Against the backdrop of today’s debate about America’s role in the world, it is striking to re-read the speech by Secretary of State George C. Marshall announcing the Marshall Plan on the 70th anniversary of its delivery.

The Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild the economies of Western Europe after World War II, is often seen as the model for American global leadership. Seen from that perspective, it is perhaps a little surprising to see that Secretary Marshall makes not a selfless appeal to support a new global order, but a calculated appeal to Americans’ self-interest, accompanied by a sophisticated series of short films to explain its benefits.

My favorite of these films is “Your Eighty Dollars,” a 27 minute black and white film that explains to Americans the return on investment from the $80 per capita spent on the Marshall Plan.

The film highlights Marshall’s 1947 speech, in which he declares the plan “directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its 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.”

The film’s narrator warns Americans of the threats they face in 1947 when many European countries were in ruins— literally and economically— after World War II. It stresses the peril of old democracies falling into debt, the threat of communism, the grim civil war in Greece, and the divided city of Berlin where the emerging Cold War strained nerves.

But it also highlights results. It shows the United States helping clear Sardinia of malaria so its land could be used for agricultural production for the first time. It highlights Europeans learning from the latest developments in American agriculture and industry. Showcasing hard-working Europeans rebuilding their factories with our assistance, the film declares the goal is not simply to return to past levels, but to build even more.

In an echo of today’s political debate, Marshall emphasizes that the plan is not a unilateral imposition of American values: “It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans.” The plan should be a “joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations” for “Europeans to help themselves.”

It is also careful to emphasize that this not a handout from the United States. Europeans matched American aid dollar for dollar and paid cash for the goods we sent into counterpart funds. Surplus generated from increases in economic production were exported as a way of increasing their own economic growth even further and ending dependence on American aid.

And it highlights appreciation for American assistance. The French Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Buron speaks directly to the camera twice to thank Americans, saying “we are all committed to the limits of our capacity just as you in America are.”

Decades later, it is also a little surprising to hear the film’s narrator frankly acknowledge skepticism about American motives, showing a propaganda poster portraying the Marshall Plan and America as a colonizing octopus. It responds by emphasizing American sincerity— the Marshall Plan might have sounded like another speech, but the general “believed” it – and commitment, as the narrator insists that it became clear to Europeans that Americans would not stop “until the job was done.”

The commitment to explain why rebuilding other countries benefited our own country stands out. Between 1948 and 1951, the United States provided $13.3 billion ($150 billion in 2017 dollars) to 16 European countries. The appropriation for 1949 alone totaled about 12% of the U.S. federal budget. 70 years later, many of these countries are among our strongest trading partners, while the United States spends less than 1% on foreign assistance.

This short film explaining how “your eighty dollars” made a difference after World II reminds us today that Americans have always needed to be convinced of the benefits from fighting poverty and building economies in other countries. We knew how to do this in the past, and we must continue to do so today: to share the story that American foreign assistance makes a difference, for Americans and for people around the world.

 

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