Continuing the Inquiry

Consensus Endangered

NO ONE WHO KNEW of the Inquiry or the proto-Council on Foreign Relations would have recognized their successor organization by the 1960s. The elite dinner club of Wall Street bankers and their academic protégés had grown into a broader-based community of Americans with expertise and responsibility for the United States’ role in world affairs.

Beyond the diplomatic reference works and Foreign Affairs, which had established the Council’s presence in the foreign-policy community, came a flow of analytical books, many of which confirmed their authors onto career paths toward high government responsibility. The Council published Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Alternative to Partition, an analysis of Europe divided between East and West, in 1965; a decade later he became the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Studies of world economic relations had long been a mainstay of the Council’s program, under the dedicated guidance of Senior Fellow William Diebold, Jr., even though economic policy was unfamiliar terrain to the typical diplomat of the era. Richard N. Cooper’s The Economics of Interdependence, published in 1968, attracted wide attention; Cooper became the top economic officer of the State Department in the Carter administration. That same year, Professor Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard was introduced to a broader community of readers with his major study, Gulliver’s Troubles: The Setting of American Foreign Policy.

In 1962 the Council had initiated a program to bring selected Air Force officers, on their way to flag rank, to the Harold Pratt House for a year of research and reflection with their civilian counterparts. This became a pilot project, with no intent at pun, and succeeded to the extent that the Army, Navy, and, eventually, Marine Corps asked for and received similar access.

In 1967 the Rockefeller Brothers Fund invited the Council to devise a fellowship program for promising scholars aged 27 to 35 from university faculties and the civil service. Some among the older Council directors expressed concern that a corps of younger fellows might distract the institution from its primary attentions to the established membership, average age close to 60. But the board authorized John Temple Swing of the Council staff to manage the experimental fellowship program, essentially on his own time. The result was the Council’s International Affairs Fellowship Program, which continues three decades later to encourage younger scholars to supplement their academic work with practical experience in government, and government officials to take a year away from their job pressures to reflect and write on their experiences in office.

Over the coming decades, with each year’s Military Fellows and civilian International Affairs Fellows, plus visitors from the expanding Committees across the country, the corridors of the Harold Pratt House awoke to curiosity and youth, to stimulate the thought habits of the mature members.

Inevitably, a vague unease arose about another group of competent Americans who had long and unhesitatingly been excluded from the Council. Alger Hiss, of all people, had first voiced the sentiment, back in the late 1940s, “that at least one woman” should serve on a public committee growing out of the Council.7 Actual Council membership for women (ladies, as they were then called) still seemed beyond contemplation. A few intrepid members persisted in raising the delicate matter, leading one Council veteran to complain, “If you let one woman in, how can we keep our wives out?” Even more ominous, according to a worldly member of the staff, gentlemen members seemed worried about how they could comfortably explain their attendance at dinner meetings, running well into the evening, when unattached ladies were also present. The issue festered, unresolved, until the end of the 1960s.

Choosing members from another underrepresented group, the leaders of organized labor, also continued to frustrate the notables of the Council in their halting efforts to enlarge their community. At the end of World War II, there had been two: David Dubinsky and Robert J. Watt of the American Federation of Labor. In May 1946 the directors voted to invite more representatives of the labor movement into the membership. Carefully chosen invitations went out; only two more accepted. Their numbers grew over the coming decades, and two presidents of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland and Thomas R. Donahue, along with Glenn Watts, president of the Communications Workers of America, served terms on the Council’s board of directors.

The most fruitful ground for new members turned out to be the so-called “in-and-outers”—businessmen, lawyers, and academics described by social scientists like C. Wright Mills as an influential “power elite.” Two widely quoted critics of the Council, Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, studied the curriculum vitae of 502 government officials in high positions from 1945 to 1972, and found that more than half of them were members of the Council on Foreign Relations.* Richard Barnet, a scholar elected to Council membership in 1969 who remained a frequent critic, noted that membership in the Council on Foreign Relations could well be considered “a rite of passage for an aspiring national security manager.”

In the days of the Inquiry, and in the decade following, the elite engaged in shaping American foreign policy could count on an internal consensus; disputes of substance and style marred the margins, of course, but a core of civility and mutual respect permitted the airing of differences within shared assumptions. Even in the late 1930s, when a schism over international responsibility threatened the body politic, the Council could accommodate the differences within its own collegial environment. Intervention versus isolation in the looming war against fascism was heatedly argued in Council meetings, inspiring countless speeches, articles, and at least one major book arguing for intervention. Then the dinner plates were lifted, the cigars passed around, and the fellowship restored.

The same cannot be said about the national dilemma that hit the United States in the 1960s. On the war in Vietnam, not a single Council study group was convened between 1964 and 1968, crucial years when American military support for the government of President Diem turned, under his successors, into an American land war on the continent of Asia. Across the nation and within the Harold Pratt House, passions were too high and divisions too deep to permit extensive presentation of diverging views in the civilized encounters that had previously characterized the Council. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of an expanding, more heterogeneous membership; clearly the mood of shared underlying manners that had permitted a gentlemanly airing of differences in the 1930s no longer prevailed in the 1960s.

