The nasty, prolonged economic downturn in Europe and its one-dimensional coverage in the non-European media would have one believe that the European Union is one of those haute couture creations from a season long past. Which is why the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU was so timely and important: With its choice the Norwegian Nobel Committee reminded us of the signal accomplishment of the EU -- a Europe at peace for the longest time in centuries.
Americans should feel a real sense of accomplishment at this choice because their country was there at the creation...
Sunday, May 7, 1950, was a bright and sunny spring morning in Paris as the American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson's airplane touched down at Orly airport. On hand to greet the Secretary was American ambassador to France, David Bruce. Acheson looked forward to a few restful days in Paris before he headed to London for yet another act in the quest to secure the post-war peace in Europe, an interminable political exercise.
The days of the allied occupation of Germany were drawing to a close. France and Germany were again becoming the industrial engines of continental Europe. The question of how to integrate the resurgent German industrial giant peacefully into Europe was a central and vexing foreign policy issue for the allies.
The end of Second World War had left America, with its monopoly of nuclear weapons, as the undisputed master of the universe. But that was then. Now, the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb, the American defense budget had been slashed, and its powerful wartime armed forces disbanded. So Acheson had good reason to worry about the Allied position in Western Europe.
Important voices in America were calling for an integrated Europe, with the power and industrial vitality of Germany permanently anchored through France to Europe's growth and prosperity. But how to do that? Europe's nation states formed shifting power blocs, which attempted to balance each other through an endless game of power politics, and wars that had killed millions of Europeans for centuries. The idea of remaking Europe into a peaceful entity, with France and Germany at its center, seemed an impossible task.
Unknown to Acheson, help was at hand in the person of Jean Monnet, a visionary French businessman and trans-Atlantic deal-maker who appreciated the pragmatic American way of doing things. The unity of Europe had become an obsession with him. Monnet recognized that the old idea of uniting Europe politically under one grand design would never work. To him, the secret to a united Europe lay in achieving the integration in small steps.
Monnet came up with the concept of uniting Europe by creating pools -- that he called Communities -- of national resources and markets. To begin with he proposed the revolutionary idea of combining the coal and steel production of France and Germany and turning it over to a new supra-national organization called the European Coal and Steel Community. This would remove what were then the raw materials of war from direct control of the two countries that had triggered Europe's most bloody conflicts. If it worked, the concept would also bind Germany and France within a broader economic community.
Monnet found a kindred spirit in France's foreign minister, Robert Schuman. The two quickly concluded that the secret to successfully launching the European integration plan was to get the Americans on board. Acheson's fateful arrival in Paris provided them with the opportunity to do this.
Upon landing, Acheson was surprised to hear from Ambassador Bruce that the French foreign minister, Schuman, intended to call on him that very day, a Sunday! Also, Schuman wished the meeting to be confidential, restricted to the three of them and an interpreter. The late Bard College historian, Professor James Chace, has written what is in my mind the best description of what happened next.
No sooner were amenities observed than Schuman expounded the essentials of Monnet's idea that the whole French-German production of coal and steel be placed under a joint high authority, with the organization open to other European nations... It was, as Acheson wrote later, "So breathtaking a step toward the unification of Europe that at first I did not grasp it."
... Schuman said he was consulting Acheson because he believed that the scheme was wholly in accord with American policy, and he needed strong support from Washington to help his government push the plan through.
Acheson was especially impressed by the simple approach that Schuman brought to a big idea, "A far cry from that of American-trained trial lawyers." It was... the most imaginative and far-reaching approach... to the settlement of fundamental differences between France and Germany.
Acheson called the White House, shared Monnet's plan with President Truman and asked him to support it when Schuman made the plan public. Truman concurred, and put America's imprimatur on Monnet's vision for Europe.
One year later, in Paris, on April 18, 1951, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands accepted the French proposal and signed a treaty to give up domestic control of coal and steel production.
Within five years the coal and steel trade within the six countries had increased by over 129 percent. This Coal and Steel Community led to the European Economic Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, The European Monetary System, and on to the EU, and the Euro. The six nation pact has today become a Union of 27 countries with a GDP of over 10 trillion dollars, a population of some 500 million. Best news of all, there has been no major war in Europe since the EU's founding
So on this auspicious occasion it is worth recalling that of the four men most responsible for launching the European Union -- Schuman, Monnet, Acheson and Truman -- two were American. All the more reason for Americans to join Europeans in celebrating the award.