How donors helped win a war of ideas and how they can do it again

The Cold War was fought on many fronts. The Soviet Union and the United States, their allies and proxies, contested each other across the globe—and beyond. It was fought on the frozen tundra of the Korean peninsula and in the sweltering jungles of Southeast Asia, on the white-sand beaches of Caribbean islands and on the snow-capped peaks of the Khyber Pass. American and Soviet nuclear submarines tracked each other hundreds of feet below the seas, as did their spacecraft thousands of miles above the earth.

Perhaps most importantly, the Cold War was fought in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. It was an ideological struggle, with two visions of the future competing for humanity’s allegiance. The triumph of freedom required the thorough repudiation of the Marxist idea. Many actors contributed to that victory—including, as too few people remember, the American philanthropic sector.

That ideological struggle bears important lessons for today. The United States is once again engaged in an ideological struggle: in the seven years since the attacks of September 11th, it has become clear that the most consequential theater of operations is the battle for the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. We now face a determined group of extremists who use Islam as a pretext for committing violence and oppression. Against these extremists, we must bolster support for the principles of pluralism, tolerance, and democracy—among Muslims, among our allies, and among ourselves.

Once again, the American philanthropic community has the opportunity to help win the war of ideas.

Waging Ideological War Today

The Cold War similarities to the current era, while imperfect, are instructive. A better understanding of the activities intended to shape ideas during the Cold War can serve as a useful starting point for thinking about how to build and sustain programs designed to counter the ideas espoused and spread by today’s radical Islamists.

The United States has been drawn into a struggle between two competing ideologies within the Islamic world. One camp argues that Islam is compatible with secular democracy and basic civil liberties. The second espouses an intolerant vision of Islam which abides no other religion and rejects freedom of expression, tolerance, and respect for basic human rights.

Consider Indonesia, the fourth most populous country on earth, where over 85 percent of the population is Muslim. Since the ouster of the Suharto dictatorship 10 years ago, Indonesia has benefited from democratic forces but also suffered from the rise of Muslim radicalism. Many of the radical groups want to establish an Islamic state—what Abu Bakar Bashir calls an “Allah-ocracy, not a democracy.” Bashir was one of the key leaders behind the 2005 Bali bombings, who continues to insist that, “Islam and democracy can never coexist.” Against such radicals, public and private enterprises need to cultivate moderating forces in Muslim countries around the world.

The United States did so, to great effect, during the Cold War, by engaging the enemy in a war of ideas on multiple battlegrounds. Some of these ideological battles involved broad public opinion, with the goal of undermining support for communism and bolstering support for democratic capitalism. Other efforts focused on the intelligentsia, with programs targeted at intellectuals in the United  States, in allied countries, and even in the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. Moreover, there were efforts to strengthen America’s knowledge of the challenges posed by communism by building and supporting university centers of study, student exchanges, and think tanks.

Whether through cultural exchanges or book-distribution programs, shortwave radio programming or journals of opinion, sponsorship of Russian-language training or the cultivation of expertise at think tanks: the battle of ideas was fought on multiple fronts during the Cold War. Today’s policymakers and philanthropists can study and learn from those campaigns.

Battleground: Allied Publics

In the earliest days of the Cold War, it was military and political leaders who first realized that “hearts and minds” mattered, that public opinion was central to defeating the growing communist menace in Europe. As American forces were demobilizing, their leaders witnessed Stalin’s determination to export communism to a weakened and starving Europe. They realized that they needed to defend the democratic ideals espoused by the United States against the encroaching subversion of Soviet propaganda. Their hard-won military victory was at stake.
Europe was in disarray. The post-bellum winters were among the worst in the continent’s history. People were freezing, and starvation loomed. A reporter at the time wrote that a “visitor returning to Europe after a considerable absence [would be] startled to discover how much the sheer struggle for survival absorbs the European; how persistent and how pitiful that struggle can be; how darkly the future is obscured by the present.” With support from Moscow, communists in Western Europe were poised to exploit such economic insecurity.

In order to improve the standard of living in Western Europe—and with remarkable bureaucratic agility (certainly by today’s standards)—the United States responded with economic and military aid to bolster its weak allies. In March 1947, President Harry Truman asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic aid to help Greece and Turkey resist internal and external threats and remain free peoples. A few months later, speaking at Harvard’s June 1947 commencement exercises, George Marshall announced an effort to revive Europe’s shattered economies, an effort that would later be known as the Marshall Plan.

