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While the discipline of history never received the level of support enjoyed by archaeology and classical studies did in the 1930s, the work of historians proved useful to the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) beginning in the 1950s. Both the Humanities Division and the Social Sciences Division supported leading historians as part of their commitments to intercultural studies, international relations and area studies. History became an important tool in the post-war years as the Foundation tried to understand “the processes by which our attitudes, beliefs and value judgments are developed, made more coherent and integrated into a harmonious pattern."[1] By one rough estimate, the Foundation spent $7 million on historical research between 1950 and 1960.

A Cloistered Field

While the Humanities Division in the 1950s counted several trained historians among its officers, they were often critical of the work being produced by historians in academia. The work emanating from university departments seemed insular, the topics too narrow, and the published writings unlikely to engage a wider public. Charles B. Fahs argued that “the social value of history and the justification for our concern with it, depends on reaching consumers beyond the historical profession. History which has no effect beyond the limited circle of historians has no place in RF programs however interesting, learned, novel, monumental or definitive it may be.”[2] Fahs thought the entire historical profession was moving aimlessly, likening it to an army advancing over terrain without a strategy, a map, or a commanding general. His critique was the Foundation’s starting point for supporting historians whose research would illuminate contemporary problems and whose writings would have popular appeal. Between 1950 and 1960, RF focused its resources on interpretive histories that examined world history, contemporary twentieth-century history, and histories of the non-Western world.

Expanding Perspectives

In 1960 Charles B. Fahs wrote: “Histories of individual countries are not enough to provide the broad vision and orientation which the present world situation –and that for the foreseeable future –demands. We also need a general framework of world history which can help the intelligent layman to see all nations as parts of an interrelated whole.”[3] With this ambition in mind, RF officers set out to find projects worthy of funding. Finding competent scholars willing to undertake comprehensive and comparative world histories with sweeping perspectives on the driving forces underlying historical changes proved more difficult than the RF anticipated. The Foundation did support a handful of historians, among them Geoffrey Barraclough, Ralph Turner, Fernand Braudel, and Arnold Toynbee.

Portrait of Arnold J. Toynbee, London (England) 1952

Portrait of Arnold J. Toynbee, London (England) 1952

Toynbee, director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in England, received support from both the Social Sciences Division and the Humanities Division. They were familiar with his work on the decline of empires and civilizations, the first volumes of which were published in the mid-1930s. They supported him while he completed and revised his sweeping multi-volume work, A Study of History. As the Foundation no doubt hoped, his work attained a substantial popular following, but it was widely criticized by historians as simplistic and naively moralistic. While Fahs echoed some of the criticisms, he also stood by Toynbee, writing, “It is easy to criticize Toynbee--I do not like his cyclical and religious interpretations…but I wish we had more historians who had the courage to make such efforts.”[4]

Contributing to Contemporary Thought

Many of the grants in contemporary history sought to improve understanding of the rise of fascism and World War II. Foundation efforts also built historical research institutions in Europe and helped to reestablish academic freedom where it had been suppressed prior to the war. Notable grants included those to the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich and the New School for Social Research in New York for studies related to the rise of Hitler, German militarism and modern German culture. Meanwhile, as Italy flirted with Communism in the postwar period, grants were also provided to the Italian Institute of Historical Studies, a locus for non-Marxian approaches to history.

Rooms in the Italian Institute of Historical Studies, Naples (Italy) 1949

Rooms in the Italian Institute of Historical Studies, Naples (Italy) 1949

In part, the motivation behind RF support for contemporary twentieth-century history was the desire to understand more deeply the post-war world. The changes wrought by war and by the scientific developments that the war had accelerated touched many fields of RF interest. Indeed, RF bore a measure of responsibility for some of these changes. It had helped to revolutionize public health and agriculture, thus fostering an increase in global population; it had supported scientific research, including work on the atomic bomb, that brought new moral questions to the fore; and its work in mass communications had helped to shrink the globe, bringing diverse cultures into more immediate contact.

