Conferences / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and the State

How Foundations Got the U.S. Government Invested in International Population Control

Editors’ Note: Emily Klancher Merchant continues HistPhil’s forum on Philanthropy and the State with a post outlining research she recently presented at a panel on “Private Foundations and Public Policy” at the Policy History Conference in Nashville. HistPhil recently published a post from Anne Fleming based on a paper she presented on that same panel.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States government would provide technical assistance in family planning to any country that requested it.[i] Thanks to recent books by Matthew Connelly, Derek Hoff, and Thomas Robertson, the role of the United States government and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations in the global population control movement of the second half of the twentieth century is now well known.[ii] What remains less well understood is why the U.S. government began to promote family planning abroad when it did. Kennedy was the country’s first Catholic president, and 1963 was two years before the Supreme Court would affirm the right of married Americans to use contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut. Histories of population control in the twentieth century attribute efforts to limit global population after World War II to the recognition that, as a result of international public health interventions, the world’s population was growing more rapidly than it ever had before.[iii] These works assume that rapid population growth was self-evidently problematic and that the worldwide promotion of birth control – by nongovernmental organizations and governments alike – was the obvious solution.

At the recent Policy History Conference in Nashville, I presented a paper that first challenged the dominant approach to the history of population control and then traced out the role of philanthropy and foundation-supported social science in establishing postwar global population growth as an existential threat and legitimizing intervention by the U.S. government aimed at slowing population growth in other countries, particularly the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that had become the battlegrounds of the Cold War. That paper is a small part of a larger project on the history of demography, which began as my dissertation in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. This blog post provides a highly stylized summary of the paper’s argument; with any luck, a fuller version will be published in the next few years.

Family planning assistance to other countries was not an obvious policy for the United States government in 1963.

Despite the publication of six editions of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population Growth between 1798 and 1826, scientists and policy makers generally viewed population growth in the aggregate in positive terms. Malthus attributed individual poverty to unrestrained sexuality, producing compelling arguments against poor relief that resulted in the 1834 passage of England’s New Poor Law. But at the national level, scientists and policy makers in Europe and North America continued to view population growth as a source of geopolitical strength and a sign of economic prosperity.[iv] After World War II, concern in the United States about population growth in other parts of the world centered on fears that such growth would increase the geopolitical power of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, threatening U.S. global political and economic hegemony.[v] As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union froze over into the Cold War, population growth in nonaligned countries also appeared to increase these nations’ vulnerability to communist revolution. In the postwar world, where the United Nations had established sovereign nation states as the primary units of the international community, and where policy makers in the United States vocally criticized the imperialism of the Soviet Union, efforts by the U.S. to reduce population growth in other countries in order to preserve its own economic and geopolitical supremacy would have been counterproductive and regarded as illegitimate.

Demography demonstrated that population growth posed a threat to the goals of developing countries after World War II.

U.S.-based philanthropic organizations began to engage the issue of global population control after World War II. Yet their leaders recognized that international family planning programs would succeed in reducing population growth only if such programs appeared to promote the interests of the citizens of high-fertility countries.[vi] In the postwar period, those interests were typically understood through the rubric of “development,” a new concept at the time that glossed a variety of improvements in living standards among the world’s poorest.[vii] The same philanthropies that funded family planning in high fertility countries in the second half of the twentieth century also provided the majority of funding for demography, the social science of human population. To avoid the appearance of direct involvement in the promotion of birth control, which was still relatively controversial and unsavory in the United States, U.S.-based philanthropies, including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, funneled their money through the Population Council, a nongovernmental organization established by John D. Rockefeller III in 1952. For over a decade, the Council was the major sponsor of demography research, contraceptive research, and family planning programs, both at home and abroad. Perhaps the most influential demographic study it sponsored was initiated by the World Bank to explore the relationship between population growth and economic development. Published in 1958, Population Growth and Economic Development in Low Income Countries established that reducing fertility could increase the pace of economic growth.[viii] The Population Council circulated the study among scientists and heads of state in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, encouraging them to establish family planning programs as a stimulus to development.

Science elevated population control above politics.