Notably, it was the public sector that led the campaign for hearts and minds in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As the Cold War progressed, American private donors also began exploring ways to contribute significantly to the effort.

Battleground: Allied Intellectuals

As life began to return to normal in post-war Europe, electoral contests between various political factions intensified. A vigorous debate over the contours of the continent’s future emerged, with many on the hard left determined to characterize the United States and Western Europe as “warmongers” who faced a “peace-loving Kremlin.” European and American officials swiftly recognized the necessity of a concerted effort to counter such propaganda. Thus was launched one of the most important Cold War efforts to answer Soviet misinformation: the Congress for Cultural Freedom (or CCF).

The Congress was intended to directly undermine Soviet influence among Western intellectuals by presenting a forum for intelligent international discourse. It was comprised of a broad consortium of businessmen, writers, and government leaders. Participants in the Congress believed that funding came from private-sector philanthropic organizations—the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations chief among them—and did not learn until years later that many of the grantmakers were collaborating with the CIA to direct funds to the CCF.

The Congress first met in June 1950 at the Titania Palace in West Berlin. It was a dramatic affair: the Berlin Airlift had ended only a year earlier, and, one day before the conference began, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the South. In Berlin, thousands of participants attended the opening session of the Congress, including leftist intellectuals such as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Jacques Maritain, and Tennessee Williams. One American government representative later remarked that it was “unconventional warfare at its best.” There were ideological differences within the Congress, but the CCF was every bit open to the anti-communist left as well as to the right, especially in its early years. Some prominent participants, like the ex-communist author Arthur Koestler, demanded a frontal assault on the Soviet Union; others argued for pursuing an incremental strategy of gradual co-optation. Despite their differences, these various factions were united in their antipathy toward Stalin particularly and the Soviet Union generally.

Chief among the CCF’s achievements was the publication of a number of intellectual journals, including Tempo Presente (Rome), Preuves (Paris), and, most notable of all, Encounter (London). Encounter was launched in 1953, when the American writer Irving Kristol joined the British poet Stephen Spender in London to co-edit the magazine. While an undergraduate at the City College of New York in the 1930s, Kristol considered himself a Trotskyist. During the Second World War, however, Kristol served as an infantryman in the 12th Armored Division. He saw first-hand the horrors of totalitarianism. He became a determined anti-communist, and he wanted Encounter to show the world the benefit of a free and vigorous exchange of ideas.

Kristol succeeded. He and Spender commissioned an impressive array of renowned Western intellectuals to write for the magazine. Regular contributors included Nancy Mitford, Albert Camus, George Kennan, Isaiah Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, Jorge Luis Borges, and V. S. Naipaul. Even Frances Stoner Saunders, a staunch leftist critic of the CCF, has acknowledged the intellectual richness of Encounter, which, she said, was “as lively and bitchy as a literary cocktail party.” Often called England’s “leading highbrow magazine,” Encounter derived its influence not from its circulation—which topped out around 40,000 in the 1960s—but from its influential readership.

Kristol left the magazine in 1958, and was replaced by Melvin Lasky, an equally committed American anti-communist intellectual. In April 1966, the New York Times exposed the CIA’s funding of the Congress of Cultural Freedom. Encounter’s editors denied that they had known of the support. “Encounter,” Lasky acknowledged in 1967, “like many other political, educational, and cultural institutions throughout the world, was an unwitting recipient of funds which derived indirectly from the CIA.” Lasky insisted, however, that Encounter’s editorial policy was never affected by the funding. “We were fair, critical, controversial,” Lasky told the New York Times. “We have tried to publish articles pro- and con- on every major intellectual issue: Vietnam, Cuba, everything. This is the ethos of the review.”

Some contributors stopped writing for Encounter, although many luminaries—like Raymond Aron, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ignazio Silone, and Robert Oppenheimer—remained on the board. As one observer later noted, “the controversy about the funding of Encounter cannot be ignored; but it should be seen in perspective. One can put it quite simply: how can any significant journal be funded in our time? One of Encounter’s sponsors was said to be the British Foreign Office. The Foreign Office to this day substantially funds the operation of the BBC World Service: does this invalidate the broadcaster’s editorial position?” A number of private donors continued to fund the CCF (subsequently renamed the International Association for Cultural Freedom) after the appearance of the Times article. Under McGeorge Bundy, the Ford Foundation in particular redoubled its commitment to the organization and continued to support its mission of providing “a rallying point for the defense and strengthening of international cultural freedom.”

