The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies has given me an excellent foundation from which to expand my project on the origins of the philanthropic organisation Near East Foundation, writes Ben Offiler. My research at the British Library has shown that the connections between philanthropic NGOs and official US foreign policy during the Cold War were complex, dynamic and in a constant state of negotiation.
The British Library is one of my favourite places to work. As one of the largest libraries in the world it has a remarkable range of material available – if it was ever printed or published, chances are the BL will have a copy of it. More than this though, the BL always has a sense of intellectual industriousness and energy to it. The reading rooms and seating on each floor are always filled with people working away, enjoying the productive atmosphere that seems to permeate the building. Thanks to the generosity of the Eccles Centre, I have been fortunate enough to receive both Postgraduate (2011) and Postdoctoral (2015) Visiting Fellowships in North American Studies, which have allowed
me to conduct extensive research at the BL. Both fellowships also happened to coincide with exhibitions on two of my great loves (apart from American Studies, of course): the Science Fiction ‘Out of this World’ exhibition in 2011 and this year’s 40th Anniversary of Punk exhibition – yet another reason to love working at the British Library.
My current research project is interested in how the development, education and disease control programmes of philanthropic NGOs intersected with official American relations with developing countries during the Cold War. I focus primarily on the philanthropic Near East Foundation’s programmes in Iran from the late 1940s through to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which saw the NEF end its involvement in the country. This period saw US policymakers, to varying degrees, engage with ideas of modernization, development and nation-building as effective means of fighting the Cold War. Non-state actors, including NGOs such as the NEF, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation, both helped to shape and were shaped by official US foreign policy.
Among the many interesting things I managed to access while at the BL were a number of rare, old books that shed light on the NEF’s origins. The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, 1919-1922 by Stanley E. Kerr and Story of Near East Relief, 1915-1930 by James Levi Barton detail aspects of the NEF’s predecessor, Near East Relief, which was set up in response to the 1915 Armenian Genocide with a focus on immediate relief, instead of the long-term development programmes that typify the NEF. The BL also contains a wide range of documents detailing the activities of other philanthropic non-governmental organisations, including the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Rockefeller Foundation. The Annual Reports of the Rockefeller Foundation and reports made to the Rockefeller International Health Board and Commission offer useful context for and comparison with the NEF’s programmes.
Perhaps most valuable to historians of American foreign relations based outside of the United States are the Digital National Security Archive and Declassified Documents Reference System, which contain thousands of official documents detailing the decision-making processes of US policymakers. For this project, however, I was most interested in the Congressional Hearings Digital Collection, which was invaluable in demonstrating how the NEF’s work intersected with House and Senate debates surrounding the role of development and foreign aid in US foreign policy. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, NEF Directors were called to give evidence before Congressional subcommittees, sometimes offering advice, sometimes advocating for the use of foreign aid.
My research at the British Library has shown that the connections between philanthropic NGOs and official US foreign policy during the Cold War were complex, dynamic and in a constant state of negotiation. The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies has given me an excellent foundation from which to expand my research by visiting the Rockefeller Archive Center, which houses the NEF’s own archival collection, the National Archives and Presidential Libraries across the United States.
Ben Offiler is currently Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University. His first book, US Foreign Policy and the Modernization of Iran: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and the Shah, was published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan.