Study Guide

The Marshall Plan Themes

By George C. Marshall

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Taken at its best, the Marshall Plan is all about compassion and forgiveness. The former is directed toward everyone in Europe who was hurt by the war, which was like...well, everyone. Marshall doesn't quite tug at the heartstrings in his speech, but points out all the various ways things are currently awful.

    Forgiveness is a little subtler, but remember, the Marshall Plan was also focused around rebuilding Germany. Watch any Indiana Jones movie and you'll be reminded that the Nazis were the bad guys. The Nazis were mostly defeated, and what was left were the German people. The Marshall Plan was going to forgive them.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. What are the limits of compassion after a war? Is it something determined by merit or need? Some combination of both?
    2. Did the Marshall Plan utilize compassion in the best way? Was money the solution to the ailing economy? If not, why did the economy only recover after the Marshall Plan was implemented?
    3. Is any country obligated to show forgiveness to their enemies? Is it a virtue, or does it encourage later aggression?
    4. After World War I, the French punished the Germans, indirectly leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler. After World War II, the United States gave a lot of money to Germany to repair its economy. The second solution might be better practically, but how does it sit with your sense of justice? Was it the right call?

    Chew on This

    The winning side in any war should show compassion to the defeated civilian population. Doing so creates an ally out of an enemy.

    Compassion and forgiveness only encourage further aggression, and the Marshall Plan destabilized the world further by casting the Soviet Union as a new enemy.

  • Warfare

    The Marshall Plan is all about the consequences of warfare. Specifically, one war in particular. The one that your dad and all his friends are obsessed with: WWII. When the Marshall Plan speech was delivered, the war had been over for almost exactly two years.

    The problem was that it's way easier to destroy something than it is to fix it. Seriously, try taking a sledgehammer to your coffee maker. Now put it back together. (Don't actually do that. Violence against coffee makes us cry.)

    Europe was that coffee maker and more guns and bombs than any war in human history were the sledgehammer.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. The costs of war are often thought of only in terms of dead and wounded. What are the other costs of war? How can they be alleviated?
    2. War goes through phases, and World War II was fought on the industrial model: soldiers and munitions were resources, and whoever could last longest, won. What are the benefits of that model? What are some other models? How should wars be fought? Should they at all?
    3. How did the Marshall Plan address the costs of war? Did it do so correctly? What would be a better way?
    4. The Marshall Plan was, in part, intended to keep the cost of World War II from getting any higher, i.e. keep Western Europe from going to fascism or communism. Was this the right thing to do? Could the money have been spent better? How?

    Chew on This

    The industrial model of warfare demands an industrial solution, and in that regard the Marshall Plan was the perfect way to help Europe recover.

    The costs of warfare go deeper than money, and in providing assistance to Germany, the Marshall Plan spit on the sacrifices of a generation.

  • Suffering

    The goal of the Marshall Plan was to relieve suffering. The motivation can be debated a bit. It could be because reducing suffering is the right and moral thing to do. Or it could be that suffering makes people embrace political extremism like communism or fascism.

    Basically, both are situations you want to avoid like a buffet that advertises "rock bottom sushi prices."

    The point is, there was suffering in Europe, and the problem was the economy. Marshall figured the whole thing needed a shot in the arm. (Okay, more like an Epi-pen for someone having an deadly allergic reaction to a bee sting, but the point stands.)

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Sometimes suffering is regarded as either permissible, or even a good thing, usually in the pursuit of justice. Should the U.S. have tried to alleviate suffering in Germany? Why or why not?
    2. What is an acceptable expenditure to reduce suffering after World War II? How much money should have been sent? More? Less?
    3. Was money the right thing to send to reduce suffering in the wake of the war? Would manufactured goods or food been a better choice? Why or why not?
    4. Should the U.S. have made the reduction of suffering a priority? Was there a better way to fight extremism in general or communism specifically? What was it?

    Chew on This

    Germany started the war, and everyone there was complicit on some level for the suffering they caused. The Marshall Plan short-circuited the justice that would be required.

    While money was welcome in Europe, the U.S. should have created a new market for manufactured goods, by first sending those and then selling them to a recovering Europe.

  • Power

    The interplay of power in the Marshall Plan is an interesting one. World War II had created two superpowers. Europe was a bombed-out mess, so even though Great Britain was in the winner's circle, it had taken a bunch of lumps to get there.

    The Soviet Union had taken it on the chin as well, but there was a lot more Russia than there was England. Not only that, but the Soviet Union had a bunch of allied communist states to help out, while Britain was in the process of losing its empire piece by piece. This left the USA and USSR as the sole powers in the world, and the Marshall and Molotov Plans were ways to divide the world in two.

    Questions About Power

    1. If the U.S. had the power to fight the expansion of the Soviet Union, was it obligated to take that measure? What if a country chose democratically to be communist?
    2. What are the moral limits of power when it comes to international relations? Armed takeover of another country seems to be a limit. Should it be? What are others?
    3. After the war, the USA and USSR had the most power in the world, and the struggle over the rest of the world led to the Cold War. If the Marshall Plan exacerbated tensions, was it worth it? Should the U.S. just have left Europe alone?
    4. Power over the countries who received aid was an effect of the Marshall Plan and the reason communist-led countries opted out. Was it the main goal? Should it have been?

    Chew on This

    The U.S. did only one thing wrong with the Marshall Plan: it didn't exercise its power to the limits. If it had, the USSR would have collapsed much earlier than it did.

    The U.S. should never have exercised its power in Europe. Like any use of power, it created a hugely damaging struggle, in this case, the Cold War.

  • American Exceptionalism

    American Exceptionalism isn't just the belief that America is awesome…but that's definitely part of it.

    It's a belief system that takes the idea that America is awesome as its basis. Awesome because of the U.S.A.'s commitment to stuff like democracy and freedom, and possibly apple pie, baseball, and hot dogs, depending on how you feel about those.

    With America's greatness assumed, it then goes a step further. If America is so fantastic, what does that mean? It means that the U.S. has a duty to the world at large that other, less awesome countries do not have. For the Marshall Plan, this was the rebuilding of Europe. It can be used in a lot of other ways too…but that's how Marshall meant it.

    Questions About American Exceptionalism

    1. Does America have the moral authority to impose its values on other areas of the world? All of it? Some of it? None of it? Why or why not?
    2. If the concept of American Exceptionalism is accurate, what are America's rights and responsibilities to the world at large?
    3. Did American Exceptionalism give the U.S. the moral authority to enact the Marshall Plan? Could it have gone further? Not as far? Why or why not?
    4. If American Exceptionalism is governed by specific qualities, could another country have those same qualities and then become exceptional? How would the two countries then relate? Would they be automatic allies? Enemies? Rivals? Frenemies?

    Chew on This

    The Marshall Plan is an example of American Exceptionalism used to the benefit of the world at large. It should be a model for future leaders on how our great nation can positively impact other nations.

    The Marshall Plan was an arrogant overreach spurred on by the delusional concept of American Exceptionalism. It was imperialist and served only to foment conflict with the other superpower.

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