Special feature: A history of American public opinion on foreign aid

The old U.S. Agency for International Development logo designed by Eleanor Gault and unveiled in 1953. Photo by: Juan Andrés Del Puerto González / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The development community reacted with shock when President Donald Trump’s budget called for cuts of more than 30 percent to the U.S. foreign assistance program. While the shape of Trump’s approach to development will still go through many iterations, the fact remains that a sitting U.S. president calculated that there would be no significant political fallout to potentially gutting America’s aid programs.

A look at the history of public opinion toward foreign assistance programs helps explain why and is essential in helping the community come to grips with where it now finds itself.

Foreign Aid and American Public Opinion series

In this latest in his series on the history of development, Devex contributor John Norris examines more than 60 years of polling on opinions toward aid to better understand which messages work when talking to Americans about foreign assistance. He also explores some common misperceptions the public has about development — and some myths the development community has about public opinion. In this first article, a look at the often surprising history of how the American public has viewed aid programs.

Read part 2: Ghana, grandma and the factors affecting American public opinion on foreign aid and part 3: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era

Even before the election, it was a complaint heard at almost every gathering involving someone engaged in international development: “Do you know that most Americans think that 20 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid? Twenty percent!” And yes, the American public has long held a wildly inflated view of the cost of foreign assistance programs. Trump, in dismissing aid as simply going to “people who hate us,” effectively tapped into that sense of misplaced grievance.

Equally true, most of those in the development community have never really looked closely at what polling data tells us about the state of public opinion regarding assistance and its implications for changing people’s minds. For in doing so, we see that a Trump presidency may have some very unexpected impacts on public opinion toward aid.

The Marshall Plan

Fortunately, there is a rich collection of opinion polls on attitudes toward foreign assistance dating back to the push to get Congress to approve the Marshall Plan. By taking a dive into the data and history, some very important trends emerge that challenge how the U.S. talks about aid and its importance.

With the fog of time, most simply remember the scale of the Marshall Plan, its lasting success, and the stirring invocation of Secretary of State George Marshall’s speech at Harvard University in June 1947: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” Historians certainly loved Marshall’s speech, but the administration of President Harry Truman virtually hid the announcement of Marshall’s remarks from journalists to keep it out of the news domestically, knowing that convincing the public and Congress to support the ambitious plan was a Herculean task. A July 1947 Gallup poll indicated that 51 percent of Americans were unaware of the Marshall Plan, much less supportive of it.

Special series: A history of US foreign aid

An interactive series from Devex that explores the history of USAID, its administrators and US foreign aid. Join the conversation with our community and share this series with fellow development professionals, researchers and academics.

If the public was largely oblivious to the emerging plan, Congress was downright hostile. Influential isolationist Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio denounced the plan as welfare for Europeans. Congressman Howard Buffett (Warren Buffett's father) dubbed the Marshall Plan “Operation Rathole.” Media outlets as diverse as the Daily Worker on the left, and the powerful McCormick and Hearst newspaper chains on the right, blasted the plan.  

The Truman administration responded with the most massive publicity campaign in support of foreign aid that the U.S. has ever seen, and will likely ever see — its job made all the more difficult by the fact that it was asking the public to defer a promised federal tax cut to help rebuild war-shattered Europe.  

Secretary Marshall, a bona fide war hero with an impeccable record of nonpartisanship, barnstormed the country, appearing before labor groups, business associations, churches and universities. Major industrialists such as Paul Hoffman, the head of the Studebaker car company, were also enlisted to the cause. The State Department established a high-level bipartisan committee that issued a barrage of facts, figures and analysis on the need for a European recovery and its impact on the American economy.

As Historian Barry Machado notes, “Deciding to err on the side of too many rather than too few statistics, government officials simply overwhelmed skeptical congressmen with detailed country studies on commodities, balance of payments, and trade that measured three inches in thickness.” Elite opinion, and that of the press, began to nudge forward, as President Truman and Secretary Marshall leaned heavily on economic concerns to build support for the Marshall Plan.

As measured by Gallup, the number of Americans unaware of the plan fell from 51 percent to 36 percent between July and December 1947, and public support for the plan crept over the 50 percent mark. Although enthusiasm had grown for the plan, it was not deeply rooted. As author Bradley Abrams observed, “support for the Marshall Plan fell off considerably when linked to the necessity of postponing the proposed tax cut or accepting increased inflation.” This willingness to sacrifice aid when it was pitted against domestic priorities would prove stubbornly enduring.

By January 1948, the Marshall Plan appeared stalled in Congress — despite the unprecedented push by the White House and some of the most iconic figures in politics and the business community, a highly detailed information campaign, efforts to address congressional concerns, growing media support and general public confidence in the government. Some sort of interim measure looked like a likely fallback position.

