The Marshall Plan

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FROM JUNE 1947 to its termination at the end of 1951, the Marshall Plan provided approximately $13 billion to finance the recovery and rehabilitation of war-torn and postwar weary Western Europe.

In today’s dollars that sum equals roughly $100 billion, and as a comparable share of U.S. Gross National Product it would be in excess of $500 billion.

It was a mammoth sum, more than the United States spent to govern itself in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century.

More than the provision of dollars and aid, the Marshall Plan was the cornerstone of American foreign policy for much of those formative and consequential postwar years.

It was a monumental undertaking and—echoing Walt Whitman’s famous lines—it contained multitudes and contradictions.

For, after the war, Europe increasingly found itself looking across the Atlantic to the United States. The United States was the only power whose economy had flourished during the war. Europe needed the goods and natural resources abundant in the United States to fuel its recovery.

But, at the same time, Europe was not able to offer the United States goods or resources in return, nor could it draw on stores of investments or invisible earnings (like shipping or insurance).

Europe had a balance-of-payments problem with the United States: in 1946 Europe’s overseas trade debt was $5 billion and growing. It was known as the “Dollar Gap.” It was the key problem looming behind Europe’s incipient recovery and it was becoming dire.

From 1941 to 1945, American industry had mobilized its prodigious production capacity for the war effort.

By the end of the war, thirteen rationing programs were in effect, covering scarce commodities ranging from gasoline and shoes to sugar and red meat. Consumer goods such as refrigerators and automobiles were largely unavailable. Women were asked to leave the home and enter the workforce. By one count more than a quarter of American wives worked for pay during the war.

Americans were asked to save as never before. In 1940, personal savings amounted to around $4 billion. By 1945, it was $137.5 billion. All of this sacrifice was summoned after a decade-long economic depression.

 

from Behrman, Greg. The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe. Free Press. Kindle Edition.

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