This article about the Marshall Plan originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Providence‘s print edition. Portions of it appeared in The Hill on April 26, 2018.

The Great War was not only a boon to George Catlett Marshall’s career, preparing the way for a long and close association with General John J. Pershing; the war and its aftermath also provided Marshall with valuable schooling in ethics and leadership. Over the 20 years that followed this cataclysm, the primary lesson he learned had to do with what to avoid: the post-bellum temptation to withdraw from international affairs, thereby contributing to a breakdown of peace and to the inception of another, even more horrific global conflict.

From his varied experiences in France between June 1917 and September 1919—planning troop movements, risking his career by defending others against the unfair criticism of higher-ups, working with allies, quartering in the homes of French farmers—Marshall gained a deeper sense of competence and responsibility in the profession of arms. This awareness of accomplishment and mastery joined a personal integrity manifest at least since his cadet days at the Virginia Military Institute. Over time, his clear impression of duty incorporated a commitment to discovering and implementing the conditions of a peace that would be not only lasting but also just and seeded with promise.

Although he was, to borrow Dean Acheson’s descriptive phrase, the “least militant of soldiers,” George Marshall believed—as he put it in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in December 1953—in a “very strong military posture,” which “is vitally necessary today.”[i] A massive defense buildup alone was not enough, however; nor would economic aid to war-damaged nations coupled with strategic alliances suffice. In his view, a renewed moral and spiritual commitment was also requisite.

When Marshall gave his Nobel Prize address, he was chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission. In this role he supervised the construction and maintenance of military cemeteries overseas, particularly in Western Europe. As he noted in his speech in Oslo, Norway, “the cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones.” Therefore, he affirmed, “I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war. Almost daily I hear from the wives, or mothers, or families of the fallen. The tragedy of the aftermath [of war] is almost constantly before me.”[ii]

On the sixty-fifth anniversary of this address and on the seventieth anniversary of the commencement of the European Recovery Program (ERP), anyone engaged with peace and security studies might profitably consider what General Marshall, a practitioner of conservative internationalism, represents in respect to the relationship between morality and foreign affairs.[iii]

Today, especially amidst debates about both free trade and the limits of internationalism, frustrated Americans often cite the Marshall Plan as a foreign policy scheme that achieved outstanding results by two means: altruistically assisting other nations, thus building up the liberal order, and safeguarding the national interest, thus fortifying American power.

Frequently discussed and almost always praised, the European Recovery Program, which everyone except Secretary of State George C. Marshall called the Marshall Plan, is nonetheless one of the most misunderstood enterprises in the history of the twentieth century. Yes, it was a humanitarian venture that provided massive amounts of aid—$13 billion, the equivalent of $135 billion in 2018—so that underfed and underhoused men, women, and children could obtain enough to eat and start to rebuild both their homes and industries.

And yes, the Marshall Plan supported both wartime allies and former enemies in pursuit of the larger geopolitical strategy of containment. Appointed by Marshall to be chief of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan famously elaborated the containment policy, which sought to defend the US national interest by reinforcing—via both the ERP (employing political, economic, and psychological tools) and NATO (military strength)—independent centers of power in Europe and Asia (especially West Germany and Japan) which could defy the Soviet Union.

Indeed, although sometimes called an economic pump-primer and sometimes termed an industrial lubricant, ERP monies also resembled a vaccine or, perhaps better, an injection of carefully targeted stem cells: grants, loans, and counterpart funds designed to stimulate host bodies to develop their natural powers of resistance.

To construe the Marshall Plan exclusively in these ways, however, is to overlook both its larger purpose and its deeper sources of inspiration. Neither active idealism (a massive humanitarian intervention) nor defensive realism (an anticommunist security strategy) quite comes to grips with this program’s raison d’être. Nor do both of these interpretations taken together suffice as an explanation of this multifaceted effort of 1948–51.

What these interpretations miss is the fact that Americans would not have been so committed to spending these large, sacrificial sums except that their own core beliefs, values, and institutions were at risk. In a number of speeches, President Harry S. Truman made this point quite clear.[iv] And on June 5, 1947, in his Harvard University speech announcing the ERP, General Marshall proclaimed the centrality of liberty, declaring that this plan’s “purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.”[v]

In Boston on October 15, 1947, while on a speaking tour aimed at building support for the ERP, Marshall told the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that “the basic issue…is simply whether or not men are to be left free to organize their social, political and economic existence in accordance with their desires; or whether they are to have their lives arranged and dictated to them by small groups of men who have arrogated to themselves this arbitrary power.”[vi]

In Marshall’s view, democracy never meant simply a means of selecting leaders, a specific political process. Indeed, in his Nobel Prize Lecture, he rejected trying “to persuade other people to adopt our particular form of government.” But he could not ignore the moral heft or motivational capacity of “those fundamental values on which our government, like many other democracies, is based.” These principles, he affirmed, “are timeless,” and they “have a validity for all mankind.” These freedoms offer millions living today “under sub-normal conditions” an opportunity to participate in their “fair share of the God-given rights of human beings.” Material aid alone would not suffice. A “spiritual regeneration,” rooted in the “inspiration of great principles,” would spark “the imagination and arouse the spirit.”[vii]

