On April 30th, reporters flocked to the penthouse suite of a Midtown Manhattan hotel where fifteen representatives of the Rockefeller dynasty were holding court. There, the Rockefellers chastised oil giant Exxon-Mobil for failing to invest in “alternative energy” sources, invoking their own moral authority as Exxon-Mobil’s longest standing shareholders.
Family spokesperson Neva Rockefeller Goodwin sanctimoniously recalled the memory of her great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil and originator of the family fortune. “Kerosene was the alternative energy of its day when he realized it could replace whale oil,” she argued. “Part of John D. Rockefeller’s genius was in recognizing early the need and opportunity for a transition to a better, cheaper and cleaner fuel.”
But the indignation of today’s generation of Rockefellers—who inherited their own exorbitant wealth from Standard Oil, Exxon-Mobil’s parent corporation—is aimed more at ensuring the continued financial health of the family’s trust funds than concern for the future of the world’s population. As Peter O’Neill, great-great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, commented at the press conference, “I have a world of respect for what the company has done well. In fact, if the next 20 years of the energy business were just going to be about oil and gas, we probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Nevertheless, the corporate media obediently described the Rockefellers as concerned environmentalists. The New York Times ran the headline, “Can Rockefeller Heirs Turn Exxon Greener?” News outlets quoted freely from the Rockefellers’ press release, which described John D. Rockefeller as “one of the first major philanthropists in the U.S. and the World” and the family’s Rockefeller Foundation’s mission as “promot[ing] the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”
The family fable concocted above warrants a rebuttal. Standard Oil was the world’s first oil monopoly, and Rockefeller’s greed was insatiable. Indeed, the Rockefeller family legacy is deeply entangled with the U.S.’ current reliance on oil—and automobiles. Moreover, the family’s “philanthropic” pursuits include a peculiar preoccupation with lowering the birth rates of the world’s black and brown populations throughout the twentieth century—highlighting the absurdity of their claim to be promoting the well being of humankind. Mainstream journalists could easily uncover these unsavory aspects of the family history but instead report the Rockefellers’ self-sanitized version, with all its glaring omissions.
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Indeed, the family’s selective memory of its patriarch, John D. Rockefeller, as a saintly philanthropist stands in sharp contrast to his role as a nineteenth-century robber baron. “God gave me my money,” he said. “Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”
Rockefeller’s conscience apparently did not dictate paying his employees more than a starvation wage. His admirers praise him for making gasoline affordable to average Americans, and he did indeed aim to produce large amounts of “cheap and good” gasoline for mass consumption, successfully lowering the price of gas from 58 cents to 8 cents a gallon. But he achieved this goal through ruthless union busting, hiring his own private militias to crush workers who dared to go on strike to demand higher wages.
The private armies of the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Rockefeller was a cutthroat capitalist who built his oil monopoly in the decades after the Civil War using methods more in keeping with the bribery, blackmail and back stabbing of a mafia family than an honest entrepreneur. As he once proclaimed, “I would rather earn 1 percent off a [sic] 100 people’s efforts than 100 percent of my own efforts.” This credo made him the richest man in the world.
As he quietly bought up his smaller oil competitors with these methods, Rockefeller entered into secret—and illegal—agreements with railroad magnates that gave discounts as off-the books rebates to his growing oil monopoly, easily driving smaller refiners out of business. By 1879, Standard Oil controlled 90 percent of the oil refining business in the U.S. When the Supreme Court finally forced Rockefeller to formally disband Standard Oil as a monopoly trust in 1911, the damage was done. Indeed, the breakup doubled the value of his stock and gave birth to oil conglomerates Esso and Mobil (now Exxon-Mobil), Arco and Amoco (now BP), Pennzoil (now Shell), Chevron and Conoco. Rockefeller spent his remaining decades playing golf.
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John D. Rockefeller’s descendents have happily carried on in the robber baron’s tradition, alongside a public relations machine that routinely airbrushes the family history. These heirs have never needed to work a day in their lives to afford the best of everything money could buy. The Rockefeller name ensures each generation a ten-figure trust fund and a guaranteed spot at an elite university, enabled by the Rockefeller family’s generous donations. The many chapels, libraries, museums and other buildings bearing the Rockefeller name on private campuses across the U.S. bear testament to the family’s self-serving approach to gift giving. Most recently, David M. Rockefeller, Sr., former chairman, president and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, and former chairman of the board of the Rockefeller Group, donated a record $100 million to Harvard University, citing his fond memories as part of the class of ’36.
