LATTER-DAY CRITICS seem to imagine that the Council on Foreign Relations functioned in those days as an elite club, small, content, and confident in comfortable homogeneity. In fact, from the start the elders of the Council found it necessary to contend with opposing views in their otherwise amicable meetings. Diversity of opinion in the pages of Foreign Affairs was one thing; conflicting viewpoints in personal encounters, over brandy and cigars, threatened the decorum that the early members sought above all to maintain.
Anger and dissent among members marred the supposed composure within the first year or so. The flashpoint was an invitation to an avowed isolationist to speak at a private dinner meeting. Bankers and members of the original Council protested. Russell C. Leffingwell, a partner of J. P. Morgan’s bank, refused to stand at the lectern alongside an isolationist; Paul Warburg of Kuhn Loeb vented outrage that an “uneducable demagogue” should be offered Council hospitality. Academic members, testing the uneasy partnership with their monied colleagues, fought back. Isaiah Bowman, a stalwart of the Inquiry, responded with incredulity: “What has Wall Street to gain by refusing to hear even a demagogue? Certainly if he is a dangerous demagogue we ought all the more to hear him to discover why he is dangerous and just how dangerous he is.”
As the Council’s seasons mounted, and the society of the 1920s grew informal and undisciplined, the increasing diversity of views was matched by new and different personal styles of rhetoric and behavior, even in civilized company. Henry Stimson, President Taft’s secretary of war and later President Hoover’s secretary of state, a Council member since the beginning, expressed annoyance at the “cranks and dissidents” whose carping threatened to discomfort other members at Council meetings.
For all their grumbling, the captains of finance among the membership clearly welcomed the intellectual stimulation and diversity, the unique synergy of interests envisioned at the start. They did all right by their Council. Members who were directors of large corporations seized the opportunity to inject the concerns of business into the reflections of scholars. Some 26 firms signed up for a program of corporate financial support. Capital funds accumulated during the heady decade of the 1920s. With an investment acumen that few of the day could match, the Council liquidated the better part of its portfolio the year before the crash of 1929, realizing $300,000 in cash to purchase a permanent home, a five-story townhouse at 45 East 65th Street, abutting the family residence of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had become the governor of New York.
Supported by a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the Council launched a major initiative in December 1937 to spread its activities and role across the United States, to replicate the New York Council in eight American cities. Local gentlemen of influence would be enlisted to organize systematic discussions in their own communities. These so-called Committees on Foreign Relations would be autonomous and self-governing; they were never intended to be a network governed from New York. Walter Mallory, the Council’s operating officer, insisted “that the Committees should not be ’action groups’ sponsoring particular policies, but should serve only for the enlightenment of the members.”
But the Department of State, for one, did not wait long to try using the new Committees on Foreign Relations to build a popular base for Roose-velt, who had become president in 1933, in his foreign policy. The public liaison officer in Washington, Hugh Wilson, diplomatic doyen of the Versailles generation, invited the Council to “send a man here on current questions. This man could talk with the proper people in the State Department, preparing a memorandum on his own which would not be attributed to the Department, and circulated for the confidential information of the men on the selected [Committees’] list. We could arrange that the men on the selected list would not be notified that this was State Department material.” The Council’s management tactfully let this dubious suggestion drop.
This very dilemma would trouble the Council for years to come. Along with the synergy of academic and business interests, the Council had the difficult task of protecting its independence in analysis and opinion while maintaining useful proximity to friends and colleagues in government. That proximity, essential to informed discussion, always opened the possibility that a Council occasion could be exploited by one or another faction, as foreign policy debates became more fractious than in the agreeable days of the Paris Peace Conference.
Striving to increase its reach, the Council sought to engage leaders of the American labor movement, recognizing labor as a significant and dynamic factor in the world economy. Financiers, professors, and career diplomats who were becoming influential in governing the Council little understood that labor leaders, who had made their careers in the class struggle against capital and management, might not feel at ease amid the shared assumptions and elite perspectives of the Council.
In the interwar decades America’s idea of international affairs, such as it was, tended to be Eurocentric, and this was reflected in the topics given greatest attention in the discussion and study groups in New York and in the Committees across the country. Yet the Council made efforts to direct members’ attention to other areas of the world.
The first issue of Foreign Affairs included an article on the Pacific islands, conquered remnants of the German empire newly turned by the League of Nations into “mandates” of the victorious powers. “The introduction of the Mandate principle into the Pacific is an experiment which will be watched with interest,” Foreign Affairs readers were told. “The administration of backward races and undeveloped areas by individual states, in the Pacific as elsewhere, has hitherto not always been as fortunate as could be desired. There is hope that the Mandate principle of collective international supervision may bring better results and may furnish an example for the administration of backward regions which are now under the full sovereignty of separate Powers.”
Professor of Near Eastern history at Harvard and director of the university’s Widener Library, Archibald Cary Coolidge was the first editor of Foreign Affairs
Then, in April 1925, Foreign Affairs broke ground on a radical topic that seemed beneath the notice of conventional diplomatic thinking; once presented, moreover, it was for many an intrusion not to be welcomed.
The continent of Africa appeared to the Council on Foreign Relations in its first decades (reflecting American foreign policy in the period) as a factor of empires and colonies, of untapped natural resources, and, though not often addressed, of avenues for social and economic progress among peoples deemed backward or undeveloped. The views of an African American sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois, came to the attention of the 32-year-old managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, who made bold to solicit an article for publication. The journal’s chief editor, Archibald Cary Coolidge, resident at Harvard, read the ensuing manuscript and seconded his deputy’s eagerness to publish it. “Many who object to it,” Coolidge wrote Armstrong, “will do so because the thoughts it suggests make them feel uncomfortable, as in my own case.”
