THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
odern analyses of U.S. foreign
assistance typically describe
it as a post-World War II
innovation that began with the
Marshall Plan and President
Harry Truman’s Point Four
aid program in the late 1940s.
Following the lead of interna-
tional relations theorist Hans
Morgenthau, many practitioners believe that foreign aid arose as
an instrument of Cold War diplomacy, and that aid as we know it
might not now exist without the Cold War.
This article presents an alternative view, expanding on anarticle by Glenn Rogers, “A Long-Term Perspective on U.S. Foreign Development Cooperation” (May 2010 FSJ ). Forei
aid is deeply rooted in American history, and has evolved over
more than 200 years to improve the lives of hundreds of millions
of people throughout the globe while also supporting vital U.S.
Extending the American
Foreign Aid, 1789–1850
Foreign assistance is part of America’s cultural DNA, fostered by the country’s
revolutionary heritage of a commitment to human rights and individual liberties.
BY JOHN SANBRA I LO
John Sanbrailo is executive director of the Pan American
Development Foundation, an affiliate of the Organization
of American States. A former FSOwith USAID, he served
as mission director in Ecuador, Peru, Honduras and El Sal-
vador, retiring with the rank of Career Minister in 1997. Mr. Sanbrailo is
currently working on a history of foreign assistance.
Foreign assistance reflects what historian Gordon Wood
identifies in his book
The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth
of the United States
(Penguin, 2011) as a fundamental element
of the country’s revolutionary tradition: the desire to spread
democracy and development overseas. It is part of the country’s
cultural DNA, fostered by its unique revolutionary heritage of
a commitment to human rights and individual liberties. Aid
expresses the nation’s sense of a universal mission to nurture
freedom and prosperity in other countries, a mission that has
regularly been an integral part of U.S. foreign policy purposes.
The desire to share the principles of the American Revolu-
tion with other countries was driven not only by diplomats and
government officials, but by missionaries, traders, educators, sci-
entists, agriculturalists, academics, progressive reformers, civil
society groups, business leaders and the military. These early
undertakings were similar to aid programs in recent decades,
offering useful comparisons.
The Founding Fathers were, above all, what we might call
“development philosophers.” The writings of Benjamin Frank-
lin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton explore how
societies move toward greater liberty and progress. Franklin’s
Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and Peopling
, etc., published in 1751, outlined one of the first
comprehensive development theories. In it, he describes how