Battleground: Eastern Bloc Public

A war of ideas requires engaging hostile and occupied populations. During the Cold War, Americans soon realized that radio broadcasts could be used to reach the broader public in Eastern Europe, acting as surrogate free media in Communist countries. In 1950, Radio Free Europe (RFE) began broadcasting into Eastern bloc countries, including the Baltic nations. RFE—and, after 1953, Radio Liberty (RL), which broadcast into the Soviet Union (other than the Baltic republics)—focused on developments within Communist countries, to provide Eastern Europeans with accurate information about events and issues that their own governments did not cover. RFE and RL thus complemented the mission of Voice of America (VOA), which was charged with presenting the American perspective and covering developments in the United States.

RFE and RL broadcasters were usually émigrés working under close American supervision. Their contribution enriched the content of the programming and added to its popularity among the target populations. Radio broadcasts incorporated history, culture, politics, literature, economics, labor issues, religion, human rights, and the arts. Intended as they were to help their listeners understand what was actually going on in their own countries, they were rooted in the history and culture of their audience—in marked contrast to the communist insistence on anti-nationalism, as exemplified by the “New Soviet Man.”

Some of the most popular early RFE programs told the stories of people who had escaped the Iron Curtain. One program, for example, told the adventure of eight Czechs who built a homemade tank—a retrofitted British car—and smashed it through the border. (The guards were too stunned to try to stop them.) Another popular program was Messages. It singled out communist officials and informants by name, warning listeners of their activities—and even chastising them for their behavior. One such named official was described as a tall, blonde Czech woman who, listeners were warned, was a “dangerous spy for the communist police.” She was very effective at recruiting informers—young men in particular.

The effectiveness of the broadcasts could be gauged by Moscow’s reaction. Within 10 minutes of Radio Liberty’s first broadcasts into the Soviet Union, programs were jammed. The Soviet Union responded with redoubled propaganda efforts of its own. Moscow ramped up its front organizations in Western countries. By some estimates, as of the early 1950s the Soviet Union had increased its propaganda spending to some $2 billion annually.

The radio programs were supported by the Free Europe Committee (RFE) and the American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism (RL). Both organizations led fundraising efforts with slogans like “Fight the Big Lie with the Big Truth” or “Help Truth Fight Communism,” but these efforts were of minimal financial significance. In truth, RFE and RL were once again largely funded by the CIA, which once again channeled money through American philanthropies.

Early in the Cold War, American foundations, large and small, were eager to provide cover for America’s new (and lavishly funded) intelligence agencies. It was an era in which John McCloy, chairman of the Ford Foundation’s board of trustees, would routinely visit the National Security Council (NSC) and casually inquire whether there were any overseas projects the NSC would like to have supported.

Such close and clandestine cooperation was bound to be discovered eventually, and the far-left magazine Ramparts revealed the CIA’s covert funding of RFE and RL in early 1967. Afterward, the fate of the radio programs was in doubt for several years. The CIA continued funding the broadcasts until the early 1970s, when Congress severed the agency’s ties with RFE and RL and transferred jurisdiction to the newly created Board for International Broadcasting.

Grantmakers like the Smith Richardson Foundation helped to support RFE and RL throughout the 1980s. Such support for the radio programs reflected the seriousness with which the American philanthropic sector regarded the project of reaching out to the wider public in the Eastern Bloc. The seriousness ultimately paid off. In June 1990, Hungarian Prime Minister Antal wrote that RFE had “given us the gift of truth about our own country and the world at large, and has done so at a time when telling the truth was counted as a crime against the state.”

Battleground: Eastern Bloc Intellectuals

While radio broadcasts were reaching mass audiences behind the Iron Curtain, many Americans began thinking about ways to spread democratic ideals among Eastern Bloc intellectuals and elites. As the Cold War grew in intensity, the idea of expanding contacts with Eastern Europe became increasingly popular among intellectuals and policy leaders. The clearest expression of the idea came in a 1961 article in Foreign Affairs, in which Zbigniew Brzezinski and William E. Griffith made the case for vastly expanding contacts with Eastern Europeans.

By exposing Eastern Europeans to Western values and ideas, the thinking went, the United States could gradually undermine their support for communism. One Soviet diplomat (who later defected) described the effect of being exposed to the West’s free flow of information. “Your perspective changed,” he said, “because of your exposure to all this information, and you got used to thinking about things in more global terms.” As one historian of the Cold War observed, “exchanges in culture, education, information, science, and technology were conducted by the United States openly . . . at a cost that was minuscule in comparison with [its] expenditures for defense and intelligence in the same period.” Some donors went a step further and explored ways to support intellectuals and dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. One major supporter of Eastern European dissidents was Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. Soros defected from his native land in 1946, as Soviet troops relentlessly tightened control of the country. He moved to London and New York, where he made his fortune in finance.

