A Further Perspective

George C. Marshall: The Berlin Wall and the Nobel Peace Price

We missed another recent anniversary.

By 12.2.09

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We missed another anniversary, you and I, the other month. It's not our fault really. We don't have someone like Lynne Cheney or the late Paul Harvey starting our day with a "Great Americans Almanac" like Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Alamac." And so, we missed on October 16 the 50th anniversary of the death of a great American, George C. Marshall.

(I say "we" missed the anniversary because most of us did. The George C. Marshall Foundation did not. On that day, the Foundation presented an award to Defense Secretary Gates at the State Department at a luncheon at which Secretary Clinton spoke. This was not reported in either the Washington Post or the New York Times.)

I thought of George C. Marshall in two contexts recently -- in connection with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 and in connection with the announcement of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama -- and his plan to accept it.

In all of the commentary on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, next to nothing was written about when and why the Wall was built in the first place.

When Winston Churchill introduced the term "Iron Curtain" on March 5, 1946, to describe what had befallen Eastern Europe following World War II, he was using it metaphorically. The physical curtain between East and West Germany was erected in 1952 and that between East and West Berlin in 1961.

It was in the dark of night that the East German army had acted. At midnight on August 12-13, 1961, it had torn up streets and installed barbed wire and fences -- not only along the 27-mile border between East and West Berlin but, because Berlin was in the middle of East Germany, also along the 97-mile perimeter separating West Berlin and East Germany. In just a few hours, the residents of East Berlin were torn asunder from the rest of their city, from their relatives, from their jobs and their friends. On that Sunday morning, the 13th, the East German government had created a concrete symbol of the Cold War.

The Allies decided not to go to war over this Wall, but the following weekend, three brigades of Allies (one U.S., one UK, and one French) in full battle gear marched 110 miles from West Germany to West Berlin in a column 100 miles long.

Thirteen years earlier, the Soviets had blocked road, barge, and rail access to West Berlin. A mere 22,000 Allied soldiers stationed in West Berlin were surrounded. Again, the Allies did not choose war. Instead, on June 24, 1948, the Berlin Airlift began, using three air corridors that had been guaranteed in writing by the Soviets in November 1945. It was to continue until 200,000 flights had been made into the three West Berlin airports, Tegel, RAF Gatow, and Tempelhof, carrying 1,500 tons of food and 3,500 tons of fuel per day for the two million residents of West Berlin. On May 12, 1949, the Soviets surrendered and lifted their blockade. (For comparison's sake, the current busiest airfield in the world is Atlanta's Hartsfield which receives about 212,000 flights in 10-1/2 months.) The Berlin Airlift resulted in about 60 Allied deaths.

Why was the Wall built? In the 16 years between the end of World War II and that fateful night in 1961, some 3.5 million people residing in East Germany -- 20% of the population -- had fled to the West. When the East/West German border was closed in 1952, it caused East Germans who wished to escape to enter East Berlin first and then cross over to West Berlin. From West Berlin, emigrants would travel along the Allied corridor to West Germany.

Some said at the time that the East German emigrants were attracted to the West by its economic prosperity, but interviews revealed that it was freedom -- political, religious, economic -- that they sought. Whatever the truth, there was indeed economic prosperity in West Germany, in Western Europe, and in the West generally. How so just 16 years after a war that killed tens of millions and ruined the economies of so many nations? There was no guarantee that the defeat of Nazi Germany would yield such freedom and prosperity. Indeed, after the war there was an acute danger that the United States would lose the peace.

A major contribution was made by the Marshall Plan.

Although the United States had given $9 billion in aid to Europe during the two years since the war had ended, it had not saved the peace. Just four months into his term of office as Secretary of State, Marshall proposed what became known as the Marshall Plan (President Truman insisted that Marshall be given full credit for it). On June 5, 1947, in a speech at Harvard University, Marshall invited the countries of Western and Eastern Europe (the East declined to participate under Soviet pressure) to develop specific spending plans. Sixteen countries came together and did so. Most notably, West Germany, which had been subject to industrial production caps under the prior post-war plan, the Morgenthau Plan, was included.

