A black and white image of a Nurse treating a small child.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Julia F. Irwin

In the twenty-first century, the U.S. government is among the world’s leading donors of bilateral disaster assistance.[1] In an average year, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)—the branch of USAID charged with coordinating the government’s response to international catastrophes—responds to some seventy disasters in more than fifty countries. The Department of Defense, the State Department, and other federal agencies regularly participate in global disaster relief and recovery efforts. In addition to providing aid through its own channels, the U.S. government maintains official partnerships with scores of private firms and voluntary (non-governmental) organizations that are active in the field of international humanitarian relief.

How did the U.S. government become such a central player in global disaster response? When—and why—did U.S. officials adopt foreign disaster aid as an instrument of foreign policy? Although the formal bureaucratic structures and legislation that undergird contemporary U.S. international disaster assistance date to the mid- to late-twentieth century, the roots of this system extend deep into the past. Tracing these origins, this essay charts the U.S. government’s role in responding to overseas natural disasters during three periods: the years before 1900, the early twentieth century through World War II, and the three decades following that conflict. As this overview shows, the U.S. government’s gradual entrance into the field of international disaster aid closely paralleled its growth as a global economic, political, and military power, and was driven by multiple and evolving diplomatic aims, economic calculations, and moral considerations.

The beginnings of the U.S. government’s involvement in international disaster assistance date to the early American Republic. In March 1812 a major earthquake occurred in Venezuela, leaving the city of Caracas in ruin. In response, Congress appropriated $50,000 to aid survivors of this catastrophe while authorizing president James Madison to purchase and ship food to Venezuela.[4] But if this episode marked an important early instance of U.S. foreign disaster aid, it was in many ways an exceptional event. It would be decades before official responses like this one became commonplace. For the rest of the century, U.S. governmental aid for overseas natural disasters—and for any humanitarian crisis, for that matter—remained limited at best.

This did not mean the United States was completely divorced from global disaster relief efforts during the nineteenth century. It was private citizens and voluntary associations, however, rather than the U.S. government, that typically carried them out. In the wake of many foreign catastrophes, American church groups and charitable societies collected and shipped monetary and material contributions abroad. American missionaries and other U.S. citizens living overseas, meanwhile, often assisted survivors of disasters in the communities in which they resided. U.S. policymakers occasionally supported these relief efforts. Congress, for instance, authorized U.S. naval ships to carry privately donated aid supplies overseas several times, while U.S. diplomats and consuls in disaster-stricken countries sometimes joined local American communities in relief work. Generally speaking, however, U.S. government officials in the nineteenth century relinquished international humanitarian assistance to the American voluntary sector.

Several reasons help explain the state’s humanitarian detachment in these years. First, most Americans tended to feel that aiding victims of catastrophes in other countries was not the U.S. government’s responsibility, believing it a task better left to private citizens. Second, even when U.S. policymakers wanted to provide international assistance, they were not particularly well positioned to do so. Small in size and lacking a significant overseas footprint, the U.S. government possessed neither the resources nor the logistical capabilities to respond effectively to most distant crises.[6]

It was not until the early 1900s, as these material and cultural factors began to change, that U.S. policymakers started to contribute to global disaster relief efforts in a more active, consistent manner. In the four decades before World War II, even as private citizens and voluntary organizations continued to provide the lion’s share of U.S. foreign disaster aid, the state’s involvement in organizing, delivering, and administering disaster assistance abroad increased markedly.

>U.S. government officials expanded the state’s role in global disaster response, in part, by cultivating formal ties with the American voluntary sector—a form of governance that historians have termed the “associational state.”[7] Specifically, U.S. policymakers forged a unique and special partnership with one voluntary association—the American Red Cross (ARC)—and relied on it as their principal instrument for international disaster assistance. Legally recognizing the ARC as the state’s official humanitarian auxiliary, U.S. government officials worked closely with the organization to respond to catastrophes abroad.[8] In Washington, the ARC’s leadership met regularly with high-ranking members of the State, War, and Naval Departments, cooperating with these individuals to plan and carry out international disaster relief efforts. The State Department provided many services to the ARC as well, including wiring funds abroad and transmitting communications between the ARC and disaster-stricken nations. The Secretary of State also instructed U.S. diplomatic and consular officials to form local ARC chapters in their host countries to better prepare them for organizing relief efforts locally. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, buoyed by this governmental support, the ARC dispatched financial assistance, relief supplies, and occasionally aid workers to dozens of disaster-stricken countries throughout Asia, Europe, and Central and South America.[9]

Although U.S. officials relied on the quasigovernmental ARC to provide much of the funding and expert guidance for international disaster relief, they did not delegate all humanitarian responsibilities to this organization. U.S. officials also worked with various other non-governmental entities. They cooperated, for example, with philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, which periodically sent medical supplies and public health experts to disaster-stricken countries, and with firms like United Fruit and Pan-American Airways, which regularly lent their ships and planes to transport relief supplies abroad. But U.S. officials in the early twentieth century also did more than simply promoting voluntary and private humanitarian initiatives. To a far greater extent than their nineteenth century predecessors, they responded to international catastrophes through the state’s own channels.

