How American Philanthropies and the U.S. Government Turned Higher Education Into a Cold War Chess Piece

In the generation after World War II, as the world was dragged into the Cold War, the major American philanthropic organizations and the U.S. government underwrote a vast transformation in the production of knowledge at universities in the United States and elsewhere.

While the main thrust of governmental funding went toward the kind of scientific research and development capable of producing “the Bomb,” a substantial (if overshadowed) subset of governmental and philanthropic resources were directed toward other educational concerns: developing a greater understanding of non-Western cultures at home while binding those cultures closer to us by subsidizing American-style education abroad.

In the United States, major research universities were the first institutions funded for the purpose of expanding and re-orienting non-Western fields of inquiry. From this funding emerged the modern fields of area studies with their focus on the culture and history of particular regions. Shortly thereafter, developing nations in Africa received American funding to establish and expand their university systems as part of an American effort to stabilize the inherently fractious decolonization and independence periods of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Why did the Big Three philanthropic funds – The Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations – put so much effort into stabilizing Africa and what did they hope to achieve? The answer lies in the fact that that bi-polar and global fight known as the Cold War manifested itself just as frequently as a struggle for hearts and minds as it did on the battlefield. The evidence is overwhelming that all three foundations were motivated to act by foreign policy concerns surrounding the new international role of the American superpower, concerns arising during the Second World War and crystallizing in its fight with the Soviet Union. In this context, the foundations worked in unison with the federal government to pour money into new area studies programs in the U.S. and liberal educations in Africa.

To understand this move, you have to understand the context in which it was made, in the era of African independence. The African independence movements – 27 in all between 1960 and 1965 – occurred at the height of the Cold War. More than a decade into the global standoff by the time of the first major declarations of independence in Africa, the United States and the Soviet Union had already demonstrated their willingness to globalize their dispute.

By 1960, the United States had: already fought the 1950 proxy war in Korea to defend the containment policy of the Truman Doctrine; increasingly meddled in third-party nation’s affairs, as evidenced by the CIA-backed coup of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953; used Radio Free Europe to encourage uprisings against the Soviets in Hungary in 1956; and shown a desire to compete with the Soviets outside of the military arena, including the brain-measuring contest that was the space race.

Given the tendency of this dispute to be expressed in many forms and to involve third-parties, it should come as no surprise that when Africa went through the dramatic and extensive turmoil that it experienced in the late 1950s and early 1960s – replete with ever-shifting power dynamics, brutality, and unpredictability – that it became a Cold War battleground.

The Governmental Origins of Modern Area Studies

Back in the 1940s, most Americans lacked even basic knowledge about regions outside of the United States and Europe. More surprisingly, the same can be said about academics.

As of 1940, American universities had conferred less than 60 doctorates to candidates specializing in the non-Western world, and the vast majority of those were awarded to individuals studying the ancient world.[vi] According to Immanuel Wallerstein — Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, former Distinguished Professor of Sociology at SUNY Binghamton, and former member of the Board of Directors of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) — there were just two academic disciplines with a focus lying outside of the West prior to World War II: anthropology, which was limited to the study of “tribal” groups; and Oriental studies, which examined non-Western “high civilizations.” In other words, up until this time, there was a dearth of any American expertise outside of the West, which entailed the virtual nonexistence of what would later be known as “area specialists” – academics with expertise pertaining to modern cultures outside of the West.

World War II marked the beginning of a shift in outlook that would produce a vast transformation in the subjects of study at American universities. During the war, the Army created the Foreign Area and Language Curricula of the Army Specialized Training Program for enlisted men and the Civil Affairs Training Schools for officers. These “area training programs” were designed to teach familiarity with the geography and languages of foreign regions at a time when it was becoming clear both that the postwar world would be subject to much upheaval and that the United States would play a major role internationally.

It was during the war that many future professors would be first introduced to area studies through these programs. What’s more, of the few specialists already in existence at the time, many served as intelligence analysts for the CIA-predecessor Office of Strategic Services (OSS) or prepared officers for postwar reconstruction efforts abroad.

