Europe after the war. Today, students learn the name of that program, the Marshall Plan. George C. Marshall was the secretary of state who proposed it in a speech 60 years ago.

Secretary GEORGE C. MARSHALL (U.S. Department of State): Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.

INSKEEP: We're going to talk with the author Greg Behrman who wrote "The Most Noble Adventure," a book about the Marshall Plan. It happened during the Cold War, which is long over, yet Behrman argues that this story is very relevant today. And Mr. Behrman, why?

Mr. GREG BEHRMAN (Author, "The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe"): Well, I think it is very relevant today. I think one of the key insights behind the Marshall Plan is that we were able to engage a strategic, a military threat in the form of the Soviet Union through non-military means.

Europe was decimated by the war. Beyond the destruction and the carnage, its economies were dislocated, traditional trading patterns had come undone, and there was a sense of dispiritedness. So national communist parties were feeding off of that. At the same time, the Soviet Union was emerging with designs on continental expansion.

INSKEEP: What did George Marshall, the secretary of state, propose then in that speech in 1947 and then in the months that followed?

Mr. BEHRMAN: Well, he put forward an offer. He put forward an offer to have Europe take the initiative in its own recovery. And he said that if Europe would put forward a common program of economic recovery, America would stand with Europe. We'd underwrite the endeavor, and we would help them find solutions for their problems. And that tone of humility, of cooperation was essential in the program's success.

INSKEEP: It wasn't cheap.

Mr. BEHRMAN: No. It sure wasn't cheap. It cost $13 billion, and I think the most interesting metric there is that as a comfortable percent of gross national product, it would equate to $500 billion in today's terms. But if you look at what we accomplished from '47 to the beginning of the Korean War, we launched the Marshall Plan. We launched Europe on its most prolonged economic boom in history. We contained the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, and we brought Western Europe into a U.S.-led economic and political orbit, eventually culminating in NATO, which is the most successful peacetime military alliance in history. The dividends were extraordinary.

INSKEEP: How willing were Americans to spend those billions of dollars rebuilding European factories and streets and roadways and feeding Europeans and getting them heat and everything else?

Mr. BEHRMAN: At the outset, Americans were reluctant. We had just come off a war that involved a great deal of sacrifice from everyone. We were weary of additional foreign commitments. People wanted a peace dividend. At the same time, there was a Republican Congress that was very weary of government spending. And so there was reluctance.

But I think one of the great things about the Marshall Plan and these statesmen is that the plan supporters barnstormed America for months and months. They went out to America's largest cities, smallest towns, and they engaged people. And it was a vast Democratic conversation.

INSKEEP: You have gathered photograph after photograph where people are delivering coal, delivering materials, building something, starting construction, and there's always this American-flag-inspired banner that says, you know, a gift from the United States, or something to that effect.

Mr. BEHRMAN: Absolutely. You know, and everything we provided had the Marshall shield, which was a crest, red, white and blue, and it said for European recovery, supplied by the United States of America. And, you know, speaking to Europeans who lived through that period, they remember that well. For many of them, it was their defining image or view of America. It's no accident that that coincides with a time when America was perhaps the most popular we've been, and our standing in the world has never been higher.

INSKEEP: Some of that aid, of course, was delivered by air to West Berlin when it was surrounded by the Soviet Union at one period to 1948 and beyond, the famous Berlin Airlift. And I want to play a piece of tape from a newsreel that gives a sense of how that event played in the news at the time.

(Soundbite of a newsreel)

Unidentified Man: As the red noose is drawn closer about the Western sect of the capital, switches are pulled on generators, and the fuel famine forces drastic power cuts. Berlin becomes a city of darkness, as all ground communication is severed and industry comes to a standstill.

But the Western allies fight back with an airlift of 450 flights daily, carrying thousands of tons of food into the beleaguered capital, flying an air corridor threatened by red fighter planes. Backing up the shuttle are 60 B-29s, which arrived at an airfield in England, a base from which American planes once bombed Germany. Now this yanks may fly on a mission of mercy, the feeding of hungry Germans in Berlin.

INSKEEP: Hard to imagine a better propaganda.

Mr. BEHRMAN: It was, you know, the best propaganda back then was American policy. We got our policies right, and people responded to that.

INSKEEP: Well, now I want to ask, because people have spoken modern times about a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, and of course, billions and billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to reconstruct Iraq. Is it possible for the United States, really, to launch a Marshall Plan today?

Mr. BEHRMAN: The Marshall Plan was unique to its time and place, and it responded to a certain set of very specific challenges. But I think it is absolutely possible to take some of the insights and the principles that served us well in the Marshall Plan and apply them.

For example, in the Middle East, I think that a similarly bold program to promote economic opportunity and partnership in the region which serve our interests very well, I think it would do several things. First, it would embolden moderates and put pressure on hardliners and radicals in the region.

INSKEEP: Although, wait a minute, wait a minute. When the United States tries to aid moderates in the Middle East, they often get discredited. Don't we have a much more poisonous or complicated situation in the Middle East than there was in Europe, where some countries had been U.S. allies and the one-country, Germany, had been the enemy, but had been very thoroughly defeated and knew it needed help?

Mr. BEHRMAN: Absolutely not, actually. Remember that, back then, communism was on the rise, and there was actually a great deal of opposition to the United States and a good deal of skepticism about what America was trying to do with this offer of aid. But we stood with moderates and we were very adroit in how we approached the program by offering a hand in partnership, by looking to the Europeans to take the initiative.

This was a grand enterprise. It was sufficiently large to really stir the European people. And when we got behind it, the Europeans really began to see that America wanted to stand with Europe. And while this sort of program would no doubt be greeted with a strong measure of skepticism by a lot of corriders from the Middle East, I think that if we approach it in the same way, over time it could help recast how we're perceive in that region.

INSKEEP: Greg Behrman is the author of "The Most Noble Adventure." Thanks very much.

Mr. BEHRMAN: Great to be with you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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