There is no comprehensive account of Soros’ support for civil society in Eastern Europe; for security purposes, many of his grants were unrecorded and channeled through intermediary organizations. What is known, however, is that in the early 1980s, he began giving millions of dollars to resistance organizations like Solidarnosc in Poland and Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia, as well as to individual dissidents, like the physicist Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union. Soros believed that the free flow of information would inevitably undermine a totalitarian regime, so he sent thousands of books and hundreds of Xerox photocopiers to citizens and activists throughout the Eastern Bloc.

But Soros was by no means the only American grantmaker who supported Eastern Bloc dissidents. The Smith Richardson Foundation funded newsprint for journalists in Albania, supported Freedom House as it provided aid to Soviet bloc dissidents, and translated and disseminated the Federalist Papers into Russian, Estonia, Latvian, and Polish.

Individual donors supported Eastern Bloc dissidents, too. According to James Piereson, the long-time executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, John Olin contributed out of his personal wealth to support Solidarnosc and allied groups in the late 1970s and 1980s. Olin was an inventor and manufacturer, with a powerful understanding of the transformative power of technology. He was therefore particularly eager to fund the purchase of mimeo equipment and copying machines, since these technologies vastly expanded the underground publication movement, allowing independent thinkers to circulate their writings much more broadly.

By the late 1970s, Olin had been enthusiastically involved in anti-communist grantmaking for decades. As John J. Miller discovered in his research for A Gift of Freedom, John Olin had cooperated with the CIA to covertly steer funding to pro-democratic organizations worldwide since the 1950s. According to Miller, Olin “saw it as his patriotic duty to help his country fight the Cold War. Allowing some money to pass in and out of his foundation’s accounts was the least he could do.” 

Battleground: Research Programs

As in any war, the home front during the Cold War was of supreme strategic significance. By the early 1950s, public and philanthropic leaders began to consider ways to improve America’s knowledge of the various dimensions of the Soviet threat—its ideology, politics, objectives, and tactics. They recognized that American scholarship on Russian history was exceedingly thin. While some isolated academics had studied Russia as far back as the 19th century, in 1945 only one university in the country ran a program concerned with the Soviet Union: the Russian Institute at Columbia University (which was, incidentally, devoted primarily to graduate education rather than research). Internal grant-review documents from the Carnegie Corporation found that there was “no qualified group of any substantial consequence working on the fundamental problems of Soviet domestic and international conduct.”

Donors wanted to develop more regional-area expertise so that American officials would one day possess a better understanding of trends within the Soviet Bloc. Grantmakers—including the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation—stepped up to address the need, building programs at universities nationwide. These grantmaking organizations provided funds to Harvard University to set up its Russian Research Center; to Dartmouth College to establish a 15-course program in Russian studies; to MIT to examine Soviet scientific and engineering education; to Columbia University to study Soviet higher education; and to Duke University to investigate Soviet perspectives on international law. Carnegie also funded travel grants that enabled specialists in the United States to visit the Soviet Union, as well as Russian-language training and study-abroad programs.

As a part of this effort to improve America’s knowledge of strategically important regions of the world, cultural exchanges were widely encouraged and supported by the philanthropic sector. With the passage of the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement in 1958 (also known as the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement), there existed an official mechanism for exchanges between the two countries, a mechanism that would remain in effect until the end of the Cold War. The Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants (IUCTG) initially administered the exchanges, and was subsequently joined by the Social Science Research Council, the Ford Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1968, the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) was established to replace these groups with a single, centralized organization.

The IREX program placed thousands of Americans in the Soviet Union, where they acquired deep familiarity with the Russian language, culture, and psychology. Although many programs were run through IREX, they were actually funded by a range of donors, including (among others) the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Years later, a former Soviet KGB officer observed that these “exchanges were a Trojan horse into the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They opened up a closed society. They greatly influenced younger people who saw the world with open eyes, and they kept infecting more and more people over the years.”

Battleground: American Think Tanks

A second approach to improving America’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to Soviet actions took place outside the universities, in the nation’s newly established think tanks. One of the first, and perhaps the most famous, was the RAND Corporation, built near the shores of the Pacific in Santa Monica, California.

