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Jeffrey F. Taffet

In the first half of the 20th century, and more actively in the post–World War II period, the United States government used economic aid programs to advance its foreign policy interests. US policymakers generally believed that support for economic development in poorer countries would help create global stability, which would limit military threats and strengthen the global capitalist system. Aid was offered on a country-by-country basis to guide political development; its implementation reflected views about how humanity had advanced in richer countries and how it could and should similarly advance in poorer regions. Humanitarianism did play a role in driving US aid spending, but it was consistently secondary to political considerations. Overall, while funding varied over time, amounts spent were always substantial. Between 1946 and 2015, the United States offered almost $757 billion in economic assistance to countries around the world—$1.6 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. Assessing the impact of this spending is difficult; there has long been disagreement among scholars and politicians about how much economic growth, if any, resulted from aid spending and similar disputes about its utility in advancing US interests. Nevertheless, for most political leaders, even without solid evidence of successes, aid often seemed to be the best option for constructively engaging poorer countries and trying to create the kind of world in which the United States could be secure and prosperous.


In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.