Give Peace a Grant

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1981

Coincident with the election of President Ronald Reagan, a “nuclear freeze” movement sprang up to oppose research and development of nuclear technology, advocate for disarmament, criticize American “belligerence,” resist a general U.S. defense buildup, and vehemently oppose the placement of missiles in Europe to balance Soviet missile growth. In 1981 the movement went public with its first rally and garnered endorsements from pacifist, religious, and union groups. Referenda declaring “nuclear-free zones” were placed on ballots in many cities. The “freeze” agitation peaked in a large 1982 gathering in New York City during a U.N. special session on disarmament, and culminated with inclusion of freeze rhetoric in the Democratic Party platform during the 1984 race for President.

At the heart of these efforts were a handful of major donors, and a new philanthropic entity. From 1974 to 1982 three foundations—Ford, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Rockefeller Family Fund—spent about $7 million to build up anti-nuclear groups. Then in 1981, the Ploughshares Fund was started by an ACLU San Francisco board member who argued that “the threat of nuclear war overshadows everything else.” The fund was established specifically to coordinate donations to disarmament and peace groups, and guide creation of their strategies.

Ploughshares has since channeled more than $100 million to peace groups, making it the largest philanthropy on this topic. It still exists today, its $11 million of 2014 income coming from about 2,000 individuals plus foundations like the Carnegie Corporation, the Compton, Ford, MacArthur, Turner, Rockefeller, and Hewlett foundations, and the Open Society Institute. It re-grants roughly half of its revenue to peace groups, and does some of its own programming with the rest.

Joan Kroc, heiress to the McDonald’s fortune, also became a passionate nuclear disarmer in the 1980s. In 1985 she spent millions on advocacy, including ads in major publications calling for disarmament. She also reprinted and publicly distributed the book Missile Envy by Helen Caldicott. Kroc endowed two major academic centers for “peace studies”—the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and a similar institute at the University of San Diego.