The fifth of June, 1947, was a milestone in the history of the United States, and of what was soon thereafter called the Western World. Fifty years ago, in a speech to Harvard University's graduating class, Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced the European Recovery Program, later known as the Marshall Plan. It described the American government's firm resolution to underwrite the economic recovery of European countries damaged by the recently ended war and threatened by the possible expansion of international communism.

The plan was a great success. It provided for generous loans, outright gifts and the furnishing of American equipment, eventually amounting to some $13 billion (or about $88.5 billion in today's dollars) tendered to 16 countries over five years between 1947 and 1952. West Germany was included among the recipients when it became a state in 1948.

The Marshall Plan was a milestone; but it was not a turning point. The giant American ship of state was already changing course. Two years before, the government and much of American public opinion had looked to the Soviet Union as their principal ally, even sometimes at the expense of Britain. But by early 1947, the Truman administration had begun to perceive the Soviet Union as America's principal adversary -- a revolution in foreign policy that has had few precedents in the history of this country.

In 1947, this was marked by three important events: the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March, committing the United States to the defense of Greece and Turkey; the announcement of the Marshall Plan in June; and the publication in the July issue of Foreign Affairs of the famous "X" article by George F. Kennan, then director of the State Department's policy planning staff, who defined a policy of Soviet "containment." In a radical departure from American traditions, these three statements showed that the United States was committed to defend a large part of Europe, even in the absence of war. All this is true, but perhaps a whit too simple in retrospect. The term "Cold War" did not yet exist, and there was still hope that a definite break with the Soviet Union -- leading among other things to a hermetic division of Europe -- might be avoided. Marshall's speech suggested that the offer was open to the states of Eastern Europe too, and perhaps even to the Soviet Union. One reason for this somewhat indefinite generosity was to maintain an American presence in Eastern Europe, since the plan called for the establishment of ties with the United States, including the temporary presence of American administrators.

That is why Stalin refused to countenance the Marshall Plan from its inception. (As Winston Churchill had said, Stalin feared Western friendship more than he feared Western enmity.) Czechoslovakia provides a case in point. Ruled by a coalition government in which the Communists were amply represented but which was parliamentary and democratic, Czechoslovakia still hoped to remain a possible bridge between East and West. The first reaction of the Prague government was to accept the offer of the Marshall Plan. Moscow then ordered the government to refuse it, which it did -- instantly.

This did not surprise officials in Washington, including Kennan. By June, the division of Europe was already hardening fast. The Iron Curtain (a phrase first employed 15 months before by Churchill) was becoming a physical reality. Eight months after Marshall's speech, the Communists took over Prague. Soon after came the Russian blockade of West Berlin, the Berlin airlift, the final separation of Western from Eastern Germany, and the formation of NATO in early 1949. The partition of Europe was frozen; the Cold War was on.

So, generously offered and eagerly accepted, the Marshall Plan was restricted to Western Europe. Within four years, the economic and financial recovery of Western Europe was advancing swiftly. It is interesting that the costs of the American contribution to rebuilding Europe during those first crucial years of the Cold War were about the same as the costs of the materials it had given the Soviet Union during World War II to help with the Allied victory. After 1947, not a single European country went Communist that was not already Communist in 1947 -- a situation that remained unchanged until the dissolution of the Soviet Eastern European empire in 1989.

But the economic effects of the Marshall Plan should not be exaggerated. Its principal effect was political: a definite sign of America's commitment to the defense of Western Europe, and to maintaining an American presence there. Behind the Marshall Plan, of course, was the habitual American inclination to overrate economic factors, coupled with the inclination to think in ideological terms, to be preoccupied by the dangers of communism, rather than by the existence of Russian nationalism, including the Russian military presence in Eastern Europe. Despite the success of the Marshall Plan and of Western European economic recovery, the proportion of Communist voters in countries such as France and Italy did not decrease from 1947 to 1953.

The Marshall Plan left a more long-standing legacy than recovery. It was one of the instruments of the democratization of Western Europe, resulting in the emulation and adoption of American ideas and institutions, such as progressive income taxation, Social Security, near-universal education and installment buying, all of which led to the gradual homogenization and the rising prosperity of entire peoples. It included giving credit to the masses, financially and otherwise: "On ne prete qu'aux riches" -- credit is only for the rich -- was not just a French aphorism but the established capitalist practice in Europe until about 1948.

