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The Proconsul

The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment

by Kai Bird
Simon and Schuster, 800 pp., $30.00

I was just a leg man,” John J. McCloy said. After serving as assistant secretary of war, president of the World Bank, high commissioner for Germany, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Ford Foundation, and the Chase Manhattan Bank, McCloy was named by Richard Rovere and John Kenneth Galbraith as “the chairman” of the American “establishment.” But the evidence amassed by Kai Bird suggests that McCloy was right. There was no chairman of the establishment, any more than there was a Wizard of Oz. Behind the screen, Kai Bird shows us an energetic, workaday lawyer.

In McCloy’s lifetime not only was there no chairman of the establishment, there was no establishment. The term itself was coined to describe an American foreign policy elite by the late conservative British journalist, Henry Fairlie, who, not surprisingly, applied a British model to American politics. An establishment in its strictest sense refers to a group of people who are more important than the members of the government themselves, rather like those great landed magnates with their pocket boroughs who were usually more influential than the reigning chancellors of the exchequer or even the prime minister. In the United States, the situation is different.

While there had been, until the Vietnam War undermined its self-confidence and position, an influential East Coast network of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen who had gone to the same colleges and some of the same prep schools, their position had always been quite different from that of their British models. They did not make the decisions directing the foreign policy of the nation. The president did, and his most influential advisers did not necessarily come from the eastern elites. No man was closer to Woodrow Wilson than Colonel Edward House, a Texas politician, no adviser more valued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Harry Hopkins, a social worker and friend of his wife. While Harry Truman was highly dependent on the advice of his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, he also listened, all too carefully, to Clark Clifford, a political fixer from St. Louis. Eisenhower more frequently than not took foreign policy advice from George Humphrey, an Ohio industrialist, John F. Kennedy from his brother Robert, and Lyndon Johnson from Abe Fortas, a Jewish lawyer from Texas.

But if John J. McCloy was not the chairman of any establishment, what was he? In Kai Bird’s remarkably even-handed and thorough biography, he emerges as the person to whom powerful men turned when they wanted to get something done and were not particular about just how.

Brilliant intellectual powers are not essential,” said Paul Cravath, the creator of the great law factory of Cravath, Henderson and de Gersdorff, and McCloy’s first legal mentor. “Too much imagination, too much wit, too great cleverness, too facile fluency, if not leavened by a sound sense of proportion are quite as likely to impede success as to promote it.” McCloy was never burdened by these qualities. Indeed, as Kai Bird so aptly observes, “McCloy fit the Cravath mold perfectly.”

McCloy’s family was relatively poor. McCloy’s father had risen to be a supervisor of applications and death claims in the Penn Mutual insurance company in Philadelphia and by the time his son Jack was born in 1895, he was earning more than $3,000 a year. But when Jack was five years old his father died, and when Penn Mutual refused to insure his life because of a heart murmur, his widow set out to earn her living by teaching herself to be a hairdresser. Soon she was supporting herself and her son by doing the “heads” of the society ladies of Philadelphia, whom she met through some family connections. When his mother followed her hairdresser clientele to fashionable summer camps in the Adirondack Mountains, she arranged for young Jack to work as a “chore-boy,” carrying a shoulder yoke and delivering milk, wood, and ice to the campsites. Later he spent summers at the more exclusive retreats on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where he taught sailing to the young Rockefeller boys. His mother saved enough money to send Jack to private schools and later to boarding school, the Peddie Institute in Hightstown, New Jersey, where his coach urged him to “run with the swift,” an admonition that became McCloy’s lifetime credo.

By the time he entered Amherst College, he had come to believe that private-school graduates “had the poise, the balance, the instincts, the training out of which leaders came in the largest proportions.” While McCloy was quite successful in school and at college, his career at the Harvard Law School was not especially distinguished. Unlike Dean Acheson and Archibald MacLeish, who were in law school at the same time, McCloy was no one’s protégé. He worked hard, but did not make the law review, nor was he recommended as a clerk for a Supreme Court justice. He concentrated on corporate and commercial law, and expected to return to Philadelphia and become an associate at a prestigious firm such as Pepper, Bodine, Stokes and Schoch.

His mother had met George Pepper, well-known in Philadelphia society, and when McCloy approached him to ask for a job, Pepper was blunt. He told him that he was literally born on the wrong side of the tracks and therefore he would never be taken seriously in Philadelphia. Go to New York where your talents will count for something, Pepper told him; and there for the rest of his life McCloy practiced law, first at Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, then, three years later, at Cravath, and finally, after the Second World War, at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, the firm that handled much of the business of the Rockefeller family.

