When the time comes for a historian to write a definitive history of foundations in the 20th century, at least one chapter will have to be set aside for the activities of the Ford Foundation in the 1960s. If you want to see the legacy of Ford from that era, just look around you—public interest law firms, the modern environmental movement, the Public Broadcasting Service, and many black and Hispanic activist groups were all created by Ford program officers and showered with Ford grants.
But there’s been very little scholarly research on whether or not Ford’s grants improved our country and our culture. Historians interested in Ford’s activities will find some interesting material in Kai Bird’s dual biography of McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), who headed the Ford Foundation between 1966 and 1979, and his brother William Bundy (born in 1917).
Politically, Bird is a man of the Left. He explains in a preface that his first encounter with Bundy came in 1972, when he and a group of Carleton College student protesters (accompanied by an obscure government professor named Paul Wellstone) accosted Bundy during a campus visit. At the time, Bundy was lavishing $200 million a year on various liberal causes. “We would probably have been surprised to learn how much of this [Ford] money Bundy was funneling to black power advocates in the civil rights movement, environmentalists and public-interest law groups around the country,” Bird writes. “But we knew little and cared less for McGeorge Bundy’s good works. All that interested us about this man was his complicity in a senseless and therefore immoral war that had divided America.”
Occasionally, Bird’s politics lead him to some dubious conclusions. He argues, for example, that Ford’s creation of such public-interest law firms as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Women’s Law Fund “dramatically enhanced the power of the genuinely powerless—the poor, minorities, women and citizens groups determined to protect the environment.” This despite the fact that such groups have probably done more to benefit trial lawyers, and well-connected minority group members and bureaucrats than to improve the lives of the poor.
But most of the time, Bird is a fair and judicious scholar, not an ideologue. The Color of Truth is based on a mountain of archival material, thanks in part to a MacArthur Foundation grant that enabled Bird to hire twelve researchers to dig in various archives. Anyone interested in McGeorge Bundy or the times in which he lived will find The Color of Truth enjoyable reading.
Bird is understandably more interested in Bundy’s career in politics than his role as a foundation executive. Bundy spent 13 years as Ford Foundation president and five years as national security adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but Bird devotes about three times as much space to Bundy’s career as a presidential adviser than to his life in the nonprofit world. Of course, Bundy’s intimate involvement in such episodes as the Cuban missile crisis and the early years of the Vietnam War is inherently more interesting to the general reader than his second career reviewing grant proposals. Still, it’s a shame Bird did not spend a little more time examining Bundy’s years running Ford.
Throughout the book, Bird drops interesting clues to Bundy’s intellectual development. Bundy’s father, Harvey Bundy, was a disciple of Henry Stimson. Stimson, who served as President Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, is little-known today. But politically, Stimson believed both in a strong commitment by the United States to stop aggression overseas while simultaneously denouncing wealth and privilege at home. McGeorge Bundy, who served both as an aide to Stimson and as ghostwriter of Stimson’s memoirs, adopted Stimson’s views on foreign and domestic policy and became an anti-Communist liberal with views similar to those of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey, or Joseph Alsop. Bundy was firmly committed to stopping communism, but was equally firm in his support of the welfare state.
Thus, while dean of Harvard University between 1953-1960, Bundy made sure that Harvard denied tenure to two assistant professors who were admitted communists. Yet in 1951, Bundy gleefully accepted an assignment from The Atlantic Monthly to attack William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Buckley, Bundy charged, was a “twisted and ignorant young man.” Buckley, in turn, ridiculed Bundy as a “haughty totalitarian” and a “Court Hatchet-Man.”
When it came time to head the Ford Foundation, Bundy made a few grants to anti-Communist groups. But most of the time Ford, under Bundy’s leadership, reflexively gave to the Left. Bird fairly and thoroughly explores the monuments that Ford helped create. Ford money proved to be a catalyst that pushed environmental groups away from their traditional conservationist goals and towards an environmentalism grounded in regulation by an ever-expanding State. As alluded to previously, Ford funds also helped a few isolated educational television stations unite and form the Public Broadcasting Service.
But Bird does not appear to have a firm grasp on foundation history, so he does not place Ford Foundation events in a proper context. For example, he correctly argues that congressional anger at the Ford Foundation’s decision in 1968 to give grants to some members of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s staff (including Peter Edelman and Frank Mankiewicz) led to the restrictions on foundations implemented in the Tax Reform Act of 1969. But it’s clear that there were many reasons why Congress chose to investigate foundations in the 1960s. Some congressmen, most notably Texas Democrat Wright Patman, thought foundations were a pool of untaxed wealth controlled by the rich. Popular critiques of foundations, such as Philip Stern’s 1964 book The Rape of the Taxpayer, also fueled congressional ire. Thus the causes of congressional criticism of foundations are more diverse than Bird makes them out to be.
Moreover, Bird provides little examination of the results of Ford’s spending. Overall, the foundation believed that in welfare and education programs, it was a good idea to devolve power and funding to communities, a process known as “community control.” But to advance this goal, Ford often funded nonprofits that made matters worse.
For example, in New York City, Ford funded grants to the neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville to give it some control of its local public schools. Handled properly, this grant could have ultimately led to charter schools. But Ford gave money to black radicals, who promptly fired a dozen white, Jewish teachers. The result was the brutal New York City teachers’ strike of 1967-1968, whose ultimate result was to make long-time American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker a national figure and to ensure that public schools continued to remain centralized, monolithic institutions.
Nor does Bird explore Bundy’s fateful decision not to cut Ford Foundation grants during the bear market of 1972-1974. This decision ensured that, under Bundy’s tenure, the Ford Foundation lost a billion dollars of endowment. When Bundy became Ford Foundation president, the foundation had just over $3 billion in assets; when he left, that had been reduced to just over $2 billion. Had Bundy not decided to “spend down,” the foundation might now be a colossus dominating the foundation world, not simply a large foundation that has been eclipsed in size by the Lilly Endowment.
The Color of Truth is a thoughtful preliminary look at the Ford Foundation’s legacy. But much more work remains to be done before that chapter in the definitive history of American foundations can be written.
Martin Morse Wooster, a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, is researching the Ford Foundation for a work in progress about foundations and public policy.