Philanthropists vs. Communism

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1950

During America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, many philanthropists hoped that the confrontation could be settled peacefully through a competition of ideas rather than with weapons. In the end, it was. Early on, the big foundations—Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller—spent tens of millions of dollars creating new “area studies” programs at universities to churn out experts with the language, cultural, and historical skills needed for diplomacy, analysis, popular communications, and intelligence-gathering in communist countries. (See 1952 item on our companion list of achievements in Education.)

Many foundations battled Marxist ideas in partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency. The initial meeting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a group of anti-communist liberals, was held in Berlin in 1950, sponsored by a mix of philanthropic money and CIA grants. “Friends, freedom has seized the offensive!” declared Arthur Koestler, author of the influential book Darkness at Noon and a CCF organizer.

The CCF would thrive over two decades, growing to employ 280 staffers and operating in 35 countries, making the positive case for cultural and economic liberalism. The goal was not only to confront the Soviet Union, but also to fend off communism in countries like Greece and Turkey, and to balance the communist parties that actively vied for influence in elections in France, Italy, and other western European nations. The CCF published a number of anti-communist magazines, including Encounter, a well-read London-based literary journal founded by poet Stephen Spender and intellectual Irving Kristol, whose contributors included individuals like Albert Camus, George Kennan, Isaiah Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Jorge Luis Borges, and V. S. Naipaul.

More than a hundred U.S. foundations worked with the CIA in funding such causes early in the Cold War, out of patriotic duty and alarm over the spread of totalitarianism. When parts of the American press began to criticize these efforts in the later 1960s, CIA funds dried up and foundations began to refuse to cooperate, especially as liberals abandoned anti-communism during the Vietnam War. Much of the intellectual capital that allowed the West to successfully resist the spread of communist governance, however, was built up during the opening stages of the Cold War by this quiet partnership between philanthropists and intelligence analysts.

  • Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (Free Press, 1989)
  • Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New Press, 1999)
  • Philanthropy magazine history,