Marshall Plan and Mad Men

Marshall received CIO Convention badge

Marshall received CIO Convention badge

While the world prepares for the conclusion of the television program Mad Men next year, we ought to stop and think about what prepared the world for Mad Men. In a recent interview (relevant quote begins around 4:15), Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said that he first became interested in the late 1950s and early 1960s when drafting the pilot for his show because New York had become “the center of the universe” by that time. This era, Weiner added, was also “the height of America’s influence, of America’s goodwill,” thanks in large part to the continuing “benefits of the Marshall Plan” in all aspects of American life, even almost a decade after the official end of the plan.

The massive economic impact of the Marshall Plan within the United States often gets overlooked because of its official name: the European Recovery Program. More than $13 billion of US aid in the forms of grants and loans was provided to Europe but was used to purchase American goods. In fact, assurance of this cycle was crucial to Marshall’s success in garnering public support for the plan. American farmers and industrialists were hesitant to offer their support, because they feared that a recovered Europe that could produce its own goods would reduce demand for American goods abroad. (See, for example, Marshall’s speeches to the Congress of Industrial Organizations on October 15, 1947; National Cotton Council on January 22, 1948; and the National Farm Institute on February 13, 1948 in volume 6 of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall.) Marshall would later comment that he fought for the establishment of the ERP “as hard as though I was running for the Senate or the presidency.”

Marshall Plan PosterIt was not just Marshall who was concerned about garnering popular support to pass the program. One of the Marshall Foundation’s collections, Marshall Plan Resources, includes many official reports from this period analyzing the domestic effects of increased foreign aid. One of these, commissioned by President Truman and written by the Council of Economic Advisers, predicted that without the proposed foreign aid, “it was likely that the U.S. export surplus would sink to an annual rate of 4 to 5 billion dollars” in 1948, “contrasted with the 13 billion dollar annual rate in the second quarter of 1947.” The report went on to warn that while the short-term effects of this decrease “would probably not inflict serious short run damage on the U.S. economy, substantial problems of readjustment would be generated. Moreover, the industrial paralysis which could be expected to result in some other countries would have repercussions of major proportions upon our own economy and upon world stability” for years to come, leading well into the early years of the Mad Men era.

It is precisely because of Marshall’s long-term vision in seeing the extensive domestic benefits of foreign aid that the American economy experienced the growth and success that it did in the 1950s and early 1960s, which in turn inspired one of the most iconic television programs of our own era.

5 thoughts on “Marshall Plan and Mad Men

  1. Greg provides a valuable reminder of the domestic benefits of ERP, but what should not be forgotten is that another government program, the GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944), was working in tandem with the Marshall Plan to spur postwar prosperity. The synergy was profound. Once upon a time, obviously, a majority of Americans did not regard Washington and the man on main street as antagonists.

  2. Interesting connection and influence on a thoughtful TV series. If only we would learn from General Marshall’s experiences and vision. We should be applying some of his lessons to today’s difficulties. The Marshall Plan is his legacy and paved the way for many people and future generations to have a better life and live in a democracy. We should all be grateful.

  3. This well-written and thought-provoking blog entry brings forward some important features of the Marshall Plan. The facts pertaining to the U.S. export surplus absent the proposed foreign aid are particularly interesting, especially in connection with their role in the whole effort to sell the program to American businesspeople, farmers, and legislators.

    My dissertation supervisor, Kenneth W. Thompson, an expert in ethics and foreign affairs, frequently cited the European Recovery Program as an outstanding example (one of the very few) in which national interest and humanitarian policy came together. The U.S. national interest, of course, was both domestic (economic) and foreign (pro-stability and anti-Communist).

    I am a big fan of Mad Men and appreciate the moral complexity of Don Draper (his past and his present), but I am glad that George C. Marshall’s personal morality was more grounded in the traditional virtues–and hence exemplary for all generations.

  4. I am more and more convinced that the Marshall Plan will be George C. Marshall’s true legacy. This intriguing and insightful entry only proves the widespread influence of that simple, yet monumental, act.

  5. A very interesting and well-written piece. Congratulations on finding an appropriate bridge between this extremely significant historic event and popular modern culture. I am impressed!

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