The War against Populations

In 1965, Ashoka Mehta of the Indian Committee for Planning declared the national policies against population growth to be “the war that we have to wage, and, as in all wars, we cannot be choosy, some will get hurt, something will go wrong. What is needed is the will to wage the war so as to win it.”1 This is a necessary war, Mehta clearly indicated, and there will be civilian casualties required for the greater good of the nation. Evoking wartime vocabulary and wartime morals, the minister justified these casualties as unavoidable under the deepening menace of a rapidly expanding population.

During the 1960s and ’70s, combating overpopulation was often characterized in wartime language. Population Control, or RACE TO OBLIVION??? is the attention-getting subtitle of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestselling book, The Population Bomb, in which Ehrlich equated the threat of nuclear war with the threat of overpopulation. “Population explosion” is a popular description for overpopulation even today, a distinctly military description of a biological problem. During the Cold War, the urgency surrounding overpopulation matched the language: a third world war was viewed as the inevitable consequence of population growth. In 1962, a Norwegian representative to the United Nations, Karl Evang, stated that overpopulation was a matter of great urgency as it “might turn out to be a decisive factor underlying a third world war.”2 This war was visualized through a specifically racial lens: People from the East, Western intellectuals warned, would overwhelm the people of the West. The rapidly expanding populations of Asia seemed poised to join with the Soviet Union in a communist alliance and form what some called “great hordes of military manpower.” A clash of populations would ensue, intellectuals and prominent citizens from nineteen countries warned in November of 1960 when they signed a public statement of conviction that demanded action from the United Nations, warning against “a Dark Age of human misery” which would “generate growing panic, exploding into wars fought to appropriate the dwindling means of survival.”3

The Cold War is often understood as a period of warring ideologies between capitalism and communism, but it can also be understood as a period when the declaration of war against more abstract threats emerged as a viable way to mobilize the public. The concept of war transformed, shifting away from being nation against nation into a new definition: nation against an idea. Much of the foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War period was understood to be fighting against an idea—communism. But in the case of mobilizing the nation against other abstract menaces, Johnson’s War on Poverty and Nixon’s War on Drugs also were declared, with the term “war” being used to justify militarized intervention into domestic life.

The metaphor of war to characterize Cold War-era population control brings into focus how the threat of overpopulation was used to justify intervention into the domestic lives of millions of people, mostly in the newly categorized “Third World. First World “experts” purported to offer technical, standardized solutions to complex problems while targeting certain populations. The battleground for the war against overpopulation became the Third World, where, in many cases, under the threat of an unknown and precarious future, civilian casualties were viewed as necessary. Individual rights were sacrificed. Families were caught in the crossfire. And the victims of population regulation were often seen as the enemies, the gravest perpetrators of overpopulation. Just as with any war, the war against overpopulation was done in the name of the greater society, while it still ensured new hierarchies of global power.

Just as in any war, the war against overpopulation was justified first by establishing the threat. The menace of overpopulation figured strongly in American consciousness. And just as in any war, there were differing factions: representatives from the United Nations, postcolonial governments, the Catholic Church, The World Bank, elite Ivy League institutions, and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations all worked in shaping national and international policies that intruded into domestic life. Transnational alliances were formed, establishing new networks of governance. These alliances were forged in the fiercest of battlegrounds; India was one such place where these new alliances formed just as different factions were pitched against each other. And finally, with India as an example, there were the casualties, leading to pressing questions about the role of global society, human rights, and democracy in domestic life.

The Threat: Overpopulation in American Consciousness

Many of the roots of the population control movement lie in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Early anxieties about population control were closely linked to anxieties about Asian immigration, particularly in California. Worries about “hordes of people overrunning the Earth”4 were closely linked to what was called the “yellow peril,” the fear that Asians were set to overrun the earth. Population growth then and during the Cold War period was envisaged as a disease that was infecting that world and could be combated. Many of the same themes of the eugenics movement gained new relevance during the Cold War period, where fears about the spread of communism were linked to fears of disease and race. 5

Fear of population growth during the Cold War period closely fits Noam Chomsky’s description, in his book Deterring Democracy, of the way public menaces were constructed by the American government. According to Chomsky, a menace must be “grave, or at least portrayable as such. Defense against the menace must engender a suitable martial spirit among the population, which must accord its rulers free rein to pursue policies motivated on other grounds and must tolerate the erosion of civil liberties.” The menace is not familiar, however, it is “remote,” Chomsky argues, “the other,’ very different from ‘us’. . . The designated targets should be weak enough to be attacked without any cost.” He identifies the menace as being “situated in the Third World, whether abroad or in the inner city at home. The war against the menace should also be designed to be winnable.” According to Chomsky, in order to ensure public support against this menace the government must roll out a “properly structured propaganda campaign.”6

