“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.
But the head of the FBI was overruled. By mid-January members of Congress were demanding that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in inland concentration camps.”2 Of the 120,000 Japanese and American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, two thirds were American citizens who had been born in the United States. Evacuating them was firmly opposed by the Justice Department under Attorney General Francis Biddle, and, even more vehemently, by James H. Rowe, Jr., a young New Dealer working under Biddle. The eagerness of the War Department to intern these Japanese, “whether aliens or not,” resulted in a jurisdictional dispute between War and Justice. J. Edgar Hoover even wrote a memo to Biddle attacking the army intelligence staff on the West Coast for “hysteria and lack of judgment.”
With his own officers under attack, McCloy defended them against Biddle. “You are putting a Wall Street lawyer in a helluva box,” McCloy said, “but if it is a question of safety for the country, [or] the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”3 McCloy was not entirely insensitive to constitutional issues, but he preferred to let the military authorities on the spot make the decision.
McCloy and the secretary of war accepted the army’s claims about the danger of Japanese spies without requesting any hard evidence to support them. McCloy suggested that the Army establish military reservations around war plants and exclude everyone—“whites, yellows, blacks, greens”—and then “license back into the area those whom we felt there was no danger to be expected from.” When the general to whom McCloy outlined this scheme failed to comprehend its purpose, McCloy finally explained, “we cover ourselves…in spite of the constitution.”
Stimson had some doubts about rounding up the nisei. He wrote that “the second generation Japanese can only be evacuated either as part of a total evacuation, giving access to citizens only by permits, or by frankly trying to put them out on the ground that their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese. This latter is the fact but I am afraid it will make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system to apply it.” He decided he had to have the authorization from the commander in chief, and telephoned the President, who told him to do what he thought best. Like other wartime presidents, Roosevelt was quick to assume extraconstitutional powers. Moreover, public opinion was behind the evacuation, and Walter Lippmann, referring to the “Fifth Column on the Coast,” concluded that “nobody’s constitutional rights include the right to do business on a battlefield.”
McCloy’s scheme to use restricted military zones from which anyone could be excluded provided the military with the sweeping powers it wanted. In an informal conversation with McCloy, Felix Frankfurter endorsed his solution. Over 100,000 nisei were finally interned in “evacuation camps” under Executive Order 9066. Biddle capitulated when he was told that the President signed the order on the grounds that it was a matter of military judgment.
In 1981, the American Civil Liberties Union called the internment “the greatest deprivation of civil liberties by government in this country since slavery.” Neither during the war nor after did any branch of government show that Japanese Americans were engaged in espionage. “Why, then, did McCloy become an advocate of mass evacuation?” Kai Bird asks. Racism is too easy an answer, though the racist attitudes evident in Stimson’s thinking were common at the time, and McCloy was certainly prepared to carry out Stimson’s wishes. McCloy saw himself as defending the War Department against the Justice Department and, as the man who had uncovered espionage in the Black Tom case, he was disposed to accept the claims of Army officers about espionage. Finally, in the face of the enemy, he was a defender of a national security state in which constitutional guarantees could be ignored if necessary. Then the enemy was Nazi Germany; later it would be the Soviet Union.
Francis Biddle never forgave McCloy. In his memoirs, he writes: “If Stimson had stood firm, had insisted, as apparently he suspected, that this wholesale evacuation was needless, the President would have followed his advice. And if, instead of dealing almost exclusively with McCloy,…I had urged the Secretary to resist the pressure of his subordinates, the result might have been different.” By the end of 1942, in Bird’s words, “a program of temporary evacuation and relocation had become a bureaucracy dedicated to the indefinite incarceration of tens of thousands of citizens in concentration camps.” Testifying before the 1981 panel convened by President Jimmy Carter to look into the matter, the eighty-six-year-old McCloy was unrepentant. What occurred, he said, “was a relocation program and not an internment.” Yet the panel concluded that the nisei relocation was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”4
The reluctance of the US armed forces to intervene directly with troops or bombs to stop the killing of the Jews in extermination camps was also never challenged by McCloy. Not until January 1944 did Roosevelt, under pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, finally agree to establish a War Refugee Board (WRB) “to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death….”5 Roosevelt wanted Stimson as well as Morgenthau and Secretary of State Cordell Hull to supervise the WRB’s activities, and Stimson delegated the job to McCloy.
