The Foundation Statesmen

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Inderjeet Parmar. Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power. Columbia University Press, 2012.

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his oath of office, he inherited control of a vast country with a booming population, abundant resources, the world’s largest economy, and next to nothing in the way of central government. At a time when other industrialized nations were erecting welfare states, the United States still lacked the capacity to tax most of its citizens. Its roads were mostly unpaved, its rail lines lay in private hands, its central banking system was rudimentary (a condition that had exacerbated the Depression), and local authorities – not the federal government – ran the schools and kept the peace. Foreign relations were no better. The US had entered World War I late and retreated immediately afterward, declining to claim the geopolitical spoils of the war and refusing to join the League of Nations.

How such an underdeveloped government became a leader in world affairs is something of a mystery. Where did it gain the capacity and unity of vision to become, if not a global empire, then something very much like it? How did it formulate and then act on a grand geopolitical strategy that required massive aid deployments, substantial foreign expertise, and military interventions throughout the globe? These questions are all the more puzzling because, domestically, the federal government would remain weak for decades after World War I, crippled by an entrenched and recalcitrant group of politicians who feared that any aggrandizement of the state might interfere with white supremacy in the South.

An intriguing explanation of how the US Government, politically hamstrung at home, could act with force and purpose abroad is contained in Inderjeet Parmar’s excellent Foundations of the American Century. Throughout the 20th century, Parmar argues, the weak state was supplemented by private foundations, which took on many of the functions of government. Unelected, unaccountable, and for the most part unchecked, these foundations channeled billions of dollars into positioning the United States as a world power. Immune to the vicissitudes of democratic politics, they functioned as a shadow government, implementing the goals of what C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” the men of affairs who moved easily from corporate boardrooms to high-ranking government office, often in or around the State Department.

These men had money, often more of it than they knew how to spend. The endowments of the big three foundations – Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford – were drawn from the immense profits of the oil, steel, and auto industries. In part, the founding of these philanthropic institutions was a public relations strategy. John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, still the first and second wealthiest men in history, had both been targeted by the press after turning armed strikebreakers on their employees. Henry Ford, the seventh richest, at first was hailed as a new kind of industrialist, deriving his profits from technical and sociological innovation rather than from naked power grabs. But after his men opened fire on a march of laid-off workers at River Rouge in 1932, killing five and seriously injuring nineteen, Ford, too, found himself the object of public scorn. (The “despot of Dearborn” is what Edmund Wilson called him, and that same year Aldous Huxley envisioned a dystopian society run on Fordist principles in Brave New World). Four years later, Ford established his own foundation, to which he and his son, Edsel, bequeathed 90 percent of the Ford Motor Company’s stock. After Ford’s death in 1947, nearly all of the profits of his firm, one of the world’s largest, went to the Ford Foundation. The result was a form of public expenditure for which there was no public oversight.

The money itself, though substantial, never threatened to surpass the size of the federal budget. What was important was how it was spent. The trustees of the large foundations comprised a cozy group of men – well-heeled, white, and Protestant – who were raised in the same milieu, attended the same colleges (over half graduated from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale), and belonged to the same social clubs. Such men could not help but share a worldview, and for most of 20th century there was no one in the room to argue the other side. Internally united and externally unimpeded, they acted with a speed and resolve that was impossible for elected politicians. While government officials mired themselves in political debates, foundation leaders acted: they commissioned research, trained students, launched pilot projects, cultivated allies among foreign governments, and built networks of experts. By the time the government overcame its inertia on an issue, it found a smooth and well-marked trail stretching ahead through the wilderness.

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