While Chomsky was referring to the war on drugs of the 1980s, the “menace” could easily be applied to the rhetoric of the war on overpopulation. Justifying militarized intervention, the constructed menace of population growth was deeply embedded in public consciousness. According to one Gallup poll taken in 1965, the same year as the military buildup in Vietnam, most Americans thought that the population crisis was a “more serious problem” facing the country than crime, racial discrimination, international communism, or the threat of nuclear war: “Only the need to aid ‘backward nations’ . . . was assessed as “more serious.”7 If the Gallup poll is to be believed, overpopulation was an immense part of American consciousness—perhaps to an even greater extent than Vietnam War at the beginning of the conflict. Part of the reason for the American public’s concern was the “propaganda campaign” of the sort that Chomsky describes. This propaganda campaign was mobilized by not just the government, but by researchers and academics like Paul Ehrlich.

In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted the horrible natural disasters that would occur in the 1970s if the skyrocketing population was not brought under control, and fast. His predictions, which ultimately did not come true, forecasted widespread famines in poor nations (Undeveloped Nations, or UDCs, he calls them), causing billions of children to die from starvation. Evoking the global community that must unite together to fight population growth, he drew particular attention to the UDCs, especially India, as those with the most direct responsibility for the exponential world population growth, and therefore justifying intensive population regulation in these countries to change the fate of humankind itself. Lamenting that “little is being done on a world scale,” Ehrlich cited Kingsley Davis’s critique of the family planning movement: “‘The things that make family planning acceptable are the very things that make it ineffective for population control. By stressing the right of parents to have the number of children they want, it evades the basic question of population policy, which is how to give societies the number of children they need.’’’8 The feeble efforts of family planning, in Davis’s view, would not be enough to keep humankind from spiraling into oblivion. The Population Bombs propaganda techniques were extremely effective: the small book sold almost two million copies. Entering into the hearts and minds of the American public, the book encouraged people to contact their congressman and urge him to produce regulations that would keep the impending doom at bay.

In the United States, the population problem was viewed not just as a humanitarian problem, but as a national security threat. According to President Eisenhower, the scope of American foreign policy was too narrow, and he “complained that American aid had focused excessively on the communist threat.” He believed that the American government had “‘a narrower view than we should have. The real menace here was the one and a half billion hungry people in the world.’”9 It wasn’t just Eisenhower who felt threatened—in the New York Times, column writer Arthur Krock wrote that there “‘will be forcible invasions of national borders by hordes of human beings who cannot subsist on their own.’”10 Invoking fears of boundary-breaking immigrants spilling into the United States from the Third World, Krock inspired nationalistic sentiments and defensiveness, raising paranoia towards outsiders that he warned would become reliant on Americans’ wealth. Dehumanizing language like “hordes” brought echoes of the eugenics movement from earlier in the century. By invoking terminologies of the past eugenics movement and echoing calls for strong national security, the propaganda surrounding population regulation tied in strongly to American Cold War aspirations.

The Battleground: Population Regulations in the Third World

It was in the Third World that the war against overpopulation led to many of the most extreme population regulation policies, and which were implemented at great human cost. The Cold War period coincided with a rapid decolonization movement spreading across Asia and Africa. One important aspect of American foreign policy during this period was its efforts to gain influence in newly independent postcolonial nations, where American foreign aid was wielded as a means of gaining control. As the postcolonial period began, overpopulation was a means of justifying global dominance of some countries over others. Because overpopulation was viewed as a problem that affected global society, nations like the United States could justify their intervention in the affairs of nations with growing populations in the name of the greater good. However, what were viewed as global problems did not always have global solutions, and the elite group of what Matthew Connelly, author of Fatal Misconceptions, refers to as the “population establishment”11 worked worldwide in the 1960s and ’70s under the guise of aiding global society, while still reinforcing global systems of power. The population establishment were proponents of population control whose specialties spanned disciplines from biology to economics, but belonged to agencies within the United Nations or to organizations such as the Population Council, the National Academy of Sciences, or the National Federation for Planned Parenthood.

