Continuing the Inquiry

Basic Assumptions

THE NEW COUNCIL was conceived, in the words of its incorporating charter, “to afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States.” By its first annual report, November 1922, it had assurance of financial support for the startup years and close to 300 “carefully chosen” members, including Root from the old Council, but also new and promising figures like Herbert H. Lehman, W. Averell Harriman, and John Foster Dulles.

The Council was nonpartisan: Democrats as well as Republicans were respected members. The Social Register carried little or no weight, in itself. As at the Century Association, which many Council members called their social club in New York, well-established Jews enjoyed early membership, in an era when Jews were barred from other clubs. A prnt African American candidate would surely have been considered with interest. Not on the agenda, however, was membership for women; the prospect of a woman “qualified” for the Council’s fellowship was simply too remote from the experience of the founding members even to be raised.

Among the charter members was prnt diplomat W. Averell Harriman (right), here with John J. McCloy, former American high commissioner in Germany and chairman of the Council’s board from 195370.

Immediately arising was the matter of privacy and confidentiality. Like the Inquiry, the Council deted not to publish its proceedings. “The Council never takes part in affairs for the general public,” declared Walter Mallory, an early Council officer. Yet, even at the start, a little publicity was not to be shunned. The first distinguished foreign speaker invited to the Council attracted enough popular notice to create a stir: Georges Clemenceau, wartime premier of France and a pillar of the Peace Conference. After due deliberation, the Council directors decided to open the meeting to the public. Council member Otto Kahn, an investment banker, rose to the occasion and rented the Metropolitan Opera House, on his own account, for a grand lecture on November 21, 1922. For the rest of Clemenceau’s New York visit, the Council coordinated all his appointments, “lest special interest groups or political factions” attempt to use the visitor to promote their own causes. The Council itself, the early charters declared, “has no selfish purposes; it is an organization of interested and informed people, with a patriotic desire to help their national life and the relations with foreign countries.”

From its inception, the activities of the Council on Foreign Relations were private and confidential. The 1922 New York visit of French statesman Georges Clemenceau (second from right) was an exception to this rule. This pillar of the Versailles conference was publicly feted by the Council in grand style at the Metropolitan Opera House on November 21, 1922. (Note the 29-year-old Hamilton Fish Armstrong at the far left.)

The Council’s founding fathers appreciated that democracy involved the factor of public opinion, but they were uncertain at first about how such opinion was to be formed and expressed. They established a program of “study groups” and “discussion groups” (the Council made a distinction: the former were serious and scholarly, the latter more casual, to appeal to members who wanted to learn as much as to talk), aimed at producing a written analysis with policy conclusions by a single author. The purpose was seldom a public statement by the group, much less by the Council as a whole. Rather, as the method evolved, the designated author would guide discussions, present tentative analyses to be considered and criticized by fellow experts and peers, and polish and assemble them in writing under his sole responsibility. Rarely would the group leaders attempt to negotiate agreement on a consensus that, in most cases, would have had to be compromised into blandness. Lionel Curtis, a leading light in London’s Chatham House, had written that “right public opinion was mainly produced by a small number of people in real contact with the facts, who had thought out the issues involved.” The leadership of the New York Council concurred.

The other primary instrument toward this end, the first and always most visible of the Council’s projects, was an austere quarterly journal launched in September 1922, called Foreign Affairs. This represented a novel idea for the time—a serious and nonpartisan forum for articles on world politics, presenting divergent views that thoughtful lay readers, upon reflection, could accept or challenge. The content was to be readable but uncompromising in intellectual expectations.

The elder statesman Elihu Root wrote the first issue’s lead article, arguing that, isolationist or not, America had become a world power and desperately needed an informed public. Other authors in the issue included the foreign minister of the new Czechoslovakia, Eduard Benes; the last finance minister of the Hapsburg Empire, Joseph Redlich; and a New York lawyer just back from the Peace Conference, John Foster Dulles.*

To generate interest in the new publication, the editors sent copies to influential figures the world over, hoping thereby to establish a high-level readership and, equally important, to induce such notables to contribute articles for future issues. Thus, a copy found its way to Karl Radek, an ideologist for the new Bolshevik regime of Russia. A grateful Radek returned the journal to the Council, reporting that he had shown it to Lenin himself, who added his little marginal notes to Radek’s. (Interestingly enough, the Lenin/Radek annotations came not in the journal’s article about conditions in Soviet Russia but in Dulles’s essay assessing European economic problems.)

Though aimed at professionals in diplomacy and international relations, Foreign Affairs was offered to anyone who wished to subscribe. Given the prevailing skepticism about the public’s interest in absorbing such demanding material, the editors hoped for a circulation of 500. As it happened, double that number subscribed for the first issue; by December the paid circulation rose to 2,700, and it reached 5,000 by the next spring. Other Council publications followed: bibliographies on international affairs, rosters and data on foreign governments, and an annual survey, The United States in World Affairs. These came in an era when serious scholars of diplomacy across the world, like the members of the Inquiry a few years before, had few other resources for policy research and analysis.

Yet the Council, like its membership, insisted on an American focus, the world seen through American eyes, the implications for American policy. Its various projects avoided “international relations in general,” as an early institutional history explained, and concentrated instead on “American relations with other countries.” The flagship quarterly, after all, was called Foreign Affairs, not International Affairs, or some variant thereof. Established and hitting its stride by the election year of 1928, the journal published two statements of American foreign policy that were unabashedly partisan, Republican and Democratic. The Republican author was a former New York congressman serving as undersecretary of the treasury, Ogden L. Mills; writing for the Democrats was the unsuccessful candidate for the vice presidency in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt.**

Awkward in the records of the Inquiry had been the absence of a single study or background paper on the subject of Bolshevism. Perhaps this was simply beyond the academic imagination of the times. Not until early 1923 could the Council summon the expertise to mobilize a systematic examination of the Bolshevik regime, finally entrenched after civil war in Russia. The impetus for this first study was Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which appeared to open the struggling Bolshevik economy to foreign investment. Half the Council’s study group were members drawn from firms that had done business in prerevolutionary Russia, and the discussions about the Soviet future were intense. The concluding report dismissed “hysterical” fears that the revolution would spill outside Russia’s borders into central Europe or, worse, that the heady new revolutionaries would ally with nationalistic Muslims in the Middle East to evict European imperialism. The Bolsheviks were on their way to “sanity and sound business practices,” the Council study group concluded, but the welcome to foreign concessionaires would likely be short-lived. Thus, the Council experts recommended in March 1923 that American businessmen get into Russia while Lenin’s invitation held good, make money on their investments, and then get out as quickly as possible. A few heeded the advice; not for seven decades would a similar opportunity arise.

* Root and Dulles were the first of more than a dozen American secretaries of state—past, present, and future at the time of their writing—to appear as authors over the coming decades in the pages of Foreign Affairs, along with many more of their counterparts among the world’s foreign ministers.

** This election year feature was revived in 1988 by the journal’s fourth editor, William G. Hyland. The Democratic and Republican authors were historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who would be a presidential candidate in 1996.

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