The modern era for U.S. foreign aid began after World War II, when the United States sent Western Europe one of the largest foreign aid packages in history. The Marshall Plan had two primary purposes: to rebuild Europe after the devastation caused by World War II and to prevent the Soviet Union, the United States’ main postwar rival, from spreading its communist ideology and influence in Western Europe. U.S. politicians thought that if European countries could avoid mass poverty as they rebuilt, their citizens would be less likely to launch a communist revolution. The same aid package was offered to Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, but the U.S. offer was refused. The Marshall Plan is especially significant because it influenced the national security focus of future foreign aid projects.
The Vietnam War, which raged from the mid-1950s to 1975, divided the country into communist North Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States. In the years leading up to and during the war, the U.S. government poured money into South Vietnam to support the military and promote stability. But following the North Vietnamese victory, the U.S. Congress restricted much of the aid to the country until the early 1990s, when U.S. foreign aid played an important role in the normalization and reconciliation process.
The United States also sent significant amounts of aid to South Korea and Taiwan during the Cold War. For South Korea, U.S. economic and military aid helped fend off a communist North Korea and jumpstart a dormant economy. In fact, some historians credit the Korean economic miracle in part to U.S. assistance. Similarly, U.S. aid to Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s helped keep the government of communist China at bay and lay the foundation for the island’s economic growth, though the aid flow tapered off after the U.S. government normalized relations with China in the 1970s.
After revolutions sprang up in Latin American countries such as Cuba, stopping communism from spreading across the Western Hemisphere became an important U.S. goal. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Alliance for Progress, an assistance program intended to relieve poverty and social inequality in the participating Latin American countries. Foreign aid spiked immediately after that. The goal was to apply the logic of the Marshall Plan to Latin America; economic stability would theoretically curtail the threat of revolution. The program was dissolved in 1973, largely due to a failure to address the social and economic issues it was meant to.
Starting in the 1980s, one of the priorities of U.S. foreign aid in Latin America was to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. At the beginning of his first term, President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs both at home and abroad. Much of the United States’ cocaine supply came from Latin America. Any country in the region that the U.S. government determined was “doing its part” in the war on drugs would receive U.S. foreign aid. Colombia in particular received military aid and training due to the quantity of drugs originating from that country.
Starting in the early 1990s, sub-Saharan Africa became the center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In 1999, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death across Africa. Even though testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS existed, they were not widely available in many African countries. After years of little global action, the United States established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2004 in select, mostly sub-Saharan African countries. The program allocated funding to provide medicine, money, and personnel to combat HIV/AIDS in affected countries because President George W. Bush believed extending compassionate humanitarian aid around the world was an important show of U.S. values. These values, he believed, would lead to more trust in American leadership. When PEPFAR launched, only 50,000 people in Africa had access to any lifesaving antiretroviral treatment. As of September 30, 2018, PEPFAR had provided that treatment to more than 14.6 million people. PEPFAR quickly became the largest health initiative ever undertaken worldwide, and the U.S. government continues to fund it approximately $6.5 billion a year.
During the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union were competing for global power and influence, the oil-rich Middle East was important to both countries. While the United States sent humanitarian and development aid to most Arab countries, it sent significant amounts of military and economic aid to Israel and Egypt. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, aid continued at a similar level despite the end of the Cold War. This continued practice shows just how highly the U.S. values its partnerships with Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
After al-Qaeda killed almost three thousand people in a terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States declared a “war on terror” and invaded Afghanistan, which had provided sanctuary to the terrorists. Although the Iraqi government was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, the United States also invaded Iraq in 2003 in part because of the incorrect assumption that the Iraqi government was developing weapons of mass destruction. After Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled, the United States started rebuilding a lot of what the war had destroyed, focusing on supporting democratic institutions.
Because of a longtime focus on industrialization over agriculture, India was in the midst of a massive famine by 1961 as farmers were not producing enough food to feed the population. The United States sent foreign aid in the form of wheat to help alleviate the famine; in 1965, one-fifth of all U.S. wheat production went to India. USAID also helped fund agricultural development, including university programs that studied agriculture. This helped fuel what became known as the green revolution—the rapid development of new agricultural techniques that dramatically increased how much food countries could produce.
After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled its ruling group, the Taliban, which had been accused of hiding and protecting al-Qaeda operatives. What followed was nearly two decades of aid packages aimed at creating some kind of stability in Afghanistan amid an active war. Military operations continue, coordinated with enormous USAID programs aimed at building civil society, providing economic opportunity, stabilizing conflict zones, and state-building.