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Rex Tillerson Wants to Be George Marshall, but He Works for a Boss Who’s More Like Joe McCarthy

Rex Tillerson Wants to Be George Marshall, but He Works for a Boss Who’s More Like Joe McCarthy

On Tuesday, the new State Department spokesperson tweeted a brief statement by the secretary of state to commemorate the 70th anniversary of George Marshall’s famous address at Harvard that launched the Marshall Plan. Celebrating his predecessor’s “bold vision,” Rex Tillerson said the Marshall Plan “laid the foundation for the transatlantic bond” and serves as a “reminder of what is possible when the U.S. and Europe work together.”

It’s nice that Tillerson wants to bask in Marshall’s legacy. All secretaries of state do. But to think Tillerson actually believes the Trump administration is faithfully carrying forward Marshall’s legacy is, as his boss would put it, sad.

Marshall’s speech on June 5, 1947, capped a dramatic period that many consider one of the most successful moments in American diplomatic history. One of the best books about that time was written over six decades ago by a former State Department staffer, Joseph Jones, who described The Fifteen Weeks of policymaking leading up to Marshall’s speech as the turning point when the United States stepped forward as a world leader.

Now we are 20 weeks into the Trump administration. We see a very different set of policies unfolding — and possibly a period just as momentous in the history of American foreign policy.

Consider the intellectual underpinnings of the Marshall Plan: an enduring American interest in a free and democratic Europe. Tying American power to the defense of democracy. Championing the idea that the United States needed to lead in building strong global and regional institutions. Understanding the importance of economic and political development — stressing soft power as much as hard power — while building strong security organizations like NATO. For seven decades, these ideas have served as the foundation for American foreign policy. Yet the Trump administration, and especially the president himself, is questioning them all.

But the Marshall Plan’s legacy is more than a set of ideas — it’s also important to remember how it got done. Needless to say, the factors that made implementing the Marshall Plan so successful — a strong secretary of state leading an empowered State Department with a politically skilled and magnanimous president, a bipartisan approach with Congress, and a commitment to appeal to the better angels of the American people — are not very apparent today.

So will the “20 weeks” of 2017 bury the legacy of the “15 weeks” of 1947?

Today, we hear ugly echoes of the past. Of course, the Marshall Plan was a complete and explicit repudiation of the “America first” argument that had such momentum before World War II. Yet now the “America first” banner proudly flies at the White House.

But I think there is an even more fundamental reason to worry. Consider the words our politicians use. At the highest levels, U.S. leaders look out at the world and snarl against conspiracies that are “so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” These politicians decry draining taxpayer dollars abroad for a “massive and unrewarding boondoggle,” which only turns the United States into “the patsy of the modern world.”

These lines sound familiar, right? Maybe because they’re from the Rose Garden last week, when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement?

Close.

Senator Joseph McCarthy said them on the Senate floor in June 1951, in a cynical effort to destroy Marshall. And that boondoggle he’s talking about is — you got it — the Marshall Plan.

This moment is the most direct threat to the Marshall legacy in six decades — since McCarthy. Like today, that era was also extremely bitter and toxic, dominated by a political leader who commanded the news cycle with outrage, railed against a deep state and hostile media, trafficked in untruths, and was mentored by loyal henchman Roy Cohn. It provoked a crisis not just for foreign policy, but American society, in which fundamental democratic values were at stake. It was also a drama that, for the first time, unfolded as a national television spectacle in congressional hearings — an ancestor of the Comey hearings this week.

But we came out of the darkness. McCarthy ultimately proved his own worst enemy, and our political system proved resilient. And from the vantage of the early 1950s, no one imagined the tremendous progress and prosperity that we enjoyed for the next seven decades.

That’s thanks in large part to the Marshall Plan. Which is why it’s so important to remember the history that was made as a result of what happened during the “15 weeks” 70 years ago. And this history is reason to hope.

For this was, as Jones wrote in the conclusion of his book describing that time, one of the rare moments when our leaders “thought not in terms of what could be done but what should be done.” It was “a time of courage, of bold decision, of generous response.” That is what we must aspire to today.

So Tillerson is right to remind us of Marshall’s legacy. The only problem is he’s serving a president who has far more in common with the man who tried to bring Marshall down.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images