Samaritan Diplomacy

FOR MOST OF the nation’s history, the United States remained uncomfortable, inept, and on the whole unsuccessful in diplomacy. The problems of the American statesman in foreign policy were especially complicated by the vagaries of American domestic politics. The United States was itself a United Nations, with a kind of veto power in the hands of its numerous ethnic and national groups. The sympathies of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and others, tended to involve the United States willy-nilly in the problems of the world.

But while American demography—a nation of immigrants—had drawn the nation into the world, American geography had kept the world at a distance. Two oceans and the accident of weak or friendly neighbors had preserved the nation from the peril of foreign invasion. The international diplomacy of the United States thus showed a curious combination of involvement and detachment unlike that of any other great power.

If Americans were not at home in the dark corridors of diplomacy, then they had bright visions and philanthropic hopes of what nations could do together. A part of nearly every other nation was within America. The United States had been born out of colonialism; and (with some conspicuous exceptions) the nation’s foreign policies did not exhibit the worst features of European colonialism, of imperialism, or of the “White Man’s Burden.” Never having had a foreign empire, the United States had less to lose from championing selfgovernment abroad.

The naïveté of colonial Americans lived on in the hopes of Wood-row Wilson. If President Wilson had been more at home in the real world, where Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando had been reared, then after World War I he might have secured a better treaty to serve American interests. But he would hardly have created a League of Nations. In the long run, American “successes” in diplomacy—from the Louisiana Purchase to the League of Nations and the United Nations—would, as often as not, prove to be the byproduct of American innocence and of the nation’s geographic remoteness from the world.

IN THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY, when air power had trans-formed a two-ocean nation into a one-sky country, the United States developed a new and characteristically American way of dealing with the nations of the world. This was as distinctive a product of American circumstances as were the other American political institutions. It was rooted not only in the missionary tradition which had helped found the nation and had continued to inspire many Americans, but also in some peculiarities of the role of the American government in expanding the nation from ocean to ocean. In the nineteenth century the notion of government as a service institution had dominated many an American’s view of what he could expect from his government. That notion had grown out of the bounty of this continent: where there was so much virgin land, and where so much of it had been public domain in the gift of the government, everyone felt it his right to have his piece. And what the government had the power to give, it had the duty to make useful and productive. The expectations of immigrants, of would-be homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, and canal and railroad builders in the nineteenth century, became the expectations of truckers, highway builders, airline promoters, and others in the twentieth century. Depression and crisis made it easy for Americans to move on from belief that government was obliged to make land accessible and profitable to belief that government was somehow obliged to keep the whole economy functioning and prospering.

If the nation had created a Democracy of Cash, why not also a Diplomacy of Cash? In foreign affairs, the most important new American institution of the twentieth century was also a product of the fabled wealth and proverbial optimism of the New World.

“Foreign aid” expressed a belief that abroad, too, the American government would be a service institution, enabling other peoples to make the most of their land and their resources. This notion while a novelty in the world of diplomacy, had roots, as we have seen, in the missionary hope that the American Standard of Living could (in the phrase of Capen the missionary leader) “turn Heathen dom into Christen dom.” By mid-century a new sort of missionary spirit had come to dominate American foreign policy and the American budget for government expenditures abroad. With a new specialized meaning, “foreign aid” entered the American vocabulary in the late 1940’s, it soon was contracted to “aid,” and quickly found a place in dictionaries of the American language.

Americans were inclined to treat this remarkable innovation as simply a matter of “foreign policy,” without noting how dramatic was the institutional novelty, how traditional was the spirit, or how great was its significance.

From earliest times the political relations among nations had been dominated by certain familiar customs and practices: wars, alliances, confederations, treaties, and secret understandings. And their economic relations had comprised exports and imports, controlled and influenced by tariffs, bounties, credits, and loans. Then, occasionally, when a stronger nation could impose its will on a weaker, it might demand blackmail or tribute, in payments, goods, or privileges exacted from the weak for the strong. Occasionally, of course, there were acts of international charity: money, food, medical assistance, or clothing sent from one people to another to relieve famine, to cure plagues, to mitigate suffering from fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other disasters. And a new era was opened when the Geneva Convention in 1864 gave international immunity in time of war to Henri Dunant’s Red Cross League. But gifts of charity were only occasional, and small, and they played a minor role in international politics or world trade.

