The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty
Thorstein Veblen once warned of the unwisdom of yielding to any idea that was ahead of its time and advised against associating with those so disposed. His point is accepted and practiced even by people who are not quite capable of understanding it. But there is a counterpart strategy for personal preservation that is equally important. It consists in avoiding determined adherence to past truth. Ideas that work beautifully in one period of a person’s life are assumed to work forever. Then the world changes, issues and attitudes alter, and what was once right becomes disastrously obsolete. The letdown comes with a highly audible clunk, made worse because the individual almost invariably rails against the changes in the world instead of blaming himself for his own obsolescence.
These sterling reflections were stimulated by an exceptionally good book by Peter Collier and David Horowitz on the past and present condition of the Rockefeller family. It manages not to get lost in the oft-told early history of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and the Trust but to provide what is needed for background. It makes a similarly successful compromise on John D., Jr., and the Rockefeller philanthropies. Its contribution then comes with the current and receding generation—John III, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David. On these the authors had the help of numerous Rockefeller associates and various of the younger generation. They were also granted limited access to the family archives. There is a further and (I thought) less successful section on the new generation—the cousins. The writing is adequate, though not brilliant, and is slightly marred by occasional small errors of fact. But the authors’ eyes are admirably unclouded by indignation or, on balance, by the need to prove a case. This allows them, if a member of the family falters or falls on his ass, to say so.
Such detachment is not available to Ferdinand Lundberg in another recent Rockefeller volume. I do not minimize Mr. Lundberg’s past contribution to populist attitudes and healthy mistrust of the rich. But his commitment to Rockefeller power strains belief, as does his publisher’s conviction that any neglect of the book or adverse reaction is a manifestation of that power. Mr. Lundberg is very indignant with anyone—Adolf Berle is one, but I am also guilty—who suggests that, with time, power in the modern corporation, including those in which the Rockefellers now own a minor share, passes to its bureaucracy. Managers then appoint the directors who then appoint the managers. Intervention even by a substantial outside stockholder is possible only on the basis of knowledge. This he is unlikely to have. Lundberg’s book is also a hurried though, on occasion, an amusingly slapdash job. Collier and Horowitz share his doubts that the family either needs or deserves all that money. But they are able to see things as they are. With suitable apologies I would like to go…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.