After the German defeat in the First World War a hundred years ago, the terms of the surrender were worked out in Versailles. President Wilson, representing America, proposed a 14-point plan that was broadly generous to the defeated Germans, but he was overruled by the British and, especially, the French who insisted on punitive terms, including hefty annual reparation payments by Germany to the victorious countries.
Only about 16% of these payments were ever made, but the Treaty of Versailles was viewed as a national humiliation by the German people. After the agreement was signed many commentators predicted that the harsh terms made another European war inevitable.
And so it was. Twenty years later Hitler led the German forces to another military catastrophe with America providing much of the war equipment and leadership responsible for defeating the Nazis. The chief-of-staff of the American forces was General George C. Marshall who was later appointed as Secretary of State by President Truman.
Instead of punishing the German people who were in a dire situation after the widespread destruction of factories and farms during six years of war, Marshall introduced a policy of providing financial support to help European countries to recover. The focus of what was called the Marshall Plan was restoring the infrastructure needed for an economic recovery in Europe, including in Germany. This represented an important new and magnanimous departure in international affairs, a total rejection of the punitive Versailles approach.
The centuries of European wars, culminating in the two world wars of the 20th century, were now viewed by many as part of an embarrassing past. In their place, over a few decades, came the United Nations, the European Economic Community and NATO, all highlighting the rejection of militarism and narrow nationalism. This new era of peaceful co-operation was greatly influenced by American leaders, especially George Marshall, who deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.
Marshall’s use of what is called soft power as distinct from military prowess was also followed in the Peace Corps, started by President Kennedy in 1961. This program, which continues to the present day, has proved to be very popular with many idealistic young Americans who work in poor countries, providing much-needed education and training skills for the local communities. Since its inception close to a quarter of a million young people, mostly college graduates, from all over the United States have served as Peace Corps volunteers, representing the United States, in more than forty Developing Countries.
President George W Bush is remembered mostly for the disastrous decision of committing American troops to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also personally initiated a major program to end the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. This was called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). It received strong bi-partisan support in congress and in 2008 no less than 37 billion dollars were budgeted for this program. PEPFAR saved millions of lives and is deemed one of the most successful soft programs ever promoted by Washington.
Before he finished his second term in the White House in 1960 President Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech to the American people that what he called “the military-industrial complex” was the biggest threat to peace and prosperity in the United States.
This was at the height of the Cold War when leaders of both parties in Washington vied with each other in asserting their hatred of all versions of communism. So it was shocking to hear a popular president, a five-star general, declare that it was the defense industry – the armament makers, combined with government leaders demanding increased funding every year for more sophisticated weaponry – not the communists, who presented the biggest threat to the country.
In the 2018 budget Eisenhower’s current successor in the White House, a man who, during the Vietnam years, was exempted from military service because of a troublesome heel, proposed a massive increase of 82 billion dollars for the Defense Department whose total budget, hovering around 800 billion, is now larger than the defense budgets of the next seven major countries combined: Russia, China, Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, Saudi Arabia and India.
The military-industrial complex rules! The non-military part of the budget, the soft part covering diplomacy and aid programs, was reduced with the huge monetary increases going to enhance the modern arsenal of war.
There is no doubt that the American military lords it over all its enemies, near and far. How have they performed as the best-equipped military power ever during the last seventy years since the George Marshall initiative at the end of Hitler’s war?
The report card is unimpressive. America tied the Korean War, lost in Vietnam, and we are looking for any way to extricate ourselves with some modicum of honor from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Winning in either place is no longer an option. With all our precise bombs and drones we cannot defeat ragtag guerilla armies driven by strong tribal and religious commitments.
Rumblings of military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea elicit statements from experts warning that they are very dubious about the prospect for success in another war in either country.
Next year President Trump will again propose a big increase in the defense budget while cutting back on the diplomatic service and benevolent programs in poor countries. There is no place for the soft Marshall Plan approach in his calculations. The military-industrial complex calls the shots more than ever in Washington.