This intermingling of academics and the military is a motif throughout the postwar period. The most blatant example of this “Military-Intellectual Complex” is the ill-fated Operation Camelot. In 1964, the U.S. Department of the Army-funded Special Operations Research Office at American University received as much as $6 million to conduct a study codenamed “Project Camelot.” The stated aim of the study, as Wallerstein puts it on his website, was to “make it possible to predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in the developing nations of the world” including “those actions which a government might take to relieve conditions which are assessed as giving rise to a potential for internal war.”

In the same year as race riots in Harlem, the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution giving the President war powers in Vietnam, and as the Congo Crisis deepened, the Army sought to learn how to repel insurgency, and it asked area specialists to put their newfound expertise to use. There would never be a more obvious indication of the Cold War origins of area studies. Facing public scrutiny over the project, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara canceled the study in July 1965.

African Studies

Unlike the overarching field of area studies, African Studies is not a child of World War II. The field’s roots stretch back to 1870 at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCAUs). But Tufts Professor of African Political Science Pearl T. Robinson cites Howard University’s hiring of Leo Hansberry, professor of African civilizations and cultures, in 1922 as the beginning of a “coherent approach” toward the subject, as Hansberry engineered an African Civilization Section in the history department there.

The subject gained momentum in the interwar period when HBCAUs made courses on colonial and ancient Africa more commonplace. However, HBCAU African Studies programs were effectively marginalized in the 1940s because they were unable to compete with the generous funding given to major research universities when the field began to flourish after the war. For example, when in 1953 Ford funded the new graduate-level African Studies Program at Boston University, it simultaneously provided funding for Howard University to establish its own graduate program. BU received $1.2 million in 1953 and Howard University was awarded a combined $70,000 between 1954 and 1962.

Nonetheless, much like area studies, World War II proved to be a turning point for African Studies, when government agencies began calling upon the service of Africanists for information about African colonies of “strategic military importance” only to learn there were very few with expertise relevant to their modern-day concerns.

Thus, when the OSS recruited Howard University’s Africanist scholar Ralph Bunche, his specialization in African political science rendered him “the only American scholar of Africa deemed fully prepared to meet the academic requirement of this sensitive national security assignment.” The assignment entailed “provid[ing] the President and key military officials with the information necessary to fight the war,” which in Bunche’s case meant studying African colonialism and race relations in contemporary Africa.

Recognizing the need for more experts, in 1941 former University of Pennsylvania professor Conyers Read was working for the OSS when he convened the Committee on African Studies at Penn. This organization was charged with researching modern Africa from the perspective of political science, economics, linguistics, geography, earth sciences, and botany, laying the foundations for the interdisciplinary approach of future graduate programs. With that, the research institutions signaled their readiness to begin their ascent to the forefront of African Studies, which would be modernized to meet governmental foreign policy objectives.

African Studies were a part of the postwar funding boom for area studies, but not right away. In 1943, the Carnegie and Ford-funded SSRC convened its Committee on World Regions, from which arose a report recommending the expansion of area specialists and which also established a list of nations to be prioritized: China, Japan, and Latin America. At the onset of the Cold War in 1945, Harvard’s Committee on Education Policy issued a report shuffling the priorities to the Soviet Union and China. When the SSRC convened again for its Committee on World Area Research in 1947, it explained the hierarchies established by the earlier committees (as recorded in Wallerstein’s Unintended Consequences):

Of course motivation for the development of programs is not uniform for all areas; it differs in both character and strength. The relative power of an area is one important consideration…Another consideration lies in the level of culture existing in an area. Presumably we have more to gain from the study of China or India than we have from, say, the Congo Basin or New Guinea. Nevertheless, the long-run aim should be that once the more important areas are taken care of, or at the same time where opportunity is favorable, we should move rapidly toward filling out the map.

This quote makes clear that the SSRC understood its project in political terms, as “need” is defined in part by “relative power,” but it also reveals a conception of culture as existing in “levels” whereby one culture can be more sophisticated, and therefore more “important,” than another. Thus, it was desirable to “fill up the map” not because academics could hope to gain any intellectual benefit from it; the SSRC’s elitism precludes that interpretation. Rather, it was desirable because uncultured nations were still politically important amidst a global cold war.