Astute observers like Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, recognized as early as the mid-1940s that a cold war was bound to divide East and West. Arnold wanted to accelerate the pace of technological innovation that had characterized military development during the Second World War. He did not want to see the armies of scientists and engineers dissipate after the war, demobilized and returned to civilian pursuits. He was determined to find a way to safeguard America’s technological preeminence.

To that end, he initiated Project RAND (for “Research and Development”) in March 1946. Funded to the tune of $10 million and housed within the Douglas Aircraft Company, RAND’s early work did in fact focus on technology. Its first major study, published in May 1947—fully a decade before the Soviet launch of Sputnik—was titled Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship.

RAND enjoyed an extraordinarily broad mandate to pursue a range of strategic questions. Experts there were particularly vexed by the difficulty of thinking about war in the nuclear age. To that end, RAND adopted a purposefully interdisciplinary approach. It employed hundreds of experts—in mathematics, physics, engineering, political science, economics, psychology, chemistry, and aerodynamics—but pushed them to work collaboratively on projects. A historian of RAND observed that its approach was to “simply throw bright, innovative thinkers together and trust that they would cross traditional disciplinary lines to tackle an intriguing problem.” Even RAND’s architecture was specifically designed to encourage researchers from different fields to interact with one another.

As the institution grew, and after the Air Force formally separated from Army command, RAND’s leaders contemplated re-incorporation as a private entity. In May 1948, RAND removed itself from Douglas and was incorporated as a California nonprofit corporation. In the meantime, informal discussions with representatives from the Ford Foundation led to an agreement at the end of July 1948 for an interest-free loan from the Foundation, as well as its guarantee of a private bank loan, altogether worth over $1 million. Four years later, Ford expanded its commitment to RAND, offering a loan that led to the creation of a research program that provided staff with the resources to conduct small, non-military research projects. Other foundations, such as Smith Richardson, also supported research and analysis at RAND over the years, with grants to support projects ranging from investigations into Soviet motives in the Third World to studies on nuclear deterrence.

One of RAND’s most consequential scholars was Herman Kahn, a physicist who is rumored to have the highest I.Q. ever tested. After Kahn joined RAND in 1947, he became obsessed with the question of nuclear deterrence. He believed that the strategic calculus of a bipolar nuclear world would require incorporating insights from advanced game theory. That belief led him to publish On Thermonuclear War in 1960, which argued that the United States could not just fight and survive a massive nuclear war, but that it could win—indeed, profit from—an exchange of warheads. “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary,” he wrote, “objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of survivors and their descendants.”

On Thermonuclear War was immediately controversial, and Kahn was widely ridiculed.  (Though Stanley Kubrick denies it, the character of Dr. Strangelove is widely thought to be based on Kahn.) But Kahn was not particularly interested in the American reaction. The whole point of the book was to signal to Soviet strategists that the United States was deadly serious about nuclear confrontation. That message was all the more effective coming from a private actor known to be close to key policymakers. Kahn understood that Soviet leaders needed to believe that if the USSR engaged in nuclear aggression, the United States would have in place extensive civil defense measures, a massive second-strike force—and the will to use them.

Battleground: American Public Opinion

From the early 1960s onward, the priorities of the largest American grantmakers were shifting away from helping in the Cold War. As Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corportation, acknowledged in a 1999 essay, “By the early 1960s, however, aside from its programs in Commonwealth Africa, the Corporation began to close out its grants in international affairs, largely in response to mounting demands for equal justice and equal opportunity among disadvantaged groups at home. As new causes dominated foundation thinking during the 1970s and early 1980s, private support for Soviet and East European studies declined overall.”

That trend was accelerated after Vietnam, Watergate, and the revelation of foundations’ cooperation with the CIA. By the mid-1970s, most of the major American foundations had lost interest in helping the United States win the Cold War. To take a single example: while the Ford Foundation allocated over $47 million for international studies in 1966, by 1979, that amount had dropped to $2.2 million.

It could not have happened at a worse time. The mid- to late-1970s were the low point of the Cold War; “America’s suicide attempt,” is how historian Paul Johnson describes the era. The litany of problems was daunting: soaring inflation, rising unemployment, surging crime, racial tension, oil shocks, crippling taxes, demoralized military, and plummeting international prestige. Many Americans seriously doubted whether the United States could contain communist expansion abroad—and creeping statism at home.

At that critical moment, a number of new donors came online. These new entrants worked hard to restore the nation’s confidence in its traditions of limited government, free enterprise, and moral culture. Their efforts helped rally the nation from its torpor. The United States strengthened its resolve, reined in its excesses, and returned to its first principles—thanks in large measure to the philanthropic investments of a small number of reform-minded donors.