Remarkably, a man who had always hated the Marshall Plan, Josef Stalin, almost single-handedly secured its passage. With the Soviet-dominated 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia, public concern about potential war with the Soviets spiked, and the administration increasingly pitched the Marshall Plan as a bulwark against communism.

“Of the various arguments given in favor of the Marshall Plan, the one which seems most effective with the public is the argument that it will halt the spread of communism in Europe.”

— George Gallup

As George Gallup wrote of his poll findings, “of the various arguments given in favor of the Marshall Plan, the one which seems most effective with the public is the argument that it will halt the spread of communism in Europe.” Some of the most isolationist members of Congress reversed their position. The House passed the Foreign Assistance Act by 329–74 and the Senate by 69–17, as an amazing panoply of groups banded together in support. At the time of the vote, a remarkable 75 percent of the public with an opinion on the Marshall plan supported it.

Between 1949 and 1952, support for the Marshall plan remained stratospheric, bouncing around between 61 to 79 percent. The range and volatility of these numbers is striking, according to authors Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, who looked at more than 50 years of trends across all ranges of issues in American public opinion. Their takeaway: this volatility was not particularly surprising given the turbulence of international events during a time span that included everything from the first Soviet nuclear tests to the onset of the Korean War.

This too represents an important lesson for those trying to bolster the image of foreign assistance programs: these efforts are almost always embedded within a much broader and more powerful narrative — good or bad. Assisting Europe made sense to most of the public because it felt imperative to counter the Red menace, not because there was some inherent belief in the efficacy of aid. The threat of the Soviets helped keep support for the Marshall plan strong, even as President Truman’s own approval rating dipped down to 29 percent in 1951.

Forging ahead into developing countries

As the Marshall plan concluded, U.S. assistance programs shifted their geographic focus, and the rapid success of the Marshall Plan led many to assume that such a model would easily translate into the developing world. Henry Bennett, the head of Truman’s Technical Cooperation Administration, promised in 1951 that “concrete, practical results can be had quickly” in the developing world. But the European recovery was a rebuilding effort of modern economies led by a set of highly motivated and well-organized governments. Europe’s educational base was strong and incentives for opening trade were high. It was almost exactly the wrong model to use when talking about the steep challenges of development in most places around the globe.

Early forays into the developing world made obvious that new approaches were needed. With a more diffuse focus for aid, the growth of competing bureaucratic structures to administer it, and the erosion of the idea that aid was simply a powerful tool to be deployed against the Soviets, public support for assistance began to slide. From 1954 to 1957, the percentage of Americans who felt that the U.S. was spending too much on assistance programs leapt from 25 percent to 37 percent. That number would surely have been higher if most Americans understood the disarray that plagued assistance programs during much of the 1950s post-Marshall plan.

Kennedy, Johnson and the early years

USAID’s first three administrators from 1961 to 1969 had to contend with building an agency and shaping the direction it would take in the face of mounting bureaucracy. By the late 60s, the third administrator had to deal with a trifecta of challenges: population growth, famine and the Vietnam War.

Read more on the history of USAID

Assistance programs got a welcome bounce with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. The creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps in 1961 spurred a powerful sense of optimism that helping the developing world made sense from both a moral and strategic perspective. This balance of hard-edged security and softer ideals-based messaging was effective. The percentage of people thinking the country was spending too much on aid showed a perceptible decline. It was also no accident that the public’s trust in government showed a steady rise under Kennedy.

The Vietnam blowback

But then aid programs hit the public opinion wall from which they have never truly recovered: Vietnam. Vietnam represented a massive investment in the aid program, with more than $28.5 billion of economic and security assistance being poured into Saigon. At one point more than 25 percent of USAID’s entire global staff was located in that country. Aid programs, designed to win hearts and minds on the ground, were an essential part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. USAID and State Department staff were forward deployed to support this tactic, leading USAID and State to suffer more civilian fatalities in Vietnam than in all of America’s other conflicts combined.

It is easy for development experts to look back at the 1960s and early 1970s and celebrate flagship accomplishments such as the Green Revolution and the widespread adoption of family planning, but these major victories were almost completely obscured in public opinion by the specter of Vietnam. The number of Americans thinking the U.S. spent too much on foreign assistance rocketed from 33 percent in February 1965 to 75 percent around the fall of Saigon in 1975. The war was seared into the public consciousness as an expensive folly, and using the high range of estimates for the total costs of the war (including military spending), it was calculated that the U.S. could have paid off the mortgage on every home in the nation with what it spent in Southeast Asia.  

But here again we see views toward aid as a stream within a much larger current. Below we see the percentage of Americans across historical polls from 1960 to 2016 who think the U.S. spends “too much” on foreign assistance.