The U.S. government’s official disaster relief efforts took a variety of forms. Congress made monetary appropriations for foreign disaster assistance on several occasions, including allocating $200,000 to Martinique and St. Vincent after a 1902 volcanic eruption and $800,000 to Italy following a 1908 earthquake and tsunami.[10] Although grants like these remained relatively infrequent, U.S. officials committed other state resources to disaster-stricken countries more regularly. The War and Naval Departments repeatedly donated food, medicines, tents, and other supplies, often drawing this aid from military stores in the Panama Canal Zone, the Philippines, and other U.S. territories. On multiple occasions, they also authorized the use of U.S. Navy ships—and, starting in the 1930s, military aircraft—to transport this aid overseas.[11]

On the ground in disaster-stricken countries, U.S. government personnel also took part in humanitarian efforts. New State Department policies charged diplomatic and consular officials with the tasks of reporting disasters, requesting governmental or ARC assistance, and overseeing the distribution of that aid as it arrived. U.S. soldiers and sailors sometimes deployed to disaster-stricken countries as well, where they participated in search-and-rescue operations, debris clearance, and other short-term emergency assistance activities. Between 1900 and 1945, U.S. diplomatic, consular, and military personnel participated in relief efforts for survivors of floods in China, France, and Mexico; earthquakes in Chile, Italy, Nicaragua, Serbia, and Japan; tropical storms in the Dominican Republic and Hong Kong; and dozens of other catastrophes.[12] For U.S. officials stationed overseas, disaster assistance had become a customary part of the job.[13]

The U.S. government’s burgeoning (if ad hoc) involvement in foreign disaster assistance between 1900 and 1945 can be attributed to multiple, converging factors, each closely linked to the United States’ concurrent political, financial, and cultural ascendancy in world affairs. As a rising economic superpower with an expanding diplomatic and military presence globally, the U.S. government became progressively more capable of providing foreign assistance. At the same time, outward-looking U.S. policymakers had new motivations for aiding disaster survivors in other countries. Many U.S. officials realized the diplomatic potential of their aid, seeing in disaster assistance a means to bolster the United States’ image abroad. Others, fearing the political and social unrest that catastrophes fomented, saw foreign disaster aid as strategically important, recognizing it as a way to bring order and stability to disaster-stricken regions. Because catastrophes often affected American foreign trade, investments, and property holdings abroad, many U.S. officials understood that restoring economic conditions in other disaster-stricken countries could be in the United States’ financial self-interest. And finally, the impulse to provide international aid reflected a growing conviction, shared by many American policymakers and citizens, that the United States and its government had a moral obligation to improve the world.

Together, these overlapping motivations and worldviews helped shape a growing consensus among U.S. government officials on the importance of foreign disaster aid. Support, though, was never universal. Many critics continued to assert that humanitarian assistance was not the federal government’s responsibility. Others argued that resources devoted to foreign aid would be better spent on domestic problems. Still other critics voiced concerns about corruption and feared fostering dependency among aid recipients. But despite these objections, large numbers of U.S. policymakers in the early twentieth century endorsed overseas disaster assistance efforts, believing them beneficial not only to the survivors of catastrophes but also to U.S. global interests.

By the conclusion of World War II, propelled by these guiding beliefs and due to the combined efforts of the U.S. government, the ARC, and other parts of the voluntary sector, the United States had become one of the world’s major donors of bilateral disaster aid.[14] Over the next thirty years, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, the United States’ involvement in this humanitarian sphere continued to expand. It also transformed profoundly, with the U.S. government assuming a far more prominent and formal role in the financing and delivery of foreign disaster assistance.

