Not So Cuddly


McGeorge Bundy with John F. Kennedy

by Inderjeet Parmer

“SWITZERLAND EXPOSED,” screamed the title of a book I happened to see recently, drawing a wry smile, and a feeling of “you can’t be serious!” That’s the usual response when people hear about my new research on American philanthropic foundations, which argues that they are not so “cuddly” a bunch as their image suggests. Although they do contribute to society in positive ways, my research over the past decade and a half, revealed in Foundations of the American Century (Columbia University Press, 2012), shows that the big U.S. foundations—Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie—made fundamental contributions to America’s rise to global leadership, a global imperium sometimes more benignly promoted as the “American century.”

This includes some of the darkest chapters in American foreign policy: hubristically guiding economic development policies that exacerbated problems in the newly independent Nigeria and played a role in its slide into civil war; sponsoring and guiding opponents of the leftist Sukharno administration in Indonesia and contributing to the bloodshed that accompanied the rise of the right-wing militarist Suharto regime; and funding and training right wing economists as well as their centrist and even leftist opponents in Chile as it careened into the bloody military coup of 1973.

Widely perceived as major sources of America’s power of attraction, its “soft power”, the foundations’ own records, open and broadly accessible to academic researchers, show in great detail that beneath a glossy, liberal, philanthropic exterior, the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations had a far more sinister side: a fist in the velvet glove. As with Switzerland, when we get past the obvious images, these prove to be deeply political, ideological, and well-connected establishment organizations with links all the way up to the U.S. State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council. Ford’s President McGeorge Bundy, for example, was formerly national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and a Vietnam War hawk.

John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was a Rockefeller Foundation trustee and a Carnegie president, instrumental in overthrowing the Mossadegh administration in Iran in 1953. But this not really so surprising when we consider their founders and origins: steeped in the rise of U.S. corporate capitalism, violent anti-unionism, and political corruption, particularly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Their original founders were industrialists and manufacturers, linked to big banks and finance houses like JP Morgan and Chase Manhattan. Their boards of trustees were, and are, drawn from a relatively narrow section of society: lawyers, elite university administrators and presidents, corporate executives, media magnates, former public officials. Although globalization appears to have broadened the recruitment of trustees—there are now more women, people of color, and foreign nationals—they remain elitist, technocratic, and top-down, pro-American organizations.

In Chile, the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, consciously and deliberately joined U.S. government efforts to undermine and marginalize “dependency” theory, which animated the economic and financial policies of many South American states by holding foreign investments from the United States responsible for poverty and underdevelopment. This long-term program, later also supported by the Ford Foundation, helped fund the infamous “Chicago boys” from the private Catholic University in Santiago, who were Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of the ultimate free trader and monetarist Milton Friedman. In the long-run, U.S. foundations, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), built networks of power that led to General Pinochet’s coup against the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, and the execution, arrest, torture, and exile of tens of thousands of Chileans.


Trygve Lie, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recieves a check for $8,500,000 from John D. Rockefeller III, for the purchase of the 6-block Manhattan East River site where the United Nations will build its permanent Headquarters. From The New York Times, 25 March 1947

Since the end of the Cold War, however, U.S. foundations have continued to affect U.S. foreign policy and the development and direction of globalization. Foundation networks were central, for example, in elevating and refining what has become the central rationale of U.S. national security strategy since the collapse of the Soviet threat: democratic peace theory (that democracies do not fight one another), as embodied in the Bush doctrine as well as in the policies of the Obama administration.

There’s been a great expansion in the number of U.S. foundations, the variety of grant-making activities, and total philanthropic assets. Since 1987 the number of foundations in the United States has grown from 28,000 to about 50,000, and these new foundations hold some of the enormous recent growth in American wealth. Their assets have expanded from $115 billion in 1987 to over $300 billion today. Their international giving also topped $3 billion in 2002. Record increases in international philanthropic giving have been recorded since the mid-1990s, prompted by a strong world economy and the rise of new fortunes, especially Bill Gates’s Microsoft Corporation and his accompanying foundation. Indeed, the Gates Foundation, like the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations that it takes as its role models, has been accused of high-handed interventions in Africa in the name of treating disease. Bypassing local healthcare systems and governments, and frequently distributing drugs not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Gates stands accused of an overweening imperial attitude—summed up by the term “philanthro-capitalism”—which is about as ugly as it sounds.

Foundations of the American Century argues that the foundations’ global posture started before the water’s edge—at home, especially in America’s elite universities where area studies and international relations programs were pioneered—to spread “knowledge” about areas of strategic or economic value to the United States and as a first step in their incorporation into America’s expanding spheres of influence. American power is multilayered, complex and sophisticated; it is also highly adaptive, smart, and restless. And, like Switzerland, is in dire need of deconstruction.


About the Author:

Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at Manchester University. He is currently serving as Vice Chair of the British International Studies Association, and co-editor of a book series, Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy. His research interests focus on the history, politics and sociology of Anglo-American foreign policy elites over the past 100 years, specifically embodied in organisations such as philanthropic foundations, think tanks, policy research institutes, university foreign affairs institutes, and state agencies. He is the author of Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power.