Click here to view a larger version of the image.

While we often speak of Vietnam as creating a crisis in the public’s view of the U.S. military, it arguably hit assistance programs harder and in a more lasting fashion. There have been some significant improvements in these numbers over the years, but is has been a very slow, and deeply uneven, recovery.

From Reagan to Trump

It is striking that the percentage of Americans thinking the U.S. spend too much on foreign aid hit what was then a post-Vietnam low in 1985, largely in response to President Ronald Reagan’s decision to offer food aid to Ethiopia as its Marxist government struggled with a calamitous and self-inflicted famine. As Reagan declared, “A hungry child knows no politics,” the public responded to a clear and specific use for assistance: feeding starving children. This uptick in popularity for assistance under Reagan is also notable in that it was counterintuitive: Reagan, as a small government conservative, expanded the aid budget and the overall program became more popular.

The next great shift in public opinion toward the assistance program came in the early and mid-1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The foreign aid program was suddenly bereft of its primary justification as a bulwark against communist expansion, and USAID had been scandal-plagued and badly mismanaged at the end of the President George H.W. Bush administration.  

So with the loss of the Cold War rationale, and a newly ascendant Republican majority in the House and the Senate after 1994, there was a concerted effort, led by Senator Jesse Helms, to eliminate USAID and slash aid spending. It was a fight that Republicans thought they should win. They knew aid was an easy target, confidence in government was generally low, the State Department was willing to absorb USAID, and Republicans had majorities in both houses. So why did the effort to eliminate USAID fail?

The Republican effort stalled partly because the agency’s leadership waged a very effective counterinsurgency effort, and partly because the Republicans misread the state of public opinion on foreign assistance and America’s place in the world at the time. America was not more isolationist after the Cold War. As Stephen Kull, a researcher at the University of Maryland who has extensively polled on assistance questions, observed in 1995, “A majority of Americans would like to see a revival of the postwar universalist vision that prompted the U.N. Charter, a vision of a cooperative world order that would address problems of security collectively, uphold humanitarian principles and promote global economic development.” Some 65 percent of respondents in that poll wanted the U.S. to take an active part in world affairs and recognized a true retreat from the world as largely impractical. And while USAID and the aid program survived the 1990s, it was deeply wounded as a result of budget cuts and layoffs.

President George W. Bush and his development legacy

On balance the George W. Bush administration brought great sweeping, almost operatic, successes and failures and a nearly unrivaled boom in resources. It was a track record that naturally lent itself to discussions of legacies both good and bad.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, brought clear effects on opinion toward aid. With a very pronounced rally-around-the-flag moment and a huge burst in confidence in government, opinions toward assistance — upon which President George W. Bush greatly expanded spending — favorably surged. Major initiatives such as PEPFAR — or the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — and the launch of the Millennium Challenge Corporation were well designed to promote U.S. security, combat a pressing health crisis and reward governments that were willing to tackle corruption.

But this period was not without a very pronounced hangover. Like other big “strategic” development efforts, reconstruction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan following U.S. military interventions were enormously costly and badly executed, reinforcing the notion for many that aid simply doesn’t work or flows to the corrupt.

The Obama years brought a slow but steady improvement in the public’s view toward assistance, likely abetted by the relative absence of scandals and a steadily rebounding economy.

Few expected the seismic shift in the approach to aid that was to come with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

Methodology

Polls examined for this series came from the Cornell University’s Roper Center polling database, iPoll. The searchable iPoll database is an extraordinary resource and includes surveys from every major polling organization in the country from 1935 to the present, reflecting over 650,000 questions and responses. Hundreds of the polls on the site contained significant questions regarding the public’s views toward foreign assistance.

To establish an apples-to-apples comparison for trend data, these polls were sorted by date and question type. Only those polls that repeated questions regarding foreign assistance in nearly identical language were included when examining the evolution of attitudes over time for this series and the graphs that accompany it. Primary categorizations included questions on the following: whether foreign assistance should be increased, decreased or kept the same; whether the government was spending too much, too little or the right amount on foreign aid; whether foreign assistance should be cut; what percentage of the federal budget respondents estimated was spent on foreign assistance; and whether such aid is misused. Polls with obviously problematic samples were excluded from the comparison.

In commissioning this work, Devex has relied on the author’s informed analysis based on interviews with more than a dozen development experts and our editors have made every effort to produce an objective and nonpartisan analysis. Still, we realize any attempt to assess government performance is subject to critique and dispute so we welcome additional perspectives and comments from our readers.

This is part one of a three part series on American public opinion on foreign aid. Read part 2: Ghana, grandma and the factors affecting American public opinion on foreign aid and part 3: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era. Visit USAID: A history of US foreign aid for more coverage.

About the author

  • John norris

    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.