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[Review]: 'Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power'

June 11, 2012


That's the first adjective Inderjeet Parmar uses to describe American philanthropy in his study of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations and their impact on U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century.

Indeed, his startling characterization of what traditionally has been considered a benevolent enterprise is the first of many surprises in this provocative and meticulously researched book, the result of over a decade of research in the archives of all three foundations.

The author, professor of government at the University of Manchester, characterizes his own worldview as "neo-Gramscian," after Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who coined the concept of cultural hegemony, and his central thesis is that, far from being independent "third sector" institutions committed to solving problems of human suffering, the "Big Three" foundations have instead acted as champions of pro-American free-market capitalism and opponents of "nationalistic/leftist philosophies and alliances."

Parmar opens the book with brief histories of the three foundations and biographical sketches of their founders, noting in the case of the latter their shared characteristics as white privileged males "implacably opposed" to organized labor and condescending toward the common man. The trustees of the three foundations over the years similarly are characterized as unrepresentative of the general American population but closely aligned -- in terms of ethnicity, education, and economic status -- with their counterparts in business, government, and academia.

Given that background, Parmar argues, it was natural for American philanthropy to take up pro-American, internationalist causes. For example, starting in the 1930s, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations spearheaded the creation of international relations and area studies programs at elite universities to promote the moral and economic superiority of the United States and, ultimately, prepare it for a war that many thought likely. Through Princeton University's Office of Public Opinion Research, Rockefeller also supported the study and manipulation of public opinion to "engineer the consent of the American people."

After World War II, the three foundations, echoing the worldview promulgated by the American foreign policy establishment, essentially identified any opposition to Western capitalism as "anti-Americanism" and fostered what Parmar calls "elite knowledge networks" comprised of intellectuals at universities, think tanks, government agencies, and media outlets committed "to the maintenance of the existing global hierarchy of power."

Parmar uses three case studies to argue that these networks, supported by the foundations' programs and activities during the Cold War era, were geared not to promote humanitarian causes but "to penetrate foreign societies, economies, and polities and draw them into the American orbit."

First, he contends that by funding the training of pro-capitalist economists and sponsoring ideologically slanted research in Indonesia, the Ford Foundation paved the way for the overthrow of Sukarno, the leader of Indonesia's struggle for independence from the Netherlands and the first president of the country, followed by the rise of Suharto's pro-American military regime in the mid-1960s.

Second, he maintains that in the newly independent Nigeria of the early 1960s, all three foundations worked to promote "a pro-free market 'modernizing' elite, regardless of its levels of corruption and violence," at the expense of their purported mission to reduce poverty and promote equality. At the same time, African-related programs in the U.S. such as the Carnegie-sponsored African Studies Association were characterized by "racism and elitism in excluding black Americans and concentrating resources at a few elite institutions."

Third, he characterizes the activities of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in Chile during the 1970s as at least partially responsible for creating the unfettered free-market mindset that led to the overthrow of Salvador Allende's socialist regime in 1973 by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet.

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, many foundations have adopted the Rockefeller-coined concept of "smart globalization," which Parmar characterizes as putting a more human face on U.S. economic imperialism while ignoring "huge social and economic inequalities within and between nations" and "impoverishment on a massive scale." Similarly, he sees "democratic peace theory," in part legitimized by research and publications funded by the three foundations, as a modern rationale for expanding American influence around the globe, whether through the "democratic enlargement" policy of the Clinton administration, the "war on terror" of the Bush administration, or the national security strategy of the Obama administration.

In short, Parmar sees little reason to believe that American foundations can or will change. While foundation trustees are now more representative of the general population, and while new institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have begun to overshadow the Big Three, Parmar believes that U.S. foundations are "hard-wired" to support the status quo by virtue of the interconnected nature of government, business, academia, and private philanthropy in the U.S. "The overall strategy remains unchanged," he writes, "even as programs and personnel change: Americanized or American-led globalization remains the aim."

So what is the reader to make of Parmar's critique? While polemical in tone, his book is well organized and engagingly written, and its conclusions, however controversial, are based on events that are thoroughly documented, with the author relying heavily on annual reports, internal memoranda, correspondence, and grant reports produced by the three foundations.

The author also makes clear what he is not alleging: he does not accuse anyone of criminality, and he pointedly states that foundations in general neither mandate nor manufacture the results of the research they fund. He also praises foundations' positive contributions in areas such as immunization, health and safety programs, and educational reform.

Still, few would argue the story Parmar tells is balanced. While the evidence he presents is fascinating, particularly concerning the sometimes cozy, sometimes antagonistic relationship between foundations and government entities, those relationships are subject to multiple interpretations. As Parmar himself says, "Knowledge is not neutral — it is thoroughly immersed in the struggle to define the world in particular ways."

With that in mind, Foundations of the American Century is a valuable resource for historians of philanthropy and U.S. foreign policy, as well as anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes activities of the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations from their inception to the present day. At the very least, Parmar raises a number of challenging questions about three storied institutions and longstanding philanthropic practices that many of us take for granted, and he highlights a power dynamic involving foundations and other sectors of society that, "malignant" or not, merits additional exploration.

Chuck Bartelt
Electronic Grant Information Liaison
Foundation Center

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Posted by bradford smith  |   June 14, 2012 at 01:37 PM

Thanks, Chuck, for such a thorough and careful review. It couldn't have been light reading. What struck me most is the way you carefully laid out Parmar's case as he makes it before adding your own critique. His ideological bias is clear but it made me wonder how much we read about philanthropy where the author's ideological bias is not clear. I remember starting out my career at the YMCA where my Hungarian boss edited the word "capitalist" out of a text I had written,saying that: "here in American we don't use the word "capitalist" to describe the economy, we just say "the economy." Your review serves as a good example of how events, even meticulously researched, can be interpreted in very different ways according to the world view of whoever is doing the analyzing.

For a different, though not entirely dissimilar, interpretation see Joan Spero's excellent monograph: "The Global Role of U.S. Foundations http://tinyurl.com/7uwa52o

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