In one of the most significant speeches of the Cold War, Secretary of State George C. Marshall calls on the United States to assist in the economic recovery of postwar Europe. His speech provided the impetus for the so-called Marshall Plan, under which the United States sent billions of dollars to Western Europe to rebuild the war-torn countries.
In 1946 and into 1947, economic disaster loomed for Western Europe. World War II had done immense damage, and the crippled economies of Great Britain and France could not reinvigorate the region’s economic activity. Germany, once the industrial dynamo of Western Europe, lay in ruins. Unemployment, homelessness, and even starvation were commonplace. For the United States, the situation was of special concern on two counts. First, the economic chaos of Western Europe was providing a prime breeding ground for the growth of communism. Second, the U.S. economy, which was quickly returning to a civilian state after several years of war, needed the markets of Western Europe in order to sustain itself.
On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, speaking at Harvard University, outlined the dire situation in Western Europe and pleaded for U.S. assistance to the nations of that region. “The truth of the matter,” the secretary claimed, “is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products—principally from America—are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.” Marshall declared, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” In a thinly veiled reference to the communist threat, he promised “governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.”
In March 1948, the United States Congress passed the Economic Cooperation Act (more popularly known as the Marshall Plan), which set aside $4 billion in aid for Western Europe. By the time the program ended nearly four years later, the United States had provided over $12 billion for European economic recovery. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin likened the Marshall Plan to a “lifeline to sinking men.”