On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall stood in front of the graduating class of Harvard University and helped redefine America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Marshall had spent his life in the Army before becoming America’s chief diplomat and had been Army Chief of Staff under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He was so essential to the Allied effort during World War II that Winston Churchill called him “the organizer of victory.” So when he spoke in 1947, people listened.
Looking at the economic wreckage the war had left in Europe, Marshall told the crowd, “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Marshall was sketching the contours of the program that would bear his name: The Marshall Plan. Congress passed it the following year.
It happened that I was preparing a lecture on the Marshall Plan and the post-war order when Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned and Trump insulted him on the way out the door by calling him a “globalist.” Globalist is a dog-whistle epithet for Trumpistas – it signals that you put other nations’ interests ahead of those of the United States, that you don’t believe in America First.
The Marshall Plan inaugurated America’s new, “internationalist” role on the world stage, and it also illustrates just how profoundly Trump and the isolationists with whom he has surrounded himself misunderstand the essential connection between our foreign policy and our domestic prosperity.
Economists disagree over the extent to which the Marshall Plan helped Western Europe recover from the war’s financial consequences, though the consensus is that it did play a significant role in helping Europe rebuild. But it is important to remember that the money Congress sent to Europe wasn’t a gift – it was an investment. Much of the $140 billion (in current dollars) that Congress appropriated, for example, came back to the United States as consumer spending. Europeans used the money to buy American products. What was good for Europe turned out to be good for Ford and General Electric too.
The economics of the Marshall Plan, however, was probably not its most important effect. Europe in 1948 was in considerable turmoil, and the Soviet Union was moving aggressively to consolidate control over the areas it occupied when the war ended. In making this commitment to Western Europe, the Marshall Plan cemented a tight relationship between our nations that has paid all kinds of dividends since then. Had we listened to the America First critics of the Marshall Plan, the Soviets very well might have extended their influence across more of Europe, and the Cold War would have proved even more chilling.
Even before victory was declared, the United States was re-shaping the international economic order in ways that put the United States firmly and advantageously at its center.
Every time you fill up your car, you benefit from that internationalism, and you have since 1971. In that year, Nixon negotiated with other oil producers to make sure that oil would always be priced in dollars, which has made gas prices both more stable and cheaper for Americans that they would otherwise have been.
The Trump White House just doesn’t get it. Globalism is the new America First, and it has been since World War II.
Steven Conn, the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, is a regular contributor.