Elitism - From mccarthyism to the new left




In order to shape a better world order, what could be considered a series of elite groups assisted the Department of State in its planning process. The most central of these, the Inquiry-like War and Peace Studies project of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which received support from the Rockefeller Foundation, became part of a civilian advisory committee that reported directly to Assistant Secretary of State Leo Pasvolsky in Washington, D.C. Among the subjects addressed by the various study groups under the aegis of the Council on Foreign Relations was the structure for a new international organization to replace the League of Nations, which was generally thought to have failed. This blueprinting effort contributed to what eventually became the Charter of the United Nations.

The influence of the council's War and Peace Studies project should not be exaggerated. By 1944 the memoranda of the project, which previously had been circulated confidentially to the State Department, were made available to the general membership of the council for private reading. "Such indications that the ideas produced by the studies staff did not need to be kept secret," comments Robert D. Schulzinger in an irreverent but informed assessment, The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs: The History of the Council of Foreign Relations (1984), "demonstrated both the Council's success in raising issues of international cooperation and collective security and the drab conventionality of its approach."

In Washington, what has been called a revolution in foreign policy—the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization—took place, with a fair measure of bipartisan congressional support for the Democratic administration under Harry S. Truman. The quick succession of World War II by the Cold War did not permit relaxation. Many wartime military chiefs entered the national leadership structure, including George C. Marshall, who served President Truman as his personal representative to China and subsequently became secretary of state and then secretary of defense. Marshall was emblematic of the new place of the "warlords," in the lexicon of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills ( The Power Elite, 1956), who argued that the military had moved alongside the big corporations and the machinery of the state itself in America's "higher circles." General Marshall did indeed wield enormous organized power in what some scholars, including the historians Daniel Yergin and Melvyn Leffler, have characterized as the American "national security state."

Perhaps most exemplary of the elite type, as some perceived it, was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whose aristocratic manner represented "the British accent" in American diplomacy, as the historian John T. McNay suggests in Acheson and Empire (2001). An Episcopal bishop's son from Connecticut who became a Washington lawyer, Acheson wrestled with "a conflict that would be evident throughout his life: an intellectual attachment to democratic values pitted against a personal elitism that caused him to view with condescension 'the vulgar mass of humanity,'" as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas put it in The Wise Men (1986), describing Acheson and a circle of friends who epitomize the style and outlook that dominated American foreign policy after the war. Sartorially elegant, meticulously mustached, and verbally fastidious, Acheson would later title his memoir Present at the Creation (1969), compounding the impression he perhaps inescapably gave of arrogance. He was elitism's very embodiment—Groton, Yale, Scroll and Key, Harvard Law School, Covington & Burling, and then the cabinet, to which, however, he did not seem particularly to aspire but, rather, only to deserve.

In part because of his manner, Acheson was a red flag to some politicians, notoriously Joseph R. McCarthy, the junior Republican senator from Wisconsin, who accused Acheson of "coddling" communists in the State Department. McCarthy was among the conservatives who believed that the setbacks the United States experienced internationally in the early years of the Cold War—the "loss of China" to communism in 1949 and the near collapse of South Korea when invaded by North Korea in 1950—were the result of high-level policy mistakes. Imagining "a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man," the senator found the answer in "the traitorous actions by those who have been treated so well by this nation."

With his accusing finger pointed at Acheson and even the respected General Marshall, as well as more vulnerable officials, McCarthy carried out an anticommunist campaign that was, in its socialpsychological basis as well as in its rhetorical method, anti-elitist. To the extent that it was grounded, it was based on populism, a conviction that "the people," the majority of the U.S. population that lived outside centers of sophistication, properly should rule but were losing their ability to do so. McCarthyism reflected what the historian Richard Hofstadter has termed "the paranoid style" in American politics. To be sure, McCarthy's credibility was in question. To accuse the highest authorities in the land of treason, as he did, required a temerity that could only be justified by the actual truth of the charges. McCarthy's ultimate inability to produce significant proof finally undermined his crusade, but not before it had cost some of the expert "China hands" in the State Department their jobs and, moreover, cautioned many other members of the educated upper class to think twice about entering government service or any other form of public life. It was more comfortable, and safer, for those who were securely employed to remain in good positions in industry, finance, and academe—the institutional niches of the "silent" generation.

McCarthyism failed partly because it did not offer a substitute elite. It merely threatened the existing one, which, entrenched in institutions, survived. The administration of John F. Kennedy brought into government a younger generation that had come of political age during World War II but had not been responsible for political decisions during the conflict. Kennedy nonetheless drew heavily on older leaders of what was called by the journalist Richard A. Rovere the "American Establishment," seeking counsel and reassurance during events such as the perilous 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As Leonard Silk and Mark Silk authoritatively recount in The American Establishment (1980), this notion of an Establishment—the word derives historically from the establishment of a state church, the Church of England—had been popularized in Britain in the 1950s by the historian A. J. P. Taylor and the journalist Henry Fairlie. The "heart" of the American Establishment was the New York financial and legal community, in the view of the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who served as a special assistant in the Kennedy White House. The Establishment's "front organizations" were the Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie foundations along with the Council on Foreign Relations, as he noted in his memoir A Thousand Days. Its "organs" were the New York Times and the journal Foreign Affairs.

