American Masterplan:

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan


Volker R. Berghahn

Seth Low Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University

The implementation of the Marshall Plan following its announcement by Secretary of State George C. Marshall on June 5, 1947 in his Commencement speech at Harvard University has rightly been hailed as a decisive contribution to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Europe after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Stalin, the wartime ally of the West, was originally included in the American reconstruction strategy but refused, so the Eastern Europeans, now firmly integrated into the emergent Soviet Bloc, were also unable to join the program.

However, while the Western European nations were generally anxious to be part of the Marshall Plan, it took some quite heavy lifting to get the massive foreign aid package through Congress in Washington. This talk will therefore be divided into three parts.

Part I will begin with an account of the inner-American debates to get the program passed in Washington. It will also discuss a later controversy among economic historians on how vital the Marshall Plan proved to be for Europeans and especially for West German industrial reconstruction, as the former enemy was supposed to be included.

Part II will put the Marshall Plan and its ratification into a broader historical context going back to the peace settlement in 1919. The argument will be that the Marshall Plan was the result of an American learning process trying to correct the “mistakes” it made after World War I. After all, the country had emerged strengthened from this ordeal and was in principle capable of launching a reconstruction program. In fact, the Wall Street banker Frank Vanderlip and his colleagues, including bankers in Switzerland and Sweden, were prepared to put together a massive, privately financed reconstruction program.

Bankers wanted Washington to underwrite their program however, and putting American taxpayers on the hook was not possible in the pervasive isolationist mood of the country. As a result, Europe was unable to settle the horrendous costs of World War I. The Depression of the 1930s saw the rise of the Hitler dictatorship that forced the United States to confront Germany for the second time in a generation. Washington was determined to take a different approach in 1945 to postwar European reconstruction.

Part III will discuss the attitudes of American businesses to the Marshall Plan, both in support of and in opposition to it. It will also revisit the investment strategies of America’s big corporations committing private resources to European reconstruction feeling more secure, this time around with the taxpayer backing. The Cold War against the Soviet Bloc started in 1947/48, and it was then that anti-Communism became a rallying cry for Washington’s reconstruction plans. 

Time will be allocated for Q&A.

Cosponsored by:
  • Harvard Club of Washington DC
  • Columbia Club of New York


Volker Berghahn is Seth Low Professor of History and specializes in modern German history and European-American relations. He received his M.A. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1961) and his Ph.D. from the University of London (1964). He taught in England and Germany before coming to Brown University in 1988 and to Columbia ten years later. His publications include: America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe (2001); Quest for Economic Empire (ed., 1996); The Americanization of West German Industry, 1945-1973 (1986); Modern Germany (1982); Europe in the Era of Two World Wars (2006); and most recently American Big Business in Britain and Germany (Princeton 2014).

June 01, 2022 at 6:30pm - 8pm


Washington, DC
United States

Miyako Yerick


Will you come?