In the two years before the WRB was created, some three million Jews had been systematically shot, gassed, worked, or starved to death; in December 1942, Edward R. Murrow informed his radio listeners that a Nazi plan to eliminate Jews was being carried out. Stimson himself believed that nothing much could be done to help the Jews except to win the war as quickly as possible. The State Department blocked all efforts to ransom Jews or encourage them to seek refuge, even though Hitler’s plan for the Final Solution had been in effect since late 1942. By 1944, most of the Jews still alive in Europe were in extermination camps.
As Stimson’s representative on the board, McCloy could have reversed the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to undertake military action against the camps. The reason for his refusal to do so, according to the JCS, was that the rescue of Jews (for example, some four thousand refugees stranded on the Adriatic island of Rab) “migit create a precedent which would lead to other demands and an influx of additional refugees.”
In addition, reports from Europe seemed too horrifying to be believed. Neither Felix Frankfurter nor Walter Lippmann put much credence in them, and McCloy trusted both men. As late as December 1944, when there was no doubt that the extermination of the Jews had been going on for some time, McCloy refused to believe what he was told. Bird acutely observes that McCloy’s position was one of “benign obstruction.” He believed that anti-Semitism was so deep-rooted that nothing should be done to make the American people or servicemen believe that the war was being fought on behalf of the Jews.
Suggestions that the Air Force should bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz were dismissed by the army commanders as “impractical.” In addition, in a letter refusing to take military action against the extermination camps, McCloy asserted that Auschwitz rail lines could be bombed only by “the diversion of considerable air support.” This was untrue. By 1944, long-range American bombers stationed in Italy had been flying over the camp, and in late summer of that year a few bombs actually fell on part of the Auschwitz complex.
Various Jewish leaders and organizations made repeated requests to bomb the death camps. These requests “found their way to the right man [McCloy], probably the only official in the War Department who possessed sufficient power and personal competency to persuade the government to make the rescue of European Jewry a military priority.” Had Jewish leaders such as Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, been successful in their efforts to persuade McCloy of the merits of bombing the death camps and the rail lines leading to them, he would probably have acted with characteristic determination and ordered an attack.
McCloy’s mistake, as Bird charitably describes it, was “one of omission.” He did not challenge the conventional wisdom. General Marshall himself had seen no need to use combat troops for anything but conventional military targets. Unlike Winston Churchill, who immediately believed the Auschwitz reports and tried, unsuccessfully, to get British air ministry approval for air strikes against the camps, McCloy refused to examine the matter with his customary diligence. He said later that if “Roosevelt had wanted to divert the planes, we would have.”6
After the war, McCloy worked hard to help displaced Jews in Europe; he joined Nahum Goldmann in persuading the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, to give Israel hundreds of millions of dollars by way of partial compensation for the Holocaust. He was anxious to lay to rest any hint that he was, as Henry Morgenthau called him in a cabinet meeting, an “oppressor of the Jews.” In fact he was not, and Morgenthau later apologized to McCloy for having said so.
During all his years of public service, McCloy was most independent and outspoken when he tried to persuade the Truman administration not to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for once challenging military opinion. Throughout the spring of 1945, he pressed Stimson to drop the phrase “unconditional surrender” from Allied peace conditions. If the bomb must be used, he argued, the Japanese should at least be given fair warning and some kind of assurance that the institution of the emperor would be preserved. But when Stimson brought up McCloy’s suggestions, Robert Oppenheimer, in charge of the Los Alamos project, dismissed the idea. McCloy continued to believe that an invasion of the Japanese islands would prove unnecessary if the US government would first consider a political solution. He argued this at a meeting with President Truman, urging that the Japanese be told “that we had the bomb and that we would drop the bomb” if reasonable surrender terms were not promptly accepted.
Nevertheless, Truman went ahead as planned, in large part because the new secretary of state, James Byrnes, had no intention of giving advance notice of the terrible force of the bomb. During a poker game while sailing to Germany for the Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill, Byrnes persuaded Truman to eliminate any assurance to peace factions in Tokyo that the emperor might be allowed to retain his throne. McCloy was excluded from the deliberations at Potsdam by Truman and Byrnes and the Potsdam Proclamation was issued without either a warning or any assurance that the Japanese dynasty would be preserved. McCloy’s challenge to Truman on this issue was probably the finest moment of his career. It was also the last time he tried to buck the wishes of the White House.
