Kenneth Winfred Thompson was a pioneering international relations scholar with a long and varied career in philanthropy and higher education. He spent more than two decades working for the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), rising through the ranks of the Social Sciences Division and into the role of vice president.
Thompson was born on August 29, 1921, in Des Moines, Iowa. He completed his B.A. in history (1943) at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and served in the U.S. Army in infantry and military intelligence during World War II. He went on to earn his M.A. (1948) and Ph.D. (1950) in political science and international relations at the University of Chicago.
Thompson began his career in academia, first as an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and then as an Associate Professor and Chairman of the International Relations Committee at Northwestern University. He began working for the Rockefeller Foundation in 1953 as a consultant in International Relations, and left his position at Northwestern University in 1955 to become the Foundation's assistant director for Social Sciences. He quickly earned promotions within the RF, becoming associate director for Social Sciences in 1957, director of Social Sciences in 1960, and vice president in 1961.
As a scholar, Thompson was an influential theorist of international relations; as a Rockefeller Foundation officer, he worked tirelessly to foster the development of the international relations discipline. Thompson organized and nurtured the Foundation's International Relations Program (IRP), which began informally in 1955 with grants-in-aid for early career scholars in the emerging discipline. With Thompson's persistence, the program was formally established in December 1960 to provide grants to individual scholars researching foreign policy, diplomatic history, and international relations theory. The IRP was modeled on an earlier Foundation initiative, the Legal and Political Philosophy (LAPP) program. As with the IRP, Thompson's ability to foster and promote exciting new scholarship played a critical role in the LAPP program's success. Notable grantees included Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George F. Kennan, John Rawls, H. J. Morgenthau, Leo Strauss, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Thompson remained an active scholar during his years at the Rockefeller Foundation. He held endowed lectureships at New York City's Riverside Church (1958), Duke University (1959), and New York University (1962), and authored several books including Christian Ethics and the Dilemmas of Foreign Policy (1959), Political Realism and the Crisis of World Politics (1960), American Diplomacy and Emergent Patterns (1962), and The Moral Issue in Statecraft (1966). A 1961 Rockefeller Foundation profile observed that Thompson "continued his work in the field as a scholar and speaker at a rate that, even by those whose only profession is scholarship, must be considered just slightly this side of awesome."
Thompson is perhaps best known for the third phase of his career, after leaving the RF in 1974. Thompson resumed his academic career as a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. In 1978, he became Director of UVA's Miller Center of Public Affairs, a nonpartisan institute devoted to the study of the presidency and political history. He played an integral role in creating the Center's Presidential Oral History Program and the Forum Program speaker series, and he held this position until his retirement in 1998. Over the course of his career, Thompson wrote and edited more than forty books and countless articles about international relations, foreign policy, diplomacy, and presidential history.
Kenneth Thompson died in February 2013 at the age of 91. His papers can be accessed at the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Papers related to his work for the Rockefeller Foundation are accessible at the Rockefeller Archive Center.