The Marshall Plan Speech: Rhetoric and Diplomacy

Advisor: Philip Brenner, Professor, School of International Service, American University
© 2016 National Humanities Center

What rhetorical and diplomatic challenges did Secretary of State George Marshall face as he delivered his 1947 Marshall Plan speech?


In his “Marshall Plan Speech” of June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall sought to describe the plight of post-War Europe, convince Congress and the American people that it was in the nation’s interest to relieve that plight, assure Europeans that America was not trying to dominate them, and calm the fears of the Soviets while warning them not to interfere with the initiative.

George Marshall

George C. Marshall, 50th United States Secretary of State


Marshall Plan Speech, June 5, 1947, Harvard University (transcript from recording, full text below). To hear a recording, click here.

Text Type

Speech, historical, informational

Text Complexity

Grade 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (cite evidence to analyze specifically and by inference)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 (determine author’s point of view)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 8.1 (IA) (…the US developed a foreign policy based on collective security…)

Teacher’s Note

This lesson analyzes the 1947 speech in which Secretary of State George Marshall outlined America’s plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. It is suitable for use in English and history classes. For English teachers it offers a way to study paragraph development, the presentation of evidence, logic, and the structure of persuasive discourse. History teachers will be able to incorporate those topics into an exploration of the history of the Marshall Plan, its purposes, and the diplomacy required to launch it.

The speech roughly follows the classic five-part structure of argumentation — introduction, narrative, argument, rebuttal, conclusion — and we analyze it according to those categories. To keep the lesson to a manageable length, however, we do a close reading of the narrative, argument, and rebuttal sections only. Each one would make an excellent small group assignment. We explore the introduction and the conclusion in brief notes.

This lesson is divided into two parts, a teacher’s guide and a student version, both accessible below. The former includes a background essay, a textual analysis with close reading questions and responses, three interactive exercises, and an optional follow-up assignment. The first interactive exercise explores vocabulary in context; the second and third explore how Marshall deploys evidence. The student version of the lesson, an interactive PDF, includes all of the above, except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

For a related lesson, see NSC 68: America’s Cold War Blueprint in America in Class® Lessons.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

The Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, is generally considered one of, if not the, most successful American foreign policy initiative since World War II. Nonetheless, historians still debate its goals. Was it a mission to relieve suffering, a plan to replicate American-style capitalism in Europe, a stimulus to boost the American economy, a brake to prevent Europe from backsliding into fascism, a strategy to frustrate Soviet expansion, or all of those things? Whatever it was, it was not on America’s diplomatic agenda when World War II ended in 1945.

The War left Europe devastated. People throughout the continent were poor; starvation was widespread. Countries did not have the money to rebuild roads, bridges, factories, and homes. Banks and other financial institutions were in ruins. European nations simply lacked the capacity to rebuild their economies on their own.

By 1947 it had become clear to policy makers in Washington and overseas that something needed to be done to address the plight of Europe. America took its first step in that direction when President Truman persuaded Congress to allocate funds to aid the government of Greece as it fought a civil war against a home-grown Communist resistance. The principle upon which that aid was based came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, a policy under which America pledged to support free peoples who were resisting subjugation by Communists or totalitarian forces.

In the spring of 1947 foreign ministers from Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union met in Moscow to work out solutions to Europe’s economic woes. Secretary of State George Marshall, who had been the Army Chief of Staff during the War, represented the United States. At the conference Marshall became convinced that the Soviets were not interested in solving economic problems but rather were prepared to wait for the war-weakened nations of Europe to collapse and fall under its domination. Shortly after his return to Washington, he delivered a national radio address describing the problems in Europe and calling for immediate action to remedy them. He ordered his policy advisors to develop a plan for such action, and they soon put together a set of recommendations, which became the basis of the Marshall Plan.

Secretary Marshall and President Truman knew that it would not be easy to convince the American people and Congress to come to the aid of Europe, especially to help such a fierce former enemy as Germany. The United States had a long tradition of avoiding entangling relations with other countries. Even though World War II had, to say the least, deeply enmeshed the nation in foreign affairs in Europe and Asia and even though America emerged from the War as the only power capable of world leadership, many Americans still desired to avoid deep involvements abroad. And those Americans had strong allies in Congress, where Republicans held a majority. While the Republicans were split between isolationists and internationalists, even the latter were unlikely to support an aid program estimated to cost about $4 billion per year at a time when the entire federal budget was only $34.5 billion. The Truman administration embarked upon a massive publicity campaign to win both popular and Congressional support for American aid to Europe. Marshall was well-positioned to lead this effort as a revered wartime leader who was not considered a partisan of either political party. His brief speech at the Harvard commencement activities on June 5, 1947, described in simple blunt terms the problems of Europe and a possible solution to them.