The rise of world empires from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries had confused these relationships and mixed up the categories. Colonialism was a way of giving to the relations among peoples at a distance some features of the relations within nations. Laws took the place of treaties, “international” trade became trade within an empire. The money that the British government spent in India in the nineteenth century was not precisely an import or an export, not exactly an act of charity or simply a fact of economics. The political fortunes and the welfare of imperial and colonial peoples were involved with strong forces of industrial progress, exploitation, development, and benefaction.

FOREIGN AID—grants of government money to aid misery or distress, to relieve catastrophe, and to promote welfare abroad—was no part of American foreign policy in the nineteenth century. In fact, it was generally agreed that such a use of the funds of the United States government would be unconstitutional. Repeatedly when Congress was put under pressure to appropriate funds for such purposes, poses, the objection prevailed that such expenditure was prohibited by the Constitution. In 1847, for example, Congress was pressed to appropriate money for the relief of Irish famine sufferers; the potato famine of 1845 and the years after had, as we have seen, made Ireland a charnel house. Americans, especially those of Irish descent, were moved when they read eyewitness accounts of the starvation that killed more than one million Irish men, women, and children. This catastrophe shocked the country into its first nationwide money-raising effort for charity abroad. Petitions to appropriate federal money to feed starving Ireland poured into Congress. Few congressmen needed to be reminded of the high political stakes—the votes of the growing numbers of Irish-Americans.

These requests came when the nation, led by the Democratic President James K. Polk, was still fighting the Mexican War, which was unpopular in many quarters. Horace Greeley, a leading Whig opponent of the war, noted bitterly that while the United States government somehow had the power to send troops to dash out the brains of Mexican children, yet it lacked the power to feed the starving. But even he refused to sign a petition asking Congress to appropriate money for such “unconstitutional” purposes. “Our sympathy with her [Ireland’s] noble and suffering people,” agreed the Washington Daily Union, from the Democratic side of the political fence, “should not mislead us into any violation of our constitution.” One congressman explained his constitutional scruples by observing that the proposed appropriation was really “designed to afford food for party vultures to feed upon, rather than bread for the starving people of Ireland.” President Polk himself announced to his Cabinet that even if Congress passed the appropriation, he would veto it, since the Constitution did not permit the use of public funds for charity. He added that, of course, he was not lacking in sympathy for the suffering Irish, and to prove it he personally contributed $50 to the relief fund.

When famine struck Russia in 1891, Congress again was pressed to give aid. Once again the constitutional objection (together with others) prevailed, and even the proposal to appropriate $100,000 to ship donated food to Russia was defeated. In the debates on aid to Russia, Congressman Constantine B. Kilgore of Texas recalled that a few years before, when the people of his state had suffered a disastrous drought and he appealed to Congress for $10,000 to buy seed, the President had quite properly turned down their request for lack of constitutional authority. At that time President Cleveland had vetoed the measure “to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment” because, Cleveland explained, he could “find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.” Congressman William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska recalled that a similar request in the summer of 1890 from the drought-stricken people of his state had been rightly refused on constitutional grounds. These precedents were presumed to add up to a conclusive objection against sending congressionally financed charity to the Russians.

During the nineteenth century there had actually been a few exceptions to this general ban on government aid. But the exceptions were rare, the amounts involved were small, and each instance could be explained by unique political pressures. The earthquake in Venezuela in March 1812, at a time when Latin-American revolutions were enlisting the republican sympathies of the American people, drew from Congress, strongly urged by Congressman John C. Calhoun, an appropriation for relief amounting to $50,000. And in 1880, when the Irish were again suffering from famine, Congress passed a joint resolution which appropriated no funds but authorized the Secretary of the Navy to use a naval vessel to carry voluntary relief gifts to the Irish. But in the 1890’s and thereafter, in debates over other requests for foreign charity, the Venezuelan example was generally ignored as inapplicable and the Irish case was regarded as a regrettable stretching of the Constitution to catch the Irish-American vote.

American aid to foreign peoples in distress, throughout the nineteenth century, then, had generally taken the form of voluntary gifts by private citizens and their organizations. The government played a minor role, and even that role was widely believed to be of dubious legality. The amount of American charitable contributions to distressed peoples abroad is hard to measure because the sums were gathered by so many agencies and were transmitted in so many different forms. The private donations to the Irish alone, between December 1846 and mid-July 1847, probably came to about $1 million. The grain, corn, and flour in a single gift ship for the famine-stricken Russians in 1892 amounted to $200,000. Because of the international origins of the American people, there was hardly a gift that was not greeted with disapproval from some national group within the United States. Anglo-Americans said that the aid sent to the Irish was really an insult to the English, and many American Jews, horrified at the Russian pogroms, opposed the gifts to Russia in the 1890’s as an endorsement of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, by the early twentieth century, sizable privately donated American gifts to peoples in distress had encircled the globe. Clothing had been sent to the Greeks, bread to the Irish, money to needy Lancashire textile workers, clothing and provisions to the Cretan refugees from Turkish oppression, food and clothing to the Armenians and others in the Near East, wheat to Calcutta and Bombay, food to Cuba and China.

THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES had taken on a role as Samaritans to the world. Still, the effort rigorously to separate charity from government policy lasted well into the twentieth century. The aid that Americans sent to Belgium after the Germans had occcupied that country in 1914, and which Herbert Hoover administered under the Commission for Belgian Relief, was a collection of private gifts. In response to a suspicious German official who asked Hoover, “What do you Americans get out of this?,” Hoover retorted, “It is absolutely impossible for you Germans to understand that one does anything from pure humanitarian, disinterested motives, so I shall not attempt to explain it to you.”

When famine struck Russia in 1921 in the wake of the war and the Bolshevik Revolution, and soon after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s reckless arrests and deportations of communists and alleged communists, the efforts to keep charity separate from policy were strained. Herbert Hoover again took the lead in organizing relief. This time Congress, departing from the constitutional tradition, allocated $4 million of surplus Army medical supplies to the Red Cross for relief to the Russians. But again the great bulk of the $80 million of relief came from private sources. In 1922 Hoover’s organizing talent brought medicine, food, and clothing to some ten and a half million destitute Russians at eighteen thousand stations. Making the most of his resources, for example by persuading the Russians to change their eating habits so they would use American corn and other foods unfamiliar to them, he accomplished the most extensive American charitable work until that time. “The generosity of the American people,” Maxim Gorky, an exile from Russia, wrote Hoover in 1922, “resuscitates the dream of fraternity among people at a time when humanity greatly needs charity and compassion.” At an official banquet in Moscow, the President of the Council of People’s Commissars, whose government was still not recognized by the United States, presented Hoover with a scroll of thanks “in the name of the millions of people who have been saved.”

In sharp contrast to the apolitical generosity of private relief abroad was the official government policy of the United States. The notorious controversy over “reparations” and “war debts” dominated American debates on international economic relations for more than a decade after the Armistice. After World War I, the sums owed to the United States, for war loans and for relief loans to the Allies and to the new countries created by the peace settlement, totaled more than $10 billion. And the United States government under Presidents Harding and Coolidge insisted on treating these as strictly financial transactions. President Coolidge’s succinct and often quoted “They hired the money, didn’t they?” summed up the official American position. The reluctance of the United States to cancel or reduce the Allied debts controlled the nation’s economic relations to Europe, and remained an obstacle to a more realistic approach to German reparations, which the Allies hoped to use to repay their debts to the United States. At home, the issue befuddled American politics and accentuated the postwar desire to withdraw from Europe and the world. But the controversy itself showed how far American thinking still was from the era of foreign aid.

It was the isolationist effort to remain “neutral” in European conflicts that first brought the United States government into legal supervision of foreign charitable efforts. Under pressure from Americans who feared that large-scale charity to Spain or other countries that were erupting in civil war might somehow involve the nation as a belligerent in Europe, the Department of State began its official supervision of overseas relief.

The much publicized hearings from 1934 to 1936 of the Senate Munitions Investigating Committee under Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota seemed to show that the United States had been enticed into World War I by greedy bankers and munitions makers. Then came a series of “neutrality” acts aimed to keep the United States out of the next war by restricting American loans and by supervising American gifts. By the time that World War II broke out in Europe, the federal government had been given the statutory duty to supervise and scrutinize all forms of American aid to countries at war. The Neutrality Act of November 4, 1937, allowed only the “cash-and-carry” export of arms and munitions. As late as the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, Americans were trying to preserve the traditional distinction between the voluntary gifts of citizens for charitable or ideological motives and the acts of government which were matters of international finance and foreign policy.

THE AMERICAN INSTITUTION of foreign aid was a by-product of World War II. It marked a new stage in American foreign policy, in which charitable, fiscal, political, ideological, and military motives would be more confused than ever before. Incidentally, too, foreign aid would newly confuse the techniques, attitudes, and institutions of peace with those of war, and so would help open an era in American foreign relations when the American people were neither at war nor at peace.