A key Council leader, Hamilton Fish Armstrong assumed the editorship of Foreign Affairs in 1928 and remained at the helm for nearly half a century.
The article, “Worlds of Color,” the first of five that this author would eventually publish in Foreign Affairs, remains remarkable half a century later. DuBois had had first-hand experience with the colonies of Africa and portrayed their diverse societies with an intimacy unmatched in the prevailing colonial literature. Moreover, he went on to inject the issue of race into diplomatic calculations; “I seem to see the problem of the twentieth century as the problem of the color line,” DuBois wrote in 1925.
Latin America was a matter of special concern to Council members, but they regretted that their expertise, acquired largely through their business operations, did not generate much public interest in the United States. A 1935 Western Hemisphere study group proposed that the Council publish its findings “as a contrast to the mistaken notions of the average North American.” The group, started as a two-year review of the New Deal’s Good Neighbor Policy, incurred the ire of members who resented the implication that U.S. firms had not been “good neighbors” before Roosevelt came into office. The Council management bowed to the sentiments; Good Neighbor Policy was nothing more than “one of those happy phrases politicians love to coin,” Mallory declared, and he changed the name of the study group. It became “Current Relations with Latin America,” bland enough to satisfy the restive members, but also to remove any element to pique the interest of a broader audience.
Many of the Council grew as worried about militarism in Japan as in Europe. In March 1933, Secretary of State Stimson objected that a Japanese diplomat has been invited to speak, expressing his shock “that the Council on Foreign Relations, with its extremely high, though unofficial standing, should lend itself to furthering the subversive effects of such propaganda.” Stimson compared academic members seeking to hear divergent points of view “to those men of Athens whom St. Paul described as solely anxious to hear and discuss some new thing.” For his part, “the Council existed for a rather more responsible purpose.”
Thus recurred the old reservation about the Council’s stance of impartiality that Wall Street members had raised a decade earlier and the more academically inclined had resisted. A few months earlier, the tolerance of Council members had been even more angrily challenged when a visiting German journalist had explained why an upstart politician named Adolf Hitler might have an appeal to many Germans in the years to come. Mallory, ever seeking to calm unrest among the membership, apologized for the controversial speaker’s heavy German accent, adding lamely that perhaps he did not understand many of the questions put to him.
Columnist Dorothy Thompson, shown here in 1939 testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the first to “dissect the looming Nazi phenomenon” in the pages of Foreign Affairs.
Before long, and on a level much more profound than the propriety of divergent views at meetings of the Council on Foreign Relations, a chasm opened within the halls—and across the whole of America.
Armstrong, who had succeeded to the top editorship of Foreign Affairs in 1928, was one of the first Americans to interview this man Hitler face to face, in April 1933, less than a month after the Nazi leader assumed dictatorial power in Germany. The young editor emerged from the Berlin chancellery deeply shocked at the values and goals conveyed to him with a demagoguery that the world at large would eventually come to know all too well. He opened his journal to authors who could dissect the looming Nazi phenomenon with more pointed expertise than his own: liberal columnist Dorothy Thompson; the American socialist Norman Thomas, who denounced Nazi policy toward labor; and historian Charles A. Beard, who attacked Nazi education policies.
During the 1930s, Armstrong began assuming leadership of the Council beyond the pages of his journal. Neither financier nor academic, he used the fresh approach of scholarly journalism to bridge the professional divide. Starting with a question of American law that he judged members would confront more readily than the changing ideologies of a foreign government, he encouraged formation in 1934 of a multiyear study group to ex the U.S. policy of neutrality in the face of fascist aggression. To chair the group, Armstrong promoted an old college friend from Princeton, Allen Dulles, a career diplomat turned Wall Street lawyer who had gained some prnce as an expert on disarmament and collective security.*
Armstrong and Dulles collaborated on a dry but polemical book, published in 1936 under the Council’s imprimatur, entitled Can We Be Neutral? They attacked the notion, eagerly embraced by isolationist America, that the New World could continue isolating itself from power struggles in Europe and Asia. Interventionist broadsides resounded from Foreign Affairs like drumbeats to rouse an apathetic populace. Armstrong prodded another old friend from the Paris Peace Conference, Walter Lippmann, into heights of rhetoric to denounce the Neutrality Act of 1937. “Though collaboration with Britain and her allies is difficult and often irritating,” Lippmann wrote, “we shall protect the connection because in no other way can we fulfill our destiny.”** >
The clash between “interventionists” and “isolationists”—those who agitated to resist totalitarian aggression and those who sought to keep America aloof from foreign power struggles—tore the American intellectual community apart in the late 1930s, as fascism spread across central Europe and the far side of the Pacific. Old friendships among those who had earlier been socially and intellectually like-minded dissolved in anger. Within the shelter of the Council and its related advocacy groups, the issue became literally a matter of brother against brother. John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, both prnt members respected among their legal and academic colleagues, found themselves on opposing sides. Allen led the cause of intervention to defeat fascism, John Foster argued reasons why the dictators should be appeased.
The schism came to a sudden end only on December 7, 1941, shortly after noon in New York.
* Allen Dulles had actually met Hitler in Berlin two weeks before Armstrong, but as a cautious diplomat he had not allowed himself the passionate reaction of his journalistic friend—a lapse that, under Armstrong’s influence, he quickly repaired.
** As it happened, this was the last time the distinguished columnist, an early manager of the Inquiry, would be invited into the pages of Foreign Affairs. At the height of the neutrality controversy, Armstrong discovered that his wife and his valued author had fallen into an affair; the two couples were divorced in an unpleasant society scandal. Lippmann and Armstrong’s former wife, Helen, subsequently married; the offended editor barred Lippmann from his journal for the rest of their lives.
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