It happens very seldom indeed that novel and sensible ideas spring forth from the never-ending discourse about U.S. foreign policy. But without all the palaver, such ideas would rarely have a chance to breathe. Since 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations has been the privileged and prent nongovernmental impresario of America’s pageant to find its place in the world.
For 75 years now, Council members have talked and listened to each other and to outsiders. Along the way, they enjoyed catalyzing instants of insight and lucidity. Short of those rare and cherished moments, members had to content themselves with hearing and making the best arguments of the day, such as they were.
In this volume, Peter grosse chronicles many of these high and low points. We asked Peter to wrestle with this history because he knows our institution well as a member, former senior fellow, former executive editor of our esteemed journal, Foreign Affairs, and because he is a journalist and historian of note and integrity. The words and thoughts are his. We on the staff labored only to ensure accuracy. Happily, humor survives, as do rich vignettes of Council quirkiness.
Some readers will lament that this fair history shows the Council as far less conspiratorial and dominant than the folklore would have it. The grosse narrative reaches far back to epic dinner meetings where a homogeneous group of members debated the issues of the day only to discover they could not agree on very much. For the last 20 years, with a diverse group of members, the results have been about the same, though lacking the healing power of cigar smoke.
What was special then and now about the Council is that, for the most part, members have holstered their bile when within the walls of the Harold Pratt House. Discussions and arguments at Council meetings and in Foreign Affairs generally have proceeded without rancor and without partisan bite. In addition to this precious civility, Council members have shared the conviction that Americans must know about the world and play a leading role in its affairs.
If the Council as a body has stood for anything these 75 years, it has been for American internationalism based on American interests. If the Council has had influence during this period, it has derived from individual members taking the varied and often conflicting fare of Council meetings and publications to a wider American audience. From Foreign Affairs articles by W.E.B. DuBois and George F. Kennan to books by Henry A. Kissinger and Stanley Hoffmann, the Council’s role has been to find the best minds and leaders, bring them together with other Council members, and provide forum and stage.
Peter grosse recounts these matters well. Council Chairman Peter Peterson, Senior Vice President Alton Frye (who has worked here about one-third of our history), and I commend his efforts to you.
Leslie H. Gelb
Council on Foreign Relations