The development of area studies in American universities followed this hierarchical scheme. The Rockefeller Foundation funded the first postwar program in 1945: the Russian Institute at Columbia University, which was followed shortly by the Carnegie Corporation-funded Russian Research Center at Harvard in 1948. It was not until the Ford Foundation began its massive funding campaigns in 1952 that the money reached the lower echelons of the priority list, trickling down to the people confident enough that they could uncover a sufficient “level of culture” in such regions as the Congo.

The Geopolitics of Foundation Funding

The scholars I have mentioned are in agreement that the modern field of area studies was born out of concerns about foreign policy in World War II, feelings which only grew stronger with the onset of the Cold War.

In the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. government sought to “contain” Communism, that is, prevent new nations from adopting a Communist system of social organization. This took on special importance in the so-called developing nations, which, thanks in part to the 1945 United Nations Charter supporting self-determination, were thusly determining their own systems of governance.

What were the reasons for Containment? With respect to the developing world there may have been an underlying prejudicial rationale: overwhelming concern that these nations could fall prey to Communism; the hierarchy that placed regions like Africa at the bottom because they were less “cultured” (read, “less sophisticated”); and the decision to build new African Studies programs from the ground up rather than extend the existing ones at HBCAUs all suggest that government officials really did have something to learn about non-Western, non-white peoples.

But foreign policy concerns were not limited to government agencies. They were pervasive among academic councils and the philanthropic foundations.

Certain documents provide the hard evidence to corroborate this consensus. The aforementioned 1943 SSRC Committee provided a report stating that “the present war has focused attention on…areas over which we have felt little or no concern. The immediate need for social scientists who know the different regions of the world stands second only to the demand for military and naval officers familiar with…combat zones.”

This sentiment is echoed by this statement from its 1947 report: “National welfare in the postwar period more than ever before requires a citizenry well informed as to other peoples.” Likewise, a 1949 Ford Foundation study cited the need for knowledge of developing countries on the basis that “rapid change of industrialization and war might produce dislocations and breakdowns in societies around the world.” In the postwar period, area studies was conceived as a tool for acquiring knowledge to remedy potential political problems in a world in which America envisioned its national welfare to be tied up in the political constitutions of all foreign nations.

Besides acknowledging the political nature of their efforts in these reports, foundation actions also reflected their political concerns. There was a close connection between foundation interests and those of the government, as the foundations provided the funds for the area studies programs that the army had first found necessary. The Ford Foundation became the single largest donor, contributing over $270 million to area studies between 1951 and 1966. Ford dispersed these resources to fifteen research universities across the country and through its Foreign Area Fellowship Program (FAFP), which funded over 2,000 social science/humanities doctoral students during this period. This kind of support freed federal funds for scientific research without the government having to sacrifice any of the academic personnel it desired.

Further evidence of foundations’ political concerns? In the early stages of the Cold War, when there was a paucity of understanding about the modern composition of nearly all foreign cultures, these agencies worked to quickly set up the most pressing programs: Russian and Soviet studies. Their rationale was obvious and simple: Know your enemy. After the expansion of area studies in the early 1950s, though, this credo was modified to read: Know everyone to fight your enemy.


In addition to the sources mentioned in the text, this article cites the following books, articles, and papers. For specific endnotes and more details, see the full version of this paper here.

Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005).

Brian White, “Book reviews,” Higher Education, Vol. 35, No. 4 (1998).

J.F Ade Ajayi, Lameck K.H. Goma, G. Ampah Johnson, The African Experience with Higher Education, (Association of African Universities: Ghana, 1996).

David L. Szanton, introduction to The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines. 4. ed. David L. Szanton. (UC Press, 2002; Global, Area, and International Archive).

Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Unintended Consequences of Cold War Area Studies,” in The Cold War and the University System, ed. Noam Chomsky (New York: New York Press, 1997).

David Engerman, “Rethinking Cold War Universities: Some Recent Histories,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2003).

Pearl T. Robinson, “Area Studies in Search of Africa,” in Politics of Knowledge.

Rebecca S. Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “African Studies and Universities since Independence: the challenges of epistemic and institutional decolonization,” Transition 101, no. 1 (2009).

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