Most commencement addresses are forgettable. The speaker gives some advice on how to live a productive life, advice that typically means more to the wistful parents in the audience recalling the mistakes they made along the way than to the headstrong students convinced that they will conquer the world. A few commencement speeches resonate beyond the venue in which they are given because of the speaker’s unusual eloquence and urgency. Almost no commencement addresses change the world. But the commencement address that Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave on June 5, 1947 to Harvard’s graduating class did just that.
Marshall gave his address just two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the destruction of much of Europe. Initial optimism that peace would spur rapid economic growth soon foundered over the harsh realities of reconstruction. Unemployment was rampant, and industrial production hovered at only 70 percent of prewar levels. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the harshest in memory, taxing already inadequate coal supplies and further hampering industrial growth. To make matters worse, the spring harvest of 1947 was the worst since the nineteenth century, exacerbating food shortages. From 1946 to 1947, Europe produced only four-fifths as much food as in 1938—with a population that was 10 percent larger.
As Secretary Marshall headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts in June 1947, the Truman administration worried that a weak and demoralized Europe would fall prey to Communist propaganda and Soviet influence. In 1946, Communist parties commanded around a fifth of the popular vote in Italy and a quarter of the popular vote in France. American policymakers worried that Stalin would gain what Hitler had sought—but without firing a shot.
The Truman administration had taken dramatic steps to prop up Western Europe. Washington had extended a $4.34 billion loan to Great Britain in 1945. With the unveiling of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, President Harry Truman promised support to “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Along with the psychological boost of this proclamation, $400 million in military aid began to flow to Greece and Turkey in May 1947.
Many State Department officials worried, however, that these piecemeal measures were inadequate and that a larger, more comprehensive plan of aid would be necessary. By the early summer of 1947, they were looking for the moment to announce a massive new foreign aid plan. Only two days before commencement, Secretary of State Marshall accepted an open invitation from Harvard University to receive an honorary degree. He would use his speech to roll out the “Marshall Plan.”
On June 5, 1947, a crowd of 15,000—including fellow honorees T.S. Eliot, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and General Omar Bradley—filled Harvard Yard to capacity. Marshall spoke for less than eleven minutes. Most of his audience did not immediately grasp the significance of what Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan later called the “electric effect” of “a few sentences in a quiet sequence.” In the weeks to come, they would.
Marshall’s proposal was as simple as it was bold: the United States would help rebuild war-torn Europe if the Europeans agreed to develop a plan for reconstruction. Marshall’s offer extended to the Soviet Union and its allies. Was Marshall soft on communism? Far from it. He knew that Congress would kill any aid package for Europe if it meant aiding communist governments. But he also knew that Washington needed to avoid the impression that it was trying to divide Europe. He calculated, correctly as it turned out, that the Soviets would reject the aid offer because it required them to open their economy to Western inspection.
The Marshall Plan was an enormous success. From 1947 to 1950, European production increased by 45 percent; by 1952 it had grown a breathtaking 200 percent since the prewar years. A main reason for the plan’s success was the sheer amount of U.S. aid. Between 1948 and 1952, the United States spent over 1 percent of its gross national product on aid to Europe. To put that number in perspective, the United States today spends less than two-tenths of one percent of its gross national product on all of its aid programs.
Historian Melvyn Leffler called the Marshall Plan “probably the most effective program the United States launched during the entire Cold War.” As was his wont, Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it more grandly: the Marshall Plan was “one of the greatest and most honorable adventures in history.”
Sometimes commencement addresses matter.