John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address in Washington, D.C. Photo by: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Working in more than 100 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, the U.S. Agency for International Development has been at the fore of global efforts to reduce poverty and promote broad-based economic growth. Over the past five years, the agency has spent an average $16 billion annually on sectors such as health, peace and security, and economic development.

Since USAID was established in 1961, it has had 16 different administrators managing billions of dollars and making decisions affecting lives of hundreds of poor people worldwide. How did these administrators shape the evolution of the U.S. government’s primary aid agency — and American foreign policy?

The Marshall Plan is rightly seen as one of the most important U.S. foreign policy triumphs of the 20th century. By 1960, U.S. support for foreign assistance programs was in steady decline, and the structures for delivering U.S. assistance abroad were bureaucratically fragmented and not particularly effective. In announcing his plans to create USAID, President John F. Kennedy argued to Congress that a modern, unified aid agency was essential to advance America’s moral, economic and strategic considerations in a world where totalitarianism and instability were profound threats.

The job that Fowler Hamilton had to do was to take this goddamned mess and try to make something of it, and build an agency, and hire a hell of a lot of people from the outside to come into a job which was unpopular at best.

— William Gaud, USAID administrator (1966-1969)

The first USAID administrator, Fowler Hamilton (1961-1962), received glowing praise from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who called him the “best administrator the foreign aid program ever had.” Mansfield’s opinion was not widely shared, however, and certainly not by Hamilton’s boss, President Kennedy.

Hamilton, a Rhodes scholar and accomplished lawyer with an impressive resume, had no real practical experience in dealing with the developing world. He also faced a daunting task. USAID had been created from a mish-mash of existing organizations — the International Cooperation Administration, the Development Loan Fund and some functions that had been at the Export-Import Bank — after a period when assistance programs had largely been neglected by the Eisenhower administration.

John F. Kennedy at Fowler Hamilton’s swearing-in ceremony. Photo by: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Basic questions of hiring the right people, deploying them and understanding the fundamentals of development were huge undertakings. As future USAID Administrator William Gaud noted, “The job that Fowler Hamilton had to do was to take this goddamned mess and try to make something of it, and build an agency, and hire a hell of a lot of people from the outside to come into a job which was unpopular at best and doubtful as to how long the damn thing would last and whether it would really amount to anything.”

The sheer weight of bureaucratic challenges so consumed Hamilton that he had little bandwidth to develop his own vision and theory of development, putting himself at a great disadvantage in conversations with the president and Congress. Hamilton was also straddled with a budget that was larger than he could realistically spend as he was standing up operations, causing some Congressional backlash.

Hamilton’s immediate successor, David Bell speculated that Kennedy simply grew frustrated with Hamilton’s struggles to get the agency off the ground and his failure to comply with direction provided by the White House. Hamilton was discreetly dismissed by JFK after just 15 months on the job, and he was probably miscast from the start.

Although David Bell (1962-1966) was the agency’s second administrator, he was really the first to put his stamp on USAID and its approach to development, and in many ways was the agency’s master architect.

[David] Bell improved relations with Congress and placed the agency on solid footing for years to come as he established USAID as the most important player on the development landscape.

Bell’s credentials going in to the job were solid. He had served as an administrative executive to President Truman. As Kennedy’s budget director, he developed a reputation for innovation and competence while earning the president’s trust. Equally important, he had served as an economic adviser in Pakistan during the Eisenhower administration, learning the challenges of development firsthand. As an early USAID staffer observed, “Both Kennedy and he decided that it was more important to run AID than it was to run the Bureau of the Budget, which gives you some idea of the sense of priority that the foreign aid program had at that time.”

It is important to stress, however, that USAID’s knowledge base of how to promote development was very thin, with one senior USAID staffer saying, “In 1962, we were just as green as grass, and we knew damn little about this business.”

Bell tried to bring the same analytical skills to development that he had to budgeting, commissioning a detailed analysis of Taiwan’s rapid economic progress and the role of U.S. assistance in that breakthrough. He brought in talented outside economists to staff the agency’s Office of Program and Policy Coordination. As Bell told an interviewer at the time, “Fundamentally, A.I.D.’s purpose is national security. By national security, we also mean a world of independent nations capable of making economic and social progress through free institutions. Economically, we’re not aiming for standards of living; we’re aiming for internal dynamics, self-sustaining growth.”

What are the attributes of a successful USAID administrator? John Norris shares some insights in this video interview.

Importantly, President Kennedy and Bell agreed that effective development required a degree of independence from the State Department. As Bell shared in an oral history, “There was a strong feeling among most of us in the new Administration that aid decisions had been improperly subordinated in the previous arrangement to the views and judgments of the State Department's Assistant Secretaries and office chiefs.”