Starting in the late 1940s and continuing throughout the 1950s, the state’s participation in global disaster aid increased in several ways. Congress passed a wide slate of foreign aid legislation, further empowering the U.S. government to provide disaster assistance to other countries.[15] Most notable was Public Law (PL) 480: The Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954. This law, designed in part to stabilize and subsidize American agriculture, authorized the president to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of surplus U.S. commodities annually as foreign assistance, including for victims of famine and natural disasters.[16] Congress also established a series of new foreign assistance agencies, the predecessors to USAID, which routinely committed funds and manpower to disaster relief overseas. Meanwhile, the Departments of State, Defense, and Agriculture developed new policies and procedures that clarified and formalized their respective duties in the event of international catastrophes.[17]

During the 1960s and early 1970s, U.S. policymakers broadened the government’s role in international disaster aid further still. Under the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act—a landmark piece of legislation, which overhauled the U.S. government’s foreign aid system and created USAID—Congress established a new contingency fund, making available millions of dollars annually for global disaster response.[18] A few years later in 1964 a new position was established within USAID: the Foreign Disaster Relief Coordinator. This individual was charged with overseeing and synchronizing U.S. governmental, military, ARC, and non-governmental disaster assistance overseas. With the formation of this office, subsequently renamed the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the U.S. government now included an arm devoted exclusively to the problem of international catastrophes.[19] Another crucial policy shift followed roughly a decade later, in 1975, when Congress added a specific chapter on “International Disaster Assistance” to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. With this amendment, U.S. policymakers affirmatively established the U.S. government’s authority to provide international disaster aid while codifying the state’s role in global disaster response and prevention.[20]

Between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s, even as U.S. policymakers steadily broadened the state’s role in foreign disaster assistance, they continued to regard American voluntary organizations as critical humanitarian partners. Yet at the same time, the U.S. government’s relationship with the voluntary sector transformed in significant ways. While the American Red Cross maintained its position as a leading provider of U.S. international disaster aid, a host of other voluntary associations—including Church World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), and dozens of others—steadily joined the ARC in this field. In the postwar decades, these organizations, too, became major donors of money, supplies, and other forms of foreign disaster assistance.[21]

Much as they had done with the ARC, U.S. officials cultivated a special relationship with many of these voluntary organizations, lending state support to their overseas humanitarian work. In 1946 the Truman administration established an Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid (ACVFA), designed to create a more formal link between the U.S. government and American voluntary organizations engaged in international relief and development.[22] Although registration with ACVFA was not mandatory, its members enjoyed distinct advantages. Specifically, Congress reimbursed registered voluntary organizations for the expense of shipping relief supplies overseas and granted them access to surplus U.S. commodities for international humanitarian operations.[23] These government subsidies, to the tune of millions of dollars per year, greatly enhanced the voluntary sector’s ability to provide international disaster aid in the name of the United States.

In the thirty years after the Second World War, U.S. policymakers greatly expanded the federal government’s foreign disaster assistance commitments. U.S. officials, together with their chosen partners in the voluntary sector, carried out humanitarian responses to earthquakes in Algeria, Chile, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Peru, and Yugoslavia; to tropical storms in Haiti, Honduras, South Korea, and East Pakistan; to floods in Great Britain, East and West Germany, Guatemala, Mexico, and Vietnam; and to scores of other natural disasters.[24]

The growth and institutionalization of the state’s role in disaster aid across these three decades was the product of both continuity and change. On the one hand, many of the same diplomatic and strategic objectives, financial concerns, and moral impulses that had driven U.S. foreign disaster assistance earlier in the century continued to compel U.S. officials to respond to international catastrophes in the postwar era. On the other hand, fundamental shifts in postwar U.S. international relations gave U.S. policymakers new motivations for formalizing and expanding the state’s humanitarian commitments while simultaneously enhancing their ability to do so. More specifically, confronting the novel challenges of the global Cold War, decolonization, and international development, U.S. officials grew more convinced than ever of the political and economic importance of foreign disaster aid. Now unrivaled in its military, economic, and political strength, and boasting an enormous global military and diplomatic footprint, the postwar U.S. government had unparalleled resources to respond rapidly and vigorously to overseas disasters.

If and when U.S. officials chose to do so, that is. For despite these changes, U.S. policymakers never achieved total consensus on the place foreign disaster assistance should occupy in U.S. foreign affairs. They debated how (and whether) to respond to specific crises, and they continued to argue over the merits of international aid. Broadly speaking, however, postwar American policymakers accepted—and in some cases embraced—the principle of providing disaster assistance to other countries and put this principle into practice on an increasingly consistent basis. As a result, the U.S. government secured its status as the world’s leading donor of bilateral disaster aid.

