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World War II & the Rockefeller Foundation

In the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Rockefeller Foundation (RF) officers remained confident even as the international situation looked increasingly bleak. They emphasized their faith in science as a force for good and believed that the Foundation's commitment to free inquiry would transcend international squabbling, despite the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan. In 1937, RF President Raymond Fosdick reaffirmed the Foundation's commitment to remain as neutral as possible: “we have tried to keep the level of our work above the noise and quarreling. . . [I]n an era of conflict and chaos our work is being maintained on a plane where there are no national or sectarian lines."[1] On the eve of World War II, the challenges of remaining “above the noise and quarreling" became increasingly evident.

The Outbreak of War in Europe

When war was declared in Europe in September 1939, RF staff had to confront both the immediate practical problems and long-term challenges facing the Foundation. First and foremost, they had to think about their staff in Europe. There were many administrative questions concerning the safety and journey home of the 66 staff members, research fellows, and their families still in Europe. There were also the grants themselves: in 1939 the Foundation had 110 separate projects in 22 European countries, with about $4 million in appropriations at stake.[2] Remarkably, Foundation staff were also beginning to think about the Foundation's peace-time role. They recognized that it was essential to look toward a time when peace would return to Europe and Asia, and contemplate future needs for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Memo from Thomas B. Appleget

Memo from Thomas B. Appleget, "The Foundation and the War," October 9, 1939 

After the Foundation's experience in World War I, Fosdick hoped that it would not become a relief organization: he believed that the RF's wartime role was “to keep burning the candle of the intellectual life," and “to make available the best of scientific research in the alleviation of human misery." This, he argued, would be “a more practicable service for us to render than to try to feed a Belgium or a Poland."[3] Fosdick sought to avoid projects that would aid either side in the war effort, believing that “detachment and objectivity are absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain ourselves as an international force for the future.”[4] Yet he saw that opportunities were rapidly being foreclosed in Europe and anticipated, correctly, that more work could be done in the United States and Latin America. (This shift in focus would lead to the creation of the Mexican Agricultural Program in 1943, which is today seen as the origin of the global agricultural transformation known as the "Green Revolution.")

In December 1939, RF trustees ratified a wartime program that sought to maintain contacts with European scientists and universities, and use members of its International Health Division (IHD) to monitor war-related health problems. It also extended the Foundation's efforts to rescue scholars begun in 1933.[5] The wartime program would expand dramatically with the United States' entry into the war in December 1941. Despite earlier attempts to remain neutral, the RF's appropriations increasingly supported the Allied war effort.

The Foundation's Wartime Program

In a 1943 brochure, The War Work of the Rockefeller Foundation, Fosdick acknowledged that although the Foundation's “main concern is not with immediate things or with the emergencies of the moment . . . We are all of us in the war and it is idle to pretend that business can proceed as usual." The Foundation solved this dilemma by pursuing projects that addressed the emergency needs of the moment, but with “some constructive reference to the world after the war." This focus on the “far target" was evident in several of the Foundation's wartime grants. [6] 

In 1940, the Rockefeller Foundation Health Commission was created to conduct wartime public health work under the direction of the IHD. By the end of 1942, the Commission had supplied to Allied troops more than 14.5 million doses of the Yellow Fever vaccine developed by the Foundation. It also conducted a study of wartime nutritional deficiencies in Spain, France, and England, and studies of the flu, scarlet fever, malaria, and typhus. The Medical Sciences Division, recognizing the prevalence of war-related brain injuries, funded brain surgery research at the University of Edinburgh.

In the Humanities, the RF financed the microfilming of the vast collection of historically significant documents and drawings in the King's Library at Windsor Castle that were threatened by bombing campaigns over England. Grants were made to the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to microfilm historically significant books and documents in the British Museum, Oxford and Cambridge libraries, and London's Public Record Office, as well as to create maps of European libraries, museums, and churches, in an effort to avoid bombing culturally significant places. The ACLS also received funding to provide language instruction in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian at American universities. The Humanities Division supported several other efforts, including an American Library Association program to buy or microfilm scholarly journals for distribution in war-torn countries, and wartime communications studies in radio and propaganda.

U.S. Army using the intensive language program to learn foreign languages

U.S. Army using the intensive language program materials prepared by the American Council of Learned Societies, 1944

The RF's Social Sciences Division supported several studies related to “the problems of peace and postwar reconstruction," as well as a study of Japanese internment on America's West Coast. The Foundation also mobilized its research and intellectual networks to assist the federal government. In 1942 it collaborated with the Carnegie Corporation to form the Ethnogeographic Board, a war-time board that sought to link scientific and educational organizations with the government's military and civilian war agencies. Within a few months, the board had created a “card roster” of more than 5,000 specialists with knowledge of particular countries and regions. These experts were soon working with fourteen government agencies, including the Army and Navy intelligence services.

Rebuilding the Foundation for the Postwar World

The experience of World War II devastated Rockefeller Foundation staff. They witnessed the destruction of RF-funded research facilities and the misappropriation of scientific research toward destructive ends (including the atomic bomb), as well as the loss of countless human lives and talent. Fosdick articulated this disillusionment most clearly: “The pursuit of truth has at last led us to the tools by which we can ourselves become the destroyers of our own institutions and all the bright hopes of the race. . . . [W]hat are we to do--curb our science, or cling to the pursuit of truth and run the risk of returning our society to barbarism?"[7]

When the Foundation emerged from the conflict in 1945, it was left with the difficult task of finding ways to preserve, reclaim, and build on the legacy it had established before the war. The Foundation contributed to postwar reconstruction efforts, but no longer looked to European institutions as a model for future work, and no longer placed its faith in science to remedy global ills. Instead, it would turn its focus to less developed areas of the world and employ much more targeted, cautious applications of science toward humane ends.


[1]Raymond B. Fosdick, "The Foundation Versus Japan," October 1937, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3, Series 900, Box 23, Folder 172.

[2]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1939 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1939), 9.

[3]Letter from Raymond B. Fosdick to Selskar M. Gunn, September 7, 1939, RG 1.1, Series 700, Box 14, Folder 105.

[4]Letter from Raymond B. Fosdick to Selskar M. Gunn, November 30, 1939, RG 1.1, Series 700, Box 15, Folder 107.

[5]"A War Time Program for the Foundation in Europe," December 5-6, 1939, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3, Series 900, Box 26, Folder 216.

[6]Raymond B. Fosdick, "The War Work of the Rockefeller Foundation: Making the Present Serve the Future" (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 1943), RG 3, Series 900, Box 26, Folder 217.

[7]The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1945 (New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 1945), 7.

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