The Ploughshares Fund is an anti-nuclear proliferation organization pooling and directing donations from wealthy individuals and philanthropies. It is reportedly “the largest grant-making foundation in the United States focusing exclusively on peace and security issues.” Founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, the 501(c)(3) boasted slightly more than $40 million in assets in 2015. Its 2016 annual report claims the organization spent $10 million that year.
The fund played a major role in manufacturing a favorable media and public opinion environment leading up to the approval of the Obama administration’s controversial Iran nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a profile for the New York Times Magazine, Obama White House National Security Council speechwriter and strategist Ben Rhodes admitted that with the help of Ploughshares an “echo chamber” had been created around the Iran treaty. By its own admission in its 2016 annual report, “Ploughshares Fund ran a five-year, $12 million campaign to forge a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis.”
Since then, the Ploughshares Fund has moved much of its focus to monitoring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, as well as hosting its new N Square initiative in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. The Ploughshares Fund’s current president, Joseph Cirincione, joined the foundation in March 2008 from his previous position as senior vice president for national security and international policy at the John Podesta-founded Center for American Progress.
Sally Lilienthal established the Ploughshares Fund in 1981. Lilienthal was born Sally Ann Lowengart in Portland, Oregon.  She and her affluent family moved to San Francisco, where Ploughshares is still headquartered, when she was 12. After graduating college in 1940 she worked for the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C. She returned to San Francisco with her first husband after the war, and studied sculpture at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute. She was appointed to the San Francisco arts commission in 1960 and sculpted professionally till 1971. Through much of the ’70s she served on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her first husband had died in 1955, and her second marriage ended in divorce. She married Philip Lilienthal, associate director of the University of California Press, in 1970. In 1977, the year the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize, Lilienthal was national vice chairwoman of Amnesty International.
In 1981 Lilienthal established the Ploughshares Fund in her living room. Lilienthal raised $100,000 for the fund in that first year on her own. According to a 1988 Chicago Tribune story, an anonymous donor gave $250,000 a year to cover Ploughshare’s administrative costs, allowing gifts to go toward grants.
Early major grant projects included helping fund scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council traveling to Moscow to advocate for the installation of seismic monitoring equipment as a proposed means of verifying a nuclear testing ban. Ploughshares also supported the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which after it led to a treaty signed by 122 countries won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. In 1987, The Council on Foundations recognized Ms. Lilienthal with the Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Philanthropy, and in 1990 the United Nations Association gave her its Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award. She died October 24, 2006. One obituary writer recalls:
“She taught me more about the fundamentals of fundraising than anyone else: “Never ask someone else for money if you haven’t given yourself.” “Let your donors give to the program and practice; get your Board to cover the overhead costs.” “Always add a personal note to donors.” “Use a different color ink for any added personal remarks.” (She preferred blue ink to accent the black, formal type)”
Focus and Activities
During the Cold War Ploughshares Fund opposed NATO’s decision to place medium-range missiles in Europe in response to Soviet military buildup, particularly the USSR’s deployment of SS-20 Missiles in Eastern Europe, and advocated for U.S. disarmament as a way to ease tensions with the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War, Ploughshares has continued to focus on the reduction of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
After the Obama administration canceled plans for the deployment of a U.S. missile defense shield in Central Europe in September 2009, Ploughshares claimed credit, saying it had “informed the decision” of the Obama administration.
The Obama administration and the fund publicly differed in 2011 over how much the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons. The White House promised at least $185 billion over 10 years to Republican lawmakers for modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal to be left after the reductions required by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The government’s official number was $214 billion over 10 years. Ploughshares said the real number was about $700 billion over the decade, an estimate apparently made by factoring in the cost of modernization, including next-generation bombers, missile platforms, and submarines. Other groups defended the Ploughshares number as well, but they receive funding from the Plowshares, which admitted it had hosted a listserv and meetings coordinating a publicity strategy to reduce the nuclear budget. Some disarmament groups were reportedly uncomfortable with the Ploughshares figure but hoped to present a unified front on the issue.