While Marshall and his advisors crafted the speech primarily for the American public and for Congress, they had two other audiences in mind. The Plan required the cooperation of the people of Europe. In the speech Marshall sought to demonstrate that he and President Truman understood their plight and stood ready to help. However, he had to assure them that America did not intend to impose a solution but rather would assist in implementing remedies of their own design. Then there was the Soviet Union. The Plan was open to the Soviets, but they refused to participate, denouncing it instead as an American scheme to take over Europe. In his speech Marshall had to reassure the Soviets that the Plan did not threaten them, but he also had to assert that it would go ahead despite their opposition.

Western Europe Recovery Map

The administration’s campaign of persuasion worked. The Economic Cooperation Act of 1948 was signed on April 3 of that year, and the Marshall Plan was underway. Between 1948 and 1951 it cost $13 billion. To put that amount in perspective, in 2015 dollars it would be roughly $131 billion or, over a four-year period, an annual average expenditure of almost $33 billion. For further perspective, consider that, in 2016, the federal government plans to spend $33.7 billion in foreign aid for the entire world. During the years of the Marshall Plan, in today’s dollars, the total federal budget ranged from $316 billion to $449 billion. The current federal budget, at about $4,000 billion ($4 trillion), is roughly ten times larger than it was in 1951. This means that the percentage of the budget devoted to the Marshall Plan each year, around 9%, was far greater than the percentage allocated to all foreign aid today, less than 1%.

Marshall Plan dollars went to reconstruct Europe’s productive capacity, reestablish its financial systems, and restore its faith in industrial capitalism, with a special emphasis on American-style capitalism. They funded projects in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and western Germany. Each country used Marshall Plan support in a different way. Tensions and disagreements often arose between the giver of the aid and its recipients, but by 1950 the stage was set for an economic boom in Western Europe. For his leadership of the plan that bore his name, George Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

This lesson focuses on Marshall’s Harvard speech, which roughly follows the classic five-part structure of argumentation: introduction, narrative or statement of fact, argument, rebuttal, and conclusion. We explore the introduction and conclusion in brief notes and closely analyze the narrative, argument, and rebuttal, while considering how the speech addressed the concerns of its multiple audiences.

Text Analysis



In an introduction the speaker tries to persuade the audience to like him or her so that they will pay attention to what is being said and agree with it. In addition, the speaker tries to interest the audience in the topic of the speech. The speaker may do this by pointing out how important the topic is or by stating the purpose of the speech. Marshall does all of these things in his first two paragraphs.

He clearly identifies at least one of his audiences, the American public, including the people assembled before him and those who will hear the speech on radio or read about it in newspapers.

In paragraph 1 he tries to win over his listeners by thanking them for the honor of speaking at Harvard and by displaying humility. He is “grateful,” “overwhelmed,” and “fearful” of his abilities to measure up to their expectations. In paragraph 2 he continues to woo the audience by flattering them. That the world situation is serious is apparent to “all intelligent people.” His audience is made up of such people, so he “need not tell” them that the world situation is serious, although, of course, he does. His emphasis on seriousness also signals that his topic is important, and his listeners should pay attention.

He goes on to identify a problem: the public cannot understand the complexity of the world situation because it is overwhelmed by the “mass of facts” presented in the media and because Americans are far removed from those “troubled areas,” the nations of Europe, which are making the world situation serious. Articulating this problem, he identifies the purpose of, at least, the next part of his speech: he is going to explain the world situation. Thus he prepares the audience for the next section of his address, the narrative.

Paragraph 1
[1] Mr. President, Dr. Conant, [president of Harvard] members of the board of overseers, ladies and gentlemen: I’m profoundly grateful and touched by the great distinction and honor and great compliment accorded me by the authorities of Harvard this morning. [2] I’m overwhelmed, as a matter of fact, and I’m rather fearful of my inability to maintain such a high rating as you’ve been generous enough to accord to me. [3] In these historic and lovely surroundings, this perfect day, and this very wonderful assembly, it is a tremendously impressive thing to an individual in my position.Paragraph 2
[4] But to speak more seriously, I need not tell you that the world situation is very serious. [5] That must be apparent to all intelligent people. [6] I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation. [7] Furthermore, the people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight and consequent reactions of the long-suffering peoples and the effect of those reactions on their governments in connection with our efforts to promote peace in the world.