Marshall’s concern, therefore, was with preserving a form of government and a way of life that ensured individuals’ political, economic, and religious freedoms. In his speech to the CIO, he asserted that the political problem “in the world today…has assumed more menacing proportions than ever before. The great enemy of democracy has always been the concentration of arbitrary power in a few hands.” This extreme centralization, he believed, would lead to the devaluation of basic human rights. “The particular theory used as a justification for the suppression and eventual elimination of civil liberties varies with the times,” he observed. But “all such theories…contain within themselves the greatest of all human fallacies, that in human affairs the end justifies the means.”[viii]

This phrase—“the end justifies the means”—is amply illustrated in Arthur Koestler’s classic anticommunist novel Darkness at Noon, which, as John V. Fleming notes in The Anti-Communist Manifestos, “emerge[d], cicadalike, in the tense climate of postwar France.”[ix] As Koestler vividly reveals, in the communist state, life and death, truth and lies, the individual and the masses all take on meaning and value only in relation to the center-of-value, the state, which means the party, which is ruled by number one, who was in this case Stalin. And the party justifies its lies, its killings, its ruthless and relentless denial of the first-person pronoun—“I”—all in the name of an ever receding future, an end-state of perfect justice and harmony. This ideal future goal justifies all the present horrors.[x]

Within the goals of the Marshall Plan, including idealistic humanitarianism and realistic international security strategy, where does reestablishing Europeans’ confidence in free governments fit in? Somewhere in between idealism and realism. And in between means and ends. Maintaining free, autonomous governments would reaffirm Western Europeans’ bonds with the United States: their shared traditions and common values.

But freedom and democracy were also desirable ends, good in and of themselves. Securing democracy would help keep the peace. Keeping the peace would help democratic governments grow. And boosting confidence both in the economy and in democracy would help prevent a desperate lurching into the communist brand of stability and social harmony. The Marshall Plan affirmed that free markets and basic human rights and food security were mutually reinforcing, good in and of themselves, and contributory to a just and lasting peace.[xi]

By “freedom” Marshall never meant merely negative freedom, or freedom from. His whole life demonstrates that to him freedom in a democracy also means positive liberty, or freedom for. In his classic work Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville famously points out that in the United States in the early 1830s, social conditions and expectations were quite different from those in class-bound Europe, where citizens accepted the ranks they were born into. In a free country, Tocqueville notices, “all is bustle and activity,” as people strived to get ahead—to make the most of their opportunities.[xii]

Working hard to get ahead—for oneself, for one’s family, for one’s community and country—that’s part of what democracy means. Both George Marshall and his chief exemplar, George Washington, were strivers in—and on behalf of—the American republic.

Marshall’s career expresses the paradox that in self-sacrificial service of a good cause, he found himself. But then, having succeeded, like George Washington, he practiced the patience of power; he was humble; he relinquished authority.[xiii] He did not cash in by writing his memoirs or by serving on corporate boards. The old virtue of self-mastery meant both striving and self-restraint.

The Marshall Plan was in accord with the American tradition of democracy. It was not merely—or even principally—a large-scale humanitarian program. An economic instrument of structural adjustment aimed at bolstering the functioning of—and thereby citizens’ confidence in—free markets, the ERP ably served as a weapon in the Cold War. And deep down this plan embodied Americans’ tradition of freedom. It sought to expand the liberal order and thus to defend a system in which persons are viewed as ends and not as means, in which human beings’ basic liberties are preserved, in which citizens have the freedom and security that make striving and generosity, duty and sacrifice, both possible and meaningful.

What was the source of Marshall’s commitment to basic human rights? Behind and beneath his training as a citizen and a soldier was his ongoing engagement with mediating institutions that are schools of courage and compassion, primarily the family and the church. He grew up in a Christian household. Later in his life he told a friend from Savannah, Georgia, “I hope I am a Christian gentleman, and I certainly should be with Mrs. Marshall’s guardianship and influence, but I must confess to occasional outbursts that are secular. You see I am trying to be honest.”[xiv]

Straightforward, centered, and shrewd, George Marshall did not simply embody positive character traits; he believed in virtue as an objective reality. Although he did not speak of an order of natural law the way that C.S. Lewis did in The Abolition of Man—as a universal Tao—Marshall was a Victorian gentleman who appears to have viewed the virtues in just this way.[xv] His core convictions were threaded all through his ethical leadership. His most basic beliefs mattered in the shaping of his vision and in his most consequential decisions.

Baptized at six months old in his home parish, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Uniontown, Pennsylvania, he spoke in later life about the influence of this church and of its young rector. Gradual nurture and slow transformation, not a dramatic conversion experience, marked his spiritual journey. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, largely unchanged in Marshall’s day from its 1789 American text, offered a structure to flawed human beings, a rhythm of contrition and repentance, thanksgiving and renewal. Confirmed at St. Peter’s at the age of 16, George Marshall continued through the rest of his life in the way he had been brought up.[xvi] The prayer book’s mixture of tragedy (“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts… And there is no health in us”) and hope was Christian realism avant la lettre.

