IT ALL STARTED as an inquiry, indeed, “The Inquiry.” To the select few who knew, this was the name of a working fellowship of distinguished scholars, tasked to brief Woodrow Wilson about options for the postwar world once the kaiser and imperial Germany fell to defeat. Through the winter of 1917-18, this academic band gathered discreetly in a hideaway at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City, to assemble the data they thought necessary to make the world safe for democracy.
Historians still differ about how seriously President Wilson, though a former university president, took this exercise. The notion had been pressed upon him by Edward M. House, his trusted aide; in the modern style, House would be called Wilson’s national security adviser. But there is no question about how seriously the intellectuals took their unprecedented mission. Modesty was neither a prerequisite nor even a virtue. “We are skimming the cream of the younger and more imaginative scholars,” declared Walter Lippmann, the 28-year-old Harvard graduate who recruited the scholars and managed the Inquiry in its formative phase. “What we are on the lookout for is genius—sheer, startling genius, and nothing else will do.”
The vision that stirred the Inquiry became the work of the Council on Foreign Relations over the better part of a century: a program of systematic study by groups of knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations would stimulate a variety of papers and reports to guide the statecraft of policymakers. What began as an intellectual response to a juncture of history grew into an institution that would thrive through all the diplomacy of America’s twentieth century. Perpetually renewing its membership and its mission, reaching out beyond an elite circle to help educate the entire public, the Council grew into a model that is now emulated by a host of newer research centers, in the United States and abroad. Their common challenge is to stimulate concerned citizens in their thinking about power and politics among nations.
“It all started as an inquiry…” Colonel Edward M. House (left), proto-national security adviser, seen here with President Wilson, circa 1919.
Colonel House set off for Europe shortly before the November 1918 armistice. The Atlantic crossing proceeded with all the speed then available for this first exercise in high-level shuttle diplomacy (and under destroyer escort to guard against lurking German submarines). His mission was to arrange the U.S. presence at the peace conference and, he decided, to establish reliable sources of information about conditions in Europe. The scholars of the Inquiry had relied upon the books, maps, and documents they could locate, principally in the Library of Congress and the Columbia University library; House deted that the president needed, at the least, something more current.
The scholars of the Inquiry helped draw the borders of post World War I central Europe over tea at the Quai d’Orsay, a more congenial venue than the plenary sessions held in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, shown above.
The scholars of the Inquiry helped draw the borders of postWorld War I central Europe over tea at the Quai d’Orsay, a more congenial venue than the plenary sessions held in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, shown above.
When Wilson himself set sail for Paris a month or so later (House had booked the Americans into the Hotel Crillon), his presidential cruiser could accommodate no more than 23 of the Inquiry scholars. Suspicious diplomats of the Department of State saw to it that these amateurs in foreign policy were confined to quarters in the lower decks. Briefing papers in hand from their study groups, the cadre of the Inquiry suddenly found their intellectual confidence challenged by the working diplomacy of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.
“Now suddenly there was less time for deliberation,” wrote Colonel House’s aide, Whitney H. Shepardson. “Also, to their surprise, they found themselves assigned to work on multinational committees—not to study problems but to come up with practical solutions. They found themselves down from the ivory tower, testing something with their feet that might be either rock or quicksand.”
The historical record of the Paris Peace Conference focuses on the meetings of the major powers: Britain, France, Italy, and the United States. To those of the Inquiry, however, and the colleagues they gathered among diplomatic and military officers in Europe, these plenary sessions mattered little. For them the daily teas at the Quai d’Orsay, the bridge games, the breakfast and dinner meetings of experts from a dozen countries gave enduring personal meaning to the peace conference.
In congenial and civilized encounters, they floated ideas in the noncommittal style of an Oxford Common Room; they noted each others’ expertise and forged lifelong friendships without regard to age or nationality. In these unrecorded discussions the frontiers of central Europe were redrawn (subject, of course, to their principals’ sanction), vast territories were assigned to one or another jurisdiction, and economic arrangements were devised on seemingly rational principles. “It seemed to us that the drafting of peace would be a brisk, amicable, and hugely righteous affair,” wrote Harold Nicolson, one of the young Britons in attendance.
This was all too reassuring to let fade once the statesmen had gone home. On May 30, 1919, a little group of diplomats and scholars from Britain and the United States convened at the Hotel Majestic, billet of the British delegation, to discuss how their fellowship could be sustained after the peace. They proposed a permanent Anglo-American Institute of International Affairs, with one branch in London, the other in New York.
