Peace & Conflict

Soon after the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was founded in 1913, with a mandate to “promote the well being of mankind throughout the world,” a cataclysmic war erupted in Europe. World War I prompted the RF to respond by providing humanitarian aid to the people affected. Less than twenty years later, as World War II approached, the RF responded much differently. Although the RF was no longer in the business of providing relief, World War II inevitably affected the Foundation’s operations and grant-making decisions, both during and after the war.

Mobile Demonstration Unit, France 1918

Mobile Demonstration Unit, France 1918

World War I

When Europe descended into war in 1914, the RF was a new foundation, entrusted with a large amount of money but still exploring the best ways to make use of its wealth. As the scope of the humanitarian crisis associated with the war became clear, the RF took swift action to provide relief. The RF quickly acted to transport shiploads of food, clothing and medical aid to Belgian and Dutch refugees displaced by the war.

Later relief efforts were orchestrated by the RF's War Relief Commission, which organized operations throughout the continent. In addition to civilian aid, the RF contributed significantly to the care of prisoners of war and to medical research in the armed services. After the war, the RF remained in France helping to respond to a growing tuberculosis epidemic that had worsened as sick soldiers returned from the trenches. The Commission for the Prevention of Tuberculosis in France remained until 1922, helping to contain the spread of the illness, educate the public about prevention, and broaden the scope of public health activities in France.

World War II

By the end of World War I, the RF had found its footing as a philanthropic organization devoted to long-term change, and in doing so it had resolved never again to act as a relief organization. In the interwar years the organization had set an agenda that included support for large public health campaigns, medical education, higher education and scientific research. During this period some of the RF’s strongest networks were built, connecting the major universities of Europe. However, as fascist governments steadily came to power in some European nations, these academic institutions found themselves threatened by anti-intellectual environments that suppressed research in many areas and dismissed scholars for their religion or for their political affiliations.

Forced to respond to this new crisis, the RF created the Refugee Scholar Program in 1933 (first called the Special Research Aid Fund for Deposed Scholars). This program helped to relocate European intellectuals whose employment and lives had been threatened because of their religion or ideology. By 1940 this program operated as an emergency relocation program, helping to save the lives of hundreds of scholars, most of them Jewish.

When World War II ended in 1945, the RF contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, both in Allied and former enemy countries. Yet, while participating in Europe’s rehabilitation, the RF also mourned the loss of its academic investments on the continent, especially the Foundation-supported scientific research. Anticipating the post-war economic instability in Europe, the RF sought to invest in both new fields and in different parts of the world. In the post-World War II era, the RF expanded its activities significantly throughout Asia and Latin America and provided greater resources towards the funding of the social sciences and humanities.