By design, the Rockefellers have received no blame for their pivotal role in destroying the vast trolley car system that dominated U.S. cities before the 1940s, thereby increasing city dwellers’ dependency on automobiles and gas-fueled bus lines. Yet the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil of California joined General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum to form the National City Lines holding company, which bought out and dismantled more than 100 trolley systems in 45 cities (including New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Minneapolis and Los Angeles) between 1936 and 1950.
In 1949, these corporate defendants were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize transportation services. Indeed, the corporations behind National City Lines were each fined just $5,000—while each of their directors paid a mere $1 fine—a small price to pay for the windfall in profits they all enjoyed in the decades that followed. Congress offered up tax dollars to build the enormous highway infrastructure that encouraged automobile travel in the 1950s, while federal investment in mass transit and train systems languished. As Noam Chomsky noted, “By the mid-1960s, one out of six business enterprises was directly dependent on the motor vehicle industry.”
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No Rockefeller family history would be complete without highlighting their central role in shaping twentieth century population control policy, aimed explicitly at curbing birth rates among the non-Caucasian poor. Beginning in 1910, Rockefeller money flowed into organizations such as the Race Betterment Foundation and the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders Association, which spearheaded the eugenics movement—the “science” of “improving heredity.” These organizations, also funded by the upstanding Carnegie, Harriman and Kellogg families, sponsored academics claiming that those at the top of the social ladder had proven their racial superiority, while those at the bottom were biologically incapable of success. The eugenics movement encouraged the “superior” races to marry each other and have lots of children, while promoting forced sterilization, racial segregation and deportation of immigrants of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce.
The “superior” races so admired by the eugenics movement were “Nordic,” with blond hair and blue eyes, and the movement soon gained an admirer in Adolph Hitler. In 1924’s “Mein Kampf,” Hitler noted, “There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception (of immigration) are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.” By the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation was already providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund eugenics research in Germany; in 1929 alone, $317,000 of Rockefeller money went to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, according to Edwin Black, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. Although the Rockefellers had withdrawn all funding to German research by the onset of the Second World War in 1939, Black argued, “[B]y that time, the die had been cast. The talented men Rockefeller and Carnegie financed, the great institutions they helped found, and the science they helped create took on a scientific momentum of their own.”
By the 1930s, the wheels for forced sterilization were also in motion inside the U.S. Laws were enacted in 27 states in 1932, calling for compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and physically defective.” In 1939, the Birth Control Federation of America, as historian Dorothy E. Roberts described, “planned a ‘Negro Project’ designed to limit reproduction by blacks ‘who still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes, even more than among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly.’” In 1974, an Alabama court found that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor black teenagers had been sterilized in that state alone.
After World War Two, population control agencies set their sights overseas. In the 1960s, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, heavily funded by the Rockefellers alongside the U.S. government, played a key role in a coercive sterilization programs targeting Third World populations. By 1968, one-third of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico—still a U.S. colony—had been permanently sterilized, often without their knowledge or consent. Rockefeller-funded programs sterilized 40,000 women in Colombia between 1963 and 1965, according to feminist author Bonnie Mass. These are just two examples among many.
The self-righteous claims of the current generation of Rockefellers must be viewed in this context. They have kept silent since the 1989 Exxon-Valdez Alaskan oil spill, even as Exxon-Mobil has refused to pay court-ordered compensation to the nearly 33,000 Alaskans who won a lawsuit against Exxon in 1994 for the company’s “reckless” behavior. Nor have they uttered a word of protest following news that growing numbers of employed workers across the U.S. are lining up at food pantries due to the skyrocketing price of food and gasoline. As Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, told CNN, “People are giving up buying groceries so that they can pay rent and put gas in the car.”
Today’s Rockefellers praise Exxon-Mobil for its current status as the most profitable corporation in U.S. history, having raked in a record $40.6 billion in profits in 2007. They are merely watching out for their own parasitical futures.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org