Curiously, President Kennedy, though himself unmistakably a member of the American upper class (Boston branch, Irish Catholic), did not personally know many bankers, industrialists, leaders of the bar, university presidents and deans, foundation officials, generals, and others who constituted America's nonpolitical, institutional leadership. Nor was he very familiar with the New York financial and legal community, at the Establishment's center. It thus was a measure of that elite's power that a significant number of Establishmentarians entered his cabinet. He filled the position of secretary of state, for example, with Dean Rusk, a former senior State Department official who had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, on whose board were a number of older Establishment figures including Robert A. Lovett and John J. McCloy, both of whom were assistant secretaries of war during the Roosevelt administration. Perhaps the best example of an Establishment man who entered the new administration was Douglas Dillon, who became secretary of the Treasury. Dillon, son of Clarence Dillon of the New York banking house of Dillon, Read and Company, had served as undersecretary of state in the outgoing Eisenhower administration. An internationalist more than a partisan, he easily made the transition from a Republican to a mainly Democratic cabinet.

The American Establishment, though "predominantly Republican," acknowledged Schlesinger, "possessed what its admirers saw as a commitment to public service and its critics as an appetite for power which impelled its members to serve Presidents of whatever political faith." Presidents Roosevelt and Truman both "had drawn freely upon them," as Schlesinger shrewdly explained, "partly to avail themselves of Establishment competence, partly to win protective coloration for policies which, with liberals in front, would have provoked conservative opposition. It was never clear who was using whom; but, since it was never clear, each side continued to find advantages in the arrangement."

President Kennedy, as the journalist David Halberstam observed in a similarly knowing but more critical account, The Best and the Brightest (1972), "believed in the Establishment mystique." At the beginning of the 1960s, there was little criticism from outside the Establishment or dissension within it either. "Rarely had there been such a political consensus on foreign affairs," Halberstam commented. Containment was good, communism was dangerous, and foreign aid bills, required to keep the Third World from going communist, could be politically debated in Congress. "Besides," Halberstam noted of Kennedy, "he was young, and since his victory over Nixon was slimmer than he had expected, he needed the backing of this club, the elitists of the national security people. And he felt at ease with them," more so than he did with liberal "Democratic eggheads" with causes to push.

The American foreign policy consensus fractured when the Vietnam War began, as did the Establishment, although the cause-and-effect relationship is uncertain. Never a perfectly solid or solitary monolith, the Establishment began to fall apart, its cracks widening to open spaces for other, new participants to enter. Teaching then at Harvard University, the historian Ernest May remembers, "I thought I saw in progress in the mid-1960s something similar to what had taken place in the late 1890s," when the American elite had split over imperialism and the Philippine conflict. At the start of the Kennedy administration there had been a near consensus about the need, in the words of Kennedy's inaugural address, to "pay any price, bear any burden … support any friend, oppose any foe." But the televised hearings conducted by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator J. William Fulbright and teach-ins at Harvard and many other universities throughout the country were evidence of serious division within the American foreign policy elite. However, that this dissension in elite circles was, as May suggests, responsible for "bringing in its train a great expansion of the public prepared to argue opinions" is not a total explanation. An alternative view would assign more autonomy to the American public itself, enabled by television and other media to be more attentive, while coming to doubt the justice and wisdom of the war being conducted in their name. The massive public reaction to the apparently successful North Vietnamese Tet offensive in January 1968, which caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to decide against running for another term and to opt for a partial bombing halt and peace talks, would tend to support this view.

Coinciding with, and to a considerable degree a part of, these events was the emergence of a political New Left and a corresponding revisionist historiography, which challenged the very premises of American foreign policy, then and earlier. Locating the causes of the Cold War and the later Vietnam struggle less in external threats to the United States than in factors within it, including the influence of powerful elites, the new revisionists dominated academic discussion for a time and also shaped the public debate. The seminal work was William Appleman Williams's The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972), an idiosyncratically radical critique of U.S. foreign policy and its leadership as being inherently expansionist, using the "open door" principle both as an ideological motivation and as a diplomatic instrument—in the manner of Mosca's "political formula"—in carrying out American imperialism. Other writers, including those in the Williams-influenced "Wisconsin school," did monographic work on particular periods. The Vietnam War itself was subjected to detailed New Left analysis, with researchers finding precise evidence of American corporate and other elite manipulation of U.S. policy, implicating, for example, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and the Roman Catholic Church. While sometimes lacking historical perspective and interpretive balance, these studies had a powerful effect in discrediting the foreign policy of the United States and also those, members of various elites, involved in making it.

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