USAID and PL–480, 1961–1969

The administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson marked a revitalization of the U.S. foreign assistance program, signified a growing awareness of the importance of humanitarian aid as a form of diplomacy, and reinforced the belief that American security was linked to the economic progress and stability of other nations.

Johnson with Gandhi, March 28, 1966. (White House Photo Office)

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States provided economic assistance to European nations to aid in their reconstruction, and extended security assistance to these and other nations as a bulwark against a perceived communist threat. The mechanisms for deploying this assistance were spread over several government agencies and, as a result, problems arose concerning the coordination of these efforts.

Kennedy sought both to improve the administration of U.S. assistance and refocus aid to meet the needs of the developing world. In September 1961, Kennedy signed into law the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (Public Law 87–195), which mandated the establishment of a single agency for the coordination of foreign assistance. The Agency for International Development (AID)—established under Executive Order 10973—assumed responsibility for the disbursement of capital and technical assistance to developing nations. AID symbolized Kennedy’s invigorated approach to fostering the economic, political, and social development of recipient nations.

Kennedy also turned his attention to food aid, particularly the Food for Peace program started during the Eisenhower administration. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, commonly known as PL–480 or Food for Peace. Prior to that, the United States had extended food aid to countries experiencing natural disasters and provided aid in times of war, but no permanent program existed within the United States Government for the coordination and distribution of commodities. Public Law 480, administered at that time by the Departments of State and Agriculture and the International Cooperation Administration, permitted the president to authorize the shipment of surplus commodities to “friendly” nations, either on concessional or grant terms. It also allowed the federal government to donate stocks to religious and voluntary organizations for use in their overseas humanitarian programs. Public Law 480 established a broad basis for U.S. distribution of foreign food aid, although reduction of agricultural surpluses remained the key objective for the duration of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower remained sensitive to the foreign policy implications of a permanent program, as did Department of State officials who expressed concerns that PL–480 would disrupt the export markets of several allies, including Great Britain and Canada.

As with his overall efforts to streamline foreign assistance, Kennedy also intended to reinvigorate the Food for Peace program and redirect it away from surplus liquidation. Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy issued Executive Order 10915, which affirmed the foreign policy dimension of PL–480. Kennedy also appointed George McGovern as his Food for Peace Director—a position located within the Executive Office of the President—and tasked him with supervising and coordinating the functions of the various agencies administering the program, including AID, the Department of State, and the Department of Agriculture. Kennedy directed McGovern to orient the program toward the use of “agricultural abundance” in combating malnutrition. Kennedy insisted that the United States must “narrow the gap between abundance here at home and near starvation abroad.”

Johnson emphasized the Food for Peace program as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign assistance, and intended to pursue revisions to the program to strengthen its foreign policy orientation. While Johnson believed that the United States should extend food aid for humanitarian reasons, he also favored conditioning food aid agreements on the recipient nation’s ability to implement necessary agricultural reforms. “Self-help” provisions, applied to both PL–480 agreements and other AID assistance, would contribute to the economic development of recipient nations by strengthening their agricultural sectors. The Food for Peace Act of 1966 (PL 89–808) required that PL–480 agreements contain language describing the steps a recipient had already made, or planned to make, toward increasing food production and improving storage and distribution. Johnson pursued these revisions at the same time he announced a “war on hunger,” designed to accelerate agricultural production, improve nutrition, eradicate disease, and curb population growth. It remained incumbent upon the United States to demonstrate leadership and recreate Johnson’s domestic Great Society reforms on a global scale.

Johnson also understood that food aid served diplomatic ends and bolstered U.S. strategic interests. To strengthen Food for Peace’s foreign policy orientation, he pursued the transfer of the Food for Peace director’s functions from the White House to the Department of State, where the director would serve as a special assistant to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Although the Johnson administration programmed PL–480 commodities to meet critical hunger needs, in several instances Johnson authorized food aid shipments to nations in order to allow recipients to redirect spending for military equipment or for security purposes. The administration also negotiated PL–480 agreements with countries in an attempt to dissuade these leaders from accepting assistance from U.S. adversaries. Johnson used PL–480 agreements as leverage in securing support for U.S. foreign policy goals, even placing critical famine aid to India on a limited basis, until he received assurance that the Indian Government would implement agricultural reforms and temper criticism of U.S. policy regarding Vietnam. While PL–480 commodities continued to serve humanitarian aims, the program had limitations as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, especially given Congressional reductions in foreign aid outlays by the end of the decade.