Although the hostilities of World War II had ended in 1945, the United States did not finally approve a definitive treaty of peace with either Japan or Germany until 1951. Meanwhile President Truman, with bipartisan support, had brought into being a new kind of diplomacy, perhaps the first distinctively American mode of dealing with nations at a distance. It was characteristically American in that it was less the product of a new philosophy of foreign affairs than a set of new enterprises elaborately organized for current needs. For the first time it aimed to apply American ingenuity, enterprise, know-how, and wealth to the problems of the whole world. In 1943, while the war was still on, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had been set up to help the liberated peoples. Although forty-four nations joined UNRRA, the United States paid 72 percent of the operating expenses. Through UNRRA the United States government gave $2.7 billion. But even this sum would soon seem insignificant as the United States was pushed toward its new era of Samaritan Diplomacy.

By the early spring of 1947 President Truman, who had never shared President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s optimism about long-term cooperation with Soviet Russia, was persuaded that he could wait no longer to show American determination to prevent the Soviets from dominating the world. One sign after another, culminating in Soviet demands that Turkey cede territory for new Russian naval bases in the Bosporus and in efforts to create a communist regime in Turkey, unmasked Stalin’s determination to use the Allied victory to surround and subvert nations that were not yet communist. The next American policy was sketched by George F. Kennan, counselor of the United States embassy in Moscow, who knew Russia and the Russians as did few American diplomats before him. The survival of the United States and the free world, he urged, would depend on “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

On March 12, 1947, President Truman, before a joint session of Congress, made his momentous statement of American intentions toward the world. The Truman Doctrine, as a departure in American foreign policy, would rank with President Monroe’s statement more than a century earlier and with President Wilson’s utterances before World War I, and in some ways it combined their purposes. The Monroe Doctrine—that the United States would not tolerate outside interference in the internal affairs of the nations of the New World—was now to be made world-wide; American power and American wealth were offered to keep the world safe for democracy. “It must be the policy of the United States,” the President declared, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure…. our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.” His request for $400 million for aid to Greece and Turkey in order to give them the strength to resist a Communist takeover was approved by Congress.

In June, Secretary of State George C. Marshall asked European governments to work out their plans for reconstruction and to give the United States their requests for assistance. In July, representatives of non-Communist European countries met in Paris, and in September they submitted a long-term European recovery plan requiring $22.4 billion in loans and grants from the United States. In the following spring, Congress appropriated $5.3 billion for the first twelve months of the new aid program. Seldom had there been such widely based support for so costly a “peacetime” program. The Marshall Plan, as this was called, had bipartisan support (with Senator Arthur Vandenberg leading the Republicans), as well as support from farm groups, organized labor, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Yet it was only a beginning. The plan, which commanded $22 billion of United States resources in the next three years, was generally agreed to have been responsible for the remarkable economic recovery of western Europe, and for the resistance of western European countries to communism. Figures showed that by 1950, Marshall Plan countries had increased their gross national product by 25 percent.

THIS SUCCESS OF foreign aid in Europe encouraged the belief that it could work equally well anywhere else—in Asia or Africa or Latin America. In his inaugural address of January 20, 1949, President Truman offered a supplementary program especially adapted to countries outside Europe. “Point Four,” it came to be called, because it was the fourth point, a “major course of action,” in his Program for Peace and Freedom:

We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.

For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people….

Only by helping the least fortunate of its members to help themselves can the human family achieve the decent, satisfying life that is the right of all people.

Democracy alone can supply the vitalizing force to stir the peoples of the world into triumphant action, not only against their human oppressors, but also against their ancient enemies—hunger, misery, and despair….

Therefore President Truman asked the Congress to provide funds for a program to supply the “underdeveloped areas” with “technical, scientific, and managerial knowledge” and also “production goods and financial assistance in the creation of productive enterprises.” He concluded, “Before the peoples of these areas we hold out the promise of a better future through the democratic way of life. It is vital that we move quickly to bring the meaning of that promise home to them in their daily lives.”

Congress was stirred to action by the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in early 1948 and by news that the Soviets had set off an atomic bomb in the summer of 1949. Point Four provided a new rationale for extending foreign aid beyond those allies of western Europe who had suffered devastation during World War II. It reached beyond “recovery” and “relief” to the world-wide construction of a new way of life and a higher standard of living for those peoples who had the least resources. As a consequence, by 1966, of the total $122 billion which the United States had spent on foreign aid, nearly two thirds had gone to nations outside Europe. A considerable amount (the precise sum was not made public) of all foreign aid went for military purposes, to strengthen the armed forces of the receiving countries. But military aid to allies or prospective allies was, of course, an old story. What was new was the additional effort to save the world for democracy by the purposeful sharing of American know-how, American education, American resources, and American dollars, with the remote and underdeveloped parts of the world.