By the mid-1970s U.S. policymakers were providing millions of dollars’ worth of cash, food, military support, and other aid to dozens of disaster-stricken countries every year.[25] By this same point, much of the bureaucratic and legal apparatus of U.S. foreign disaster assistance that exists today had been erected. The system described in this essay’s introduction, in short, had largely been established.

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. government’s approach to bilateral disaster assistance has naturally continued to evolve.[26] Yet a look back at the historical foundations of this system—born in the early nineteenth century, expanded in the early twentieth century, and institutionalized during the three decades after World War II—reminds us that responding to overseas disasters is hardly a novel U.S. foreign policy activity. To the contrary, it has long been an important element of U.S. international affairs. What, though, will the future hold? Examining how the U.S. government has responded to recent global catastrophes—among them Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean, severe flooding in Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, and the September 2017 earthquake in Mexico City—may offer some clues. By critically analyzing the U.S. responses to these and other contemporary crises—by studying their successes and failures, and by comparing them to historical precedents—we stand to improve the effectiveness and ethics of U.S. foreign disaster assistance, both in our present moment and in the years to come.

This essay draws on research from my current book project, Catastrophic Diplomacy: A History of U.S. Responses to Global Natural Disaster.


JULIA IRIWN is an Assoicate Professor of History at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on the role of humanitarian assistance in twentieth century U.S. foreign relations. She is the author of Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (2013)


[1]Measured by total expenditures, the United States is the world’s largest national donor of emergency aid; measured as a percentage of national income, however, it ranks below many other countries. See “The Biggest Donors of 2016,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, accessed November 5, 2017, https://www.irinnews.org/maps-and-graphics/2016/12/20/biggest-donors-2016.

[2]These include catastrophes triggered by natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tropical storms, floods, or drought, as well as crises engendered by famine, war, and complex humanitarian emergencies. In recent years, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has spent nearly two billion dollars annually on these diverse aid activities. Although this may sound like a considerable amount, it is important to keep these figures in perspective: less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget is devoted to foreign assistance in total; OFDA’s budget, in turn, amounts to roughly 1% of that. See “USAID/OFDA Annual Reports,” United States Agency for International Development, accessed November 5, 2017, https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/working-crises-and-conflict/crisis-response/resources/annual-reports.

[3]For a look at the contemporary system in greater detail, see Rhoda Margesson, International Crises and Disasters: U.S. Humanitarian Assistance Response Mechanisms, CRS Report No. RL33769 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2015), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33769.pdf.

[4]An Act for the Relief of the Citizens of Venezuela, 2 Stat. 730 (1812).

[5]For occasional exceptions, see “List of acts and resolutions of Congress granting relief to the people of foreign nations,” Congressional Record, 60th Cong., 2d sess., 1909, p. 453.

[6]Claims in the preceding two paragraphs draw from my own research, but see also Merle Curti, American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (1963), 1–192.

[7]Brian Balogh, The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (2015). See also Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945 (1982).

[8]Founded in 1881, the ARC received Congressional charters in 1900 and 1905, establishing the ARC’s status as the U.S. government’s official humanitarian auxiliary. Specifically, these charters charged the ARC to “carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace” and with “mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great national calamities.” 1900 Congressional Charter of Incorporation, 31 Stat. (1900), 277–80; and 1905 Congressional Charter of Incorporation, 33 Stat. (1905), 599–602. For the early history of the ARC, see Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal (2013), 1–96.

[9]Julia F. Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (2013), 40–47, 187–91; Julia Irwin, “Connected by Calamity: The United States, the League of Red Cross Societies, and Transnational Disaster Assistance after the First World War,” Moving the Social: Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements, 57 (2017), 57–76.

[10]An Act For the relief of citizens of the French West Indies, PL 57-112, 32 Stat. (1902), 198; An Act For the Relief of Citizens of Italy, PL 60-184, 35 Stat. (1909), 584.

[11]Although most of these responses remained relatively small in scale, the U.S. government occasionally made quite substantial aid commitments. An especially noteworthy example occurred after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, when U.S. officials delivered roughly $8,000,000 worth of army and navy supplies and services to Japan. Col. Charles Burnett, “Report on Relief Activities in Japan,” January 31, 1924, Central Decimal File 894.48 (1910–1929), Records of the Department of State, RG 59, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

[12]Records relating to these (and other) U.S. foreign disaster responses appear in several archival collections at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Although these records are by no means exhaustive, they are a good place to begin conducting primary research. The Central Decimal Files of both the U.S. Department of State (RG 59) and U.S. Foreign Service Posts (RG 84) both contain abundant correspondence on international disasters and calamities, filed under subject number 848. The records of the American National Red Cross (RG 200) also contain ample material on these topics.