 RF's support for those studying the history of the contemporary world was part of its struggle to understand the world that it had helped to shape and in which it wanted to continue to operate. Fahs reflected a utilitarian view of historical research, writing to RF President Chester I. Barnard, “The significance of historical writing lies in its relevance to contemporary problems, the contribution which it can make to contemporary thought, not in the importance of an event at the time it occurred.”[5]

Exploring the Non-Western World

In 1960 Fahs characterized non-Western histories as “the most important aspect of our program in history.”[6] Its importance had grown with the rise of postcolonial, nationalist movements and was especially important to those working at RF at the very time the Foundation was expanding its agricultural, public health and other endeavors in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The Foundation funded historians in India to study contemporary Indian politics and culture; it supported work on contemporary Islam at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies; and it encouraged the work of Daniel Cosio-Villegas at the Colegio de Mexico.  

Fahs was often critical of the work western scholars had done in developing regions. Not mincing words, he explained, "Western-oriented history is a source of stupidity and arrogance in the West, but in Asia and Africa it is a source of more dangerous feelings of alienation, rootlessness and inferiority.”[7]

The effort to understand nations emerging from colonial rule was supported by both the Humanities and Social Science Divisions. It provided the underpinning for much of the work in area studies. Both divisions contributed to new programs, including Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard and Princeton Universities, Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University and Eastern European Studies at Oxford University. 

The Sources of History

The Foundation had been interested in the history of the United States since the 1930s. It had also promoted American Studies in other countries since the end of World War II. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Foundation emphasized the accessibility of primary sources for the study of American history. In the absence of significant government funding for editing and publishing projects, the RF began to support several important editorial efforts. Between 1947 and 1952 the RF provided $54,000 to the Abraham Lincoln Association for the publication of the president’s collected writings. Similar grants followed, including funding to the University of Chicago to publish the James Madison papers and to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for the publication of Wilson’s papers. Other publishing projects for editions of the papers of Alexander Hamilton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Marquis de Lafayette also received support.

Staff of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield (Ill.) 1951

Staff of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield (Ill.) 1951

Finally, while never a major focus area of RF funding, the RF provided selective funding for the research and publication of biographies. A number of significant biographies were supported: Marquis James' biography of Booker T. Washington, Frank Freidel's biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. 

Revising a Program

In 1974 the Trustees of the RF called for a renewed interest in the humanities. Once again, the Foundation looked for ways in which history could be used to inform the present, noting, “The Foundation’s fundamental objective…is to associate the humanities with deep human concerns and to help illuminate the values of contemporary society.”[8] The Foundation sought scholars and projects aiming to understand the diverse cultural heritage of Americans. Funding went to projects with a national scope, such as the Harvard Ethnic Encyclopedia, and more localized projects, such as the Arkansas Folklore Education Consortium.

The RF continued to widen the potential audience for work in the humanities by supporting the field of public history. It also sought to capture the stories of minority and less well-researched populations through oral history projects. The 1974 Annual Report captured the role that history would play for the Foundation in the future: "With encouragement to be broader in their sympathies and outlook, scholars can enrich our understanding of our nationhood, draw upon overlooked cultural resources, and enhance the country's pride in its diversity as well as its unity."[9]

[1]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1951 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1951) 86. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)

[2] Memorandum from Charles B. Fahs to Chester I. Barnard, February 1, 1950, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3, Series 911, Box 1, Folder 5.

[3] “Humanities Program and Related Foundation Interests in History, 1950-1960” by Charles B. Fahs, November 16, 1960, RAC, RG 3, Series 911, Box 3, Folder 18.

[4] “The Humanities and ‘The Well-Being of Mankind’: The Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation Since 1928 by Joel Colton and Malcolm Richardson, 1982, RAC, Call No. 361.706 COL, Library Collection.

[5] Memorandum from Charles B. Fahs to Chester I. Barnard, February 1, 1950, RAC, RG 3, Series 911, Box 1, Folder 5.

[6] “Humanities Program and Related Foundation Interests in History, 1950-1960” by Charles B. Fahs, November 16, 1960, RAC, RG 3, Series 911, Box 3, Folder 18.

[7] Colton and Richardson, 23.

[8] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1976 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1976) 70. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)

[9] The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1974 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1974) 90. (Link to PDF on Rockefeller Foundation Website)

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