The Marshall Plan Is Having A Moment Presidential candidates have been calling for various "Marshall Plans," referring to the U.S. program to fund rebuilding in post-World War II Europe. But what are they really talking about?
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The Marshall Plan Is Having A Moment

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The Marshall Plan Is Having A Moment

The Marshall Plan Is Having A Moment

The Marshall Plan Is Having A Moment

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Presidential candidates have been calling for various "Marshall Plans," referring to the U.S. program to fund rebuilding in post-World War II Europe. But what are they really talking about?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Judging by the debates among Democratic presidential contenders, the Marshall Plan is having a moment. Candidates keep talking about it as a sort of template. So what does a 71-year-old law have to do with today's problems? Greg Rosalsky with NPR's Planet Money went to find out.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: The Marshall Plan may be one of this political season's hottest buzzwords. Julian Castro's saying it.

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JULIAN CASTRO: One of the things I propose in my plan is essentially a 21st century Marshall Plan for Central America.

ROSALSKY: Pete Buttigieg is saying it.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: I've proposed the most comprehensive vision, marshaling as many resources as one into the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe.

ROSALSKY: Candidates are calling for a Marshall Plan to fight climate change, a Marshall Plan to improve national infrastructure, a Marshall Plan for racial equity, but no one is being really specific about what a Marshall Plan actually means or what it would take to do. It's just, like, this euphemism for, let's spend a lot of money.

BENN STEIL: If we were to launch a Marshall Plan of equivalent size today as a percentage of our GDP, we would be talking about $800 billion.

ROSALSKY: That's Benn Steil. He's the author of a book called "Marshall Plan: Dawn Of The Cold War." As the name of the plan might suggest, it was spearheaded by George C. Marshall. He was a five-star general during World War II and secretary of state after the war. It was a crucial period for Europe. It was devastated. Societies were teetering, and the U.S. became worried that communists would take over. Marshall first proposed the plan in a speech at Harvard University in 1947.

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GEORGE C MARSHALL: I need not tell you that the world's situation is very serious.

ROSALSKY: The plan was passed in April 1948. By that summer, at any given point, the Marshall Plan was funding something like 150 ships crossing the Atlantic. They're filled with stuff like grain, coal and construction equipment. The products and money helped 16 countries recover from the war, but for Benn Steil, the plan was really all about one country.

STEIL: The whole story really is about Germany - not just the Marshall Plan, but the Cold War is fought about Germany.

ROSALSKY: Before the war, Germany was the heart of industrial production in Western Europe, but after the war, it was in freefall. It wasn't just occupied. It was divided into four occupation zones, controlled by the U.S. and its allies in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. It became the center of a struggle between capitalism and communism.

STEIL: So one of the aims of the Marshall Plan was to make Germany self-sufficient again.

ROSALSKY: The U.S. ended up creating an entire new state - West Germany - and they used the Marshall Plan money to convince Germany's former enemies, like France, to let this new state exist. The plan created a Western Bloc united against communism that Steil says would lead directly to the creation of the European Union.

STEIL: The European Union as we know it today was really an idea that began with the Marshall Plan in the state department.

ROSALSKY: It was a masterful grand strategy, but Steil doesn't believe it's easy to repeat with cash alone. The U.S. was rebuilding countries that already had a lot of advantages.

STEIL: So when people talk about Marshall Plans in other parts of the world, I think they often mistake the financial aid on its own as being some sort of magic elixir to bring economic growth.

ROSALSKY: He says politicians that cite the Marshall Plan - they're missing the motivation. It wasn't do-gooding for do-gooding's sake. It was a plan to contain a rival.

STEIL: Most Cold War historians would date the beginning of the Cold War to 1945, the immediate aftermath of the war. I argue in my book that it's probably more accurate to date the Cold War to Marshall's speech.

ROSALSKY: The Marshall Plan wasn't simply about cleaning up the ruins of a past war. It was about starting a new one.

Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.

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