Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller; drawing by David Levine

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 on less to a review of their book than to some reflections it encourages on the fate of the family.

The fate has been a steady and by now drastic erosion in the Rockefeller reputation, prestige—and power. This is closely correlated with past eminence; Nelson, David, and the late Winthrop, who were most in the public eye, have had the most resounding clunks. John, a nice and gentle man, has not been much affected. Laurance has suffered mostly for his association with Nelson.

Winthrop calls only for a word. After moving to Arkansas to get away from the family discipline, he briefly shone as a local livestock breeder, industrial entrepreneur, promoter of industry in those hitherto backward precincts, and then as an unprecedented and, by Arkansas standards, rather liberal and civilized Republican governor. Then a new generation of Democrats came along, accepted that blacks were people. Winthrop was meanwhile drinking heavily. He was defeated and soon dead.

David Rockefeller’s descent has been more dramatic. Until a few years ago, in succession to John J. McCloy, he was the undisputed chairman of the American Establishment. No other unelected American has ever enjoyed more nearly automatic access to official Washington. None certainly has had such standing with heads of state abroad. Now mention of David Rockefeller provokes only a reflection on how bad his rule has been at Chase Manhattan—absentee leadership, “chaotic internal operations” (these being the words of a Federal Reserve memorandum), the disastrous plunge into REITs and real estate, other perilous investments abroad and at home, a place on the Comptroller’s list of problem banks, although the Comptroller and Rockefeller subsequently joined in explaining that such listing is really a mark of high distinction.

David Rockefeller’s prestige has, in fact, suffered a double decline. Since he was a high officer, it depended also on the prestige of the Establishment, and that also is now at a very low level. And while to be a successful banker does not put one in the Establishment, to be a poor and greatly criticized banker surely puts one out.


Deepest of all, save that like all the others he is still highly solvent, has been the decline of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. It’s not only that his political career (accidents of life and death apart) is in ruins but that almost everyone from right to left seems to be glad. In his efforts to keep alive with Gerald Ford he sought to appease the right to the point of attacking, in Dallas, the Judeo-Christian ethic. (This, he said, caused otherwise decent and sensible Americans to be too compassionate. You can’t be more conservative than that.) The effect of this work was only to persuade anyone of liberal mind that he was no loss, for, predictably, it didn’t appease the right. There, whatever else you may say, you find men and women of principle. They don’t trust anyone who, for reasons of politics, suddenly reverts to the Early Assyrian age, and in their terms they are right. In addition, Nelson, as an avowed big builder, is increasingly being blamed for the problems of New York State and City. Those who would once have leaped selflessly to his defense now see no political need or pecuniary advantage in doing so.

Collier and Horowitz think Laurance was damaged by the tendency for his imaginative land acquisitions for public use in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico to be juxtaposed to expensive retreats for the rich. This I doubt; most people will surely be glad he saved the land. But his help to Nelson did hurt. To have to insist on television that Victor Lasky’s unflattering but deeply anaesthetic book on Arthur Goldberg, having been financed by elaborately laundered money, was just another Rockefeller flutter—always the buck—surely must have hurt. Would the Rockefellers go also for a promising massage parlor?

All these disasters have a common thread. There has been change to which the Rockefellers, in their public position, have not accommodated or could not accommodate. Unlike the offspring of the other robber barons (Averell Harriman is the single great exception), the descendants of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had the energy, character, and imagination to tackle and reverse the original and evil reputation which went with building the fortune. The present generation of Astors, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Goulds, Morgans, Huntingtons, Armours, Swifts, so far as they exist, have all achieved the obscurity for which, one judges, nature intended them.

This, in the case of the Rockefellers, was avoided by two brilliant steps: the first was by John D., Sr., and John D., Jr.,1 who saw the opportunity for brilliant pioneering in philanthropy at a time when, in medicine, medical education, public education, at the University of Chicago, in conservation, the arts, and, in a tentative way, in civil rights, truly remarkable things could be accomplished by giving intelligent and highly motivated men the requisite money. It is easy to minimize this achievement or attribute it to Frederick Gates, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the others by whom the family was guided. It remains that a very great deal was accomplished, and both the money and the ultimate decision on its use lay with the Rockefellers. So, accordingly, does the credit. I’m not enchanted by those who hold that it was all mud in the public eye. The world was changed and much improved.

The second equally adaptive step came with the current generation—the Brothers. They saw or sensed at the end of World War II that their father’s and grandfather’s formula for doing good and for winning public esteem had worn out. Money was no longer the scarce factor. In almost all fields of good work, the arts partly excepted, philanthropy was now in competition with the government. No one, not even the Rockefellers, could compete. So they joined, Nelson, David, Winthrop, and, in more reserved fashion, Laurance and John all turned to public and international affairs. It was the right way to spend their time, the logical way to preserve their public reputation.

This too, for a time, was a success. Two governorships, chairmanship of the Establishment, as noted, service on a dozen major and prestigious public commissions and committees. Where once the family name was identified with piracy, then with philanthropy, it now came close to being synonymous with public service. Then suddenly things went sour. Why?

This is where the ability to adapt comes in. The Rockefellers proceeded on two assumptions, both of which turned out, in time, to be disastrously wrong, and they could not change. The first assumption was that American capitalism—the free enterprise system—if given some minimal and rather painless guidance, would prove inherently workable and benign. The main needs were to protect it from the communists abroad and those who urge major social and structural change here at home.


