The economic pragmatism that the Marshall Plan demonstrates for the United States is not necessarily as clearly observable form a basic look at history as is the containment of communism. The decades following World War II and the implementation of the Marshall Plan were definitely economically successful fro Europe and for the United States, but how this relates directly to the Marshall Plan and not simply to the end of the war can be difficult to discern. Looking at how the economic growth and development that occurred following the Marshall Plan actually came to be makes its effects and intentions quite clear, however.
American industry had grown hugely during the war, as factories and raw materials in the United States supplied much of what was needed to engage in warfare for the Allied forces, including everything from artillery to textiles (WiseGeek 2010; InfoPlease 2010). Following the war, it was still poised to supply the nations of Europe with needed materials and finished goods while it was undergoing its rebuilding process, meaning that the money given to the nations of Europe by the United States came back to America almost instantly and in even larger magnitudes as Europe purchased everything the United States had to offer (WiseGeek 2010). An examination of the actual language of the Marshall Plan makes it very clear that this effect was understood and predicted at the time that the Plan was designed and implemented, and is a major reason behind the eager spending of the money necessary to bring Europe back to its feet after a series of World Wars.
The Marshall Plan was actually relatively short-lived; proposed in 1947 and with the first installment of funds distributed in 1948, the last payments made under the plan occurred in 1951 when the United States entered into conflict in Korea (InfoPlease 2010). When all was said and done, the Marshall Plan had truly been in its implementation phase for only three years, and a total of twelve-and-a-half billion dollars had been spent bringing Europe back to economic sustainability and growth in this period (Spartacus 2010). This might not seem like a great amount of time or money, but it was enough to lead to some definite long-term consequences.
One of the major lasting effects of the Marshall Plan was the increase in global economic interdependence that it created. Though this would almost certainly have occurred anyway as the twentieth century and the era of globalization progressed, assuming that Europe had managed to dig itself out of the economic pit that World War II had left it in, the Marshall Plan definitely accelerated this process. The granting of money to Europe by the United States ultimately created a stream of cash flowing from Europe to the United States' production industries (WiseGeek 2010). The bonus to the infrastructure of the European economies that the Marshall Plan represented allowed for Europe's own manufacturing industries to grow, but rather than ending international dependence this simply shifted the balance of trade as the United States became what is now known as a "post-industrial" economy (InfoPlease 2010).
In addition to this new worldwide economic system, the Marshall Plan also helped to usher in the era of American cultural dominance in the world. As Europe used its Marshall plan funds to purchase American goods, American styles and values were necessarily a part of the trade to at least some degree, and the 1950s saw the American fascination with things like the space race and the Wild West grow in popularity worldwide. Though further decades would see things like the British Invasion in pop music and a lessened dependence on American culture as the definitive Western culture, this trend of American dominance has largely persisted even to this day, and this dominance can in a large part be traced to the positioning of the country following the implementation of the Marshall Plan.
It should be clear at this point just how influential and in many ways necessary the Marshall Plan was for American as well as European interests. Without the disbursement of massive funds from the United States to many of the countries in Western Europe, the economic development and rebuilding in this part of the world immediately following World War II -- and at a time when it was still reeling from the Great Depression and World War I -- would have taken a great deal more time, if it had occurred at all. This would have not only created much greater political instability in Europe, but it would also have made for fewer trading options for the United States and a reduced potential for growth and increased wealth for America. Ruminating on what might have occurred had the Marshall Plan not been enacted leads to some fairly simplistic assessments given the amount of credit and influenced attributed to the plan, but these ruminations are intriguing nonetheless.
The United States was by far the world's -- or at least the West's -- dominant economy at the end of World War II. Had the Marshall Plan not been enacted, much of the United States industrial and manufacturing efforts would have had to find domestic markets or lower prices drastically in European markets in order to make them more affordable. This would have led to reduced prosperity and thus a much slower growth rate, and it is likely that the United States' economy would have shrunk in the period following the war as production would have decreased compared to its war-time high, when markets were essentially artificial.
The reduced growth in the United States would have been more than outmatched by the shrinkage occurring in European economies, as the struggle to rebuild while national coffers were empty would have been all but impossible. Debt cancellations would have been rampant, possibly and even likely including currency devaluations, and this would have led to massive political instability. This instability and the economic degradation at the heart of it would have made totalitarian regimes such as the type of communism at work in the East seem like favorable systems of government to many, and there is a great deal of likelihood that several Western European nations would have become part of the Communist Bloc in the Cold War. Had the Marshall Plan not been implemented, then, the cultural and political history of the latter half of the twentieth century could have been completely different, and there is virtually no telling what the geopolitical mix of the world today would be.
Given the amount of instability that his plan averted and the potential lives saved from a lack of renewed warfare and political insurrections in Europe, it is perhaps unsurprising that George C. Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his plan (InfoPlease 2010; WiseGeek 2010). Despite its self-serving purposes, it was also definitely in the interests of Europe and the world at large, as well. The Marshall Plan was a political policy that unquestionably and fundamentally changed the course of the world's history.
InfoPlease. (2010). Marshall Plan. Accessed 3 December 2010. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0831964.html
LOC. (2010). Marshall announces his plan. Library of Congress. Accessed 3 December 2010. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/marshall/mars1.html
NARA. (2010). The Marshall Plan. National Archives and Records Adminsitration. Accessed 3 December 2010. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/marshall_plan/