Narrative or Statement of Facts

Close Reading Questions

Note: In the narrative a speaker states the facts of his or her case. The speaker tells the audience what they need to know to make sense of the topic.

1. How does Marshall define the problem of Europe in 1947?
According to Marshall, Europe’s problem is not chiefly one of physical destruction, a visible problem that can be solved with bricks, mortar, and paint. The problem goes deeper than that. It is, rather, an invisible problem, a failure of the economic system, a breakdown of the networks of trade and commerce, a problem that will require more than new construction. He goes on to illustrate this systemic problem in the next paragraph.

2. What, in Marshall’s view, caused this problem?
Essentially, the Nazis. Before World War II European economies were devoted to war preparation, either as allies of the Nazis or as potential enemies. During the conflict itself European economies were devoted to fighting the War.

3. In what sense might it be said that Marshall, in calling for the economic rehabilitation of Europe, is arguing for the final defeat of the Nazis?
While the Nazis were no longer a direct threat, the people of Europe were still suffering because of them. Economic rehabilitation would relieve that suffering and finally deliver Europeans from the lingering effects of Nazi domination.

Activity: Stating the Facts, Making the Case, Part 1Activity: Stating the Facts, Making the Case, Part 1
Explore how Marshall develops the thesis of paragraph 3.
Paragraph 3
[8] In considering the requirements for the rehabilitation [rebuilding] of Europe, the physical loss of life, the visible destruction of cities, factories, mines, and railroads was correctly estimated, but it has become obvious during recent months that this visible destruction was probably less serious than the dislocation of the entire fabric of European economy. [9] For the past ten years conditions have been abnormal. [10] The feverish preparation for war and the more feverish maintenance [continuation] of the war effort engulfed all aspects of [took over completely] national economies. [11] Machinery has fallen into disrepair [stopped working] or is entirely obsolete. [12] Under the arbitrary and destructive Nazi rule, virtually every possible enterprise [activity] was geared into the German war machine. [13] Long-standing commercial ties, private institutions, banks, insurance companies, and shipping companies disappeared through loss of capital, absorption through nationalization, or by simple destruction. In many countries, confidence in the local currency has been severely shaken. [14] The breakdown of the business structure of Europe during the war was complete. [15] Recovery has been seriously retarded [held back] by the fact that two years after the close of hostilities [end of the war] a peace settlement with Germany and Austria has not been agreed upon. [16] But even given a more prompt solution of these difficult problems, the rehabilitation of the economic structure of Europe quite evidently [clearly] will require a much longer time and greater effort than has been foreseen.

Note: In paragraph 4 Marshall further addresses the lack-of-understanding problem he identified in paragraph 2 by providing additional facts about the conditions in Europe. This paragraph derives its effectiveness from the way in which he orders his presentation of these facts.

Activity: Stating the Facts, Making the Case, Part 2Activity: Stating the Facts, Making the Case, Part 2
Examine how Marshall deploys evidence in paragraph 4.

4. The whole of Marshall’s speech is, of course, aimed at his Harvard audience and the American people. Why might the narrative portion of his address also find eager listeners in Europe?
Because in describing the plight of Europeans, he is demonstrating that he, and by extension the United States government, understands their suffering and is sympathetic to it. To make his plan work, he will need the trust of the Europeans, and here he begins to his efforts to win it.

Note: Sentences 31 are 32 are pivotal in the speech. In 31 Marshall closes out the narrative. He has dealt with the lack-of-understanding problem from paragraph 2: “Thus (I hope you now understand) a very serious situation is rapidly developing…” Sentence 32 not only summarizes that “very serious situation” but also states a problem. He will devote the next part of speech to outlining his solution to that problem. Thus he moves on to the argument.

