Website Reviews

“The Rockefeller Foundation: A Digital History”

This website, a subdomain of the Rockefeller Archive Center, combines a curated digital archive with narrative essays connecting and elaborating on the various virtual “exhibits.” I was somewhat familiar with the Rockefeller foundation from reading books like David Ekbladh’s “The Great American Mission,” Laurence Shoup’s “Imperial Brain Trust,” and James Weinstein’s “The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State;” needless to say, these were not positive portrayals. I was curious to see how the Foundation chose to represent itself in a public history format, since the field of Public History was created from the whole cloth by a series of Rockefeller Foundation grants and conferences in the mid- to late-1970s. In its earlier, nakedly colonial guise, the Foundation viewed the careful cultivation and shaping of public memory as a core component of its exploitative “modernization” projects in the Philippines and China [1]. High-level foundation officials explicitly stated that China provided a social science “laboratory,” in which experimental tweaks to culture and social structures would help build a model for societal rationalization in the United States and elsewhere [2]. After the Korean War, the Rockefeller Foundation would use the South Korean school system as a similar sort of testing ground for the much larger grants it funneled into American higher education [3]. The political and economic crises in the West during the late 1960s and early 1970s would lend these nominally progressive projects a kind of reactionary urgency. In 1975, David Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission produced The Crisis of Democracy, which stated that “Democratic demands on government are now too great,” and that Western Europe and the United States must “restore a more equitable relationship between government authority and popular control;” that same year, the Rockefeller-dominated Council on Foreign relations published another report on a crisis in “governability” in the West, urging the formation of a working group to study “various methods of defusing or depoliticizing issues such as inflation or unemployment, and also for depoliticizing inter-governmental relationships.”[4]

To illustrate why I’m being so roundabout in getting to my review of this website, I will use an excerpt from David Harvey’s Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary Theory: “the driving force behind paradigm formation in the social sciences is the desire to manipulate and control human activity and social phenomena in the interest of man. Immediately the question arises as to who is going to control whom, in whose interest is the controlling going to be exercised, and if control is exercised in the interest of all, who is going to take it upon himself or herself to define that public interest?” [5]. Is it a coincidence that the Rockefeller Foundation chose to create and fund the academic field of public history at the very same moment that other Rockefeller-controlled NGOs bemoaned the excessively democratic and politicized nature of the public sphere in the United States? Though certainly possible, it would be anomalous among the many, many examples of the Foundation implementing its societal planning projects through the manipulation of culture and public discourse, of which I have only cited a tiny fraction. It would be foolish to conclude from this that the discipline of public history as a whole is subject to some sort of omnipresent cabalistic control, but it does make one wonder – what was it about public history which appealed to the Rockefeller Foundation at this moment in time? It’s not as though they lacked academic influence; In 1971 the Foundation enjoyed exceedingly tight interlocks with the leadership of the top thirteen U.S. universities, and were the principal source of funding for eighteen major university-affiliated research centers [6]. However, these universities no longer dominated the culture and ideology of American higher education to the degree that they had in the pre-war years, and faced a serious challenge from a new generation of social, political, and quantitative historians. The new techniques seemed to amplify this trend; a single scholar, working alone, could produce a monograph which categorically refuted the claims of even the most respected professor at the most prestigious university. Short of some kind of purge, there was no way of turning the American university system back into the upper-class gentleman’s club it once was.

Looking at the Rockefeller Foundation’s digital history website, it does seem like they found a workaround. It is a public history space – a private archive, funded by private donors, organized and presented by employees of a private foundation. It is only “public” in the sense that anything philanthropic is public; it was ostensibly created for the benefit of the public, but is not in any way accountable to it. The material available on the website is only a fraction of the full archive, which in itself may only be accessed by researchers approved by the center itself. There is no Freedom of Information Act for private archives. True, it does provide visitors direct access to documents without the intervening hand of a historian, but it also allows the Foundation to maintain executive control over which documents get presented and in what context. For instance, the page on the Italian anti-malaria campaigns of the interwar years ( https://rockfound.rockarch.org/malaria-italian-campaigns ) makes it sound as though the Foundation happened to be conducting mosquito control operations in the same place that Mussolini was reclaiming marshland to build model Fascist towns; in actuality, the foundation worked closely with Mussolini’s community planning projects late into the 1930s [7]. Can a public history space truly be “public” if it is controlled by private interests, or is it merely “for” the public?

 

Works Cited:

1. David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization & the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp, 23-27, 31-36

2. Ibid, p. 72.

3. Ibid, pp. 127-28, 172

4. Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Authors Choice Press, 2004), p. 268-269

5. David Harvey, The Ways of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 14.

6. Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust, pp. 75-79, tables 2-4 and 2-5.

7. David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission, p. 44.

 

Having wasted half the evening overdoing it on one website, I now plan to completely phone it in on the second one, because it’s late and I’m tired. Here’s the website of Dan Carlin, a pop-history podcaster with an audience several million strong. Several words come to mind when scrolling through his site. These include “goofy,” “eyesore,” and “the kind of things you see on the back of a lifted F350 next to a thin blue line sticker and the tap-out logo.” A blurb at the bottom of the splash page trumpets “His Generation X, non-partisan, ‘neo-prudentist’ outlook” (quotes in the original), which is the sure sign of someone who knows many things about politics, some of which may accidentally not be wrong. There’s not much else of note, except that the “HH Addendum” podcast mysteriously links to a completely different website and distribution platform.

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