To be sure, many of these new entrants built upon the work of earlier philanthropists. By the 1970s, Harry Earhart (through the Earhart Foundation, established in 1929), H. Smith Richardson (Smith Richardson Foundation, 1935), William Volker (Volker Fund, 1947), and Pierre Goodrich (Liberty Fund, 1960) had been for decades generously funding serious intellectual inquiry into the nature of free-market economies.

The Volker Fund, for instance, subsidized academic chairs for two of the 20th century’s most important free-market thinkers: Friedrich von Hayek at the University of Chicago and Ludwig von Mises at New York University. At the same time, the Earhart Foundation supported scores of talented young scholars—among them, the Nobel Prize-winning economists Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, and Gary Becker, as well as the historian (and Librarian of Congress) Daniel Boorstin and the political philosopher Allan Bloom.

But, from the 1960s onward, the radicalization of the nation’s universities made it increasingly difficult to find—let alone fund—scholarship that defended traditional American institutions. Many promising young academics were fleeing politically charged campuses, to the detriment of American higher education. But that unfortunate turn of events also created an opportunity. A number of forward-looking donors began thinking of ways to harness this reservoir of untapped brainpower. What they came up with was a new breed of public policy think tank.

Think tanks were not an entirely new idea, of course. The Brookings Institution traces its origins to 1916; the Hoover Institution at Stanford University was founded in 1919. But the donors who created the new wave of think tanks took advantage of latent intellectual vitality, and, crucially, redirected its seriousness and sophistication to policymakers, opinion leaders, and the broader public. These were to be “universities without students,” whose research and writing was geared toward seriously re-thinking the assumptions of Great Society liberalism.

In all of this, philanthropists led the way. Between 1970 and 1980, William Baroody relied on donors like Richard Mellon Scaife to grow the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) from a $1 million budget and 18-person staff to a $13 million budget and 150-person staff. In 1973, Joseph Coors cut a check for $250,000, which paid for the first year’s budget at the newly established Heritage Foundation. In 1977, Charles Koch provided the funds necessary to found what would later be known as the Cato Institute, the nation’s premier libertarian think tank.

The 1980s saw several other highly consequential grantmakers arrive on the scene. A few years after John Olin’s death in 1982, the Olin Foundation’s assets grew to over $105 million, all of which was to be spent down with a generation of the benefactor’s death. Similarly, in 1985, as a result of the sale of the Allen-Bradley Company, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation witnessed its assets grow from less than $14 million to more than $290 million. Both foundations worked hard to put ideas into action, supporting a wide range of programs that spanned from school choice to legal scholarship to welfare reform.

Meanwhile, established donors like the Smith Richardson Foundation, made a renewed effort to better understand the Soviet threat—with grants ranging from think tank studies on Soviet chemical warfare, to grants to study Soviet disarmament tactics, to grants to organizations like Freedom House that provided aid to Soviet Bloc dissidents. Other donors backed serious study into the strategic implications of missile defense. Still others worked to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims of communist aggression in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

For the past 40 years, these new, policy-oriented donors have funded an astonishing number of public intellectuals. A partial list would include: Walter Berns, Robert Bork, Dinesh D’Souza, Milton Friedman, Roger Kimball, Leon Kass, Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Edwin Meese III, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, Marvin Olasky, Richard John Neuhaus, Norman Podhoretz, Hernando de Soto, and George Weigel. Moreover, these investments have been rewarded with tangible success. These writers developed the argument for checking, rather than tolerating, Soviet ambitions. They provided the philosophical and empirical evidence for limited government, deregulation, free trade, and budgetary prudence. They made an explicitly moral—and sometimes theological—case for democratic capitalism.

The cumulative impact of these philanthropic investments helped alter the course of the 20th century. The donors that paid for these intellectual materials were indispensable to the great national reconstruction of the 1980s. Their philanthropic investment was, according to publisher and author Alfred Regnery, “the bargain of a lifetime.”

Winning the War of Ideas Today

Military power is only one instrument in any long-term contest against a determined adversary. The wars in which the United States has been involved—whether full-fledged, large-scale conventional confrontations, long-term counterinsurgencies, small-scale conflicts, or peacekeeping missions—have always involved a political dimension. American leaders following the Second World War realized the importance of the political dimension and worked to address the emerging political contest between communists and anti-communists.

