Much of the admiration stemmed from domestic policies extending the egalitarianism of the New Deal, including President Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces and the successful GI Bill. More important, as far as the world was concerned, was our foreign policy. The key was the aid program known as the Marshall Plan, which began in 1948. The plan was the brainchild of Gen. George Marshall, who served as Army chief of staff during World War II and was appointed secretary of state by Truman in 1947.
In a commencement address at Harvard that year, Marshall proposed American aid for a Europe caught up in what he called a "vicious circle" of decline. "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace," he said.
His plan was not cheap. It would end up costing $13 billion (roughly $579 billion in today's dollars) and absorbing more than 10 percent of the federal budget in its first year.
But what made the plan unique was that it was designed to be done not to Europe's governments, but with them. Marshall made this distinction explicit at Harvard: "It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for our government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number of, if not all, European nations."
Such collaboration was rejected by the Soviet Union, which saw the plan as a pretext for American domination. But for the nations of Western Europe, Marshall had opened up a path for economic self-determination and recovery.
The nations of Europe were not being treated as poor cousins or asked to take America's money to do as they were told. They were allowed to decide how the aid was distributed and how they would cooperate.
The seeds of the European Union had, in fact, been sown by Marshall. "It was a lifeline to sinking men," Britain's foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, said of the plan. "The generosity of it was beyond our belief."
The success of the plan was not just due to Marshall and his State Department. It had bipartisan backing that included key Republicans. John Foster Dulles, who would become Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state, supported it, as did the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Even the first administrator of the plan was a Republican.
Sixty-four years later, the story of the Marshall Plan seems almost utopian. These days, it's hard to imagine Republicans supporting any Obama administration foreign policy initiative, and it's even harder to imagine American foreign aid being administered with the care Marshall practiced.
The good news is that there was nothing utopian about the world of 1948. The postwar Republican Party, soon to be dominated by Sen. Joe McCarthy and his anticommunist witch-hunts, had a strong isolationist wing. Military tensions in Europe were high throughout the Olympics; since late June, American pilots had been defying a Soviet blockade of rail and truck access to Berlin by flying in food and even coal on a daily basis.
If the Marshall Plan had a secret ingredient, it was the determined modesty of its author and his willingness to reach out to others. Much like the organizers of the 1948 Olympics, who were content to spend less than 0.01 percent of England's gross national product on the Games in order to achieve a small profit, Marshall had a true sense of the precarious times he lived in, and the realism they required.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."