Many subsequent administrators would have to fight to maintain that relative autonomy — some more successfully than others. One black spot on Bell’s record: His assurance to Congress that USAID would not consider the distribution of contraception in the developing world, which proved to be a major initial stumbling block to launching family planning programs. But in general, Bell improved relations with Congress and placed the agency on solid footing for years to come as he established USAID as the most important player on the development landscape. He later served as executive vice president of the Ford Foundation.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson maintained continuity with JFK’s approaches in many areas, he put his own distinct stamp on the direction of U.S. assistance programs and complained in colorful terms when Congress initially provided him with a smaller aid budget than it had Kennedy.

As Johnson’s first appointee as USAID administrator, Gaud (1966-1969) was the first — and one of a just a handful of those who have held the job — with experience at the agency before becoming its leader. A lawyer by training, Gaud had run the agency’s Bureau for Near East and South Asia under Bell, and served in the U.S. military in the India-China-Burma theater during World War II. Like the president who had appointed him, he was well-known for his colorfully profane language.

Gaud’s Asia experience would prove pivotal as President Johnson focused the agency’s work on three almost monumental challenges: the looming threat of major famine in Asia, particularly in India; growing concerns about a population explosion in the developing world; and the deepening conflict in Vietnam. All three of these efforts stand as watershed moments for USAID, with two of them regarded as historic triumphs, one a historic failure.

Shortly after assuming the presidency, President Johnson became increasingly concerned with projections that food production would fall disastrously short of need in the developing world and, in his 1965 state of the union, declared, “I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion of world population and the growing scarcity of world resources.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 state of the union address

The risk of massive famine became acute as South Asia suffered major droughts. More than 600 U.S. ships, the largest maritime flotilla since D-Day, carried grain to stem the crisis, helping save an estimated 60 million Indians from hunger.

Equally important, the United States dramatically stepped up USAID investments in agricultural research and technology, now widely hailed as some of the most important development programs since the Marshall Plan. As Gaud said in a 1968 speech before the Society for International Development, “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violet Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” His words stuck and the Green Revolution helped cement the notion that science and technology could help bend the curve of pressing global trends.

The agency’s move into family planning programs carried more controversy, but probably was as revolutionary over the long haul as the agency’s work in agriculture. Although many within the agency resisted the new emphasis on family planning programs, more bluntly known as population control at the time, Gaud stressed that such programs had to avoid any form of coercion. Although there were a number of bumps along the way in the implementation of these programs, Gaud’s leadership was instrumental in both improving program design over time and in helping experts understand the link between reproductive health, economic growth, and healthier and better cared for families.

USAID and the State Department had more officers killed in Vietnam than the rest of America’s wars combined.

Vietnam was a much more difficult and complicated legacy for Gaud. The U.S. initially committed some 3,500 ground troops early in 1965. By the end of 1966, there were more than 385,000 American troops in Vietnam. President Johnson saw the rapid expansion of USAID programs in Vietnam as a crucial complement to military efforts. Over the protests of the USAID mission director in Vietnam who argued that a lighter footprint actually made for more effective counterinsurgency efforts, Johnson pushed USAID resources and personnel into Vietnam, forward deploying aid workers in a massive hearts and minds campaign.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident led to increased U.S. military presence in Vietnam. Photo by: Manh Hai / CC BY

By 1968, there were some 2,300 American USAID personnel in Vietnam, the single-largest deployment of USAID staff in history, with many of these employees directly in harm’s way. USAID and the State Department had more officers killed in Vietnam than the rest of America’s wars combined.

Some USAID programs in Vietnam were well-designed and incredibly thoughtful; others completely misguided and doomed to fail from the start. Gaud could have protested longer or more loudly against the Vietnam program, but he would quickly have been out a job.

One of Gaud’s former staffers remembers him as tough to work for but found him to be, “one of our most effective Administrators in an extraordinarily difficult time.” After USAID, Gaud became the executive vice president of the International Finance Corp. and president of what was then known as the Population Crisis Committee.

USAID’s longevity traces back in no small measure to the success of Gaud and Bell in establishing an agency that subsequent presidents saw as a key instrument of U.S. international engagement.

Despite some setbacks, USAID largely flourished under the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, who were both Democrats. Would a Republican president throttle growth of the aid agency? Find out in the second installation of our five-part series.

Click here to view our complete interactive series exploring the history of USAID, its administrators and US foreign aid. Join the conversation with our community on social media using #USAIDhistory and don't forget share this series with fellow development professionals, researchers and academics.

About the author

  • John Norris

    John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the executive director of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress and was chief of political affairs for the U.N. Mission in Nepal back when the country was emerging from a decadelong war. Earlier in his career, John worked at the State Department and USAID.