Of course, during the Cold War, the United States government had more latitude for action than it does today. For one thing, it had the instruments to engage in ideological warfare—and, more importantly, the ability to do so. Consider the United States Information Agency. The agency was established in 1953 with a clear dual-purpose mission: to “influence public attitudes abroad” in support of American objectives, and to advise policy leaders on the “implications of foreign opinion for current and complicated U.S. policies and programs.” USIA oversaw VOA, funded a large number of successful informational and exchange programs, and conducted valuable surveys of foreign public opinion. The agency was nevertheless disbanded in 1999.

In addition to today’s much more suffocating bureaucratic environment, the nature of the threat has considerably changed. The Cold War was fought largely within the Westphalian framework: between states, their allies, and their proxies. Today, while state-sponsored terrorists remain a real threat, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are transnational actors. They hold no territory, wear no uniforms, observe no conventions of war, and answer to no unified chain of command. In many respects, they are closer to brigands or pirates than they are to what is traditionally understood as military combatants. Moreover, unlike the Soviets, Islamic extremists are fundamentally irrational actors, unconcerned with—even welcoming—their own destruction. Rational choice strategies, like those designed by Herman Kahn, are of limited utility against such an enemy.

Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from the Cold War and applied to the global war on terror, and none more so than the centrality of the war of ideas. Since boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration has consistently emphasized that winning the war on terror will largely be determined by winning the battle of ideas. Its March 2006 National Security Strategy declared that the war on terror is both a “battle of arms and a battle of ideas—a fight against the terrorists and their murderous ideology.” The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism states that, in the long run, “winning the war on terror means winning the battle of ideas.” Granted, the administration’s record on this front has been mixed at best. It has had serious problems in actually developing a strategy and implementing the necessary programs, and some of its actions at home and abroad have fueled charges of hypocrisy about U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights. Still, most policymakers agree that the final victory over Islamist extremists will not be photographed aboard the USS Missouri in the middle of Tokyo Bay. It will happen slowly, gradually, and largely invisibly, through the support of civic institutions, schools, and the ascendancy of pluralism, tolerance, and democracy. The objective is to support a range of activities and disseminate ideas to challenge the monolithic, uncompromising views held by the radical Islamists.

As in the Cold War, the private sector has a substantial—indeed crucial—role in waging this war of ideas. In fact, the non-governmental sector is perhaps more important, and potentially more influential, than is the public sector. For one thing, many moderate Muslims are worried that if they accept American government funding they will be vulnerable to repression by their governments and will marginalize their standing in the wider Islamic community. Moreover, the United States operates under enormous bureaucratic and legal restrictions, especially regarding the kind of aid it can provide and the manner in which it can be distributed. (Until recently, USAID was prohibited by law from using its funds to disseminate information about its aid programs!) And, finally, the rich diversity of the philanthropic sector—with program areas ranging from medical aid to economic development, from education to culture—affords it much greater creativity, flexibility, and expertise in its programmatic work.

Five Strategic Priorities

There are five major strategic priorities that should guide today’s philanthropic strategies for engaging in the battle of ideas. All five strategic priorities share a common baseline: they will stand or fall to the extent they have local support. Without firm local support, programs promoting pluralism, tolerance, and democracy will inevitably falter.

For that reason, Robert Satloff, a highly regarded expert on public diplomacy, has underscored the importance of shifting from an effort to “fix” perceptions of the United States to an effort that focuses on how the United States “can effectively empower anti-radical Muslims around the world to combat the spread of Islamist extremism.” S. Enders Wimbush, a senior vice president of the Hudson Institute, agrees. “[The] fight against radical Islam will not be won or lost if people think well of America,” Wimbush has pointed out. “To the contrary, it can only be fought within the world of Islam itself by Muslims. Therefore our efforts should concentrate on how to empower those within the Islamic world who seek to diminish radical trends. On this battlefield, great scope exists for organizations outside of government to make powerful contributions.”

The first priority concerns education. Donors should look for ways to strengthen schools and curricula that counter radical Islamist ideas. There is a pressing need to replace the Wahhabi-funded textbooks that are provided free of charge by Saudi Arabia to many Muslim educational systems. Other educational initiatives could focus on women, either providing educational instruction for girls or supporting organizations that promote women’s rights and educational opportunities. Still other efforts could try to provide information not only about the United States, but also about different religions, cultures, and forms of democratic government.

The second priority involves the media. Television, journals, and websites: these are the main venues in which debates about the future of Islam are taking place. New media programs are necessary to promote critical thinking, especially against the rigid, literalistic interpretation of Islam found in too many countries. It would also be beneficial to revive and generate discussion about the alternative histories—the modernist histories—of many of these states, since extremists often ignore or deliberately dismiss such histories.

