Olmsted Scholars Program

  • Education
  • 1959

Even the quintessential government responsibility of national defense turns out to have elements where private giving can solve needs more effectively than state action. Retired general and successful businessman George Olmsted identified just such a niche. His service during World War II had required many delicate cultural judgments and political negotiations with allies and opponents in the China-Burma-India-Japan theaters. He was, for instance, given responsibility for making sure that as the Japanese surrender neared the commandants of their prisoner-of-war camps did not slaughter American prisoners as a face-saving action under Japan’s bushido martial code. Olmsted’s elaborate culture-based solution included parachuting teams of seven unarmed men into each camp, who informed the Japanese commanders by name that they would be held personally responsible for the safety of all prisoners.

After becoming wealthy building a string of insurance companies and banks after the war, Olmsted and his wife formed a charitable foundation to deepen the international savvy and judgment of military leaders so they could better navigate the kinds of dilemmas he faced in wartime. General Olmsted focused his trust tightly on funding intensive overseas immersions of active-duty military officers in two years of foreign language and culture training. The program was later expanded to also support shorter foreign-study immersions by cadets at U.S. military academies and future officers in the ROTC program.

To date, 601 active-duty officers have done full two-year stints in more than 50 countries as Olmsted Scholars, becoming deeply familiar with the people, history, and institutions of strategic countries like China, Egypt, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. These have included men and women like John Abizaid, who spent two years learning Arabic and Arab culture at the University of Jordan as a young officer and Olmsted Scholar—skills that he later drew upon heavily as CentCom commander during the Iraq war.