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 …

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Letters

Outsiders February 11, 1993