On the Tasks of a Population Commission: A 1971 Statement by Donald Rumsfeld


In its most familiar form, analytic assessment of the impact of demographic change on human affairs is the product of a decentralized cottage industry: individual scholars collecting information, thinking about its meaning, testing hypotheses, and publishing their findings. Guidance through the power of the purse and through institutional design that creates and sustains cooperating groups of researchers can impose some order and coherence on such spontaneous activity. But the sum total of the result may lack balance and leave important aspects of relevant issues inadequately explored. Even when research findings are picked up by the media and reach a broader public, the haphazardness of that process helps further to explain why the salience of population change to human welfare and its importance in public policymaking are poorly understood. The syndrome is not unique to the field of population, but the typically long time-lags with which aggregate population change affects economic and social phenomena make it particularly difficult for the topic to claim public attention.

A time-tested, if less than fool-proof remedy is the periodic effort to orchestrate a systematic and thorough examination of the causes, consequences, and policy implications of demographic processes. Because the most potent frame for policymaking is the state, the logical primary locus for such stocktaking is at the country level. The Commission on Population Growth and the American Future was a uniquely ambitious enterprise of this sort. The Commission was established by the US Congress in 1970 as a result of a presidential initiative. Along with the work of two earlier British Royal Commissions on population, this US effort, mutatis mutandis, can serve as a model for in-depth examinations conducted at the national level anywhere. Chaired by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, the Commission submitted its final report to President Richard M. Nixon in March 1972. The background studies to the report were published in seven hefty volumes; an index to these volumes was published in 1975.

Reproduced below is a statement to the Commission delivered on April 14, 1971 by Donald Rumsfeld, then Counsellor to President Nixon and in charge of the Office of Economic Opportunity. (Currently, Mr. Rumsfeld serves as US Secretary of Defense.) The brief statement articulates with great clarity the objectives of the Commission and the considerations that prompted them. The text originally appeared in Vol. 7 (pp. 1-3) of the Commission's background reports, which contains the statements at public hearings conducted by the Commission.

National efforts toward comprehensive scientific reviews of population issues have their analogs at the international level. Especially notable on that score were the preparatory studies presented at the 1954 Rome and 1965 Belgrade world population conferences. The world population conferences that took place in Bucharest in 1974, in Mexico City in 1984, and in Cairo in 1994 were intergovernmental and political rather than scientific and technical meetings, but they also generated a fair amount of prior research. The year 2004 will break the decadal sequence of large-scale international meetings on population, and apart from the quadrennial congresses of the IUSSP, which showcase the voluntary research offerings of its members, none is being planned for the coming years. A partial substitute will be meetings organized by the UN's regional economic and social commissions. The first of these took place in 2002 for the Asia-Pacific region; the meetings for the other regions will be held in 2003-04. The analytic and technical contribution of these meetings, however, is expected to be at best modest. National efforts of the type carried out 30 years ago by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future would be all the more salutary.