1950s: The Fund at Mid-Century

In the 1950s, the United States came into a new era as one of two world superpowers. It also experienced a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. At the same time, it grappled with Cold War tensions and sought to find its footing as a world leader. Globally, geopolitics underwent a seismic shift as formerly colonized nations gained independence, placing new pressures on the U.S. as an economic and political resource for developing countries. On the home front, the U.S. struggled to deal with its own racial inequities. Not only did returning African American soldiers demand fair treatment from the society they had defended, the nation’s shortcomings were increasingly scrutinized as promoted democracy over communism during the Cold War, and the U.S. was forced to confront its contradictions.

By the early 1950s, the Fund had an endowment for the first time. It could now make larger grants, for example $1 million to establish the 29th National Park in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It could operate its own programs, as it did with the Special Studies Project and the RBF West Africa Program. Above all, it could respond to world events with riskier and more experimental initiatives.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education prompted the Fund’s support of the Southern Regional Council. The Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik accelerated the release of the Special Studies Project’s report on the military aspects of international security, and gave the Project more impetus to examine the promises and problems of democracy. And Ghana’s independence from Britain opened a door for the Fund to become involved in promoting economic development in West Africa.