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  • The Power Elite
  • Nicole Sackley (bio)
Inderjeet Parmar. Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. ix + 356 pp. Notes and index. $40.00.

In February 1941, influential Time-Life publisher Henry Luce prevailed upon his fellow Americans to “create the first great American century” by embracing what he imagined to be America’s destiny as the leader of nations. By the close of the Second World War, Luce’s vision of a Pax Americana had come to fruition: the United States dominated the globe in economic, cultural, and military terms. U.S. foreign policy revolved, and in many respects continues to revolve, around maintaining that dominance. The “American Century” might also be termed the philanthropists’ century. Beginning in the 1930s, the largest U.S. foundations—the Carnegie Corporation of New York (founded 1911), the Rockefeller Foundation (1913), and the Ford Foundation (1936)—initiated and expanded the reach of their international activities and ambitions. They opened field offices and sponsored a vast array of projects on nearly every continent, from Soviet expertise at Harvard to agricultural science in India. The Ford Foundation, the most ambitious and wealthiest of the “Big Three,” encapsulated the breadth of philanthropic internationalism when it declared that its mission was nothing short of the “advancement of human welfare.”

Over the past decade, scholars have begun to write the international history of the foundations. Influenced by the transnational turn in U.S. history as well as growing interdisciplinary interest in the role of non-state actors on the world stage, scholars such as Sunil Amrith, Volker Berghahn, Mary Brown Bullock, Anne-Emmanuelle Birn, Matthew Connelly, David Ekbladh, David Engerman, and John Krige have treated U.S. foundations as important international players. Some of these scholars have focused on foundations’ efforts in particular regions or nations. Others have shown how Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford helped to construct new global problems (underdevelopment, hunger, population control) as well as the transnational networks through which particular approaches to those problems emerged and came to dominate international practice. All of the new work has been grounded in close analysis of foundation records. What we have lacked is a full accounting of the evolution of the [End Page 121] U.S. foundations’ ideologies and international grant-making in the context of a changing world order and of particular conditions in the field. We also need a study that looks closely at the relationship between foundations and the state over the course of the twentieth century.

In both respects, Inderjeet Parmar’s new book addresses critical lacunae in our understanding of the foundations. One wishes it were more successful at filling them. Foundations of the American Century examines the efforts by the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations to shape and support U.S. foreign policy from the 1930s through the “war on terror.” Parmar makes three claims about the foundations’ relationship to U.S. foreign policy. First, the largest foundations were, and remain, central players in a hegemonic and homogenous East Coast foreign policy establishment. Second, the foundations played a critical role in moving elite U.S. public opinion away from isolationism and toward internationalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, elite transnational knowledge networks were the foundations’ key contribution to building a postwar “American imperium” (p. 2). Founded and fostered with foundation largesse, these networks served to incorporate and co-opt European and third-world elites into U.S. foreign policymakers’ worldview.

Parmar is a political scientist, one who is particularly interested in the relationship between non-state actors and state power. The first chapter of Foundations of the American Century characterizes and compares “mainstream” scholarship on the foundations to Parmar’s own theoretical framework. Parmar depicts a dominant scholarly narrative in which the foundations are characterized as wholly benign, objective, and selfless forces in the international arena—“above politics and ideology, beyond big business and the state, and part of a third sector above and independent of both” (p. 24). To Parmar, this is a “fiction” (p. 5) easily refuted by ample evidence that, in fact, the foundations belong to, and reliably serve, “the power elite of...


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