UVM professor to deliver Marshall Plan talk

MANCHESTER - On June 5, 1947, one of the greatest American soldiers and statesman in the nation's history delivered an address as part of Harvard University's commencement exercises that day which changed history.

George C. Marshall was the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II. While other generals such as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur went on to etch higher profiles in the news accounts of the war and its historical aftermath, it was Marshall, many believe, who was the true architect and organizer of the Allied triumph in the Second World War. His diplomatic skills were often put to the test, as he found himself trying to balance the often conflicting views of President Franklin Roosevelt, Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, as well as other senior military leaders. At the same time, he oversaw a dramatic expansion of the U.S. Army from a small peacetime force to a massive organization capable of fighting a global war. Concurrently, he played a large role in converting the nation's manufacturers and industry onto a wartime footing to provide the material necessary for the ultimate victory.

But it is for his commencement day address at Harvard in 1947 that Marshall, who had been appointed by President Harry Truman as Secretary of State earlier that year, is best remembered, and the "Marshall Plan" designed to assist the economic recovery of Europe that followed from it. On March 6, as part of the Vermont Humanities Council's ongoing "First Wednesdays" lecture series, one of America's foremost historians, Dr. Mark A. Stoler, a professor emeritus from the University of Vermont, will examine the origins of the Marshall Plan, how it worked, and its historical legacy. Dr. Stoler's talk, which will be hosted locally by the Mark Skinner Library and held at the First Congregational Church, will start at 7 p.m.

After more than 35 years as one of UVM's most distinguished professors, and the author of of numerous highly acclaimed books on U.S. military and diplomatic history - with a special emphasis on World War II - Dr. Stoler was hired to be the editor of Marshall's papers in 2008. Under his watch the sixth volume of the voluminous correspondence that Marshall produced between 1947-49 while secretary of state was catalogued and organized. The five previous volumes deal with Marshall's life and career from his birth in 1880 through 1946.

This sixth volume was published only recently, in January, 2013. It covers one of the most eventful periods in U.S. diplomatic history, the immediate post war years when the alliance of the western democracies and the Soviet Union cleaved apart and the "Cold War" got underway. A seventh volume, due out in 2015, will cover Marshall's service as the head of the American Red Cross and his appointment as Secretary of Defense in September, 1950.

Dr. Stoler plans to devote the bulk of his talk to the inception and passage of the program which came to bear his name, he said in a recent interview. "I want to go into what the situation was in Europe and with the Soviets, what were the factors that led him to say 'we can't wait on this,' and propose it," Stoler said. "Psychology is a huge component of the Marshall Plan; to end desperation and despair, and avoid (Europeans) voting in Communist governments."

Ironically, when Marshall gave the famous commencement speech, there was at that point no "Marshall Plan." Instead, he proposed that the Europeans get together, come up with a plan and then the U.S. would be interested in aiding their recovery for the war's devastation.

In 1947, Europe was still prostrate from the devastation of a six-year war that had left millions dead and economies shattered. In eastern Europe, ominous signs that the victorious Soviet Union was intent on forming a protective belt of satellite nations were emerging. Domestically, the war-weary U.S. was hoping to transition to a peace-time economy, without tipping back into a recession - or worse. All of this was occurring under the shadow of a new dimension in world affairs and diplomacy - the nuclear age, ushered in at the tail end of World War II by the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.

Dr. Stoler plans to explore what the Europeans did and how the entire package was negotiated.

That however, involved more than just negotiating with the Europeans, but also with a leery U.S. Congress, controlled at the time by the Republican Party who were looking towards the 1948 elections and a chance to oust Truman from the White House. In a somewhat parallel situation to today, although as Stoler is careful to point out, under dramatically different historical circumstances, the Republicans were keen to begin moving to balance the budget - the war years had been a time of record deficit spending up to that point. There was no shortage of lingering pre-war isolationist sentiment still present as well, Stoler added.

But Marshall was able to forge an alliance with an unlikely partner, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was instrumental in helping shepherd what would come to be known as the Marshall Plan through Congress.

Dr. Stoler plans to emphasize that at American insistence, the goal was an integrated plan among the European nations- not a simple bilateral transfer of funds from the New World to the Old. As such, it laid the groundwork for multinational institutions like the European Common Market, which later evolved into today's European Union. Stoler will also show how this idea of linking everything together can be traced back to the 1920s and the "Dawes Plan," which was attempt to fix problems bedeviling reparations payments from Germany following World War I.

One of the more fascinating historical "what ifs" involved the eventual decision by the Soviet leaders not to take part in the Marshall Plan, Stoler said. A disagreement over the integrated nature of the plan scuttled Soviet interest, which then gave another push towards what came to be a 40 year division of Europe into a Soviet controlled eastern sphere, and a western democratic one, that was not resolved until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989.

"(It) could have forced the integration of Russia into a general European economic system, which would have exposed Soviet weaknesses," Stoler said. "Stalin viewed the Marshall Plan as a highly aggressive move by the U.S."

The Marshall Plan was one of the instances where the best idealistic impulses of the U.S. intersected perfectly with practical national interests, he said.

"Europe had been America's largest trading partner before World War II," he said. "There is great fear the war-time economic boom will end, and the Depression will come back. I'll also go into the 'peace and prosperity' theme - that if Europe is not prosperous, we'll be sucked into a third world war." Did it work? To find out Stoler's conclusions about the long -term effects of the Marshall Plan, you'll have to attend the lecture, which begins at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6.

"Basically, my conclusion - as you would expect from a historian - is that there were some very unique circumstances here," he said.

There is no admission charge for First Wednesday lectures. A question-and-answer period will follow Dr. Stoler's talk. For more information, call the Mark Skinner Library at 802-362-2607, or visit the Vermont Humanities Council's Web site at vermonthumanities.org.


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