Much of the scholarly literature on the history of U.S. area studies in general, and of U.S. Middle East studies in particular, depicts them as in essence a byproduct of the Cold War, launched primarily to produce knowledge and trained personnel of use to the new American national security state. However, research in the archives of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford foundations and of foundation-funded organizations like the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, among other sites, demonstrates that while the Cold War context (or more broadly and more usefully, visions and exigencies of the United States as a global power in the age of decolonization) played their parts in establishing area studies as a component of the American research university, so too did a range of developments in philanthropy, higher education, the humanities and the social sciences that began long before the Cold War. So instead of treating area studies as little more than a Cold War form of knowledge, this paper explores how, beginning in the 1920s, foundation-backed efforts to foster interdisciplinary approaches and to induce the humanities to engage more effectively with the world beyond Europe and North America (including the development of innovative language-teaching methods) conduced to the creation of new academic networks, projects and institutions focused on specific geographic regions. During the Second World War, a new set of sites, projects, practices and networks (which drew on prewar developments) helped delineate the intellectual and institutional contours of what came to be called area studies, ultimately yielding both an apparently coherent and efficacious vision of how useful knowledge about the world might be produced and disseminated, and (beginning immediately after the war) an assemblage of new academic programs, institutions and funding flows. Using Middle East studies as its prime example, the paper shows how until 1958 it was the big foundations rather than the federal government which launched and sustained area studies in the United States, not simply to produce policy-relevant knowledge for the state but in pursuit of a broader (if never fully realized) vision of advancing the social sciences, the humanities and public knowledge about the world. By “following the money” and focusing on institutional developments, this paper offers a more complex understanding of the origins and trajectory of Middle East studies in the United States and of how this new academic field was actually built.