[13]Irwin, “Connected by Calamity”; William N. Tilchin, “Theodore Roosevelt, Anglo-American Relations, and the Jamaica Incident of 1907,” Diplomatic History, 19 (Summer 1995): 385–406; Curti, American Philanthropy Abroad, 193–217, 333–54.

[14]It had become a “humanitarian superpower,” to use historian Daniel Maul’s evocative term. Daniel Roger Maul, “The Rise of a Humanitarian Superpower: American NGOs and International Relief, 1917–1945,” in Internationalism, Imperialism and the Formation of the Contemporary World: The Pasts of the Present, ed. Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo and José Pedro Monteiro (2017), 127–46.

[15]Raymond H. Geselbracht, ed., Foreign Aid and the Legacy of Harry S. Truman (2015).

[16]The Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, PL 83-480, 68 Stat. (1954): 454–59. On the first use of this legislation for foreign disaster aid, see Julia F. Irwin, “Raging Rivers and Propaganda Weevils: Transnational Disaster Relief, Cold War Politics, and the 1954 Danube and Elbe Floods,” Diplomatic History, 40 (November 2016), 893–921. See also Kristin L. Ahlberg, Transplanting the Great Society: Lyndon Johnson and Food for Peace (2009), 11–41; Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010).

[17]Operations Coordinating Board, “Foreign Disaster Relief Operations,” September 14, 1956, rev. August 22, 1958, box 1660, Records of the American National Red Cross, RG 200, Series 4, NARA.

[18]Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, PL 87-22 U.S.C. 2371 (1961). For a broader overview of U.S. foreign assistance during this period, see Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (2010).

[19]USAID, “Foreign Disaster Emergency Relief: Introduction and Definition,” M.S. 1562.1, October 9, 1964, box 1660, RG 200, Series 4, NARA. For more on OFDA’s history, see Richard Stuart Olson, “The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID): A Critical Juncture Analysis, 1964–2003,” 2005, accessed November 5, 2017, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pnadc353.pdf.

[20]See International Development and Food Assistance Act of 1975, PL 94-161, 89 Stat. (1975), 849–69.

[21]Rachel M. McCleary, Global Compassion: Private Voluntary Organizations and U.S. Foreign Policy since 1939 (2009); Joshua Hideo Mather, “Citizens of Compassion: Relief, Development, and State-Private Cooperation in U.S. Foreign Relations, 1939–1973,” (Ph.D. diss., St. Louis University, 2015); Heike Wieters, The NGO CARE and food aid from America, 1945–80: ‘Showered with Kindness’? (2017).

[22]ACVFA absorbed many of the regulatory and oversight functions of two Second World War predecessor agencies: the President’s Committee on War Relief Agencies and its successor, the President’s War Relief Control Board, founded in 1941 and 1942 respectively.

[23]First appearing in the 1947 Interim Aid Act, ocean freight subsidies were extended under the 1948 Economic Cooperation Act and then retained as part of the Mutual Security legislation of the early 1950s. Congress first granted voluntary organizations access to surplus food commodities in the Agricultural Act of 1949, later expanding this program as part of PL-480 in 1954. See McCleary, Global Compassion; and Mather, “Citizens of Compassion.”

[24]In addition to consulting the archival collections described in footnote 12, beginning researchers interested in disaster response during the postwar era may wish to consult the Records of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1948–1961 (RG 469) and Records of USAID (RG 286), both housed at NARA, as well as the Records of the American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service (Collection MC 655), housed at Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick, NJ.

[25]OFDA’s annual reports and reports of many of its specific disaster aid operations, which provide basic details on these efforts, have been digitized. These can be found by searching the “Development Experience Clearing House,” USAID, last accessed November 8, 2017, https://dec.usaid.gov/dec/content/search.aspx.

[26]See for example A. Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, and Douglas A. Van Belle, “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1964–1995,” Journal of Politics, 67 (May 2005), 454–73; Alexander Poster, “A Hierarchy of Survival: The United States and the Negotiation of International Disaster Relief, 1981–1989,” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2010). For a discussion of how the international community’s response to disasters evolved over the twentieth century (and how the United States relates to the international system), see Lukas Schemper, “Humanity Unprepared: International Organization and the Management of Natural Disaster (1921–1991)” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2016).