The Plan Marshall proposed to Congress was limited in years (four) and money ($17 billion). Congress enacted the European Recovery Act in April 1948. Charles L. Mee, Jr., the author of a book on the Plan, reported, "Of all who testified [before Congress] none made a greater impression than General Marshall. He was, as President James Conant of Harvard said of him, the only American in history who could be compared with George Washington…He [was] a warmly revered man, a national monument." (Marshall had served our country as U.S. Army Chief of Staff (when the air force was part of the Army) from 1939 through all of World War II.)

From 1948 to 1951 the United States spent $13 billion (25% under the $17 billion budget). To help you gauge this amount, in 2009 dollars this would be equivalent to between $104 and 117 billion, GDP in 1948 was $256 billion and in 1952 it was $348, and the federal expenditures in 1948 were $30 billion and in 1952 $68 billion. The results:

• post-war poverty and starvation were reduced, nearly eliminated;

• industrial production increased 35%;

• agricultural production exceeded pre-war levels;

• West Germany was incorporated into the West and became free and democratic;

• increasingly, trade barriers among the countries were reduced or eliminated;

• the countries' currencies were stabilized, enabling currency exchange and trade between them;

• Western Europe became less receptive to Communism and free institutions solidified and flourished;

• Western Europe and the United States and Canada became trading partners;

• multilateral institutions were established;

• plants and infrastructure were rebuilt (for example, French harbors that had been 70% destroyed were rebuilt within two years);

• American technical assistance on efficient industrial processes was shared -- a precursor to the Peace Corps;

• and more.

Well before the execution of the Plan had ended, Marshall left the position of Secretary of State -- in January 1949, at age 68. Before he left, he had helped lay the groundwork for NATO which was established on April 4 of that year.

Marshall became president of the American Red Cross. Twenty months later, General Marshall was named Secretary of Defense, a position he held until September 1951.

And this brings me to the second context in which I have thought of Marshall recently, namely, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. Comparisons and contrasts have been drawn between President Obama and others who have received the prize (see for example J. Christian Adams' "The Precedent Peace Prize" and Jeffrey Lord's "The Reagan Prize"), but I have seen none referring to Marshall. Marshall won the prize in December 1953. He is the only general who has ever been awarded the prize. How could a five-star American general be awarded a peace prize?

In the lengthy Presentation Speech delivered by Carl Joachim Hambro, Marshall's military background is not glossed over. Instead, just a few paragraphs are devoted to the Marshall Plan for which he was receiving the Prize, while all of the rest expounds on his military background. At the time, the benefits of the Marshall Plan were clear and did not need to be articulated. Those benefits have become even more clear in the 56 years since Marshall received his award: peace, freedom, democracy, and the protection of human rights throughout Western Europe -- and, since 1989, the United States and Western Europe have renewed Marshall's 1947 invitation to Eastern Europe and Russia to share in that same peace, freedom, democracy, and the protection of human rights. You can make your own comparisons and contrasts between General Marshall's achievements for peace, as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, as Secretary of State, and as Secretary of Defense -- even as early as 1953 -- and President Obama's.

So, the Soviets and East Germans erected the Berlin Wall because of the success of the Marshall Plan and the failure of Soviet Communism. And the Berlin Wall fell because of the continued effects of the success of the Marshall Plan and the continued and utter failure of Soviet Communism.

Let me add this: Some have said that the erection of a fence by the United States on the Mexican border reminds them of the Berlin Wall. This is a slur on the United States and no one should let such a statement go unrebutted.

Senator Barack was not yet the Democratic Party's nominee for president last year when he asked to speak at the Berlin Wall. German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought the request "odd." He ended up speaking at a different venue on July 24. Undoubtedly he wanted to capture some of the notoriety of President Reagan when he spoke at the Wall on June 12, 1987, and challenged Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." But he also wanted to capture some of the notoriety of President John F. Kennedy who spoke at the Wall on June 26, 1963. Kennedy delivered a short, stirring speech known as the "I am a Berliner" speech. The full text and audio are available online. Let me quote a few lines: "You live in a defended island of freedom…[W]e…can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one…When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact they were in the front lines for almost two decades." The two decades stretched out another 26 years, but that day finally did come.

That day, November 9, 1989, is a day that will be celebrated forever by free men and women everywhere. And may George C. Marshall's December 31, 1880, birthday be likewise. We missed the anniversary of his death, but we need not miss this year's anniversary of his birth.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.