Abstract: The Cold War as a Business Opportunity: Metal Traders and PL480

Espen Storli


In 1954 the U.S. Congress enacted the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, popularly known as Public Law (PL) 480. The aims of the act were wide-ranging and directed at both internal and external political issues. Not only was this legislation meant to increase the consumption of U.S. agricultural surplus commodities in the world (and thereby aid U.S. farmers); the American food was also to be used as an instrument to improve U.S. foreign relations with other countries by selling it in local currencies and not in scarce dollars, or by giving it away as aid. In addition, PL480 opened up the possibility of selling U.S. agricultural products for foreign strategic raw materials to be stockpiled. Though the law was meant as an instrument of state policy, private business interests soon realized the opportunities inherent in the new legislation. Section 309 and 310 of the law made it possible to barter agricultural commodities for strategic materials for the stockpile, and a handful of U.S. trading companies started to exchange, for example, U.S. grain, tobacco, and cotton for Turkish chrome, Indian manganese, or Bolivian tin. Significant sums were involved, and the business on the American side was financed through the U.S. government. Very little has been known about these PL480 barter deals, but this paper will argue that in their heyday between 1954 and 1961 they were significant in shaping U.S. relations with foreign powers in this important period of the Cold War. In addition, these deals were essential for the business development of a string of U.S. metal-trading companies, foremost among them Philipp Brothers of New York, which in this period developed as the world's dominant metal trader.