The publication of Population Growth and Economic Development in Low Income Countries did not immediately translate into U.S. foreign policy. Citing the book, a committee appointed by President Eisenhower to study the efficacy of U.S. military aid recommended in 1959 that the United States provide family planning assistance to aid-receiving countries.[ix] The Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States weighed in on the issue almost immediately, warning Eisenhower that they would not support any policy that involved birth control, either at home or abroad. Eisenhower responded to the report with a public statement that family planning was not the business of government, and that private philanthropies should handle requests for assistance by foreign countries.[x] Eisenhower’s science advisor, George Kistiakowsky, grew frustrated by what he saw as religion and politics barring the implementation of scientific recommendations.[xi] After leaving the White House in 1961, Kistiakowsky established a public policy committee within the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and solicited philanthropic funding to produce a NAS report on global population growth. Published in 1963, the report largely reiterated the findings of Population Growth and Economic Development in Low Income Countries. It also recommended that the U.S. government support population intervention programs that had already been launched by such philanthropic organizations as the Population Council and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.[xii]


The NAS report converted population control from a political issue into a scientific one, creating a techno-politics of population that depoliticized efforts by the U.S. government to slow population growth in other countries. Kennedy’s 1963 pledge to assist other countries with family planning – at a time when birth control was still illegal in some states of the U.S. – was a direct response to the publication of the NAS report and the scientific mandate to reduce population growth to facilitate development.

The NAS report effectively placed the population control efforts of U.S.-based philanthropies on the United States foreign policy agenda. To do so, it engaged the symbolic power of science to overcome two major impediments: domestic politics, including religion, and international politics. When population control was a philanthropic activity, it could withstand religious criticism in the domestic arena and deflect charges of imperialism in the international arena. But, as the leaders of the Population Council recognized, the United States government had vastly more resources to devote to “the population problem” than did private philanthropies. To legitimize population control both domestically and internationally, they called on science, funding both the 1958 study that established a negative relationship between population growth and economic growth and the 1963 NAS report that suggested a policy solution. In Fatal Misconception, the monumental study of the history of international population control, Matthew Connelly argues that the U.S. government and U.S.-based organizations acted on the world’s most intimate matters without having to answer to anyone. As long as population control remained a private philanthropic activity, that was largely true. But turning population control into U.S. foreign policy required an appeal to a higher authority: science.

-Emily Klancher Merchant

Emily Klancher Merchant is a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College, in the Department of History and the Institute for Computational Science. She holds a Ph.D. in History and a graduate certificate in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Michigan, where she also completed the predoctoral training program in Population Studies. More information is available at


[i] Robert C. Toth, “Kennedy Would Give Out Data on Population Curbs,” New York Times, 4/25/1963, p. 15.

[ii] Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge: Belknap, 2008); Derek Hoff, The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in U.S. History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

[iii] In addition to the works already mentioned, see Alison Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[iv] See, for example, Joshua Cole, The Power of Large Numbers: Population, Politics, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); Hoff, The State and the Stork.

[v] See, for example, Guy Irving Burch and Elmer Pendell, Population Roads to Peace or War (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 1945).

[vi] See, for example, Edward W. Barrett, “Mass Opinion and Population Control,” for discussion at Population Council Ad Hoc Committee Meeting VI, 11/16/1956, folder 2, box 10, Frank Notestein Papers, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.

[vii] Excellent recent studies on postwar development include Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Stephen J. Macekura, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[viii] The landmark study, still often cited as evidence of the detrimental economic effects of population growth, was Ansley J. Coale and Edgar M. Hoover, Population Growth and Economic Development in Low Income Countries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958).

[ix] “Letter of the Draper Committee on Foreign Aid,” New York Times, 7/24/1959, p. 6.

[x] Robert C. Toth, “Scientists Decry World Birth Rise,” New York Times, 4/18/1963, p. 1.

[xi] George Kistiakowsky, A Scientist at the White House: The Private Diary of President Eisenhower’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

[xii] National Academy of Sciences, The Growth of World Population: Analysis of the Problems and Recommendations for Research and Teaching (Washington, D.C.: NAS, 1963).

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