Continuing the Inquiry

The First Transformation

AT WAR’S END the Council stood, like the nation, at a defining moment. Council officers and members, having served the war effort in and out of uniform, filtered back to their private and public lives. Like the generation of their fathers, returning home from Paris, they were eager to sustain the motivation and energy of wartime for the tasks ahead.

Who, actually, was the Council on Foreign Relations at this point in history? An analysis of the officers and directors through the Council’s first quarter-century, ending in 1946, revealed both the elitism of the fellowship and the openness of that New York-based elite to new voices, wherever they might be heard. More than half of the Council’s leadership during these formative years (35 officers and directors out of 55) had attended Ivy League universities: Harvard, 12; Columbia, 9; Yale, 7. But once graduate schools were added, no fewer than 76 institutions of higher learning were represented. Seven of this leadership group had attended foreign universities; three had studied at Oxford. 2

Lawyers from the Wall Street firms predominated in the occupational grouping; the 55 Council officers and directors also held 74 corporate directorships. Next came professional academics, with five university presidents, including Bowman of Johns Hopkins and Harold W. Dodds of Princeton. Twelve of the leadership had served in cabinet or subcabinet positions for different administrations in the interwar and wartime years; another 30 had experience elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy, including 21 in the State Department. A typical Council officer belonged to three social clubs from a list of 170; the Century and Knickerbocker in New York and the Cosmos and Metropolitan in Washington were the most popular. The permanent staff of the Council had grown to 20 full-time researchers; the Committees across the country had expanded to 25 from the original 8.

The Council’s home on East 65th Street, so grand when acquired after the Wall Street crash, was proving hopelessly inadequate for these expansions. In 1944 the widow of Harold Irving Pratt, a director of Standard Oil of New Jersey and a faithful Council member since 1923, donated the family’s four-story mansion, at the southwest corner of 68th Street and Park Avenue, for the Council’s use. (In keeping with a prevailing reverse snobbery, the address and front door were on the side street, not the more showy avenue.) John D. Rockefeller, Jr., led a slate of 200 members and companies who volunteered funds to convert the gracious residence into offices, meeting rooms, and an institutional library. When the Council moved into its new quarters in April 1945, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, a member since 1938, came to New York, “to bear witness [he said], as every Secretary of State during the past quarter of a century, to the great services and influence of this organization in spreading knowledge and understanding of the issues of United States foreign policy.”*

In 1944 the widow of Harold Irving Pratt, Council member and director of Standard Oil of New Jersey, donated the family home at 68th Street and Park Avenue for the Council’s use. “In keeping with a prevailing reverse snobbery, the address and front door were on the side street, not the more showy avenue.”

Intermingled with the meeting and working spaces of the Harold Pratt House were the editorial offices of Foreign Affairs—its circulation by then grown to 17,000—and an impressive series of periodic reference works for public use, including The United States in World Affairs, a Foreign Affairs Bibliography, and the annual Political Handbook of the World.

The budget for this enterprise was transformed of necessity in line with its staff and operations. Individual bequests from members had provided some $250,000 for the years following World War II; yet by 1952 the Council reported an operating deficit of about $50,000. Over the course of the 1950s large foundations stepped in to support and enlarge the Council as a leading force in America’s international awareness; from the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation came $500,000 each, topped by $1.5 million from the new Ford Foundation in 1954. The Council had come a long way from the mellow dinner meetings of the founding years.

In its substance, American foreign policy was similarly transformed in the first years following World War II. An isolationist frontier nation became a world power. A wartime ally, the Soviet Union, became an adversary; former enemies, Germany and Japan, became allies. The transformation did not occur without intellectual and organizational agonies—in the government and in the private associations like the Council that sought to understand and explain the changes taking place in the world.

