WILMINGTON —Sam Stratman recalls visiting a poster shop in Cincinnati around Christmas in 2002.
Some brightly colored artwork from the Netherlands, headlined “Together,” caught his eye. It portrayed a windmill whose blades featured flags of different Western European nations — with America’s stars and stripes as the rudder.
Then press secretary for the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Stratman recalls, in the aftermath of 9/11, there was talk in Washington, D.C., about promoting economic prosperity as a way out of the “intractable problems” in the Middle East. In other words, if young men in the Arab and Islamic states had jobs, education and hope for the future, they would be less likely to become jihadists and terrorists.
Those sentiments hearkened the Marshall Plan in which, from 1948 to 1952, the United States led the economic recovery of a devastated Europe in the years following World War II. That massive influx of American aid — $17 billion over four years — to a continent in crisis was formally tagged the European Recovery Program.
It is popularly known as the Marshall Plan after its architect, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state and WWII general, George C. Marshall.
Then, American foreign aid amounted to a whopping one-third of the federal budget, a number that’s in stark contrast to the 0.5 percent earmarked for foreign aid today.
The Marshall Plan proved a phenomenal success in both humanitarian progress and bringing much of Europe together under American leadership, as those nations to this day remain allies as part of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Western Europe quickly regained prosperity.
By the end of the Marshall Plan’s four-year run, the GDP of those 13 countries increased by 33 percent and industrial production rose by more than 35 percent, with agricultural production exceeding pre-war levels.
Intrigued by the poster and the story behind it, Stratman purchased “Together” and quickly embarked upon a mission of securing all 25 pieces in the set, an undertaking that required persistence and resources.
“It took four poster dealers on two continents to come up with all these,” he said, noting the combination of artwork and propaganda was compelling and historically significant.
“I found the images and messages so powerful,” he said, adding the posters lend themselves to the political, military and diplomatic history of the post-War and early Cold War periods — and they’re artistic in their graphic design, colors and symbolism.
The posters incorporate the themes of Europe and America working together and cooperating with one another through the Marshall Plan. They were designed to remind the citizens of France, Denmark, Belgium, Great Britain and the other nine nations that the United States helped defeat the Axis powers and was playing a leading role in their recovery from economic, social and political turmoil.
“You can think of the European Recovery Program as being about welfare for other countries, but it also was about protecting ourselves with good, stable allies,” Stratman said. “Our post-war assistance to Europe was as much about our security as it was about European prosperity.
“We didn’t want Western Europe to fall inside the Iron Curtain — the Marshall Plan was part of the containment strategy.”
Two years into the Marshall Plan, a poster competition was held in each of the European countries receiving the American relief funds, with 25 winning posters selected from nearly 10,000 submissions.
“These were used as you would a movie poster,” Stratman said. “They were slapped on building sites and walls, fences.”
Once he secured the full collection, Stratman had them mounted on acid-free linen for preservation. This year, they were framed for presentation with funds from an anonymous donor.
Stratman was a Capitol Hill insider for 25 years, including 19 years as Rep. Henry Hyde’s (R-Ill.) press secretary. He also worked in that capacity for the House Judiciary, Foreign Affairs and Republican Policy committees, and for Florida Rep. Iliana Ross-Lehtinen.
He returned to his hometown Wilmington frequently toward the end of his work in Washington and earned a Master of Education degree from Wilmington College.
He teaches as an adjunct faculty member at WC such courses as Political Leadership and Agricultural Policy, and has supplemented students’ opportunities to learn how to lobby Congress.
An astute scholar of American history, government and political science, he has a great appreciation for the leadership role America played in rebuilding Europe and fighting the Cold War. Always knowing his Washington apartment and subsequent Wilmington home would be too small to display all the unique 24×32-inch posters, he decided to give them to Wilmington College.
“The posters belong in a place like this. I felt the Marshall Plan was consistent with the Quaker values we hold so dear — and I love this College,” he said, noting he also was inspired by the work the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quaker organization, American Friends Service Committee, did for European refugees following the war.
As a collection, the posters are something most people would never get to see — there are only four complete sets known to exist, one of which is held by the Library of Congress. Now, WC has this unique collection.
Stratman mentioned a fascinating caveat to the story of the posters. There are actually 26 posters, although one quickly was kept out of sight in the early 1950s (however, it is part of WC’s collection). It features an image of two muscular arms clasped in a handshake and surrounded by a dozen flags, including those of the United States, Great Britain, France, West Germany — and the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia!
Yes, in the United States’ original Marshall Plan proposal, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states were offered reconstruction funds. “Stalin said, ‘No’ to the offer of aid — and there was palpable relief,” he said. “The Americans were relieved beyond words.”
Stratman sees the Marshall Plan as a compelling representation of American magnanimity, peacemaking strategy and leadership on the world stage.
“I think it’s an important message now, whether you choose to acknowledge that truth or not — that we live in an interdependent world — we rely on our allies,” he said. “I’m happy that people now will be able to see this extraordinary art and all it represents.”
The Meriam R. Hare Quaker Heritage Center at Wilmington College is presenting an exhibit of these unique relics through Dec. 8. Normal gallery hours are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon.