The Ploughshares Fund was established in 1981 by the San Francisco-based philanthropist, artist and activist Sally Lilienthal (1919-2006), who had formerly served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California during the 1960s and 70s, and had co-founded the Northern California Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1971. From its inception, the Ploughshares Fund’s purpose was to support the nuclear-freeze movement, a Soviet-sponsored initiative that sought to further solidify the nuclear and military superiority which the USSR had gained during the post-Vietnam War era. Moreover, Ploughshares adamantly opposed NATO’s decision to place medium-range missiles in Europe, a decision that was made in response to an aggressive Soviet military buildup and to the USSR’s then-recent deployment of SS-20 Missiles in Eastern Europe.
Also during the Cold War, Ploughshares claimed that U.S. militarism—particularly that of the Reagan administration—was far likelier to spark a nuclear holocaust than anything the Soviet Union might do. Identifying U.S. belligerence and aggression as the chief source of tensions between America and the USSR, Ploughshares pressured the United States but not the Soviets to initiate disarmament measures. To advance this agenda, Ploughshares pooled donations from a number of wealthy contributors and charitable foundations (including the Rockefeller and Stern Foundations) to bankroll and almost singlehandedly create a left-wing “peace” movement that denounced American defense policies and featured the progressive icon Edward Kennedy as one of its spokesmen.
Early in its history, Ploughshares awarded a grant to fund the efforts of scientists (who were affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Soviet Academy of Scientists) seeking to prove that it would be possible for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to both comply with the terms of a nuclear test ban treaty—and that therefore neither side should be reluctant to sign such a pact.
Today Ploughshares describes itself as “a public grantmaking foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and other weapons of war, and to prevent conflicts that could lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction.” It also opposes America’s development of a missile defense system.
A self-defined “venture funder,” Ploughshares specializes in “giving start-up funding to promising new endeavors, and then helping to leverage more substantial support from other sources.” The organization’s grantmaking strategy is to “proactively select grantees and knit them together into a collaborative network” that strives to “build comprehensive campaigns aimed at winning key policy victories.” After such groundwork has been laid, the Ploughshares network “can unlock a more ambitious strategic agenda.” Specifically, Ploughshares gives grants that are designed to do three major things:
* Promote the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons: “Building a consensus among the world’s leaders creates a global norm against nuclear weapons and increases the momentum toward zero. Along the way, concrete steps to limit and reduce current arsenals must be realized as well.”
* Prevent the Emergence of New Nuclear States: “We focus on the two most significant threats to the global nonproliferation regime – Iran and North Korea. We believe that … solutions are possible through effective diplomacy and engagement …”
* Build Regional Peace and Security: “South Asia represents perhaps the most dangerous region on earth given the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan and the fact that both nations possess substantial nuclear arsenals. Our investments support fact-finding missions, on-the-ground analysis, high-level dialogue, confidence-building measures, policy advocacy and media outreach to advance the transformation of conflicts in South and Southwest Asia.”
Professing to be “the largest grantmaking foundation in the U.S. focusing exclusively on peace and security issues,” Ploughshares from 1981 to 2011 awarded many hundreds of grants whose aggregate value exceeded $60 million.”
Among the organizations that have received grants from Ploughshares over the years are the Agape Foundation, the American Friends Service Committee, Americans for Peace Now, The American Prospect, the Arms Control Association, the Aspen Institute, the Berghof Institute for Conflict Studies, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, the Center for International Policy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Christic Institute, Church Women United, Citizen Action, the Connect US Fund, the Constitution Project, the Council for a Livable World, the Economic Policy Institute, Environmental Defense, Environmental Media Services, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the Fourth Freedom Forum, Friends of the Earth, Global Green USA, Greenpeace USA, Human Rights Watch, the Independent Media Institute, the Institute for America’s Future, the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, the Institute for Policy Studies, the International Crisis Group, J Street, the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Nation Institute, the National Priorities Project, National Public Radio, the National Security Archive, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Netroots Nation, the New America Foundation, the Nonviolent Peaceforce, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Peace Action, Physicians for Human Rights, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the WashPIRG Foundation, the Proteus Fund, Public Citizen, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the Sierra Club, TechRocks, the Tides Foundation, True Majority, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United Nations Association of USA, Win Without War, Women’s Action for New Directions, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
To view a list of additional noteworthy grantees of the Ploughshares Fund, click here.
Individual recipients of Ploughshares grants include such notables as Robert Edgar and Jonathan Schell.
Ploughshares identifies itself as a partner of such groups as Code Pink, Demos, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Priorities Project, United for Peace & Justice, and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
Ploughshares’ worldview regarding military and nuclear issues is closely aligned with that of the Democratic Party. During the Iraq War, for instance, Ploughshares joined congressional Democrats in branding the American invasion a strategic blunder and an unjustified act of aggression.
In an effort to attract new supporters to its cause, Ploughshares in 2007 hired Fenton Communications to create and administer the “Peace Primary,” an online contest where Ploughshares grantees developed their own “peace platforms” on a wide range of topics such as the Iraq War and the genocide in Darfur. A special panel, chaired by actor Martin Sheen, selected 12 finalists. The public was then invited to vote online for the ultimate winner; participants donated money along with their votes for the organizations they deemed deserving of the $100,000 grand prize. All told, the Peace Primary raised more than $327,000, with TrueMajority taking first place.