Realism and hope, prudence and promise, characterize the Marshall Plan as well: it wedded balance-of-power strategy to compassionate intervention, all in defense of human freedom and flourishing.

Having contributed mightily to securing the peace, Marshall never supposed that its perdurability was assured. Nor did he forget what free citizens owe to warriors in a just cause. Even in the most pacific of settings—the leafy grounds of a small college in Frederick, Maryland, in April 1951—Marshall, then in the final months of his long career of government service, reverted to those who paid the price, which he named two years later in Oslo as “the cost of war in human lives…constantly spread before me.”

At this spring convocation where his wife, Katherine, received an honorary doctorate, General Marshall spoke of the battles of South Mountain, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Monocacy, which had all been fought nearby. But now, he noted, all is peaceful in this region: “there are no more such scenes in this countryside of today.” For this reason, “the possibility of war conditions near Frederick seems too remote to awaken even casual contemplation.”

Then Marshall went through the list of freedoms—“your right to worship or not as you please,” “the freedom of our press” and “the problem we have in dealing with Russia where their people never hear the truth,” the “liberty to think as you please” and to state your views “without fear for your life or your family or your property,” the freedom “to gather for a college demonstration,” and so forth. In observing that “those who have gone before us fought for these rights” and that “these freedoms…were gained literally inch by inch,” Marshall was citing hard facts he knew firsthand from his personal as well as his professional life. South of Rome one week before D-Day in Europe, his favorite stepson, a US Army second lieutenant named Allen Tupper Brown, was killed in action by a German sniper.

Marshall’s Maryland convocation speech was not published in the recently completed seven volumes of the George C. Marshall Papers, but it should have been. The general’s main point is simple but profound. He bore down on his conclusion: “Today it is of the highest importance that…you young people especially [pay heed].” Then he urged them not only to “think very seriously along these lines”—including the fact that “the great struggle for these advances in civilization” took place in Western Europe—but also to “appreciate” what America means and to “cease to accept as a matter of course your blessings, your rare good fortune.” If you appreciate your blessings, then “you will turn seriously…to the problem of what you personally can do to see that the United States…continues a great democracy and a bulwark of freedom.”[xvii]

This address was full of early-‘50s Cold War rhetoric, commonplace utterances no doubt delivered in Marshall’s customary monotone. And yet in these remarks, presented in this tranquil setting, the speaker identified the single virtue that is both the inspiration for an individual’s personal contribution and a buttress of liberty and the rule of law because it is the only fitting response to those who secured our freedoms “inch by inch”—gratitude.

Ethicists search for the answer to the question, Why be good? The moral strengths with which Marshall is identified—courage, compassion, prudence, temperance, hope, faith, humility—have their origin and receive their orientation in sheer gratitude: thankfulness for what is received, not earned. Although it is not one of the moral habits that is usually mentioned in connection with Marshall, the virtue of gratitude—its significance and its centrality—is both clearly present and rightly stressed in these heartfelt, end-of-career statements offered in Frederick, Maryland. For this exemplary soldier-statesman, a proper, conscientious grasp of what we owe to others will go a long way toward preserving that ordered freedom which is the end of peace.

[i] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, 1969), 559; George C. Marshall, “Nobel Prize Lecture,” December 11, 1953, in The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 7, “The Man of the Age,” October 1, 1949–October 16, 1959, eds. Mark A. Stoler, et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 811.

[ii] “Nobel Prize Lecture,” The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, 7:811.

[iii] See Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), chap. 6; Paul D. Miller, American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2016), chaps. 1–2, 4.

[iv] See Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920–2015 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18–27.

[v] George C. Marshall, “Speech to the Harvard University Alumni,” June 5, 1947, in The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 6, “The Whole World Hangs in the Balance,” January 8, 1947–September 30, 1949, eds. Larry I. Bland and Mark A. Stoler (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 148.

[vi] George C. Marshall, “Speech to the Congress of Industrial Organizations,” October 14, 1947, The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, 6:226.

[vii] “Nobel Prize Lecture,” The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, 7:814, 815.

[viii] “Speech to the Congress of Industrial Organizations,” The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, 6:226.

[ix] John V. Fleming, The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War (New York: Norton, 2009), 54.

[x] Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, trans. Daphne Hardy (New York: Macmillan, 1941).

[xi] David Hein, “The Marshall Plan: Defending Democracy,” Marshall: The Magazine of the George C. Marshall Foundation 4, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 14–21.

[xii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1945), 1:249 (quotation); Lawrence M. Mead, “Burdens of Freedom,” National Affairs, no. 29 (Fall 2016): 174.

[xiii] David Hein, “George Washington and the Patience of Power,” Modern Age 57, no. 4 (Fall 2015): 35–43.

[xiv] George C. Marshall, Letter to Nina Anderson Pape, February 1, 1944, George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, General Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.

[xv] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947).

[xvi] David Hein, “In War for Peace: General George C. Marshall’s Core Convictions and Ethical Leadership,” Touchstone 26, no. 2 (March 2013): 42–43.

[xvii] George C. Marshall, “Speech by General George C. Marshall,” Hood College Bulletin, Convocation Issue, May 1951: 5, 6.