As the American peacemakers drifted home over the next months, they found their fellow citizens absorbed in isolationism and prohibition, thoroughly inhospitable to the ideals of the League of Nations and the other stillborn creations of the Versailles Treaty. Intellectual dynamism was exhausted in “the physical and spiritual breakdown” of the veteran scholars from Paris, wrote Shepardson, who left House’s staff to become a pioneer of the American branch.
To be sure, loose associations of idealistic Americans already existed. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie had founded his Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. A group of public-minded citizens established a League of Free Nations early in 1918 to promote the League of Nations on the then-popular lecture circuits. (When the Senate rejected the League of Nations in 1920, the League of Free Nations became the Foreign Policy Association.)
Elihu Root (second from left) headed the original Council on Foreign Relations and was instrumental in the founding of its successor. He had been secretary of state and received the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize. He is shown here (left to right) with Council President and former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John W. Davis, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, and Foreign Affairs Editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong at the 1930 opening of the Council’s 65th Street headquarters.
But it was a more discreet club of New York financiers and international lawyers organized in June 1918 that most attracted the attention of the Americans from the Peace Conference. Headed by Elihu Root, the secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, this select group called itself the Council on Foreign Relations. It began with 108 members, Shepardson recorded, “high-ranking officers of banking, manufacturing, trading and finance companies, together with many lawyers.” Its purpose was to convene dinner meetings, to make contact with distinguished foreign visitors under conditions congenial to future commerce.
Despite growing opposition to Wilson’s internationalism, the early Council members supported the League of Nations, but not necessarily on Wilson’s rationale. As Shepardson put it, they “were concerned primarily with the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on postwar business.” At an early meeting, for instance, several members stressed economic advantages that could flow from the League; others hastened to register on the record the argument that world peace was surely more important than immediate profits. For whatever reasons, by April 1919 the members’ interest in the dinner meetings dwindled, and the Council went dormant.
The scholars of the Inquiry, returning from Paris, saw an opportunity. The American Institute of International Affairs envisioned at the Hotel Majestic could provide diplomatic experience, expertise, and high-level contacts but no funds. The men of law and banking, by contrast, could tap untold resources of finance but sorely needed an injection of intellectual substance, dynamism, and contacts—whether to promote business expansion, world peace, or, indeed, both. This was the synergy that produced the modern Council and promoted its unique utility for decades to come: academic and government expertise meeting practical business interests, and, in the process, helping conceptual thinkers to test whether they stood on “rock or quicksand.”
Not until February 3, 1921, did the diverse interests and egos of the two groups permit a preliminary encounter. Merger negotiations proceeded for five months. The established members of the Council rented New York office space at 25 West 43rd Street, and they agreed to enlarge the businessmen’s club “by selecting and inviting to membership,” as Shepardson put it, “a number of carefully chosen individuals.”
A fortuitous transatlantic circumstance solved the problem of naming the surviving organization. The British diplomats returning from Paris had made great headway in founding their Royal Institute of International Affairs. Undeterred by isolationism or the inhibitions of the Americans, they had even acquired an elegant London headquarters, the St. James’s mansion once owned by William Pitt, known as Chatham House. The American branch foreseen at the Hotel Majestic, by contrast, seemed unable to keep up.
Gradually dawning upon the American veterans of the Inquiry was the realization that, in the mood of post-Wilson America, they could no longer promote the congenial Anglo-American fellowship of the Peace Conference common rooms. A combined membership of the two branches, London and New York, was simply not on. During the merger negotiations, Shepardson noted that membership in the New York branch would have to be “restricted to American citizens, on the grounds that discussions and other meetings, confidential in nature, would be more productive if participants and speakers knew for sure that the others in the room were all Americans.”
To Shepardson fell the task of informing the British colleagues of this unfortunate reality. Crossing to London, he recalled thinking that “it might be quite unpleasant to have to say for the first time that the Paris Group of British colleagues could not be members” of the American branch. “The explanation to the British was begun (shall we say?) haltingly. However, instead of the frigid look which had been feared, the faces of the British governing body showed slightly red and very happy. They had reached the same conclusion in reverse, but had not yet found a good way of getting word to the other side of the Atlantic!”
To make the distinction clear, the American academics were relieved to adopt the name of their preexisting institutional partner. On July 29, 1921, a New York certificate of incorporation was prepared and the new Council on Foreign Relations came into being.
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