When the Obama Administration in September 2009 canceled U.S. plans for the deployment of a missile defense shield in Central Europe—a decision that pleased Moscow but angered America’s allies in Eastern Europe—Ploughshares boasted that its influence had “informed the decision” by the Administration.
In 2010 Ploughshares led a successful campaign by more than fifty non-governmental organizations to persuade the Senate to approve the New START Treaty (a nuclear arms reduction pact) between the United States and Russia.
Ploughshares advocates a policy of containment regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and seeks to discredit the notion that using American military power to derail that program would be either prudent or practical. Toward that end, the organization in 2010 gave $150,000 to National Public Radio to fund “increased coverage of U.S. nuclear policy issues and the proliferation risks from North Korea and Iran.” Coinciding with that grant was the publication of numerous NPR articles and reports that largely echoed Ploughshares’ policy recommendations. One NPR piece, written by Stephen Walt, asserted that the United States was “too secure,” and praised the New START Treaty (which required the U.S., but not Russia, to cut its nuclear forces to levels that were within the treaty limits). In November 2010, just days after the Walt piece had been published, NPR correspondent Peter Kenyon delivered an on-air report calling for the U.S. to negotiate with Iran and asserting that “[m]any analysts believe there’s more time for diplomacy than had previously been thought.” In February 2011, Ploughshares gave NPR an additional $150,000 to cover “Iran, U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and nonproliferation issues.”
Of a piece with Ploughshares’ Iran policy is the organization’s support for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the Iranian regime’s principal lobbyist in the United States. A few facts about NIAC:
In November 2011, Ploughshares gave NIAC $125,000 “to shape the debate among policymakers and in the media on credible, non-military approaches to resolving the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.”
Similarly, in 2011 Ploughshares gave the Center for American Progress (CAP) at least $150,000 “to hire two researchers for an expanded initiative on Iran aimed at countering support for military action.” In October 2011, CAP policy analyst Matthew Duss produced a report that praised the Obama Administration for pursuing a diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, CAP’s blog, Think Progress, regularly condemned what it characterized as neoconservative war mongering against Iran.
In November 2011, Ploughshares gave $25,000 to J Street “to support congressional advocacy and education against the use of a military resolution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.” Two months later, J Street released a web video and policy campaign that counseled against the use of military force against Iran.
The Ploughshares Fund is supported by annual contributions from approximately 2,000 individuals and a small number of foundations. Among its benefactors are the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Scherman Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
To view a list of additional noteworthy supporters of the Ploughshares Fund, click here.
In a May 2016 New York Times profile of Benjamin Rhodes (a speechwriter and key advisor for President Barack Obama), author David Samuels explained how Rhodes had willingly and proudly used his storytelling skills to deceive the American public regarding the details and implications of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Obama administration had negotiated with Iran—an agreement allowing the terrorism-supporting regime in Tehran to inspect its own Parchin nuclear weapons research site, conduct uranium enrichment, build advanced centrifuges, buy ballistic missiles, fund terrorism, and have a near-zero breakout time to a nuclear bomb. (For additional details about the accord, click here.) When Samuels interviewed Rhodes for the article, Rhodes told him that the Ploughshares Fund had played a key role in advancing the administration’s deception. Said Rhodes: “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” After the negotiations with Iran were completed, Ploughshares board chair Mary Lloyd Estrin lauded the “fearless leadership of Obama administration and supporters [of the deal] in Congress.”
Since 2008, the president of the Ploughshares Fund has been Joseph Cirincione, author of the 2007 book Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and a former senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. A vocal opponent of the Iraq War, Cirincione in 2004 co-authored a paper that not only dismissed the Bush Administration’s case for war as “dubious,” but also asserted that the United States had violated international law by attacking Iraq. In 2007 Cirincione charged, falsely, that Bush Administration officials had “repeatedly misled the press” and manipulated intelligence reports in order to justify the U.S. invasion—an allegation that was echoed by Democratic politicians. That same year, Cirincione angrily rejected news reports claiming that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with assistance from North Korea. By Cirincione’s reckoning, such stories were nothing more than propaganda disseminated by the U.S. and Israel. (Intelligence officials later produced video evidence definitively establishing the Syrian-North Korean collaboration.) In 2008 Cirincione served as an advisor on nuclear policy to presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The executive director of the Ploughshares Fund is Naila Bolus, who also serves as co-chair of the Peace and Security Funders Group. Bolus is a former co-director of the environmentalist and anti-war group 20/20 Vision, and she co-founded the Women Legislators’ Lobby, whose goal is to “persuade Congress to redirect excessive military spending toward unmet human and environmental needs.”
Notable advisors to the Ploughshares Fund include Hal Harvey, president and CEO of the ClimateWorks Foundation; Steven Kirsch, chairman of the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation; and Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Key members of the Ploughshares board of directors include the film actor Michael Douglas (a member since 2004) and former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel.
 Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (Transaction Publishers, 1981).