In Depth: The Special Studies Project


Image courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

A lantern slide with draft subpanel titles from the Special Studies Project. Rockefeller Archives Center.

The RBF Special Studies Project was initiated by Nelson Rockefeller, president of the Fund, in 1956. He then chaired Special Studies for its first two years.

Special Studies aimed to define the major problems and opportunities facing the United States in the late 1950s, and to “clarify national purposes and objectives.” Toward this end, it convened leaders from business, universities, journalism, the military, labor, and science to develop working papers that might serve as a basis for foreign and domestic policy.

Henry A. Kissinger, professor and director of Harvard University’s International Seminar, was selected to direct the Project. He coordinated the solicitation, critical review, and editing of papers from specialists in fields including history, area studies, economics, political science, education, and sociology. These papers were then used as the starting point for discussion by panels of experts who were organized into six groups:

  • Panel I: The Mid-Century Challenge to U.S. Foreign Policy
  • Panel II: International Security: The Military Aspect
  • Panel III: Foreign Economic Policy for the Twentieth Century
  • Panel IV: The Challenge to America: Its Economic and Social Aspects
  • Panel V:  The Pursuit of Excellence: Education and the Future of America
  • Panel VI: The Power of the Democratic Idea

Special Studies was driven by the rapidly changing geopolitics of the postwar world, and especially by Cold War tensions. The six panels examined the world security broadly construed, with particular attention to the threats Communism posed to the West. They also considered the culture of secrecy in the nuclear age, the stability and needs of newly decolonized nations in Africa and Asia, and American domestic issues including education, racial inequality, and the promises and weaknesses of the bipartisan political system.

Each panel published a report made available to the general public. Panel II was the first to issue its findings, with an accelerated release date in response to the 1957 Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik. This report exceeded all projections for distribution and required an extra printing to meet demand. From that point forward, all of the reports, known collectively as the “Rockefeller Panel Reports,” received wide media attention. They were reviewed in publications including TimeNewsweekThe New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

When Nelson Rockefeller became governor of New York in 1958, Laurance Rockefeller became chair of Special Studies, overseeing its final phase. After the release of all six reports, selected panel members formed an overall panel to review the work, craft a new introductory statement, and release a compiled volume aimed at a popular audience. Entitled Prospect for America, the book was published by Doubleday & Company in 1961 and sold over 400,000 copies.


Prospect for America, published by Doubleday in 1961, compiled the reports of the Special Studies Project in this volume for a general audience.


The influence of the Special Studies Project has been far-reaching. Many participants went on to build or continue prominent political careers based on their work in Special Studies and to enact the Project’s policy recommendations as members of the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations.

The success of the original Special Studies panel reports led the Fund to extend the Project after its main work had concluded, convening a new panel chaired by John D. Rockefeller 3rd that was charged with examining the health of the performing arts in the United States. This 30-member panel began work in 1964. In 1965, the McGraw-Hill Book Company published the panel’s findings in a volume for a general audience entitled The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects.


Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Gerald Ford, left, Nelson Rockefeller, center, and former Special Studies Project director Henry Kissinger, right, in the Oval Office, 1974. Photo: Rockefeller Archive Center.

Members of the Overall Panel:

  • Adolf A. Berle, Jr., former Ambassador to Brazil
  • Chester Bowles, former Ambassador to India and former Governor of Connecticut
  • Arthur F. Burns, president, National Bureau of Economic Research
  • Lucius D. Clay, former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Forces in Europe
  • John Cowles, president, Minneapolis Star & Tribune and chairman, The Des Moines Register
  • Justin W. Dart, president, Rexall Drug Company
  • Gordon E. Dean, senior vice president, General Dynamics Company, former chairman of AEC
  • John S. Dickey, president, Dartmouth College
  • John W. Gardner, president, Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • Lester B. Granger, executive director, National Urban League
  • Caryl P. Haskins, president, Carnegie Institution of Washington
  • Theodore M. Hesburgh, president, University of Notre Dame
  • Margaret A. Hickey, public affairs editor, Ladies’ Home Journal
  • Oveta Culp Hobby, president and editor, The Houston Post and former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare
  • Devereaux C. Josephs, chairman, New York Life Insurance Company
  • Milton Katz, director, International Legal Studies, Harvard Law School
  • Henry R. Luce, editor-in-chief, TimeInc.
  • Thomas B. McCabe, president, Scott Paper Company
  • James McCormack, Jr., vice president, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Richard P. McKeon, department of philosophy, University of Chicago
  • Lee W. Minton, president, Glass Bottle Blowers’ Association of the U.S. and Canada
  • Charles H. Percy, president, Bell and Howell Company
  • Jacob S. Potofsky, general president, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
  • Anna M. Rosenberg, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Personnel
  • Dean Rusk, president, Rockefeller Foundation
  • David Sarnoff, chairman, Radio Corporation of America (RCA)
  • Charles M. Spofford, former Deputy Representative to NATO
  • Edward Teller, professor of physics, University of California
  • Frazer B. Wilde, president, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company
  • Robert B. Anderson, former Secretary of Defense to President Eisenhower (resigned from the panel when appointed Secretary of the Treasury)
  • James R. Killian, Jr., president of MIT (resigned from the panel when appointed Special Assistant to the President)

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