The Marshall Plan and “America First”

Over the years 1948-1952, the US devoted the equivalent of $800 billion in today’s dollars to the reconstruction of Western Europe. But whereas the Marshall Plan is widely regarded as the largest and most effective foreign-aid program in history, it is less widely appreciated for being the most successful example of an “America First” foreign policy.

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NEW YORK – Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House website still proudly proclaims his administration’s new “America First Foreign Policy.” No longer will the United States allow its physical and economic security to be undermined by what Trump calls “bad deals.” Alliances and trade pacts will all be revisited and, where necessary, renegotiated to ensure that “American interests” are paramount.

What is striking about this policy, however, is not that it places American interests first. It is the misguided way in which those interests are being defined.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the US established cooperative structures designed to address the catastrophic failure of international economic and security arrangements in the inter-war years. From 1945 to 1949, the administration of President Harry S. Truman propelled the establishment of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And the 1947 Marshall Plan created the institutional machinery that, over the subsequent decade, paved the path to European integration and the eventual creation of the European Union.

These ambitious undertakings were a conscious repudiation of George Washington’s admonition, delivered in his Farewell Address at the end of his presidency, that the US should avoid foreign entanglements, particularly with Europe. They were born not of charity or naiveté, but of a clear-eyed recognition that America’s role in the world had to change as its global connections, and therefore its vulnerabilities, expanded. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg, once a leading Republican isolationist, reflected: “My convictions regarding international cooperation and collective security for peace took firm form on the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack. That day ended isolationism for any realist.”