Between 1981 and 2011 Ploughshares disbursed more than $60 million in hundreds of grants. After the successful promotion of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, Ploughshares has focused on North Korea, the threat of India and Pakistan, and general disarmament through their new initiative N Square. N Square is a “multimillion dollar initiative designed to stimulate innovation in the fields of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and safety and security” hosted by Ploughshares, in partnership with The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.
Iran Deal “Echo Chamber”
As revealed in a New York Times Magazine profile of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, the Ploughshares Fund was instrumental in creating an “echo chamber” of positive public and expert opinion around the Obama administration’s controversial participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action proposed nuclear treaty with Iran. Said Rhodes:
“In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “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.”
Ploughshares funded national security coverage by National Public Radio between 2005 and 2016, donating at least $700,000. Beginning in 2010, grants specified coverage of Iran and Iran’s nuclear programs. In 2015, the Ploughshares NPR grant was $100,000 and Joseph Cirincione, Ploughshares’ president, spoke about the Iran deal on air at least twice. As the Associated Press reported, for Iran-related analysis, briefings, and media, and non-Iran nuclear advocacy, Ploughshares also gave the Arms Control Association $282,500; the Brookings Institution, $225,000; and the Atlantic Council, $182,500. Liberal Jewish political action group J-Street received $576,500 to promote the Iran deal, and more than $281,000 was given to the National Iranian American Council. These organizations received grants in years leading up to the 2015 as well. Ploughshares also gave Princeton University $70,000 to fund Iranian ambassador and nuclear spokesman Seyed Hossein Mousavian’s “analysis, publications and policymaker engagement on the range of elements involved with the negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear program.””
In Ploughshares’ 2015 annual report, Cirincione boasted about the fund’s support and organization of Iran deal promotion, saying the “Ploughshares Fund raised and disbursed almost $12 million in grants over the past five years” to fund “a network uniting hundreds of organizations and individuals in common cause.” Other participants in this network include the Truman National Security Project; the Friends Committee on National Legislation, MoveOn, New America, Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, the Washington Strategy Group, VoteVets, the Stimson Center, and MIT’s Security Studies Program. In a funding proposal titled “Defending Iran Nuclear Diplomacy,” In 2016 Ploughshares requested $750,000 from billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations so that it could continue to pay and expand its network of “experts and validators” to advocate for the preservation of the deal against future challenges.
Joseph Cirincione became president of the Ploughshares Fund in March 2008. He is author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Nightmares, and Deadly Arsenals. He is also a co-author of Universal Compliance. Cirincione served as senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and was director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for eight years. He also worked as a U.S. House of Representatives staffer on the Committee on Armed Services and the Military Reform Caucus.
The executive director and chief operating officer of Ploughshares is Philip Yun. Before joining the fund he was a vice president at The Asia Foundation, a Pantech Scholar in Korean Studies at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, and a vice president at the private equity firm H&Q Asia Pacific. Yun was an appointee of President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Department of State from 1994-2001, serving as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Advisors and members of the Ploughshares Fund’s board of directors include Hal Harvey, president and CEO of the ClimateWorks Foundation; Steven Kirsch, chairman of the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation; Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress; left-of-center film actor Michael Douglas; former Obama administration Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and controversial writer and media figure Reza Aslan. Former CIA officer Valerie Plame resigned from the Ploughshares Fund board after she made a series of anti-Semitic tweets endorsing an extreme-right article alleging a Jewish-led conspiracy to lead the country to war.
Ploughshares is a major funder and parent organization for the Peace and Security Funders Group. Ploughshares considers itself as a partner of groups including Code Pink, Demos, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Priorities Project, United for Peace and Justice, and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (or the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation).
Plooughshares has given grants to individuals including writer Jonathan Schell and former U.S. Representative Robert W. Edgar (D-Pennsylvania).