Like the other architects of postwar American foreign policy, McCloy was a firm believer in US leadership, which meant maintaining free trade and free markets, and building up American power to prevent Soviet expansion. At the same time, Bird shows, he never believed that the Soviets intended to march into Western Europe. He was pragmatic in his dealings with Moscow, as he would also prove to be with America’s former enemy, Germany.
While McCloy returned briefly to his Wall Street practice, he was, like most of his contemporaries who served in high echelons of government during the war, essentially bored with corporate deal-making. In 1946, he accepted an offer to be the first president of the World Bank, and put the bank on a sound financial footing, though the bank did not really emerge as a major institution for financing development in the poorer countries until the 1970s. Then, in 1949, McCloy was appointed high commissioner for West Germany, charged with bringing Germany into the Western European economic and political sphere. Unlike George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, who were calling for a unified, demilitarized, and neutral Germany, McCloy, like Acheson, was unwilling to allow West Germany an uncertain neutral status, which might someday allow Germany to switch sides to favor the Soviet Union.
McCloy found that working with Konrad Adenauer was never easy. Adenauer, like De Gaulle, was stiff-necked precisely because his nation was so dependent on the Western allies. But what Acheson called McCloy’s “expansive, happy nature” allowed him to get along with Adenauer. At the end of six months, McCloy had helped organize the election of the first postwar West German government and signed agreements that would permit the Federal Republic to become a member of international economic and political institutions.
A touchstone for the future of Germany as a liberal, democratic state, McCloy told Adenauer, would be Germany’s attitude toward the Nazi period and particularly toward the Jews. This Vergangenheitsbewaltigung—or reckoning with the past—would be essential in reconciling the West to the Federal Republic. Both Bird’s biography and Thomas Alan Schwartz’s excellent study of McCloy’s tenure as high commissioner recall that by 1950 there was strong pressure from the West German public, including high Protestant and Catholic clergymen, for forgiveness of former Nazis who had been convicted as war criminals. Adenauer himself put pressure on McCloy to have their cases reconsidered. While McCloy was unwilling to issue a blanket amnesty for those still serving in prison, he decided to set up a new clemency review board. In retrospect, this was a serious error of judgment.
At the first, and most famous, Nuremberg trial a four-power tribunal had decided the fate of such notorious Nazis as Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. Those whose lives were spared were held in Spandau Prison in Berlin. After that trial ended in 1946, a second set of trials was held, each of the great powers conducting separate proceedings in its own zone of occupation and with its own nationals as judges. In 1949, US tribunals had convicted about one hundred Nazi officials for specific war crimes, and these fell directly under the jurisdiction of the office of the high commissioner. General Lucius Clay, who as military governor of Germany preceded McCloy, was determined to review all the sentences before McCloy took office in order to spare his successor the burden that this imposed. He did so and confirmed most of them. Of those sentenced to be executed, however, Clay had been unable to carry out the executions of fifteen of them.
Clay’s efforts notwithstanding, McCloy decided to appoint his own War Crimes Clemency Board, which was not to reconsider the innocence or guilt of any defendant but was given power only to reduce sentences. It was an odd hybrid of an appellate court and a clemency board, and in this respect, as Schwartz points out, seemed to reflect McCloy’s own wishes.
In six weeks, the review board held hearings for all the petitions for clemency, reviewed three thousand pages of judgments, and considered written and oral presentations from some 50 defense counsel representing 90 of the original 104 defendants. It did not review the evidence used in the trials. Nor did it hear from the prosecution, a serious omission. On August 28, 1950, the panel submitted its report recommending reductions in the sentences of 77 of the 93 defendants, including the commutation of seven of the fifteen remaining death sentences.7
McCloy rejected nearly half of the panel’s recommendations. In some cases, he was more severe, in others more lenient. He affirmed five of the fifteen death sentences. Among those released on the basis of time served was Alfried Krupp, who left the prison and celebrated his release with a champagne breakfast. Not only was Krupp freed, but McCloy restored his property, which had been confiscated at the original trial. McCloy considered Krupp “an inconsequential figure” who “in a very real sense inherited his father’s place in the dock.”
