MORE THAN TWO YEARS before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the research staff of the Council on Foreign Relations had started to envision a venture that would dominate the life of the institution for the demanding years ahead. With the memory of the Inquiry in focus, they conceived a role for the Council in the formulation of national policy.
On September 12, 1939, as Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Armstrong and Mallory entrained to Washington to meet with Assistant Secretary of State George S. Messersmith. At that time the Department of State could command few resources for study, research, policy planning, and initiative; on such matters, the career diplomats on the eve of World War II were scarcely better off than had been their predecessors when America entered World War I. The men from the Council proposed a discreet venture reminiscent of the Inquiry: a program of independent analysis and study that would guide American foreign policy in the coming years of war and the challenging new world that would emerge after.
The project became known as the War and Peace Studies. ”The matter is strictly confidential,” wrote Bowman, “because the whole plan would be ’ditched’ if it became generally known that the State Department is working in collaboration with any outside group.” The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to fund the project, reluctantly at first, but, once convinced of its relevance, with nearly $350,000.
Over the coming five years, almost 100 men participated in the War and Peace Studies, divided into four functional topic groups: economic and financial, security and armaments, territorial, and political. These groups met more than 250 times, usually in New York, over dinner and late into the night. They produced 682 memoranda for the State Department, which marked them classified and circulated them among the appropriate government departments.
The European war was only six months along when the economic and financial group produced a lengthy memo, ”The Impact of War upon the Foreign Trade of the United States.” This was followed by a contingency blueprint in case the British Isles fell to German occupation; Churchill and his ministers would relocate to Canada, the Council analysts concluded, where Anglo-American cooperation in trade would only intensify. In April 1940 and for nine months following, with American entry into the war still only hypothetical, the study group proposed a more tolerant stance toward Japan, hoping thereby to contain Tokyo’s expansionist designs on the Pacific islands and the Asian mainland.
As the world edged yet again toward war, Armstrong enlisted his Princeton friend Allen Dulles (shown here at the right with the shah of Iran and Council Director and J. P. Morgan partner Russell C. Leffingwell) to ex U.S. neutrality in the face of fascist aggression.
The views of the Council group on security and armaments provoked less interest in Washington. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, the group, led by Allen Dulles, outlined the possible need for an American occupation force in defeated Germany, a project that attracted little attention. The territorial group, chaired by Bowman, debated the status of Chiang Kai-shek’s China, relative to Japan and the Soviet Union. After a Japanese defeat, the group concluded, China could be opened to American exports and the United States would have access to the raw materials of a vast virgin territory.
Bowman’s territorial group registered the one immediate impact of the War and Peace Studies upon evolving foreign policy. On March 17, 1940, the Council submitted a memo, “The Strategic Importance of Greenland,” advising that, since the Danish outland was properly a part of the Western Hemisphere, it should be covered by the Monroe Doctrine. President Roosevelt promptly invited Bowman for a discussion at the White House, and one day after Nazi Germany occupied Denmark in April, Roosevelt declared American policy along the lines proposed by the Council group, including the intent to establish military bases in Greenland.
The work of the fourth, political, group was largely superseded by the State Department’s own postwar policy planning staffs. Nonetheless, the Council group’s members were active in the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference on world economic arrangements and in the preparations for the 1945 San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations.
Once the United States entered the war, most of the guiding spirits of the War and Peace Studies accepted mobilization into government service, in uniform, in the State Department, or in the fledgling intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Allen Dulles, for instance, became a pivotal figure in the OSS from a clandestine base in neutral Switzerland, where he had an influential role in implementing the idea he had presented to the Council for an American occupation force in defeated Germany. His brother, John Foster, remained at his New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, throughout the war, but he was active in assisting State Department planning for the future United Nations.
The overall record of the Council’s War and Peace Studies can only compare favorably with the performance of its conceptual predecessor, the Inquiry of World War I. Yet its practical contribution to the U.S. war effort, and the political planning for the era following, remains unclear in the judgment of history.
A perennial problem for historians of government is tracing the initiative for any particular political decision within a government, to say nothing of the more tangential outside influences. Clearly, the Council’s War and Peace Studies were not as important as Armstrong, for one, chose to regard them in his own retrospect. Yet even the most myopic of diplomatic officials would have difficulty sustaining the argument that American foreign policy could have evolved as effectively without the independent provocation of knowledgeable outsiders. William P. Bundy, who straddled the two worlds in the postwar era, as a Pentagon and State Department official and later as Armstrong’s successor at Foreign Affairs, concluded, ”It has been wisely said that no contingency plans are ever adopted as written, but that the exercise is often invaluable in flagging the questions that must be faced. So it was for this extraordinary exercise, I am sure.” 1
Such were the effects of the upheavals of war upon the habits of society. The primary function of the Council on Foreign Relations during World War II proceeded in rigid secrecy, remote from the slightest awareness of most of the Council’s 663 members, who were not themselves personally involved.
1. William P. Bundy, The Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs: Notes for a History (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1994), p. 22.
Membership Application Deadlines: October 1 and March 1
Term Membership Application Deadline: November 1
Membership in the CFR Corporate Program is tailored to meet the needs of your organization. To learn more, please visit the About Corporate page, view a printable brochure, and see our current list of members.
To find out if Corporate membership would benefit your company, contact the Corporate Program at email@example.com or 212.434.9684.
Published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922
CFR offers exceptional opportunities for individuals at all levels in their careers.Foreign Affairs Job Board
Search the ultimate resource for careers in international affairs.