Both George C. Marshall and Ronald Reagan were “conservative internationalists”: peace-through-strength realists who did not lose sight of their democratic principles, and who engaged with other nations to achieve not only American security and prosperity, but also a greater measure of freedom and justice in the world…
Within this past year occurred both the thirtieth anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate (“Remarks on East-West Relations,” June 12, 1987) and the seventieth anniversary of General George C. Marshall’s speech at Harvard University announcing the European Recovery Program (June 5, 1947). Thus it seems a good time to pause to observe the strong connection between these two occasions. When we do, we will notice more than the fact that Reagan’s address incorporated references to the anniversary of the Marshall Plan. We will both appreciate the underlying affinity between these events and feel no little gratitude for what they meant for the West and indeed for the whole world in the twentieth century and beyond.
The best-known lines in Reagan’s remarks are the ones he addressed to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev: “One sign,” the president declared, would be an “unmistakable” symbol of the Soviets’ commitment to “the cause of freedom and peace.” Addressing his absent counterpart, Reagan implored him: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Eventually, the wall did come down, and in 1990 Germany was reunited. Ever since then, historians have been debating what role Ronald Reagan played in these developments and in the ending of the Cold War.
The best answer to this question of historical causation is that no one person was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Rather, the final dénouement during the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush occurred at the end of a long process that began in 1945–1947.
Thus a person might accurately observe that Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate were made at the beginning of the end of the Cold War, while Marshall’s address at Harvard University took place at the end of the beginning of the East-West conflict. This observer would be right to conclude that the policy of containment during the intervening years and beyond usefully contributed to the Soviet Empire’s eventual collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. Ronald Reagan relished this connection with Marshall and made its various aspects plain in his prepared statements up to and including his famous “tear down this wall!” speech.
The president highlighted a key element of this affinity when, on June 1, 1987, he signed a proclamation declaring George C. Marshall Month. On this occasion, Reagan noted that “Even in time of war, Marshall was a champion of peace.” During his tenure as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1939 to 1945, Marshall contributed mightily to achieving a victory that, in Reagan’s words, was “not a triumph of conquerors in a struggle for power and domination, but a desperate fight of free peoples for the preservation of the humane values and democratic institutions they hold dear.”
Since 1989, biographers and historians have given us a much more complete and nuanced picture of Ronald Reagan than we had either before or during his presidency. Before his accession to office in 1981, he was seen as an über-hawk, a dangerous and unsophisticated Cold Warrior. And during his tenure of office, many on the Left, including the hierarchies of the old-line Protestant denominations, were critical of Reagan’s apparently provocative moves to fund the Strategic Defense Initiative and to install Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe to counter the Soviets’ SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles. In his remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan noted that these SS-20s “were capable of striking every capital in Europe.” Opponents of Reagan’s efforts to counterbalance these Soviet weapons believed that such acts would destroy the chances of successful arms-control agreements.
We now know, however, that, like General Marshall, President Reagan was deeply committed to peace. His nightmare was nuclear annihilation: mutual, assured, and total. His dream was the complete elimination of these terrible weapons. Certainly, he was a realist: In his June 1 remarks he held that “Strength and realism are the watchwords for real progress in dealing with our Soviet adversaries.”
But present alongside his Cold War realism was a persistent idealism. On June 5, 1987, in an address from the Venice Economic Summit, Reagan mentioned the young people who, during a previous economic summit in Europe, had participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations: “How I wanted to let them know that my heart was with them, that I, too, yearned for a day when mankind could live free of the terror of nuclear annihilation.”
In his efforts to make progress toward achieving these goals, Reagan’s strategy proved remarkably effective. His confidence in ultimate victory was secured by his judgment of long-term historical certainties. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement on June 3, 2016, Charles King terms Reagan “a Marxist turned inside out,” for he believed that the Soviet system was not grounded in reality. Its present decay was natural and to be expected of a flawed system doomed from the start. In a sense, Reagan’s idealism and realism were mutually reinforcing. He believed that engaging and negotiating with the Soviets held, in King’s words, “no danger of prolonging the life of their faltering political order.”
After the Second World War, as secretary of state in the administration of President Harry S. Truman, George C. Marshall initiated the European Recovery Program (ERP), which everybody else—but almost never the secretary himself—called the Marshall Plan. Of this program, Reagan accurately said in his June 1 remarks: “If [the Marshall Plan] had simply been a gift of resources, it would likely have been a colossal failure.” But it was not. “The success of this greatest of undertakings, the rebuilding of a battle-scarred continent, can be traced to goals” beyond the simple provision of financial resources.
