The trustees of the large foundations comprised a cozy group of men – well-heeled, white, and Protestant – who were raised in the same milieu, attended the same colleges (over half graduated from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale), and belonged to the same social clubs. Such men could not help but share a worldview, and for most of 20th century there was no one in the room to argue the other side. Internally united and externally unimpeded, they acted with a speed and resolve that was impossible for elected politicians. While government officials mired themselves in political debates, foundation leaders acted: they commissioned research, trained students, launched pilot projects, cultivated allies among foreign governments, and built networks of experts. By the time the government overcame its inertia on an issue, it found a smooth and well-marked trail stretching ahead through the wilderness.
It is easy to overlook this quiet trailblazing because the big foundations rarely pushed extreme agendas, at least not at home. Unlike the think tanks of today, the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations were, and
continueto be, studiously nonpartisan. They sought above all technocratic order: a strong federal government, a class of experts ready to guide it, and a docile public eager to follow. Abroad, they combined their faith in the rule of experts with the belief that the ideas and institutions best suited to the poorer countries of the world were those of the United States.
Along with the State Department, the foundations channeled millions of dollars to US
universitiesto establish area studies programs, with the understanding that such programs would generate men who could then advise or serve the US foreign policymaking establishment. Area studies was wide-ranging by design, encompassing language instruction, economic and political assessments of fledgling countries, ethnographic research, and graduate training. The particular endeavors that received funding, however, inevitably concerned the areas and topics that were of the greatest strategic importance to the United States.