Katrina Journal: What We Need Is a Marshall Plan in Reverse

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Mr. Bischof is a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, whose campus is still closed. He recently started teaching New Orleans area “DP” students at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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President Bush recently called for a reconstruction of the Gulf Coast along the lines of the Marshall Plan. That makes more sense than ever now that almost the entire Gulf Coast has been devastated by the double punch of hurricanes “Katrina” and “Rita.” We would do well, however, to recall what was involved in the reconstruction of postwar Europe, and what it took to reconstruct it.

In Central Europe historic and beautiful cities were burnt and smashed as a result of the war and even more devastated than New Orleans is today. But neither defeated Germans nor victorious allies ever considered abandoning these urban centers; they were a testimony to centuries of civilization before Nazism ever brought on their destruction. New Orleans has been a unique melting pot of Creole culture and it must and can be restored as a less vulnerable center of American civilization, just as Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Hamburg were restored. Germany and Austria were controlled by four-power occupation regimes whose armies controlled the land. Now the military is in control of New Orleans and gun-toting soldiers have reestablished security. But vast amounts of national and international aid will be needed.

Hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans live scattered as “displaced persons” across the U.S. This sort of challenge is not unprecedented either. Austria harbored 1.5 million “displaced persons” (DPs) in 1945 – and Germany several millions -- from all over Europe; some lived for years in make-shift camps. Similar to the Gulf Coast now, these DPs relied on the “kindness of strangers.” Just like the Red Cross feeds tens of thousands of Gulf Coast “DPs” these postwar DPs were fed by private aid organizations and the “United Relations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration” (a short-lived postwar relief agency to which the U.S. contributed much), and then the Marshall Plan.

The process of reconstruction started in Germany and Austria as soon as people moved back into the cities once security was established. Initially Nazis were ordered to clean up the rubble. Why not issue a national call to young people across the U.S. to come to the Gulf Coast and help rebuild -- a quasi national “Americorps” program, or “Civilian Conservation Corps,” the notable New Deal program? There is enormous potential in the idealism and “can-do” spirit of young Americans that only needs to be channeled into such a worthy cause.

For the long-term rebuilding effort of postwar Central Europe the “bottlenecks” in the economies needed to be plugged and then the city infrastructures, and food and transportation networks had to be rebuilt. Reconstruction, however, was sped up with the generous American aid offer of the European Recovery Program. Such a Marshall Plan will be needed for the battered New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast now.

It will take more than an American national effort. The international community will have to get involved. In this effort the former Marshall Plan recipient nations of Western Europe, all wealthy societies now, ought to be the first ones to offer generous aid.

One of the Marshall Plan’s explicit aims was to uplift all segments of society to end “class warfare” in Europe. Western Europe became tranquil in those years because of the Marshall Plan’s “politics of productivity,” as the Harvard historian Charles Maier termed it, which made the working class part of European recovery too. So the economic and social reconstruction of New Orleans must include all segments of society – rich and poor, black and white. Black artisans are needed to rebuild the unique architecture of New Orleans; the port of New Orleans, serving the entire Mississippi River basin, is dependent on black longshoremen to load and unload the ships; black teachers must return to the city to teach the children, musicians to reconstruct the unique cultural flavor of the Crescent City.

It was the genius of the Marshall Plan to help governments construct a “master plan” for rebuilding and integrating the war-torn economies of Western Europe. High government officials from the 16 participating nations regularly met in Paris to table their needs, country by country. Exaggerated demands of participating countries were shot down. American Marshall Plan officials strictly controlled the dispersal of some 13 billion dollars in aid over four years (1948-52) in individual countries; Congress made sure the money was well spent. Infrastructure was rebuilt. Intra-European aid programs were launched through the Marshall Plan. Thus was established an integrated reconstruction program for all of Europe. Countries did not only benefit from the U.S. aid injection but also from a new spirit of European cooperation. In a similar fashion, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast with its ports and shipyards and oilfields will be beneficial to the Gulf region, the rest of the U.S., and the global economy, which depends on the Gulf region's oil supplies and shipping lanes.

