The memo that launched 1,000 (well, not quite that many) think tanks


In 1971, college campuses were in turmoil over the war in Vietnam and social norms were undergoing seismic changes. Against this backdrop, Lewis F. Powell Jr., a corporate lawyer whom President Richard Nixon would soon nominate to the Supreme Court, sent a confidential memo to Eugene Sydnor Jr., chair of the education committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” Those engaged in that attack—“the Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries”—were “far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other members of society, than ever before,” Powell wrote.

Powell, whose clients included the Tobacco Institute, blamed U.S. businesses for passively enabling the assault on free enterprise. He called on business leaders to engage the fight and finance a joint effort.

Noting that faculties at colleges and universities “tend to be liberally oriented,” Powell said the chamber should establish a staff of scholars and speakers, along with a speakers’ bureau to support and seed college instructors with a conservative bent. The strategy was to get like-minded speakers on television and radio, support articles in scholarly journals, publish books and pamphlets, and buy advertisements to get the message out.

The Chamber of Commerce didn’t really heed the advice. But two years later, the Heritage Foundation was founded. The Manhattan Institute launched in 1977. The fulfillment of Powell’s vision was well underway.

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