The second assumption was that the requisite guidance, both to the economy and to the war against communism, would come from the intelligent, conservative, well-spoken lawyers, professors, businessmen, and other part-time statesmen and professional foreign policy specialists with whom the Brothers had long been associated—from the Establishment. With this went the belief, never examined, that the essential decisions were painless to conservatives. Certainly none involved any questioning of the basic precepts of modern industrial capitalism. Critical choices were agreeable choices.

Both assumptions were harmless for people who did not act on them, or as long as things went well. The Rockefellers staked their reputations on both propositions, and, eventually, things did not go well.

In the Fifties and early Sixties, the economy did seem to work adequately. Only minor guidance was required. And a foreign policy specifically entrusted to the conservative, well-spoken men on whom the Rockefellers relied—and which was centered on the communist threat wherever it might appear or be thought to threaten—seemed right and was widely accepted.

Since he believed that the economic system was workable and benign, David Rockefeller rode the boom of the Sixties and early Seventies. The boom was the natural expression of the excellence of the system. No recession was possible and certainly not one caused by monetary policy under a Republican administration. It was an article of faith that wise and adroit adjustments of the money supply by the Federal Reserve would make everything go right. This David Rockefeller believed and had affirmed in a dozen speeches. It followed that his bank could take its plunge into real estate without risk. The dangerous foreign loans were a natural expression of American economic wisdom and leadership. When Chase Manhattan went on the problem list, he explained it was not the fault of management but a natural “function of an economy in recession.” It had not occurred to him that good management would allow for the possibility of recessions. These, in his system, are not normal. They are a wholly extraneous act of God.

Nelson Rockefeller in Albany worked on the same assumptions, rode the same boom. While it lasted, he too did well. Perhaps wiser in this respect than his brother, he left before the collapse that could not occur occurred. But the blame for the imaginative bond issues and the spending for the South Mall2 has since been catching up with him. And he has been caught in another way. Not believing that the free enterprise economy could combine severe unemployment with severe inflation, he has not been able to say anything about it. And the people upon whom he has relied have been equally at sea—and similarly silent. Thus, an insufficiently noticed point, he was—and remains—a public figure with no position on the major political issue of the time. Even for a Vice President that will not do.

The second assumption of the Rockefellers—that conservative, cautious, and intelligent men would always come up with the right and adequate answers—was also a disaster. In foreign policy, in conjunction with the belief that international communism was the major threat to the system, it committed them as a matter of course to the Vietnam war. As Collier and Horowitz tell without pleasure, this discomfited and even alienated the Rockefeller children—the next generation. And more than the Rockefellers were involved. The community of good, conservative men who made up their intellectual base was also committed to the war. Its reputation for wisdom was also deeply impaired. And when the Establishment was wounded, so were the Rockefellers. It’s a measure of the damage that, in recent times, it’s become fashionable to argue that there was never such a thing as a Foreign Policy Establishment.

Is it too late to accommodate? Although I am of the same generation and deeply sympathetic to the problem of age and personal obsolescence, I would think it is. The changes that are necessary to make the system work are not small but great. Control of incomes and of administered corporate prices; the serious public rescue of such congenitally weak industries as housing, health care, transportation; effective planning in other industries; egalitarian tax reform; a new view of foreign and military policy—these are all, one judges, beyond the reach of the Rockefellers and their careful friends. Nelson has recently been reported as saying that he intends henceforth to turn his attention from Republican politics to the problems of the Eighties. It’s hard to believe that he will be taking up questions such as these. The present reality of the American economy, as a moment’s inspection by the merest layman will suggest, is a choice between unemployment and inflation with a high probability of getting both. One has difficulty imagining that the Vice President will make this simple circumstance his point of departure. Again the problem of adaptation.

In the past, public relations—the inspired work of Frederick Gates and Ivy Lee—served the family well. And at a later stage so did the recruiting of scholarly panels and committees, with the associated assurance (not I think deliberate) that, whatever else might be criticized, it would not be the Rockefellers. These remedies have, of course, gone forever. Ivy Lee was successful because he operated in association with highly innovative, greatly needed philanthropy. In the cold war climate of the 1950s, the Rockefeller Panel Studies leading to the publication of Prospect for America (with the foreign policy panel headed by Dean Rusk) were a great success. It is further proof of the problem of accommodation that when Nelson was leaving Albany he automatically assembled a new panel—the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans. Déjà vu. Before, it had been a badge of scholarship and putative statesmanship to serve. Now the younger scholars—those who had spoken out on Vietnam—were largely absent. A current Rockefeller panel would, no doubt, bring Walt Rostow, Eugene Rostow, and William Bundy together on the critical choices in Angola.

There is now, as Collier and Horowitz tell, a new generation of Rockefellers—numerous, intelligent, and, as noted, often at odds with their parents. There is accommodation to changing circumstance, if not within the generations, at least between. The cousins also have money, although substantially less than their parents. Presumably also, as distinct from the other descendants of the rich, they have the genes. So it would be wrong to imagine that we have heard the last of the Rockefellers. But for the Brothers, it is plainly late afternoon.

This Issue

March 18, 1976