When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to McCloy in 1951 questioning his decisions, McCloy responded that it was “very doubtful” that Krupp “had any responsibility for the use of slave labor in the Krupp plant.” What “really smarts with me,” he added, “is the suggestions that these decisions were the result of ‘expediency,’ i.e. that they were timed to gain a political objective.”8 But although no evidence has been produced, McCloy’s critics probably were right to claim that his policies on clemency were part of his efforts to get the cooperation of German businessmen and officials in building a European defense force and creating the West European economic community centered on West German coal and steel production.
The most telling judgment of McCloy’s record was made by Telford Taylor, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, who also wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt in June 1951, after reading McCloy’s reply to her. While professing “the highest respect for Mr. McCloy’s integrity and good intentions,” Taylor goes on to correct a number of his statements.
Mr. McCloy states that…”I inherited these cases from General Clay, who for one reason or another had been unable to dispose of them finally”. This statement is 87-1/2% incorrect. There were twelve trials conducted at Nuremberg…. In eleven of the twelve cases, General Clay exercised his responsibilities, and reviewed the sentences prior to his resignation as Military Governor. In one case, in which the judgment was not rendered until a few months before General Clay’s departure, he was unable to take action in the time remaining. This case and only this one case was not “disposed of finally” at the time Mr. McCloy took office….
Mr. McCloy’s statements about the Krupp case likewise display a lamentable lack of attention to fact. Far from occupying “a somewhat junior position” in the Krupp company, as Mr. McCloy states, Alfried Krupp emerged as the dominant figure in the early forties when his father Gustav’s health began to fail…. Alfried was…convicted…for his responsibility in despoiling the industries of the countries occupied by Germany and participating in and profiting by the extensive and terrible slave labor program of the Third Reich.
Taylor concludes his letter by stressing the inadequacy of the procedure adopted by the high commissioner. “No representative of the prosecution was heard, or invited to appear, either before the Clemency Board or Mr. McCloy.”9 Taylor’s statement makes it clear that in all but one case McCloy could have avoided the review that he initiated simply by citing Clay’s earlier confirmation of the sentences. But he was determined to bring a democratic West Germany into alignment with the West and he seems to have believed that granting clemency was part of his task. He spent untold hours going over the recommendations of the review board. He disregarded Dean Acheson’s warnings against setting up his own review process. In so doing, he also made himself virtually indispensable to Washington until the occupation could be formally terminated. Upon his return to Bonn, he became the Federal Republic’s most active and powerful friend.
McCloy never attained such eminence again. Although a Republican, he had served too many Democrats, and his old friend Eisenhower for this reason could not appoint him secretary of state, much as McCloy would have liked it. He didn’t like John Foster Dulles, and so he returned to private life and became the chairman of the Chase bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Ford Foundation. At Ford, he made his own arrangements with the CIA to use the foundation as a channel to fund agency projects throughout the world. “In general,” he said, “our [foundation] objectives and the US national objectives ought to be in harmony.” But he refused to allow Ford officials or fellows to be used for US intelligence-gathering; he valued the foundation’s independence, he said, and did not want to see it taken over by the intelligence bureaucracy.
McCloy said he feared that if Ford refused to cooperate with the CIA, the agency would simply go around him and recruit individual foundation officers. But he secretly put up Ford money to fund the CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose publications included Encounter in London and other magazines in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Most of the magazines were both strongly anti-Communist and sympathetic to social democracy, and they were generally of high literary quality, publishing articles by Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, Raymond Aron, Ignazio Silone, and George Orwell. But McCloy and the officials and editors who were aware of where the money came from were willing to deceive readers, contributors, and unwitting staff members about the connection with the CIA. They ignored the inherent contradiction between the idea of “cultural freedom” and the practice of concealing the magazines’ true sponsorship.
The concealment, moreover, was elaborate and involved McCloy’s associates at the Ford Foundation. Any request by the CIA for Ford money had to go directly to McCloy, not to underlings, so when such projects were put before the board for approval, only the chairman, the president, and one other trustee knew of the government’s interest in them. That Ford and the many other foundations, corporations, and unions with which it was in touch in the US and Europe could have openly funded independent cultural ventures never seems to have occurred to him. (When Dean Rusk, as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, was also asked to give secret backing to CIA activities abroad, he refused.)