Given the multiplicity of media outlets available today—to say nothing of the ubiquity of the internet—it would be extremely difficult to replicate the strategy of creating a single, indispensable journal of ideas like Encounter. Instead, donors should try to seed a wide variety of outlets that promote pluralism, tolerance, and democracy from an authentically Muslim point of view. Several such websites and television programming already exist, in fact, revealing a potential market and providing models to build on.

Fundamentally related to this second priority is the need to build networks of Muslim reformers. Such networks are necessarily diverse; their essential commonality is a rejection of jihadist violence. In different regions, different actors are either opposing or creating resistance movements to violent extremists. In some areas, the effort is led by nationalists; in other areas, by religious leaders; in still others, by secular figures. Understanding such dynamics and interactions is critical: the neighborhoods must be understood with some sophistication.

A third strategic priority is cultural exchanges, particularly exchanges of elites, intellectuals, students, and religious leaders. Clearly, donors should approach cultural exchanges carefully—they can turn out very badly. Perhaps the most notorious example involved Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Muslim fundamentalist who studied at the Colorado State College of Education from 1948 to 1950. His experience convinced him of the utter decadence of the United States. In his memoirs, he condemned America for what he considered its materialism, license, triviality, boxing matches, poor haircuts, restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, and, perhaps worst of all, its mixing of the sexes (which, he noted, occurred even in churches). And, as is now well known, many leaders of Al-Qaeda spent significant time in the West—as did the leaders of the Khmer Rouge who committed mass slaughter in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, it would be shortsighted to judge the value of cultural exchanges based solely on its worst outcomes, especially without reference to their many-multiples-greater number of successes. In a study of the State Department’s Foreign Leaders Program (renamed the International Visitors Program in 1965), the British scholar Giles Scott-Smith concluded that this exchange program “functioned as an effective form of ‘psychological cement’ within the Atlantic alliance” and “contributed a great deal” to the unity of the West against the Communist threat. Well-developed programs—targeting sympathetic local leaders, writers, and religious leaders—can expose these individuals to competing sources of information, nuanced policy debates, and thriving, pluralistic civil society, little of which is available in their own countries.

The fourth priority focuses on improving the knowledge base in the United States. The Islamic world, stretching from Morocco to Mindanao, is extraordinarily complex. Many of the countries are divided politically, with deep ethnic and sectarian rivalries that define the nation’s history. The role and influence of religious leaders is sometimes murky, and the challenges of understanding regional politics are significant. It should not be considered the exclusive responsibility of the public sector to study societies in Algeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

In fact, the public sector is not especially well-equipped to undertake such studies. Academics and NGO workers often find travel to hostile regimes (like Iran) easier than do American officials. For that reason, agencies (including the CIA) have acknowledged as much, and have created information-aggregating platforms like the Open Source Center, in order to reach out to the scholarly and policy communities for information. And, crucially, most of the local initiatives described here can succeed only if they grow out of specific knowledge of a country or region.

The fifth and final strategic priority reflects a longer-term concern: the need to promote and implement effective development policies. It is hard to imagine the success of many of the Cold War ideological initiatives had these programs not taken place against the backdrop of the economic growth generated by the Marshall Plan. Development programs today should be targeted toward those areas most vulnerable to Islamist overtures, where unemployment and disaffection create resentments ripe for exploitation. These programs should encourage and support entrepreneurs in this part of the world, for these are precisely the kinds of people that are most likely to support values most compatible with tolerance and freedom of opportunity. The United Nations Arab Human Development Report noted that a pervasive problem in many Arab Muslim countries was the lack of a dynamic business sector, particularly in the area of small- and medium-sized enterprises.

In many cases, programs are underway touching on each of these five paths. But there is much more to be done. In developing such programs, however, there is a common imperative for local initiatives that work to support pluralism, tolerance, opportunity, and democracy.


The Cold War was fought on many fronts. Perhaps most importantly, it was fought in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Two visions of the future competed for humanity’s allegiance. The United States was victorious in that conflict, but is once again engaged in an ideological struggle. For the foreseeable future, the battle of ideas will remain the central campaign in the conflict with radical Islam. As in the Cold War, military strength is necessary, but insufficient for victory. What is needed is a revolution of hearts and minds, a revolution toward which philanthropists can once again make an enormous and consequential contribution.

Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer in international security and foreign policy at the Smith Richardson Foundation. The views represented here are solely her own, and do not represent the views of the Smith Richardson Foundation.