- Historic Sites
What We Got For What We Gave
The American Experience With Foreign Aid
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
One of the most influential books in the new genre of criticism was Max F. Millikan’s and Walt W. Rostow’s A Proposal: Key to a n Effective Foreign Policy , published in 1957. The authors argued that the United States ought to launch “a much-expanded long-term program” for “the economic development of the underdeveloped areas.” Such a program would make the peoples of the world see that their goals and those of the United States were identical and would lead to “viable, energetic, and confident democratic societies through the Free World.” Millikan and Rostow admitted that the program would be expensive, but cheap “compared with what we shall have to spend in emergency efforts either to salvage situations which have been permitted to degenerate, such as Korea and Indo-China, or to put out additional brush fires if they get started.” Best of all, this endeavor would reinvigorate the American spirit, would “give fresh meaning and vitality to the historic American sense of mission-a mission to see the principles of national independence and human liberty extended on the world scene.”
This idea had a strong appeal for the young senator from Massachusetts who was elected President in 1960. Under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, foreign aid was given more imaginative emphasis than at any time since the Truman years, and for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt it was directed to Latin America as well as to Asia and Europe. Kennedy’s words echoed Truman’s Point IV program of a decade before and the vision of Millikan and Rostow. “There exists, in the 1960’s, an historic opportunity for a major economic assistance effort by the free industrialized nations to move more than half the people of the less-developed nations into self-sustained economic growth.” To reflect the new emphasis, Kennedy arranged for one more name change in the foreign aid program-the Agency for International Development, yielding the appropriate Madison Avenue acronym AID. The name remains the same today.
Kennedy’s two most glamorous programs were the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. The first, headed by his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, recruited idealistic men and women volunteers (mostly recent college graduates, in the inital years) and sent them to work in rural areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. No program was more popular in the United States or had as lasting an effect on the American volunteers—whose view of the world, America, and themselves was profoundly altered. The Peace Corps annual budget, seldom much over $100 million, was small in the context of all foreign aid, yet was subject to criticism from the right (“naive do-goodism”) and the left (“disguised imperialism”). Nevertheless, it has had more impact dollar for dollar than any other foreign aid endeavor, and it does closely approach the ideal of nonpolitical altruism.
Despite its Democratic origins the Peace Corps was continued by the Nixon and Ford administrations, although the emphasis in recruitment was shifted away from liberal arts graduates to people with specific technical skills: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, trained farmers. In 1977, under the Carter administration and with a new director-Sam Brown, once a leader of the movement against the Vietnam War-the doors were open again to young people without technical skills. This shift seemed to recognize that the Peace Corps was a national asset because of its influence on the volunteers as well as for the help they gave to people abroad.
Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress was an effort to redress years of neglect in relations with Latin America and to respond to alarming indications there of virulent hatred for the United States and a parallel receptivity to Communism. Indeed, by 1961 there was a Communist regime in Cuba under Fidel Castro. (The totally misguided and bungled American effort to overthrow the Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961, strengthened Castro instead and damaged the American reputation throughout the region.) The Alliance for Progress promised a major American contribution to a cooperative, carefully planned effort at economic development and social reform, so that the benefits of new wealth would be more equitably shared by all.