Paragraph 4
[17] There is a phase of this matter which is both interesting and serious. [18] The farmer has always produced the foodstuffs to exchange with the city dweller for the other necessities of life. [19] This division of labor is the basis of modern civilization. [20] At the present time it is threatened with breakdown. [21] The town and city industries are not producing adequate goods to exchange with the food-producing farmer. [22] Raw materials and fuel are in short supply. [23] Machinery, as I have said, is lacking or worn out. [24] The farmer or the peasant cannot find the goods for sale which he desires to purchase. [25] So the sale of his farm produce for money which he cannot use seems to him an unprofitable transaction. [26] He, therefore, has withdrawn many fields from crop cultivation and is using them for grazing. [27] He feeds more grain to stock and finds for himself and his family an ample supply of food, however short he may be on clothing and the other ordinary gadgets of civilization. [28] Meanwhile, people in the cities are short of food and fuel, and in some places approaching the starvation levels. [29] So the governments are forced to use their foreign money and credits to procure [buy] these necessities abroad. [30] This process exhausts funds which are urgently needed for reconstruction. [31] Thus a very serious situation is rapidly developing which bodes no good for the world. [32] The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down.


Close Reading Questions

Note: The argument is the heart of any piece of persuasive writing. In it the speaker explains why the audience should support a proposition or take an action.

5. What is Marshall arguing for in paragraph 5?
He wants America to provide Europe with “substantial additional help.”

6. In paragraph 6 he mentions a “remedy.” To what problem is he referring?
The problem he cited at the end of paragraph 4: the danger that the “modern system of the division of labor” might collapse.

7. Thus far Marshall has focused on rebuilding the productive capacity of Europe — roads, factories, etc. — how, in paragraph 6, does he redefine the goal of American aid?
Now the purpose is to restore the confidence of Europeans in the “economic future of their own countries.”

8. What arguments does he make to support his plan in paragraph 7?
Failing to rescue Europe will demoralize the world, invite “disturbances,” and damage the American economy.

9. At what audiences does Marshall aim this portion of his speech?
In this part of the speech he has moved from defining the problem to telling both the American and the European publics what the United States plans to do about it. Moreover, here he introduces the political consequences of inaction, which could be construed as an implicit warning to isolationists in Congress.

Note: Marshall knows that people at home and abroad will oppose his plan. To be persuasive, he must anticipate objections and address them, and he does that in the next section of his speech, the rebuttal.

Paragraph 5
[33] The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.Paragraph 6
[34] The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole. The manufacturer and the farmer throughout wide areas must be able and willing to exchange their products for currencies the continuing value of which is not open to question.

Paragraph 7
[36] Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. [37] It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.


Close Reading Questions

Note: In a rebuttal the speaker acknowledges opposing views or criticisms and argues against them. A speaker who fails to do so would offer a weak, incomplete, and unconvincing case.

10. Why would Marshall say that his policy is aimed “not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos”?
This removes his plan from the realm of ideology and frames it as a humanitarian initiative open to all European nations, including the Soviet Union.

11. What does Marshall mean when he says that American assistance must be a “cure rather than a mere palliative”?
He envisions the American aid program not simply as a measure designed to get Europe over the immediate difficulties of post-war readjustment but rather as fundamental and permanent change that will set Europe on a course toward long-term economic prosperity.

12. Marshall issues warnings in paragraphs 8 and 9. Cite the language of his warnings.
“Any government which maneuvers… will encounter the opposition of the United States.” “Furthermore, governments, political parties or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery… will encounter the opposition of the United States.”

13. Who is the audience for this warning?
The Soviet Union.

14. How does Marshall avoid the charge that the United States is trying to impose its will upon Europe?
He says that it would not be “fitting” or “efficacious” for the US to draw up a relief program for Europe. “This,” he explicitly asserts, “is the business of Europe.” The US can be a friend and supporter, but the nations of Europe must take the first step. In paragraph 9 he also says that participation in the program must be voluntary.

15. In his rebuttal Marshall does not state the criticisms he refutes, rather he implies them. Just as he anticipated criticism from foreign countries in paragraphs 8, 9, and 10, in paragraph 11 he anticipates criticism from his own country. What critics do you think he is addressing?
He is aiming this rebuttal at isolationists in Congress and elsewhere who would argue that America should not get involved in foreign affairs and who would enflame heated political opposition to his proposal.

16. Cite the language Marshall uses to address American critics.
“Political passion and prejudice should have no part.”

17. What does Marshall call upon the American people to do?
We want Americans to understand the problem and the remedies. He is asking them to approach this situation through reason rather than emotion.

