While addressing the 72nd Session of the U.N. General Assembly, his first-ever address to the international body, Donald Trump made an unexpected move: He referenced history. Specifically, he called out President Harry S. Truman’s post-WWII support for the European recovery act, a.k.a. the Marshall Plan.
“As president Truman said in his message to Congress at that time, our support of European recovery is in full accord with our support of the United Nations,” President Trump declared. “The success of the United Nations depends upon the independent strength of its members.”
Suggesting he was looking to the “wisdom of the past,” Trump quoted Truman’s 1947 special address to Congress where he urged lawmakers to pass legislation in support of the Marshall Plan. At the time, World War II had just ended, the Nazis had been defeated and the European continent was in ruins. Then-Secretary of State George Marshall believed it was imperative for the United States to participate in getting Europe back on its feet. The consequences of ignoring the problem, he argued, could be devastating for the U.S. economy.
Truman agreed, urging Congress to take action. Four months later, on April 3, 1948, the Economic Cooperation Act was passed. Known as the European Recovery Program, the Marshall Plan (named for the Secretary of State) sent more than $13 billion in economic aid to Europe between 1948 and 1951.
President Trump used this historical reference to double down on the nationalist motto he campaigned on—and has continued to pursue while in office, telling the U.N., “As president of the United States, I will always put America first.” Stressing to other world leaders that they would and should “always put your countries first,” Trump called for strong, independent, sovereign nations that can take care of themselves.
To some observers, Trump’s reference to Truman, one of the original signers of the United Nations Charter, came as a surprise. The 45th President’s stance on the U.N. has been anything but consistent. As a business leader with aspirations to national office, he praised the organization in 2006, only to chastise it 10 years later during his 2016 presidential campaign. And even as he expressed support for a historic example of American cooperation with its allies, his 2018 economic plan proposes drastic cuts to State Department funding and foreign aid, which U.N. officials said will make it “simply impossible” to do their job.
The two presidents have one thing in common: North Korea. In 1950, Truman stated he was prepared to use nuclear weapons against the country, a sentiment Trump reiterated to the UN General Assembly. Sometimes, history does repeat itself.