Typically, it was Foreign Affairs that broke the anguished reticence that had immobilized the rest of the Council. In 1968, after the disastrous Tet offensive and amid talk of starting truce negotiations, Armstrong opened large sections of three successive issues of his journal to the topic of Vietnam. He invited Kissinger, then still at Harvard, to contribute an article outlining how a settlement might be reached; the article appeared in January 1969, just as Kissinger became President Nixon’s national security adviser. Armstrong minced no words about his own position, eloquently critical of the war policies that tore apart both nations, Vietnam and the United States. Americans had “failed to understand the people and society we were setting out to help,” the editor wrote in April 1968, and he warned against ignoring “how much the Vietnam war is isolating us from other nations.”

William P. Bundy was offered the Foreign Affairs editorship by Council Chairman David Rockefeller. Although the nomination initially led to some opposition within the membership over Bundy’s involvement in Vietnam policymaking, he assumed the post in 1972 and had left a lasting mark by the time he retired in 1984. He is pictured (left) at a 1979 Pratt House function next to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Council member and former special assistant to President Kennedy, and Stanley Hoffmann (second from right).

But it was also Foreign Affairs that provoked open insurrection within the membership. In 1970, Hamilton Fish Armstrong announced his intention to retire after 45 formidable years at the helm of the Council’s august journal. The new chairman, David Rockefeller, approached a family friend, William P. Bundy, as the two men met at the Harvard president’s house before the Harvard-Yale football game, and offered him the post. Anti-war dissidents within the membership promptly rose in protest that someone with Bundy’s record—a high CIA, Defense, and State Department official through the prosecution of the war—would be entrusted with an independent foreign policy journal. Hastily called meetings at the Harold Pratt House revealed unprecedented anger; members branded Bundy a “war criminal”; his defenders branded the protesters as “left-McCarthyites.”**

Late in 1971, the studies committee of the board of directors concluded that the Council’s program could no longer ignore the Vietnam war. This time, unlike the earlier projects of George Franklin and Henry Kissinger, no single author could be expected to convey radically divergent analyses. The Council decided to invite a series of essays to ex both the war policy and the effects that policy was provoking across American society. Clearly, this was an inquiry more ambitious and challenging than any the Council had tried before, and more than a year passed before the Studies Program could agree on a director for the project. They finally chose a former Foreign Service officer named W. Anthony Lake, who had served in Vietnam, returned to join Kissinger’s staff at the White House, and then abruptly resigned in protest in 1970.

In 1976, under the direction of former Foreign Service officer W. Anthony Lake (shown here on the left in 1994 with Robert S. McNamara, former secretary of defense), the Council issued its first comprehensive analysis of the war in Southeast Asia. “Even if we do not want to think about the war, it has changed us…. We are condemned to act out the unconscious, as well as conscious, ’lessons’ we have learned,” wrote Lake in The Vietnam Legacy. He became national security adviser to President Clinton in 1992.

“Even if we do not want to think about the war, it has changed us,” Lake wrote. “We are condemned to act out the unconscious, as well as conscious, ’lessons’ we have learned.” To present widely divergent perspectives, he commissioned 22 distinguished American and foreign authors, ranging from Irving Kristol to Earl C. Ravenal, Maxwell Taylor to Paul C. Warnke, Richard C. Holbrooke, Leslie H. Gelb, Morton H. Halperin, and Senators John G. Tower and Hubert Humphrey. Concluding his introduction to the anthology as the Vietnam war came to its dismal denouement, Lake wrote:

The Vietnam experience may have so damaged American confidence that it intensifies what could be a nationalistic reaction to problems that can only be solved through international action. The dangerous irony is that the global crisis in food, energy, and population could itself push Americans in a nationalistic direction, as it comes more and more to intrude into our everyday lives. The United States is discovering, after decades of what seemed like relative immunity from the economic and social consequences of events abroad, that it is just another nation—tremendously powerful, but almost as vulnerable to others as they have been to us.

The Vietnam Legacy, published in 1976, was the first comprehensive analysis of the war in Vietnam to issue from the Council on Foreign Relations. Anthony Lake eventually became national security adviser to President Bill Clinton.


7. Wala, The Council on Foreign Relations, p. 195.

* High officials, in this study, ranged from the presidents of the United States to assistant secretaries in the State, War, Navy, and Defense Departments, undersecretaries at Treasury and Commerce; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House assistants, ambassadors to (only) France, Germany, Britain, and the U.S.S.R., and heads of agencies such as the Marshall Plan administration and the Export-Import Bank.M

** One critic who argued that Bundy could not be objective about Vietnam policy was Professor Richard H. Ullman of Princeton. Three years later, Ullman joined the Council staff as director of studies. His first day on the job, he recalls, Bundy walked into his office extending a welcoming hand and expressing his determination to prove the professor wrong in doubting that he had the capacity for independent judgment required of Foreign Affairs. Over the coming years, Ullman freely acknowledged his earlier error, and his opinion that Bundy turned out to be a first-class editor.

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