As World War II came to a close in 1945, people in nations throughout Asia and Europe started to pick up the pieces of a society torn apart. Ongoing bombardment campaigns and extended battles on land had left some of the world's most prosperous cities in shambles. There were millions of refugees displaced from their homes, and far from reopening their economies where they had left off in 1939, they found that manufacturing, agriculture, and trade were all stumbling. To prevent mass starvation, the United States transferred loads of wheat to Europe and Japan in the winter of 1945-46. This program, funneled through the fledgling United Nations, laid the groundwork for what would become the then-largest foreign aid program in history – the Marshall Plan.
Appointed President Harry Truman's Secretary of State in 1947, General George C. Marshall made it one of his priorities to do away with Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067, which had instituted the policy of "[taking] no steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany [or] designed to maintain or strength the German economy." In its place, Secretary of State Marshall introduced policies that revived the German steel industry and convened European leaders to discuss the states of their economies.
What followed was $12 billion in aid to Western Europe, equivalent to $130 billion in 2019. These funds covered the costs of infrastructure, food, and modernization efforts, initiating a new cycle of trade between the powers of North America and those of Europe as the recipient nations imported raw materials from their donor nations. It was a moment of compassion, kindness, and global fraternity in the aftermath of the bloodiest and most brutal conflict that any human had ever seen. Rather than simply ceasing fire, American leaders in the Truman Administration chose to reach out a hand and help their former adversaries pick themselves up and dust themselves off.
Allotting funds, the Marshall Plan favored former Allied nations only slightly over Axis nations. The Plan, by and large, disbursed the aid to nations based on their population counts. In the decades that followed, Western Germany, the United Kingdom, and France – the most significant aid recipients under the Marshall Plan – regained their pre-World War II prominence in the world community, becoming the fourth-, fifth-, and seventh- largest economies by nominal GDP. On the brink of famine, they found a lifeline in the basic goodness of humanity.
During any moment that tries the world community, we can look back at the Marshall Plan for guidance and inspiration. The program was large: even before the $12 billion in aid, the United Nations had distributed enough food to sustain 300 million people for a whole year. Because it was clear what was at stake, though, people found a way to do more, cooperating and exhibiting the very best of themselves. They saw the task at hand and approaching it in the right way, staved off tragedy in the shadow of tragedy, striking a tone of fellowship and solidarity that we should hope will reverberate in the coming year and all of the years ahead.