New techniques devised during the 1930s and 1940s gave the sociology of modernization a harder, scientific edge. Demographers discovered the "demographic transition," a sudden drop in birthrate that served as a statistical marker of the arrival of modernity. National incomes accounting, invented by economists during World War II, measured the economic efficiency of nations relative to one another and across time. Talcott Parsons, a Harvard sociologist, served as advocate and symbol of the statistical, comparative turn in the social sciences, sometimes called the "Parsonian revolution." To Parsons, societies and nations were integrated systems that could be disassembled and compared. The results of empirical observations, fed into theoretical models, would allow social scientists to predict the trajectory of a society, and to plot alternate outcomes given the introduction of variables like industry, mass communications, the cash nexus, or Western contact.
Thinking in Washington moved along a parallel track. The experiences of the New Deal and World War II, particularly the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Manhattan Project, reinforced confidence in the ability of science and planning to transform whole societies. Many in the Roosevelt administration believed such work would be essential to achieving a stable peace. David Lilienthal, co-director of the TVA, noted "a definite sequence in history from primitive or non-industrial conditions to more highly developed modern industrial conditions." American assistance could help societies avoid "wasted steps" in the transition. By the end of World War II, a number of suppositions about the nature of modernization were widely shared in academic and philanthropic communities and were gaining attention in government, although they had yet to be codified as theory or policy. Among these were the following precepts:
These ideas served as a template for the management of the decolonizing world. The sudden collapse of the European and Japanese empires following the Allied victory confronted the United States with the immense problem of redirecting the political and economic alignment of two-thirds of the world's population. The Soviet military triumph displayed the fruits of Stalin's industrialization drives, and newly independent regimes looked to the USSR as a model of rapid modernization. New international organizations—the United Nations and the World Bank—lent expertise and institutional backing to the development of postcolonial areas. Nonetheless, the United States faced its greatest problems in Europe and Japan, where reconstruction took first priority. Although the Marshall Plan was often mentioned as the inspiration for later modernization schemes, no attempts were made to duplicate its formula elsewhere. American officials felt its reliance on heavy industry, labor unions, and the welfare state could not be adapted to Asia or Latin America, where more fundamental issues—education, health, low productivity—had to be dealt with. These issues became more imperative as the Cold War intensified. Nationalist China's sudden collapse, despite a hastily arranged aid package, revealed the dangers of failing to address the poverty and corruption that seemed to accelerate the communist advance.
President Harry Truman's dramatic announcement in January 1949 of Point Four, a "bold new program … for the improvement of underdeveloped areas," placed development at the top of the national agenda and simultaneously galvanized a worldwide movement. Like McKinley, Truman contrasted development against "the old imperialism," but he was the first world leader to apply the term "underdeveloped" to the subjects of the modernization process. The confrontation between colonizer and colonized, rich and poor, was, with one rhetorical gesture, replaced by a world order in which all nations were either developed or becoming so. Point Four affirmed the fundamental equality of nations recognized by the United Nations Charter while at the same time licensing interventions on an unprecedented scale.
Truman explicitly linked Point Four to American strategic and economic objectives. Poverty was a threat not just to the poor but to their richer neighbors, he argued, and alleviating misery would assure a general prosperity, lessening the chances of war. Moreover, the "triumphant action" of development superseded the merely ideological conflict of the Cold War. Communism and democracy were different routes to the same destination. Development in this sense was a hegemonic idea, presented not as the best but as the only possible course of action. (David Riesman observed in 1958 that alternatives to the Western and Soviet paths were simply unimaginable.) The response was startling. Truman "hit the jackpot of the world's political emotions," Fortune magazine noted. National delegations lined up to receive planning and assistance that a few years earlier might have been seen as a colonial intrusion.
The assignment of a World Bank technical assistance mission to Colombia in November 1949 reveals how this paradigm shift enabled an entirely new approach to managing the internal affairs of another country. Fifty years earlier it would have required gunboats for European and American creditors to seize Colombia's customhouses, but this delegation of European and American economists took charge of much more—foreign exchange, finance, banking, agriculture, transport, health, education, social welfare, and oil exploration—all at the invitation of the Colombian government, which assured implementation of the delegation's detailed plans. Development justified interventions on a grand scale and made accepting the instructions of foreign advisers the duty of every responsible government.
Point Four officials expected sudden, dramatic results from the introduction of American advice and technology. Norris Dodd, a Point Four agriculture adviser who later headed the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, described the sensation he created in northern Thailand by dispensing a few commonsense suggestions. "If I had been able to stay in that village another few hours," he believed, "we might have changed the fundamental agricultural methods for hundreds of miles around." Truman claimed there were "untold resources" in the underdeveloped regions needing only "somebody who knows the technical approach." He emphasized technology because of its mystique and the absence of alternatives. High rates of return on domestic investment and the chronic imbalance of payments known as the "dollar gap" made it nearly impossible to mobilize private capital for development, but engineering talent could easily be dispatched abroad. Point Four began by sending American engineering firms to Iran, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Korea, where they acted as purchasing agents, identifying applications for American technology and designing industrial, hydroelectric, and chemical plants and public works.