The Marshall Plan after World War II was, of course, a dramatic departure from earlier American policy: a leap from the war-debt psychology to the psychology of foreign aid, from the vocabulary of the banker to that of the missionary, the humanitarian, and the social scientist. After World War I politicians had talked of reparations and “honest debtors,” of interest rates and the capacity of countries to pay back what they had borrowed. Now, after World War II, they were talking about standards of living, they were comparing the health and prosperity and literacy of different nations, and they were examining the opportunities for personal freedom and the decency of political institutions everywhere. The Marshall Plan expressed a profound and sudden change in official American thinking and feeling about the relation between the New World and the Old: not only in the focus on recovery and prosperity rather than on principal and interest, but also in the call for initiative, collaboration, and planning by the benefiting countries. Its focus was not so much on individual nations as on Europe as a whole.

The Marshall Plan, because it was directed to former allies, was still a kind of war relief. If it succeeded, it would help once prosperous countries with high standards of living to put their houses back in order. But there was momentum in this enormous new enterprise of foreign aid. Like the gargantuan new undertakings in atomic research and in the exploration of space, foreign aid had a mass and a velocity which combined into a nearly irresistible accelerating force. When the American program moved from war relief to former allies whose language, religion, customs, and history were familiar and reached out to others who not only had not been allies but who were remote and hardly known, the United States had embarked on a boundless sea of hope.

Except in the religious missions, the nation had no substantial precedent for a world-wide program of foreign aid. And however similar the missionary efforts may have been in spirit, they were dramatically different in scale. Whether offered as United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation, or under Point Four, or through the score of other programs, foreign aid now expressed faith that American wealth could raise the standard of living of people anywhere. A people with a higher, more nearly American standard of living, it was assumed, would be more apt to be democratic, and hence more apt to be peace-loving and friendly to the United States. Implied, also, was the complementary assumption that poverty, misery, and industrial backwardness would make any people less peaceful and less democratic, hence more prone to communism, and therefore more inclined to join the enemies of the United States. This chain of reasoning, which implied some bold generalizations about history, was not always explicit. But, spoken or not, it lay beneath the quasi-religious faith in democracy, and expressed a traditional American confusion of the “ought” and the “is.”

Some of the more obvious and more painful facts of foreign policy in the twentieth century should have given Americans pause. For as Russia had become more industrialized, and as she produced more goods for her people, she did not become more friendly to the United States. Russian industrialization was neither the product of democracy, not did it prove to be a source for more democracy in the Soviet Union. As that country became stronger it did not become more peaceable. In the course of World War II the United States gave $11 billion of Lend-Lease aid to the Russians, but the government of Russia had never before been so hostile to the United States as in the years of the Cold War which followed. As the Soviet Union became stronger it became more bellicose, and in the little wars which it fostered and sponsored in Asia, it found allies in countries which had also been large beneficiaries of American foreign aid.

The story of American foreign relations in Asia in the postwar years showed the folly of American hopes that foreign aid would necessarily propagate democracy or promote peace. In 1945–48 the Nationalist Chinese received $2 billion in aid (in addition to war matériel), but mainland China became Communist and the American ally on Formosa, Chiang Kai-shek, was hardly democratic. A by-product of the Communist Revolution in China was the Korean War. Korea, too, for some years the recipient of the largest quantity of foreign aid, remained far from the democratic ideal. And the other recipient of major foreign aid in Asia (apart from India and Pakistan) was South Vietnam.

By 1966, when the foreign aid program had disbursed more than $122 billion altogether, while Europe’s share was $47 billion, East Asia had received $27.6 billion, the Near East and South Asia $25.4 billion, Latin America $11 billion, and Africa $3.6 billion. About two thirds of this whole amount was for economic rather than military purposes, and about two thirds of the economic aid was in the form not of loans, but of outright grants.

As the foreign aid program grew and became a fixture in American foreign policy and in the annual budget, it brought new confusions into other traditional ways of thinking, and especially into the ancient distinctions between peace and war. The Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz had observed that war was merely the continuation of politics by other means. And now the same could be said of foreign aid. The new foreign aid philosophy, which saw the whole world as a field for missions and a battleground between democratic and antidemocratic forces, had made peace itself into the continuation of war by other means.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!