Allen Dulles returned from the wartime OSS to assume a leading role in the Council’s business, resuming his law practice at Sullivan and Cromwell for an interim between his secret work in Switzerland and a career at the soon-to-be Central Intelligence Agency. Dulles was a Republican; working alongside him in the Council was Alger Hiss, a newly elected member sympathetic to the left wing of the Democratic Party, but a protege of the older Dulles brother, John Foster. Political differences were matched by the egos and vanities contained within the new Harold Pratt House. Armstrong, firmly at the Council’s helm, grew uneasy that Chatham House, the Council’s British counterpart under the charismatic influence of Arnold Toynbee, might seize the initiative in shaping the record of World War II. Armstrong and his colleagues tapped one of their own to compose a comprehensive history of the war: Harvard historian William L. Langer, a scholar involved in the Council since 1932. A historian equally distinguished, Charles A. Beard, promptly denounced the Council and the Rockefeller Foundation for collaborating with the State Department to create a “historical monopoly.” These august bodies, Beard declared, did not want “journalists or any other persons to question too closely or criticize too freely the official propaganda and official statements relative to our basic aims and activities during World War II.” Beard argued from the left; from the right came columnist George Sokolsky, who described the Council as “a stuffed shirt affair of highbrow internationalists” engaging in “monopolistic scholarship, the sort of thing Hitler did and Stalin does.” The dispute turned personal. A Council officer chided Beard for accepting foundation grants—thus dirtying his own hands, if that’s the way he chose to look at it, with subsidized scholarship.

Though the Council managed to publish only two volumes of the Langer study, co-authored with S. Everett Gleason, this major work dealing with the period 193941 belied Beard’s forebodings that supposedly independent scrutiny would only enshrine the official version of the events leading to war. On the contrary, Langer’s access to government archives and the two authors’ sophisticated analysis produced a new historical record both richer and more nuanced than the policy declarations of the period had envisaged for public consumption.

As the War and Peace Studies came to their end in 1945, the Council reverted to its traditional program for members and the broader constituencies that could be reached through the members’ stature and public contacts. In characteristic fashion, Council planners conceived a study group to analyze the coming world order. Notably uncharacteristic was the additional suggestion that the American members be joined by competent persons from Soviet Russia—a joint Soviet-American inquiry. In the congenial, gentlemanly atmosphere of the Harold Pratt House, ideas and visions could be shared.

Percy Bidwell, director of the Council’s new Studies Program, had courteously approached the Soviet Embassy as early as January 1944 to stimulate interest in the joint project. He was received by Ambassador Andrei Gromyko, whose response would become all too familiar in the years to come. Through Gromyko the Russian word “nyet” entered the English language. Without any pretense of diplomatic tact, the ambassador (soon to be foreign minister) told the men from the Council he would not permit any responsible Soviet spokesman to join in such a discussion.

Once the truncated inquiry got underway, cold water was thrown in from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Historian David Dallin of Columbia, an outspoken figure among anti-Soviet Russian émigrés, took umbrage at the view a left-wing journalist expressed in an early group meeting, that postwar cooperation might be possible with the Soviet regime. “I know from experience that a fruitful discussion of serious problems with a fellow traveler is impossible,” Dallin declared. Such thinking was “on such a low level …as to make it impossible for me to take part in a meeting at which this gentleman would be present.” **

The chairman of the study group, Lazard Frères partner William H. Schubart, a veteran of the War and Peace Studies, pressed on. “I think we can be hard-boiled and just, without doing harm,” he told the Council. “The main thing is to be sure that we are not asking for something unreasonable” of the Soviet Union. Specifically, he was pressing for endorsement of a $6 billion loan from the United States to finance Soviet imports for postwar reconstruction. “It seems reasonable to suppose that if economic and political cooperation between Russia and the United States could be developed in peace as military cooperation between the two nations has been developed in war,” Schubart said, “the world might look forward to an era of relative stability and considerable prosperity.” Bidwell, speaking for the Council’s academic staff, concurred. “It seems to me increasingly important that we should be able to break down the intellectual blockade with which the Russians have surrounded themselves.”

All the ambiguities that colored American thinking toward the Soviet Union in the first postwar year were embodied in the Council’s study group that winter of 194546. For enlightenment about Soviet realities, members could only fall back upon secondhand impressions of journalists and scholars, who in turn were analyzing secondhand data many years out of date. As for policy guidance from Washington, none came. A German historian concluded 40 years later, “Suggestions for a future American policy toward the Soviet Union were hardly advanced by these deliberations; rather, the meetings turned out to be merely a process of synchronizing the ’correct’ view of the U.S.S.R. among Council members.”3

It fell to the rapporteur of the study group to try making some sense of the discussions. This unlucky soul was a promising young man named George S. Franklin, Jr., a college roommate of another up-and-coming Council member, David Rockefeller, both of them just beginning long and distinguished careers at the Council. Franklin’s task was to assemble perspectives from sources as far apart as Gromyko and Dallin, Lazard’s investment bankers and the anti-communists—indeed, in the broader Council, as different as the Dulles brothers and Alger Hiss. For the four months it took him to draft his report, Franklin did his best.

