From Our Abundance: the Logics and Practices of US Foreign Assistance, 1789-1949



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Conventional wisdom places the origins of US Foreign Assistance in the wake of the Second World War, primarily as a tactic intended to thwart the spread of Communism and to promote peace through the expansion of a liberal economic world order. This placement risks overlooking the ways in which the massive programs launched in the mid-twentieth century may have been shaped by the previous 160 years of congressional decision-making. This dissertation takes a new approach by reaching deeper into US congressional history. Through the compilation and analysis of a novel dataset, the Foreign Assistance Congressional Debate Archive (FACDA), the study provides the first comprehensive account of foreign assistance legislative initiatives in the 1st through 80th Congresses (1789-1949). Two overarching questions guided the research: what were the cases of foreign assistance prior to the Second World War and what relationship, if any, do they have to the massive programs that were launched in the mid-twentieth century? Content analysis was used to identify patterns and trends across all 129 FACDA cases. Rhetorical analysis was then used to build a historicized understanding of political rhetoric during six specific cases at key moments of change. The study concludes that the concept that came to be known as foreign assistance is the transformation of a concept of “foreign charity,” which dates back to the nineteenth century, into the notion of “enlightened self-interest” in the mid-twentieth century. This transformation was made possible, in part, by the introduction of a tripartite justification for legislation to feed starving Europe after the Great War: humanitarian imperative, economic interest, and national security. Legislators adopted this same political rhetoric after the Second World War in the framing of the Marshall Plan and other massive programs of the 80th Congress. This century-old rhetorical device continues to align Americans from vastly different ideological persuasions in support of foreign assistance legislation today.