A distinct characteristic of this group of population experts was its dedication to a standardized model of population control. According to Connelly, the population establishment “did not even try to adapt their method to different countries.” Instead, as one representative from the Population Council stated, they were seeking a program that was “standardized, like the Model T Ford.”12 This group of scientists and development experts prepared “virtually identical” reports for two completely different countries: Kenya and Iran, countries which, Connelly points out, obviously had some significant differences.13

These standardized models for population control not only conflated diverse problems, communities, cultures, and nations under one heading, but they also posited the creators of these models as the “experts” with the ability to provide a winning solution. Elite experts offered grand solutions to be implemented by NGOs and governments against their perceived problem populations. The colonial echoes existing within this dynamic cannot be denied: a mostly white team of experts enters a developing country, with little knowledge of the local culture, and tries to introduce governing strategies. This could have been a story from 1800s colonial Africa, but it is a story from the postcolonial 1960s. With funding and support from some of the world’s largest institutions and foundations, these experts were able to construct a new-but-old hierarchal model for global problem solving, justified by population growth’s feared effects on global society. If global society was threatened, was not unified global action necessary?

Belief in the “Model-T Ford” solution devalued and delegitimized more localized methods of population control. Smaller, more culturally sensitive methods were drowned out by the heavily funded efforts of some of the world’s most powerful organizations. The team of experts were predominately male, leaving out women’s voices in both the organizations creating the policies and the women who were subjected to the policies, keeping them from voicing opinions over their own reproductive rights and bodies. Although claiming that they were assisting in family planning for the benefit of women as well, the population police did not include many women in their planning nor did the resultant policies reflect the needs of women.

The National Emergency in India in the 1970s is a moving example of what went wrong when one such team of experts helped form national governmental policy. In 1976, three million compulsory sterilizations were done over a time span of six months, despite protests after numerous patients were killed or wounded.14 The brutality of India’s sterilization program was supported and even required by the United States government in exchange for food aid.  In 1966, President Johnson “rejected the unanimous pleas from his advisors . . .  to ship wheat to the starving Indians during their 1966 famine. He demanded that the Indian government first agree to mount a massive birth control program.”15 With American support, India’s National Emergency infringed on the rights of the poor, using coercive tactics to convince its citizens to go along with official policy, as the United States wielded its extraordinary economic power abroad.

Global Armies: Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Government of India

Many international organizations associated with global population control were founded during the post-World War II era. Planned Parenthood formed in 1952, the same year as The Population Council. Two years later, the first population conference was held in Rome in 1954, hosted by the United Nations, whose Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) was founded in 1967. These organizations became important actors in the struggle against overpopulation, often partnering or battling amongst themselves and with governments, religious organizations, and intellectual institutions around the globe to ensure that their desired policies were implemented.

One of the most infamous moments during the war against overpopulation was one of the first studies, based in the Punjab state of India. A number of organizations had a stake in what is now known as the “Khanna Study.” Beginning in 1953, researchers from Harvard University tracked for seven years the fertility of married couples of childbearing age, documenting intimate details such as their sexual practices and the women’s menstruation cycles. Eight thousand people were provided with a number of options for contraceptive use. Four thousand people acted as controls. The Khanna study was a collaborative effort between the Harvard School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Government of India’s Ministry of Health, and Ludhiana Christian Medical College.16 These powerful influences—an elite American academic institution, an American foundation, a post-colonial government, and a missionary college—reveal the sometimes conflicting interests multiple powerful governing bodies had in population research during this period. India, as in during the National Emergency, was situated at the epicenter and as the test-tube for these powerful organizations. Researchers defined it as “the cauldron in which mankind will be tested.”17 In the cauldron swirled a heady mixture of powerful institutions, diplomats, academics, missionaries, and politicians all of which had a say in the way they envisioned what the world should look like, and how the world’s people should reproduce.

The Khanna study was ultimately unsuccessful. The families that were provided with a variety of contraceptive options had a higher fertility rate than the control couples. The study found that “the ratio of couples practicing contraception in the test villages differed very little” during the years of the study, “despite the facts that a strong effort was made by the action-cum-research team to encourage the couples in these villages to accept contraception.”18 While heralded as a good first try, the study revealed that despite the efforts of Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Government of India’s Ministry of Health, and the other groups that supported the study, contraception offered by the study was not effective in limiting population. The American researchers were unable to offer appropriate contraceptive options to the villagers. The failure of the study revealed the challenges of applying apparently universal population control regulation within a local context. The results were also limited in scale: these small villages could not possibly represent the entirety of India, and it would be difficult to use evidence from the study to justify governmental policy. However, just twenty years later, the widespread sterilizations of the National Emergency were justified on the grounds of small-scale studies just like the Khanna study, where people’s intimate lives were treated as the test tubes for national policy.

