New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

Democracy, Social Science, and Philanthropy in the Mid-Century United States

Editors’ NotePreviewing his new book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018), Daniel Bessner places particular attention on the work’s engagement with philanthropic history. 

In the last several decades, the history of the social sciences and philanthropy has experienced something of a renaissance. Books and articles by Emily Hauptmann, Hunter Heyck, Mark Solovey, and others have demonstrated that after 1945, a number of American philanthropies—in particular, the Ford Foundation—shaped the direction of U.S. social science. Though these books and essays have offered manifold insights into the interconnections between knowledge production and private wealth, they have not addressed in detail the relationship between philanthropy and democratic theory. In my book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, I attempt to fill this gap by exploring how Speier, a trained sociologist, used the Ford Foundation to promote an epistocracy—i.e., government by experts—he hoped would be able to (eventually) manage American affairs. In the process, I show that at midcentury philanthropy was imbued with an anti-democratic ethos, which raises critical historical questions about the centrality of philanthropy to U.S. policy and governance.

Speier was born in 1905 in Berlin. As a young man living in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), Speier was a dedicated socialist. However, over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s he became increasingly skeptical of Marxist theory because, contra what this theory predicted, the majority of Germany’s workers did not support democratic political parties like the Social Democratic Party. In fact, Speier concluded to his chagrin, most Germans had few democratic commitments, which was demonstrated by the fact that many aligned with the communists or Nazis, two groups dedicated to destroying the republic. Speier’s worst fears were realized in 1933, when Adolf Hitler assumed power and forced Speier, who as a socialist married to a Jew feared for his and his family’s lives, into exile in the United States.

Speier spent the remainder of the 1930s coming to terms with Nazism’s triumph. By the decade’s end, he had concluded that ordinary people—not only in Germany, but in the United States as well—could not be trusted to guide policymakers in an era when democracy confronted an existential challenge. Instead, Speier argued, intellectuals, who had the mental capacities and practical skills required to truly understand the historical moment, needed to join the U.S. state and offer policymakers the advice needed to defeat the Nazis. Simply put, Speier asserted that in a decade defined by crisis, intellectuals, not the public, must direct U.S. policy.

In advocating this position, Speier departed from what historians have termed traditional democratic theory. In the twentieth century’s first half, most intellectuals claimed that democracy depended upon an active and engaged public able to shape public policy. This position began to come under attack in the 1920s, when a number of thinkers, most notably Walter Lippmann, maintained that modern society was too complex for ordinary people to understand. Instead, Lippmann avowed, policymakers should ignore public opinion and instead seek the advice of social scientific experts endowed with the knowledge upon which wise policy must rest. Though Lippmann’s—and, one might note, Speier’s—position was a minority one among intellectuals before World War II, over the course of the 1930s and 1940s a variety of events, especially the rise and success of Nazism, convinced many that Lippmann’s diagnosis of and solution to the problem of public opinion was the correct one. For a large number of intellectuals, democracy began to be defined no longer by substantive political, economic, cultural, and social equality, but rather by procedural equality—namely, the right to vote.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Speier put his elite-centered intellectual program into practice by joining the wartime government, where he served in high-ranking positions in the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and Office of War Information. When the war ended, Speier briefly returned to the academy before accepting an offer to become the founding chief of the RAND Corporation’s Social Science Division.

RAND, which quickly emerged as the United States’ most prominent national security think tank, was from its beginnings connected to the Ford Foundation. As many readers of this blog might know, after World War II the Ford Foundation was by far the largest philanthropy in the United States; its endowment dwarfed those of the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, its closest peers. Despite the foundation’s enormous resource base, however, Henry Ford II had little idea as to what it should fund. To help him develop the foundation’s program, in late 1948 he asked H. Rowan Gaither Jr., a wealthy lawyer, for assistance. Gaither agreed to help Ford, and in 1948-1949 led a Study Committee whose final report indicated that one of the foundation’s major missions should be to support basic social science research. This, Gaither believed, would build the intellectual base upon which the wise management of human affairs must rest.

By the time he agreed to work for Ford, Gaither had deep ties to RAND. Specifically, in 1947-1948 he had aided RAND in becoming an independent nonprofit corporation. When in the early 1950s Gaither was tasked with developing the Ford Foundation’s social science program, he naturally looked to RAND for advice, and hired Speier to serve as one of his two consultants.

Speier used the Ford Foundation to construct institutions in which social scientists were free to pursue public-minded policy research outside the public’s purview. In particular, Speier implored the foundation to support centers dedicated to gathering the “best” social scientists—defined as men who attended elite universities—and providing them with time to work on problems of pressing concern. First, Speier persuaded the foundation to establish the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), which was eventually located near Stanford, as a space where social scientists could collaborate on basic research problems. (Speier, similar to many in his intellectual generation, adhered to the “linear model of science,” which, in Hunter Heyck’s phrasing, claimed that “‘pure’ research leads to ‘applied research’ leads to solutions to practical problems.” In other words, Speier believed that basic research of the type conducted at CASBS was needed before one changed the world.) Second, Speier convinced the foundation to fund the Research Program in International Communication at MIT’s Center for International Studies. In the 1950s and 1960s, this program emerged as one of the nation’s hubs of development communications theory, and several of its staff, including Daniel Lerner and Ithiel de Sola Pool, became influential government consultants. Taken together, these institutions partially fulfilled Speier’s—and Lippmann’s—decades-old dream of creating a community of social scientists devoted to pursuing policy-relevant questions that did not emerge from public opinion.

As this blog post suggests—and as my book demonstrates—at midcentury philanthropy was in part guided by individuals like Speier who were quite skeptical of public opinion’s traditional democratic function: to serve as a guide for policymakers. Speier’s experience witnessing ordinary people support the Nazis convinced him that democracy required an epistemic elite free from public influence yet connected to processes of decision-making. This ethos compelled him to urge the Ford Foundation to fund centers focused, at least somewhat, on producing policy-relevant knowledge outside the public’s purview.

-Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner (Ph.D., Duke University) is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of  Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell, 2018) and the co-editor, along with Nicolas Guilhot, of The Decisionist Imagination: Sovereignty, Social Science, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn, forthcoming 2018).


Hunter Crowther-Heyck, “Herbert Simon and the GSIA: Building an Interdisciplinary Community,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 42, no. 4 (Autumn 2006), 311-334.

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