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

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.”