With the Democrats back in office under Kennedy, McCloy was seen as the ideal bipartisan Republican to serve in a Democratic administration. He was offered the chance to be secretary of the treasury and secretary of defense, but he wanted to be secretary of state and once again he was turned down, this time in favor of Dean Rusk, whom he described as “a competent man, but never a leader.” When President Kennedy pressed on him the job of disarmament czar, however, McCloy accepted. In this position, he could create his own organization, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and become a key negotiator with the Soviets. Thorough and pragmatic, he worked with the Russians on ratifying the agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev on withdrawing the missiles from Cuba after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Having started out as an instinctive hawk, he came to be seen as a dove.
McCloy was never unwilling to sit down with the Soviets and negotiate, and he could be skeptical of US involvement in regions outside Europe; but his reactions to the Vietnam War showed his limitations. He started by believing that the United States could live with a Communist regime in Vietnam, seeing in Ho Chi Minh an Asian Tito. Nonetheless, as the war intensified in 1965, Bird shows that once again his “characteristic willingness to reconsider his views—combined with his natural deference to presidential authority—led him astray.” While he turned down LBJ’s urgings to serve as ambassador in Saigon, he accepted the claims of the officials sent to brief him.10 The US could not abandon South Vietnam, he said, or its “credibility” would be in question. South Vietnam, he told the so-called wise men convened by LBJ in 1965 to give him advice on the war, was a “crucial test” in the cold war. If the United States could not cope with the “Communist tactic” of wars of national liberation, then US commitments everywhere would be in doubt.
Still, his anxiety over the wisdom of the war increased, largely because of his concern with what seemed the unraveling of NATO. De Gaulle had withdrawn French troops from the military organization in 1966; the US balance-of-payments position was worsening. By 1967, McCloy was unwilling to join a committee in support of the war, and he was no longer asked to attend the “wise men” meetings with the President.11 Yet McCloy never took a clear public stand against the policy of escalation or indeed any other American military venture. He mildly criticized the Vietnam policy only in January 1968, referring to Washington’s “pre-occupation with the frustrations of Vietnam.”
In the years that followed, McCloy was seen as the guardian of US interests in the Atlantic alliance, though his actual impact on US foreign policy was negligible. Flattered by Henry Kissinger, who regarded him as a “jovial gnome,” he was seen as a useful ally in publicly opposing Senator Mike Mansfield’s amendment in 1971 requiring the Nixon administration to withdraw 150,000 US troops from Western Europe. In his last major act as an elder statesman he joined with Kissinger and David Rockefeller to demand that Jimmy Carter offer permanent asylum to the exiled Shah of Iran after he was overthrown in 1979.12 At first, Carter resisted, explaining to his chief of staff that “it makes no sense to bring him [the Shah] here and destroy whatever slim chance we have of rebuilding a relationship with Iran. It boils down to a choice between the Shah’s preferences as to where he lives and the interest of our country.”
But Washington had established extremely close ties with Iran since the darkest days of the cold war when the CIA sponsored a coup in 1953 to restore Reza Pahlevi to the throne. In the 1970s, Nixon and Kissinger were urging Iran to become a major regional power, a surrogate for US interests, and the United States soon became its chief arms supplier. At one point, Kissinger proposed “an equal partnership” between Iran and the United States for cooperation in economic and security matters.
McCloy wrote that Carter’s refusal to aid an old US ally was “ungentlemanly” and that to do so would be “taken as persuasive evidence of our unreliability as a protector of our former friends.” In fact, according to Professor Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, the Shah had “a standing invitation from the American government to live out his exile in the United States,”13 and Carter himself had told the Shah in 1977 that “there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal friendship and gratitude.”
