How Asia Society's Establishment Was a 'Bet on the Future'

As Asia Society celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the mission central to its existence — promoting greater understanding between the United States and Asia — has never seemed more relevant. But when John D. Rockefeller 3rd established the organization in 1956, the continent's centrality to global affairs was far from assured.

"He was certainly aware of the odds against Asia Society," said Robert Oxnam, the organization's president from 1981 to 1992, referring to Rockefeller. "It was not just a question of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. It was also immediately after the Korean War. And there were fresh memories of World War II. When so many Americans looked at Asia, they saw a place with poverty and war and not much else."

"Given all that, it was clear that Rockefeller was making a bet on the future."

Oxnam appeared on stage Wednesday at Asia Society in New York alongside several other past and present Asia Society leaders, including former president Nicholas Platt, current president and CEO Josette Sheeran, and global co-chairs Ronnie C. Chan and Henrietta H. Fore. In a lively conversation moderated by Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd, the five discussed how Rockefeller's "bet" grew into an organization that now boasts 12 global centers and a wide range of programs and initiatives.

But even with this evolution, Sheeran believes that the founding principles of the organization remain fully relevant.

"I feel the Rockefeller vision was so bold and so ahead of its time," she said, "That we can't even improve on it. We looked at it — do we need to tweak it? No. It's fine. We just need to make sure that the vision passes on."

Watch the complete video below:

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.