Generous European aid to the Gulf Coast will also tell the American people that “old Europe” is still America's best and most reliable friend. The strengthening of Atlantic ties will also be a boon to the current American national security agenda (such as the fight against terrorism). Americans helped to rebuild postwar Western Europe with generosity and resourcefulness; it is time for the Europeans to step up and help the stricken people of the Gulf Coast with a “Marshall Plan in reverse.”

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

When the United States starts a real world war (not just a phony cover-up and win-the-election "war on evil" or a deceptive and bogus "war to disarm Saddam Hussein") and is invaded, bombed, humiliated, and defeated by a European superpower (as Germany was in 1945), then maybe there could a slight possiblity that America would be ready to accept aid and advice from Europe on how to clean the mess made by that war (and maybe even some of the messes of its own making). As it stands now a "Marshall plan in reverse" for New Orleans would almost certainly be a massive waste of time, energy and money. Before talking about reconstruction aid from abroad to rebuild a cockamamie fool-wtih-mother-nature series of levees surrounding a swamp, we need first and foremost domestic "Nuremberg trial" to convict the guilty, starting with the crook in the White House and working all the way down to the crooks in the New Orleans police department.

Lorraine Margaret Paul - 10/19/2005

Gonzalo, I am neither predictable or unoriginal, merely factual.

Frederick Thomas - 10/18/2005

Thank for pointing out the central issue, and for the anecdote.

The corruption you refer to is so pervasive because it is so accepted in New Orleans and to a lesser degree in Louisiana by most levels of society. Why it should be so there and less so elsewhere would make an interesting study. One could make a case for the cruelty of the Union occupation, or the odd economics, or slavery mixed with hedonism, but it is probably more complex than that.

But when the good governor went to Washington to ask for a grab bag of storm and non-storm related projects, each inflated to many times its reasonable cost, to the tune of a quarter trillion dollars, no one should have been surprized.

John Chapman - 10/18/2005

Well, good for you.
I take it this was your original contribution.

Grant W Jones - 10/17/2005

I guess this sort of stuff can be called Holocaust Omission Revisionism.

The real DPs are nowhere to be found in Bischof's article.

More here:


Gonzalo Rodriguez - 10/17/2005

As I read the article I thought to myself that I knew that some of the first comments would leap at the opportunity to remind us that the Marshall Plan was not primarily an altruistic project but in reality a self-interested attempt by the US to oppose communism and fuel the American economy. Entirely predictable and unoriginal -- I see my expectations were not disappointed.

John H. Lederer - 10/17/2005

I am startled how on occasion you and I, starting from what are likely diametrically opposed viewpoints reach somewhat similar conclusions.

The key problem to reconstruction in New Orleans and Louisiana is that the system of government, and the society, is pervasively corrupt and broken.

Failure to do something about that will mean the failure of any reconstruction schemes.

The corruption is so pervasive that it becomes contradictory. I was arrested in Louisiana in the 60's for "suspicion", as I was told. The real reason for my arrest was giving rides to blacks for a get out the vote effort, an offense that was indirectly made clear to me. I was released from jail because my boss paid a $40 "gratuity" to get me out. In short, a corrupt regime was unable to follow a corrupt goal because of its corruption.

And the plan is to pump tens of billions into that system?

John Chapman - 10/17/2005

I’d like to add that besides the Marshall Plan as an economic plan and a frontal assault on European Communism it was also like a you-can-be-like-us-too propaganda effort to get Europeans to emulate the American system of mass production for a mass-consumption society. There were dozens of documentary films, hundreds of radio programs, thousands of mobile cinema shows, and exhibitions to spread this message of the Marshall Plan.

Lorraine Margaret Paul - 10/17/2005

I think it should be mentioned that western Europe was mainly rebuilt so that it would play a major role as a bulwark against communism. Sometimes our enthusiasm can overcome our pragmatism in viewing a particularly point in history.