The Atlantic

The Marshall Plan That Failed

Before George Marshall transformed American foreign policy in Europe, he lost a major political fight in China.
Source: Otto Bettmann / Getty

“We used to win,” Donald Trump said through his campaign and into his presidency. “We don’t win anymore.”

For all the outrage the line would regularly elicit, it in fact reflects one of the few points that Trump and his critics in the foreign-policy establishment agree on. Both look back with nostalgia to a lost golden age, when America did great things at home and on the world stage. Trump’s story of decline is just a cruder version of a more widely accepted narrative; it was able to take hold because he delivered it to a nation already in thrall to its own myths.

More than any other period in American history, the years just after World War II are taken to represent that foreign-policy golden age. They mark the start of the American era, a period of bold leadership that gave us the doctrines and accomplishments we invoke today. The Marshall Plan, which saved Europe from poverty and despair; the construction of America’s global alliances; the democratic renovation of Germany and Japan; the “containment” strategy that defeated the Soviet threat; the valor of the “Greatest Generation” and the vision of the “Wise Men”—all fit tidily into a narrative of

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