McCloy was persistent in sending memos and making telephone calls to high government officials on the Shah’s behalf. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance believed that the “rigidity that came with old age” was responsible for McCloy’s inability to understand that after years of corruption, repression, and arbitrary rule the Shah’s predicament was largely of his own making. Even when Vice-President Mondale agreed with McCloy, Carter resisted. “Fuck the Shah. I’m not going to welcome him here when he has other places to go where he’ll be safe,” Bird quotes him as saying. But Carter needed the support of McCloy in his struggle with the Senate over ratification of the SALT II arms control treaty. Finally, when it was revealed that the Shah had cancer and needed treatment in the US, Vance changed his mind. The President capitulated, turning to his advisers and asking, “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?”
Two weeks after the Shah checked into New York Hospital, Iranian militants did indeed storm the embassy and take almost seventy Americans hostage, an outcome the State Department had inexplicably failed to anticipate. In Bakhash’s view, while the admission of the Shah to the United States “no doubt provided the excuse for and helped precipitate the seizure of the hostages…fanatical rivalries in Tehran and the desire of hardliners to destroy the relatively moderate pro-Western government of Mehdi Bazargan were probably the determining factors.”14 Still, as much as anything else the situation of the hostages brought down the Carter administration. Throughout the 444 days of the crisis, McCloy continued to press administration officials to take a tough line with the Iranians, telling one bureaucrat in 1980 that “national honor is more important than American lives.”
McCloy died in 1989. Apart from his advice not to use the atomic bomb, he cannot be associated with any independent or original thinking about American policy; and his failure to question the judgment of the military bureaucracy during the war had deplorable consequences. He believed the postwar world needed a “Pax Americana,” as he wrote in 1946, and he became one of the ablest proconsuls of that peace, content to loyally carry out the policies of others, and not displeased, perhaps, to be credited by the press with having vast powers he had never possessed.
October 8, 1992
This memorandum for the chief of staff from General Sherman Miles is cited by Kai Bird, p. 138. ↩
These words were contained in a letter from Congressman Leland M. Ford of Los Angeles to Secretary of War Stimson. Cited by Kai Bird (from the report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians), p. 147. ↩
Nearly forty years later, McCloy denied before a congressional commission that as a lawyer he could ever have made such a remark. (Testimony before the Commission on the War-time Relocation of Japanese Americans, cited by Bird, pp. 149–150.) ↩
Cited by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1986), p. 199. ↩
Cited by David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (Pantheon, 1984), pp. 204, 209; cited by Bird, p. 201. ↩
Cited in Isaacson and Thomas, The Wise Men, p. 201. ↩
See Thomas Schwartz, p. 163. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had misgivings about the entire operation. He warned McCloy in February 1950: “Boards of the caliber you suggest might tend to create the impression that legal basis, and procedure of Nuremberg trials [are] under review, or at least [could be] construed as indications of doubt.” McCloy’s own general counsel, Robert Bowie, felt that many of the panel’s reductions were “excessive” and “failed to give sufficient recognition to the seriousness of the crime for which the individuals concerned were sentenced.” These statements are cited by Peter Maguire in his Ph.D. dissertation, “Nuremberg II: A Cold War Conflict of Interest.” Acheson to McCloy, February 8, 1950, RG 466, US High Commission for Germany, Security-Segregated General Records 1949–1952, Box 28, 321.6, War Criminals File, NARS-Suitland. HICOIC General Counsel Robert Bowie to McCloy, October 31, 1950, RG 466, US High Commission for Germany, Security-Segregated General Records 1949–1952, Box 28, 321.6, War Criminals File. ↩
John J. McCloy, Letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, March 12, 1951. Hyde Park: The Roosevelt Library. ↩
Telford Taylor, Letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, June 19, 1951. Hyde Park: The Roosevelt Library. ↩
When he refused Johnson’s offer to be his proconsul in Saigon, LBJ suggested that he was “yellow.” At this accusation, he left the room. ↩
At the decisive gathering of these men on March 26, 1968, Dean Acheson concluded that “we can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left and we must begin to take steps to disengage.” Cited in Isaacson and Thomas, The Wise Men, p. 702. ↩
David Rockefeller was at this time chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, which had extensive interests in Iran; McCloy was still a partner in Milbank, Tweed, which provided legal counsel not only to the Chase bank but also to the Shah himself. ↩
See Shaul Bakhash’s review of William Shawcross’s book The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally, in The New York Review, November 10, 1988, p. 17. ↩
See Bakhash, The New York Review, November 10, 1988, p. 17. ↩