  • The United States should not disregard the differences between the two nations but should, nevertheless, develop an understanding of the Soviet position and should attempt to work closely with it.
  • Cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union is as essential as almost anything in the world today, and unless and until it becomes entirely evident that the U.S.S.R. is not interested in achieving cooperation, we must redouble, not abandon, our efforts, when the task proves difficult. Cooperation, however, does not mean that we should knuckle under, or allow ourselves to become weak. We must bend every effort to make this country strong, prosperous and happy, to relieve cyclical unemployment, and to show the world a way of life that people everywhere will wish to emulate.
  • The United States must be powerful not only politically and economically, but also militarily. We cannot afford to dissipate our military strength unless Russia is willing concurrently to decrease hers. On this we lay great emphasis.
  • We must take every opportunity to work with the Soviets now, when their power is still far inferior to ours, and hope that we can establish our cooperation on a firmer basis for the not so distant future when they will have completed their reconstruction and greatly increased their strength…. The policy we advocate is one of firmness coupled with moderation and patience.

The Franklin draft was circulated to the study group members early in the spring of 1946. In March, Winston Churchill had delivered his ominous speech about an “iron curtain” descending across central Europe. On May 21, Council members met at the Harold Pratt House to consider the outcome of their first collective exercise in shaping the postwar world. The heavyweights were in attendance, their swords unsheathed. The 36 members of the study group had tentatively voted on the question of publishing the Franklin draft; 16 seemed inclined to accept it, 5 were likely to vote against, and 15 could not yet make up their minds. (Allen Dulles was one of the Council leaders who remained undecided.)

“It’s the same thing without mechanical problems.”

Leading the charge against the Franklin draft at the plenary was the secretary of the Council’s board of directors, Frank Altschul. Though a colleague of Schubart in the investment community, he allowed for no benefit of doubt or deal. The time for negotiation and compromise with Soviet Russia was over, Altschul declared, and the Council’s eager rapporteur was bending over backward to accommodate the Soviet Union.

Once the Wall Street members, with their stature and money, had weighed in so firmly, even the intellectual contingent, Franklin’s main mentors at the Council, ran for cover. Bowman, elder statesman of the Council’s academics, naturally chose the intellectual plane for his retort. His judgment, nonetheless, was devastating. The draft report was outdated, he informed Franklin. Even worse, it represented mostly “ordinary off-the-cuff opinion that does not represent fresh analysis or thought…. A report on so important a theme for so many meetings of a substantial group of men will be taken as the measure of the work of the Council on Foreign Relations…. Neither scholars nor policymakers in Washington will consider this report as either excellent or useful.”

The Franklin report of May 1946, outlining cautious hopes for cooperative relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the coming postWorld War II years, was dead. The board’s committee on studies formally decided against publication in July; by November all sympathy for a conciliatory stance toward Moscow had disappeared from the corridors of the Harold Pratt House. The Franklin draft survives today only in the Council’s archives. “It is quite possible,” wrote the German historian Michael Wala, “that the Council thus missed an opportunity to give guidance to American policymakers through constructive advice.”4

Notes:

2. This statistical analysis is drawn from a study by Inderjeet Parmar, lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester (England), published in The Journal of American Studies, vol. 29 (1995), no. 1, pp. 7395.

3. Michael Wala, The Council on Foreign Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1994), p. 62.

4. Wala, The Council on Foreign Relations, p. 76.

* Over the coming five decades, the Council acquired and expanded into four adjoining town houses; by the mid-1990s one-third of the block between Park and Madison Avenues was integrated into a working headquarters behind the classic facades along a tree-lined New York cross-street.

** Over the coming years, Dallin went on to denounce the Central Intelligence Agency for attempting to organize anti-Soviet émigrés against the Kremlin, after the new intelligence agency failed to give sufficient attention to his own faction.

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