By the 1950s, the social structure of Western Europe was starting to resemble that of the United States. Now, this transformation is largely completed and the differences between the United States and other democratic societies are no longer mainly economic or social, but national and cultural. The Truman administration was able to push the Marshall Plan through a predominantly Republican Congress in 1947-48, in which the main opponents of the European Recovery Program were right-wing Republicans, the very people who accused Truman and his government of being soft on communism. Most of these people had been isolationists before and during the first years of World War II. Their conversion to another kind of internationalism (more precisely: supernationalism) was easy. By 1956, the Republican party adopted a platform calling for "the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world" -- proposed by a party that was even then called "isolationist" by its opponents, wrongly so.

The Marshall Plan in 1947 was followed, less than two years later, by the creation of NATO, an alliance that, for all its merits, contributed to a political division of Europe lasting for 40 years. With the retreat of the Russians from Eastern Europe in 1989, the Cold War -- and the partition of Europe -- came to an end. Some people called for a new Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe and, perhaps, for Russia. But this did not come about, for many reasons. In 1947, the United States was the only economic superpower in the world; 40 years later, this was no longer the case. In 1947, the countries of Western Europe were threatened by a possible expansion of communism; the opposite was true of Eastern Europe 40 years later. In 1947, the global financial economy was in its embryonic stage; 40 years later, principal investments abroad no longer required the principal thrust of a government.

But with all of these differences in mind, there remains one similarity. History does not repeat itself, but some historical conditions do. The main beneficial result of the Marshall Plan was Western Europeans' confidence that the United States was committed to maintaining their freedom. The American commitment to Eastern Europe now is not clear. It is suggested here and there by American actions, as in Bosnia, but it is not a commitment. Yet it is in the interest of most European countries -- yes, including even Russia -- that a new division of Europe should not occur. The main instrument for its avoidance may no longer be an Eastern European Marshall Plan; but it is certainly not an extension of NATO. John Lukacs is the author of the forthcoming books, "The Hitler of History" (Knopf) and "A Thread of Years" (Yale). ANOTHER MARSHALL PLAN? "A Marshall Plan in the 1990s? It is impractical because private capital flows have made government aid pale into insignificance. It is impossible because we live in a world in which great acts of thought and deed -- particularly by governments -- seem unnecessary. Perhaps this is for the best, but it has narrowed the national imagination and dampened our spirit of generosity." -- Fareed Zakaria,

managing editor, Foreign Affairs "In 1947, the U.S. was the only economy capable of providing the resources to rebuild a devastated Europe. Today's robust international market might never have emerged without it. But thanks to that outcome, it is hard to imagine one government (or even several) needing to respond in exactly that way again." -- Condoleezza Rice,

National Security Council director of Soviet and East European Affairs, 1989-91 "A new Marshall Plan in Eastern Europe could be very successful in giving those countries the infrastructure and attitude in labor and management that will enable them to compete."

-- Alexander King,

director of the European Productivity Agency of the Organization of European Economic Cooperation, 1957-60 "The Marshall Plan employed U.S. aid to promote ideas: self-help, European integration, the link between free markets and free people, and the indivisibility of European and American security. Those ideas remain valid. But today, private capital, private action and Europe itself can contribute much to an undivided Europe and beyond, as long as we maintain security." -- Robert B. Zoellick,

undersecretary of State, 1989-92 "It is now time for today's leaders to extend the promise of the Marshall Plan to the East and beyond. The means today will not be massive unilateral U.S. aid, but a combination of multilateral assistance, technical advice and the breaking down of trade barriers to unlock the promise of the free market, democratic systems emerging in these countries." -- Robert Kimmitt,

ambassador to Germany 1991-93 "Something like a multinational Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe would have been appropriate in 1990 -- and indeed an attempt along these lines was made by the Group of 24. The fact that it was only partially successful demonstrates that the Western democracies have yet to perfect their ability to act in concert in the face of opportunity as opposed to grave threat." -- Adrian Basora, ambassador to the Czech Republic 1992-95 CAPTION: BERLIN, 1948 British and U.S. equipment is used to clear the rubble in front of the burned-out Reichstag.