War for Democracy?

With examples like the Khanna study and the National Emergency of the 1970s, questions arise about the democratic nature of these policies. Were the dominant population regulations, and the invasive nature of the scientific research, truly capable of meeting the needs of the majority of the population and respecting the rights of the citizens? The United States, while purporting to promote democracy globally during the Cold War, also played a significant role in promoting these undemocratic population control policies.

Tensions between democracy and communism during the Cold War period played a significant role in population regulation. After all, many of the post-colonial nations that had Marxist revolutionary movements were also Third World nations with growing populations. A dominant narrative today about Cold War population control is that the United States promoted population control in the Third World in order to reduce the number of communists in the world, limiting the spread of communist influence. However, it is necessary to account for the other potential advantages that the United States had in the population control push: greater influence in newly born post-colonial nations, an established group of experts that could help influence and direct policy decisions in foreign governments, and the reliance of Third World countries on undemocratic US-based NGOs as unofficial governing bodies that played a significant role in local politics.

Many population control programs, some run by US-based NGOs, purported to have democratic ideals. Policies offering a wide array of contraceptive options, like in the Khanna study, created an illusion of choice. In “Family Planning—A Rational Choice?”, Corinna Unger argues that in the 1960s, while the Population Council was rolling out what they called the “Model-T Ford” solutions, population control programs also claimed to emphasize “local awareness, local interest and the emergence of a competent local leadership”; however, “all of this was not supposed to take place without expert control.” Experts utilized theories such as “behavioralism, rational choice concepts, and systems analysis” whose aim was to “find ways through which to ‘govern people’s behavior in a democratic way,’” a goal that Unger explains “gained new urgency when the United States became a superpower that based its legitimacy on the defense and promotion of democracy.”19 While certainly not all population control programs worked on a supposedly democratic level, those that offered an illusion of choice made political sense for the United States in an era in which its promotion of democracy worldwide had accelerated.

In the case of the war against overpopulation, the stated desired result of population regulation has yet to work in a widely noticeable form. The world’s population continues to grow, set to reach nine billion by 2040. However, despite the fact that the disastrous predictions of Paul Ehrlich have yet to occur, the framework through which population regulations were created and executed remains. The United Nations Population Fund, the Population Council, Planned Parenthood, and other transnational foundations are still operating, while standardized solutions created by experts continue to be promoted, offering technical fixes for the world’s most intimate problems. And wars—outside the realm of metaphor, but still in the name of abstract ideas, for fear of a perilous future, and against terror—continue to be fought, as powerful armies threaten the fearsome menaces of today on fraught battlegrounds. And yet these wars continue to demand the question—who are the victors, and who suffer the casualties?

  1. Angus, Ian, and Simon Butler. Too Many People?: Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011.
  2. Karl Evang, quoted in Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 24.
  3. Karl Evang, quoted in Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 24.
  4. Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 24.
  5. Smith, Geoffrey S. “National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender, and Disease in the Cold-War United States.” The International History Review 14, no. 2 (1992): 307-37.
  6. Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy. (London: Verso, 1991), 131.
  7. Solinger, Rickie, and Mie Nakachi. Reproductive States: Global Perspectives on the Invention and Implementation of Population Policy. Oxford University Press, 2016.
  8. Kingsley Davis quoted In Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.), 82.
  9. Dwight Eisenhower quoted in Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 187.
  10. Arthur Krock quoted in Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 187.
  11. Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 155.
  12. Quoted in Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 234.
  13. Connelly, Fatal Misconception, 234.
  14. Kasun, Jacqueline R. The War against Population: The Economics and Ideology of World Population Control. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 85
  15. Kasun, qtd. in The War Against Population, 86.
  16. Williams, Rebecca. “Rockefeller Foundation Support to the Khanna Study: Population Policy and the Construction of Demographic Knowledge, 1945-1953.” PhD diss., University of Warwick, 2011.
  17. Connelly, Fatal Misconceptions, 171.
  18. Wyon, J. B., and John Everett Gordon. The Khanna Study: Population Problems in the Rural Punjab. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  19. Unger, Corinna R. “Family Planning– A Rational Choice?” In A World of Populations: Transnational Perspectives on Demography in the Twentieth Century. Berghahn Books, 2014.