His tennis playing, his Amherst and Harvard connections, and his general air of good fellowship brought him into the Long Island social world, which was presided over by Robert and Adele Lovett. Lovett was the son of the man who managed the Union Pacific railroad after E.H. Harriman’s death, and McCloy also got to know young Averell Harriman, whom he didn’t much like, thinking that he “did not pull his weight” and was “not too bright.” He also became friends with Frederick Warburg and Benjamin Buttenweiser from the investment banking house of Kuhn, Loeb; Warburg preferred tennis to banking and he found in McCloy an excellent tennis partner, which helped to cement McCloy’s relations with rich and well-born Jewish and Gentile circles in the 1920s.

His marriage to Ellen Zinsser, the sister-in-law of Lewis Douglas, his classmate and heir to the Phelps-Dodge copper fortune, provided him with a wife of uncommon charm and sensitivity. They were married in 1930 and set sail for France, where McCloy was to head the Paris office of Cravath. In the Bois du Boulogne, McCloy played touch football with the young lawyer Francis Plimpton, another graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and saw a good deal of Allen Dulles, who was heading Sullivan and Cromwell’s branch in Paris. Up to this point McCloy’s career was that of a minor character in Scott Fitzgerald’s stories of the jazz age. But then a case that the Cravath firm was to argue at the International Court at the Hague changed the course of McCloy’s professional life.

Cravath’s client, Bethlehem Steel, was claiming that German secret agents had been responsible for the huge explosion in 1916 at the Black Tom terminus in New York Harbor, which destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of Bethlehem munitions. After the war a mixed claims commission from Germany and the United States was unable to settle the case. The Germans had prepared hundreds of pages of exhibits to prove that the explosion was not sabotage. Moreover, the lawyer initially charged with representing Bethlehem was ill-prepared, and the World Court announced a decision in favor of Germany. When Bethlehem appealed, McCloy took over the case, working doggedly for years to prove that the Black Tom explosion was indeed caused by espionage, and, in so doing, became convinced of the value of the kind of intelligence bureaucracy that was then run by the British. When McCloy finally won his case in January 1941, he was rewarded not only with large fees but also with a reputation for having first-hand knowledge of the British and German intelligence services. As Bird suggests, his later support for the Central Intelligence Agency’s extensive program of covert action can be traced to some degree to infatuation with the apparatus of espionage.

Because of his reputation in the Black Tom case, Secretary of War Henry Stimson asked McCloy to come to Washington in mid-September 1940 to work as a temporary consultant on protecting the country from German agents. Seventy-three years old at the time, Stimson did not know McCloy well, but he had met him at the Ausable Club in the Adirondacks, where both families had cottages. Stimson thought of McCloy as a “top-notch” tennis player and an expert on German intelligence matters. The consultancy turned into a full-time job as assistant secretary of war. McCloy would return to private life from time to time, but running the American empire in the American century was a heady experience, and he wanted to “run with the swift.”

Like Stimson a lifelong Republican, McCloy was also an internationalist, and he soon became for Stimson “the man who handled everything that no one else happened to be handling,” as Stimson put it in his memoirs. Kai Bird explains that McCloy began with the “fairly unorthodox assumption” that modern warfare was mostly a matter of economics, and in 1941 he presciently argued for larger war-production estimates than even the military called for. Perhaps McCloy’s most important contribution was to put into effect policies ensuring that the wartime “command economy” would be transitory. He insisted on restricting consumer production, believing that doing so would limit both inflation and the dangers of a postwar collapse in demand. General Motors could have turned out both tanks and cars, but McCloy made sure that cars were not produced, thus allowing for a remarkably smooth transition to a postwar civilian economy.

But his record as a war planner has been clouded by his order to put thousands of nisei—American citizens of Japanese origin—in internment camps and his unwillingness to press for bombing raids on German concentration camps. McCloy’s eagerness in both cases to take quick decisions and his reluctance to examine closely the moral implications of his actions were to remain characteristic of his behavior during the cold war. His very limitations were seen as virtues. He was never given to self-doubt as George Kennan was, nor was he morbidly paranoid about Communists and communism as James Forrestal became. While he lacked Dean Acheson’s intelligence, he carried out Acheson’s wishes effectively, as he did those of Roosevelt and Stimson.

Before the air attack on Pearl Harbor, McCloy was fearful that the Japanese would use sabotage to destroy US installations in Hawaii. He had planes bunched together on the ground at Hickam Field and put under guard to protect against subversive attack. McCloy then became convinced by an army intelligence report dated November 25, 1941, that the Japanese had a “well-developed espionage network along the Pacific Coast.”1 Within twenty-four hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI and local police started detaining Japanese aliens on the West Coast, and four days later 1,370 had been arrested. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover said this effectively ended any serious possibility of sabotage.

  1. 1

    This memorandum for the chief of staff from General Sherman Miles is cited by Kai Bird, p. 138.

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