18. What does Marshall mean when he says that history has placed a “vast responsibility” upon America?
He is alluding to the fact that the United States is the only major industrial power to have survived World War II in possession of a fully functioning economy and as such has a responsibility to assume leadership in world affairs.

Note: At this point Marshall is prepared to move to the final section of his speech, the conclusion.

Paragraph 8
[38] Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. [39] Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. [40] Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. [41] Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. [42] Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. [43] Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us.Paragraph 9
[44] Furthermore, governments, political parties or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.

Paragraph 10
[45] It is already evident that, before the United States Government can proceed much further in its efforts to alleviate the situation and help start the European world on its way to recovery, there must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take in order to give proper effect to whatever action might be undertaken by this Government. [46] It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. [47] This is the business of the Europeans. [48] The initiative I think, must come from Europe. The role of this country should consist of friendly aid in the drafting of a European program and of later support of such a program so far as it may be practical for us to do so. The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all, European nations.

Paragraph 11
[49] An essential part of any successful action on the part of the United States is an understanding on the part of the people of America of the character of the problem and the remedies to be applied. [50] Political passion and prejudice should have no part. [51] With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country, the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome.



The conclusion of a speech is important because it presents the final words an audience hears, which often linger and shape the impression of an entire speech. Traditionally, speakers use conclusions to do four things:

  1. leave the audience with a favorable opinion,
  2. emphasize key points,
  3. stimulate an appropriate emotional response,
  4. summarize the argument.

In his conclusion Marshall does not have to worry about leaving a favorable opinion: he was one of the most highly regarded national leaders in 1947. (From the applause we hear in the recording of the speech, it is clear that the audience liked him and what he said.) He does, however, emphasize important points: that Americans must understand the complex situation in Europe, that the future depends upon rebuilding of Europe, and that Americans must make decisions about Europe based on reason and calm judgment.

Moreover, through the use of rhetorical questions, questions raised without the expectation of an answer, he summarizes his entire speech:

  • What are the reactions of the people [of Europe]? (Desperation)
  • What are the justifications of those reactions? (Economic collapse)
  • What are the sufferings [of the Europeans]? (Poverty and starvation)
  • What is needed? (Restoration of the European economy and confidence in the future)
  • What can best be done? (American aid)
  • What must be done? (Americans must agree to supply aid)

This is a particularly effective concluding strategy because, as Marshall says twice in the speech, he wants Americans to think about and understand the conditions in Europe so that they can make decisions based on reason. His questions at the end provoke thought rather than emotion. This comports with his overall avoidance of any sort of emotional appeal in the speech.

Paragraph 12
[52] I am sorry that on each occasion I have said something publicly in regard to our international situation, I’ve been forced by the necessities of the case to enter into rather technical discussions. [53] But to my mind, it is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment. [54] As I said more formally a moment ago, we are remote from the scene of these troubles. [55] It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs or motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. [56] And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment. [57] It hangs, I think, to a large extent on the realization of the American people, of just what are the various dominant factors. [58] What are the reactions of the people? [59] What are the justifications of those reactions? [60] What are the sufferings? [61] What is needed? [62] What can best be done? [63] What must be done? [64] Thank you very much.

Follow-Up Assignment

Ask your students to watch the eleven-minute film “The Marshall Plan at Work” (1950) from the German Historical Museum and have them respond to the following questions, either in discussion or in writing.

  • How does the film portray post-War Germany?
  • How does the film answer the question, why rebuild Germany?
  • How does the film reflect the European economic problems Secretary of State Marshall outlined in his Harvard Commencement speech?
  • How does the film portray the Marshall Plan as an anti-Soviet measure?
  • Why did the Marshall Plan support farmers?
  • Does the film portray the Marshall Plan as chiefly an economic or humanitarian endeavor?

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • compliment: expression of honor
  • accorded: given
  • appraisement: judgment
  • fabric: underlying framework
  • feverish: intensely active
  • engulfed: overwhelmed
  • obsolete: old-fashioned
  • arbitrary: unrestrained by law
  • nationalization: takeover by government
  • bodes: predicts
  • deterioration: fall into ruin
  • demoralizing: discouraging
  • piecemeal: partial
  • palliative: easing of symptoms
  • maneuvers: moves
  • alleviate: relieve
  • efficacious: effective
  • unilaterally: on its own
  • initiative: first step
  • foresight: prudence