Friday, April 3, 2015
Book Review 344: The Chairman John McCloy
John McCloy, who died in 1989, is almost forgotten today. While reading Kai Bird’s “The Chairman” I mentioned his name to two of the best-read men I know and neither had heard of him.
But there was a time — from the mid-‘30s to 1962, and residually to around 1980 — when Jack McCloy was perhaps the most influential American — more so than Hearst, Luce or DeWitt, more than any Rockefeller (for whom he was lawyer, friend and adviser), more than Billy Graham or Douglas MacArthur (to pick two people who received popular adulation).
Kai Bird does not claim as much in his restrained biography, but after reading all of McCloy’s achievements, it is hard to think of anyone who outclassed him. He did not have the power of a president or a governor or a corporate chieftain. But he had real influence.
Before reading this biography, I knew of McCloy as the high commissioner of occupied Germany and as a Republican “wise man.” I did not have any idea of the extent of his activity.
It was a long life and he took part in innumerable crises and issues. Sometimes his advice was good, but when it was bad, it was very bad.
Though I had studied the imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent during the war, those histories did not reveal the behind-the-scenes influence of McCloy. He was also a Vietnam War hawk and one of two main agents (the other being Henry Kissinger) pressuring President Carter to admit the shah to America. If we are to be fair, McCloy would have advised President Kennedy against invading Vietnam, but once in, he did not see how America could get out.
Usually he was more flexible. As a lawyer and negotiator, he was ready to accept less than he wanted and to change his mind at times. In one of his better moments, the Cuban missile affair, he started out shooting from the hip (uncharacteristically) but reversed on reflection and teamed with Adlai Stevenson in a series of meetings with Russian envoys to come to a face-saving settlement.
It was remarkable for a man not in government service, although McCloy always had a hard time separating the interests of his government from those of his clients and class. He was a Wall Street lawyer of the Stimsonian bent, full of self-righteousness that, somehow, tended also to make his clients lots of money.
“The Chairman” is one of the finest American political biographies I have read. Even in lesser hands than Bird’s, it would hold attention.
When I knew of him, McCloy seemed embedded in the Eastern Establishment, but unlike his patrons, he was not born in it. His father was the starter, scratching his way onto the Philadelphia Main Line but felled by an early death.
His widow was left with little but contacts. She used them to make sure her boy finished the ascent.
Amherst, Harvard Law, World War I, where McCloy developed his link to Germany, the most important of his life, then Wall Street, where he was, during the ‘20s, a not-too-trustworthy manager of corporate bankruptcies.
Bird says no one thought he was brilliant, but nobody who met him ever disliked him, and he was patient. He made his wider reputation by spending a decade pursuing the Black Tom case, a wartime espionage incident, and this part reads like a mystery.
But before he became known for that, he was already a key man in the unseen rooms of influence. The Council on Foreign Relations was the most prominent of many.
Bird contends that the greatest of McCloy’s many services to his country was helping to organize for victory in World War II, but that — plus his Black Tom experience — also led him to his greatest disservice: McCloy did as much as anyone to create the national security state.
That did not prevent the McCarthyites from going after him. McCloy is not usually listed among McCarthy’s victims, and he evaded destruction, but his personal experience does not seem to have created in him any sympathy or understanding of what the national security state meant in the lives of less influential and connected citizens.
He was a — perhaps the — Republican internationalist, conservative at home, liberal overseas. But not really liberal. He talked a lot about democracy and made it his life’s mission to give the Germans (at least in the western three-quarters) a chance to embrace democracy, but he never thought that foreigners, especially black, brown or yellow ones, were really capable of governing themselves, and never objected to subversion of democratically-elected governments.
That is why the Cuban crisis was his last important role. That was the last time that great power politics of the Congress of Vienna variety prevailed. For all that McCloy was an anti-isolationist, he was isolated because the circles he moved in contained only a limited variety of men and viewpoints, none of them sympathetic to the aims of 90% of the world to go back to misgoverning themselves ast they had done before the technical mastery of the Europeans suppressed them.
McCloy lived too long. The last pages depict touching scenes of McCloy holding the hand of his wife, who had dementia, for hours and reading aloud from the histories and biographies that so interested him.
Bird’s book came out in 1992. He wrote that the Establishment “continues to define the parameters of sound thinking on the great imponderables of public policy. The ideas that the American Establishment stood for are still the driving ideas of the republic. Liberal internationalism abroad and a moderate social compact based on a free market economy at home still define what is considered legitimate political thought.”
So McCarthy ruined McCloy after all.