A Marshall Plan for the Mind – 1947

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Jun 23, 2017
by Louise Hallman
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A Marshall Plan for the Mind – 1947

After the devastation of World War II, three visionaries believed that Europe needed more than just economic reconstruction. To aid the continent’s intellectual renewal, they founded the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.

In the summer of 1947, for the second time in just thirty years, Europe was in the midst of recovering from a devastating conflict. Economic rebuilding was desperately needed, but three young visionaries believed that intellectual reconstruction was also vital.

“The Harvard Student Council has quietly organized the first general experiment in international education in postwar Europe... It is organized to provide for the most immediate physical and intellectual need of European students and scholars... Their stay at Leopoldskron should strengthen these young men and women in their faith in a reconstruction of Europe on a democratic basis.”

Thus was the audacious plan of three Harvard men – graduate student Clemens Heller, college senior Richard “Dick” Campbell and young English instructor Scott Elledge – in the summer of 1947. That same year, the US government had announced the European Recovery Program, a.k.a. the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Europe economically. Theirs was a plan to rebuild Europe intellectually – a “Marshall Plan for the Mind.”

Originally conceived as a one-off summer program, the “Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization” was to be an opportunity for a divided Europe “to see who one was, what one believed in, what others believed in and to create a basis for future collaboration.” The subject matter to be discussed was American studies – encompassing economics, politics, literature and sociology  â€“ a neutral topic for the former adversaries to examine, debate and dissect.  

To bring their vision into fruition, the three founders needed faculty, funding, a location and participants.

The faculty came mostly from Harvard University: Literary historian F.O. Matthiessen was the first to join, and helped recruit others including Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief, government professor Benjamin F. Wright and acclaimed Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini. Heller’s connections helped bring on board the “mother of anthropology” Margaret Mead, who agreed to co-chair the ten-strong faculty alongside Matthiessen.

The Harvard administration, however, was less enthusiastic. Harvard President James B. Conant remarked: “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” Support and partial funding came instead from the Harvard Student Council. Private donors, spurred by the founders tenacity, provided the rest.

Originally from Austria and a well-connected family, Heller sought an Austrian location. Serendipitously, that winter, he encountered an old family friend on the New York subway: Helene Thimig, the widow of Austrian theater impresario Max Reinhardt. Thimig had recently had Reinhardt’s property, including Schloss Leopoldskron, restituted after its Nazi Aryanization in 1938, but had little desire to return to the palace following her husband’s death in exile during the war. Impressed by Heller’s passion, she loaned Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, part of the American occupied zone, for the first session.

Participants were recruited by Heller and Elledge, who travelled across Europe in the spring. Campbell, confined to a wheelchair after an almost-life-ending accident in high school, was the operation’s chief letter writer. The “Fellows” were advanced students who were teaching, had entered public life, or were intending to do so, and selected “on the basis of past scholarly achievement, with no regard to political, religious or racial considerations.”

Finally arriving in Salzburg, they found a Schloss in near-abandonment. Neither the indoor plumbing nor the electric lights were working. Windows had been shattered, chandeliers destroyed, exterior stucco and interior walls riddled with shrapnel. To ready the Schloss for the arrival of 97 Fellows from 18 countries, window panes were sourced from Czechoslovakia, plumbing supplies from Italy, and mattresses, iron cots and blankets from the Red Cross and the occupying American army, together with food parcels from World Student Relief-International Student Service in Switzerland. Books were brought by the American faculty and student-administrators or loaned by the US Information Service libraries in Europe. The Americans were also encouraged to bring supplies such as razor blades to share with the Europeans.

The community of Fellows brought together that summer was war-weary and wary of each other. Only two years earlier, many had been bitter enemies – now they were to study and live together for six weeks. What began with some tension became, as Matthiessen put it, “an island of peace in a storm-clouded sea.”

Opening the session, Matthiessen reassured the Europeans and Americans gathered, “none of our group has come as imperialists of Pax Americana to impose our values on you.” Instead the program would consider not only the strengths of America, but also its “excesses and limitations.” The food may have been mostly potatoes and cucumbers, but, as an Italian Fellow said: “intensive mental nourishment was superabundant.”  

“What we did was not done with the intention of creating an institution,” admitted Heller decades later. So sure were the founders that this would be a one-off that Fellows were encouraged to take away the collected library books. But the “risky experiment” was recognized as such a success that it was decided the “Salzburg Seminar in American Studies” must be “continued as a permanent center.”

READ MORE: From Idealist Experiment to Eminent Institution - 1948 to 1961