Reagan knew that the ERP was much more than a generous foreign-aid scheme. More than massive humanitarian relief, it was an assertive move in the Cold War to bring about a just peace through what Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis (in Strategies of Containment) calls “an asymmetrical response” to the Soviet threat. The Marshall Plan would employ U.S. strengths—a robust economy and ample material resources—to counter the weaknesses of the Soviet Union, whose economy, although the world’s second-largest, was only one-third as big as that of the United States. In this process, as Gaddis writes, American planners hoped “to strain the relationship between Moscow and its satellites.”
Ronald Reagan’s Cold War policy would chime with this strategy: not only by shoring up the Atlantic alliance with Euromissiles but also by trying—at least through rhetoric—to render the Kremlin’s grip on Eastern Europe less secure: “tear down this wall!”
The ERP’s goals, Reagan said on June 1, included the regeneration of “hope where there was none.” He correctly noted that restoration of confidence in democratic institutions was a central reason for the initiation of the ERP, which functioned as a weapon in the effort to contain Soviet expansion by refusing to let Western Europe succumb to malnutrition and despair. The Truman Doctrine sought both to avoid appeasement and to prevent a third world war. As the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington observed in his classic study The Soldier and the State (1957), President Truman’s domestic policy (the Fair Deal) was liberal, but his foreign policy was conservative.
The Marshall Plan was a cornerstone of containment. Reagan is representative of New Right conservatives, who embraced internationalism over isolationism. In the second half of the 1940s, they recognized the need to prevent Communist parties in Italy, France, and elsewhere from coming to power and thereby providing an opening for Soviet domination. Manipulated by Moscow, local Communist parties, American policy-makers feared, might gain power as hungry and desperate people elected Communist governments. The industrial power that was the jewel in the European crown—and which therefore had to be kept from unifying under Soviet control—was Germany.
Indeed, in the late 1940s, largely through the timely influence of Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, even Old Right leaders such as Republican Senator Robert Taft (Ohio)—foreign-aid skeptics who were also strong proponents of reduced federal spending and lower taxes—ended up voting for the 13 billion-dollar ERP (about $135 billion in today’s money). They came to view the Marshall Plan as a prudent—and, they hoped, cost-effective—means of blocking further Soviet gains.
“Today,” Reagan said, “the unity of the West on security issues is something which George Marshall and his contemporaries would look on with a deep and abiding pride.” Marshall, he noted, “led America through war and out of isolationism. Like protectionism, isolationism is a tempting illusion.”
An important goal of the Marshall Plan, Reagan noted in his June 1 statement, was to “bring down the political barriers which stifle economic activity and growth.” ERP leaders—its top administrator, Paul Hoffman, came from outside government: the Studebaker car company—“helped [European] officials overcome local interest groups and work with other governments to beat back the pressures for protectionism and isolation.”
U.S. relations with Western Europe were strengthened by the bonds established by Marshall and his fellow warlords between 1941 and 1945. Prewar isolationism was overcome. The Marshall Plan was the first major postwar step in cementing this transatlantic alliance. In other words, the United States did not conclude the Second World War the way it had acted after the Great War: abandoning Europe, turning inward. The ERP demonstrated that America could be counted on to help to rebuild both infrastructure and institutions. It produced the psychological pavers that led to the establishment of a transatlantic security alliance under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty—for which Secretary of State Marshall provided some of the crucial early support.
Therefore, Reagan pointed out on June 1, the Marshall Plan “was not a giveaway program. Instead, it was the beginning of a process of cooperation and enterprise.” And so “today we have known forty or more years of peace, and one-time enemies”—including Italy and much of Germany—“are the closest of friends and allies as a result of the Marshall Plan.” In his own day, he declared, “if nuclear arms reduction is achieved, it’ll be due to the strength and determination of allied leaders across Western Europe who refused to accept the Soviet nuclear domination of Europe.”
Then Reagan provided a direct link between the ERP and the problems of his own time: “Today we face challenges comparable to those that confronted struggling democracies four decades ago. We sought to achieve prosperity; now we seek to preserve it and ensure that our standard of living continues to improve.” The need today, he said, is still to affirm “free enterprise and democracy” and “to work against parochialism and protectionism, to keep markets open and commerce flowing.”
Again he invoked the history of the Marshall Plan, whose benefits were offered to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc: Josef Stalin refused to participate. As Reagan observed, “the Kremlin rejected Soviet participation in the Marshall plan. If the current Soviet leadership seeks another path, if they reject the closed, isolated, and belligerent policies they inherited, if they wish their country to be a part of the free world economy, we welcome the change.” The cost of entry into this productive and prosperous community is a “political price” that transcends economic considerations: namely, “respect for and support of the values of freedom that are, in the end, the true engines of material prosperity.”
In his June 5 remarks from the Venice Economic Summit, Reagan reminded his listeners that forty years before, the ground rules for receiving ERP assistance had been pretty simple: “openness and good faith. All countries had to open their books, and no country would be allowed to manipulate the plan for political profit.” In fact, the Marshall Plan turned out to be one of the best-run and most corruption-free foreign-aid programs in history. Now Reagan turned to the Soviet Union and applied the lessons of the Marshall Plan to what he had heard so far of glasnost: “We hope that the first few tokens of changes in the Soviet Union signal a real desire to open up their closed society.”
The best undertaking for Europe, Reagan noted, was what he accurately said the ERP promoted: Reduction of market controls and curtailment of class warfare so that capital markets could flourish and a rising GDP could benefit everyone. He rightly observed that “If [West German leaders] Ludwig Erhard and Konrad Adenauer…had not dramatically, in one fell swoop, eliminated most of the intrusive controls on the West German economy in 1948, Marshall plan aid might not have had the miraculous impact that it did.”
Economic historians of our own time, such as Deirdre N. McCloskey in Bourgeois Equality (2016), assert the primacy of ideas in establishing the blessings of the modern world. Reagan did too. Freedom, democracy, human rights, free enterprise, competition: The “secret” to “amazing growth” anywhere in the world, including “less fortunate nations,” is, he said, “a Marshall plan of ideas.”
After reviewing the aims and achievements of the Truman Doctrine and the ERP, Reagan concluded his remarks proclaiming George C. Marshall Month by stating, with some justification: “I leave for Europe with confidence.” Democracy “has its weaknesses,” he acknowledged, “but its strengths will prevail.”
Reagan’s emphasis on this political price—commitment to freedom and democracy—dovetailed with General Marshall’s eagerness to declare, during the meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow in March and April of 1947, what democracy meant and why commitment to its principles was necessary. The secretary of state made clear to his fellow conferees that democracy means not just a mechanism of voting and governing but also, more fundamentally, inalienable rights, which may not be taken away. These rights include “the right of every individual to develop his mind and his soul in ways of his own choice, free of fear or coercion—provided he does not interfere with the like right of others.” And Marshall noted that “To us a society is not democratic if men…are not free to express their own beliefs and convictions without fear that they may be snatched away from their home and family.”
The Marshall Plan has been criticized for being too focused on material conditions, on American efficiency and success paradigms, leading to the Coca-Colonization of Western Europe: hence, among many of its recipients, some resentment of this commercial culture alongside gratitude for its products. But the success of the ERP depended in large measure on the fact that ideals, not just material products, count for something. Some Western Europeans, even when their bellies were full, continued to mistrust capitalists and to support Communists. For other ERP recipients during this ideological conflict that featured huge propaganda efforts from both sides, General Marshall’s and western democracies’ credible commitment to basic human rights undoubtedly found traction.
On June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, President Reagan once again invoked the memory of George Marshall and the European Recovery Program. He recalled a display he had seen in the Reichstag a few moments before. Commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan, it featured a sign on a burnt-out building: “The Marshall Plan is helping to strengthen the free world.” Reagan affirmed that “A strong, free world in the West, that dream became real.”
In West Germany, he said, it was assisted by the “economic miracle” led by the leaders we have mentioned already. Now he pointed out that these officials “understood the practical importance of liberty.” Prosperity resulted from economic freedom enjoyed by farmer and businessman alike, as German leaders reduced tariffs, expanded free trade, and lowered taxes. As a result, the standard of living rose dramatically.
Reagan recalled that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier from 1958 to 1964, had predicted: “We will bury you.” But today in the West, Reagan noted, “we see a free world,” while in the East “we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food.” In accord with the proponents of the ERP, he affirmed that “freedom and security go together,” and “the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.” Today we know that market freedoms, democracy, peace, strong property rights, the rule of law, and food security do indeed go together.
These realities were represented and embodied in a postwar recovery program whose achievements President Reagan accurately described and eloquently extolled during his June 1987 European visit. The compelling history and benefits of the Marshall Plan lay behind the U.S. president’s boldly urging Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
Postwar conservatives could be extremely critical of General Marshall and of other members of the Truman foreign-policy team, especially Dean Acheson. Today, however, in nonpartisan hindsight, we can easily detect in George C. Marshall and the fortieth president of the United States a striking Cold War affinity, which Reagan himself appears to have been well aware of. Both of these leaders were, in the political scientist Henry R. Nau’s apt phrase, “conservative internationalists.” Both men were peace-through-strength realists who did not lose sight of their democratic principles. Both Marshall and Reagan engaged with other nations to achieve not only American security and prosperity but also a greater measure of freedom and justice in the world.
Republished with the gracious permission from The St. Croix Review (2016).
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President Reagan’s June 1987 speeches and statements may be found in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1987. 2 books. Book 1: January 1 to July 3, 1987. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.