The premise of this earnestly written, well-researched book is that during the middle decades of the twentieth century an elite group of Wall Street insiders known as the Establishment came to wield great political power, especially over the nation’s foreign policy. In order to win the Cold War and expand the international operations of America’s most powerful corporations, these self-proclaimed public servants helped transform their country (to its ultimate detriment, Bird believes) into a national security state, with most important operations carried out unobserved and uncontrolled by the larger body politic. They were dedicated to creating a counterrevolutionary world order, one that John J. McCloy labeled Pax Americana.
In May of 1962, journalist Richard Rovere published a satirical article in Esquire that used the word “Establishment” to describe a group of moderate Republicans who played a prominent role (official and unofficial) in Democratic administrations going back to 1940. Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith dubbed John J. McCloy “chairman of the Establishment.” Although his name was little known to the general public, McCloy exerted more influence than most contemporary congressional or cabinet members. “Alone among his peers,” writes Bird, “he managed to straddle for nearly five decades the interlocking directorships of corporate America, the federal government, and the country’s leading public-policy and philanthropic foundations.” Neither intellectually brilliant nor an original thinker, McCloy was a practical, persistent, uncharismatic conciliator (Henry Kissinger called him a genial gnome), frank and unafraid to tackle problems, with an open mind and yellow pad at the ready.
McCloy’s portfolio came to include chairmanships of the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Council of Foreign Relations, the Ford Foundation, and the Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. Among his corporate clients were the leading steel, insurance, automobile, and oil companies. They got their money’s worth, as McCloy saw no conflict of interest in merging government and business, believing quite literally that what was good for Chase Manhattan Bank was good for the country.
The Chairman is a remarkably dispassionate, fair-minded, and even-handed “life and times” biography. Ten years in the making, it demonstrates the author’s mastery over the burgeoning historical literature on such germane subjects as the internment of Japanese Americans, postwar Germany, McCarthyism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis. The only primary topic getting short shrift is disarmament.
Bird does not probe deeply into the inner man, nor is McCloy’s private life examined beyond occasional references to hunting and fishing trips, tennis matches, and demonstrations of marital compatibility. An assimilator possessing fewer insecurities than most social climbers, McCloy apparently was a solid family man and loyal friend, but his prejudices and degree of acquisitiveness could bear more scrutiny. How wealthy was McCloy? Did he become one of America’s super-rich or remain merely their steward? These questions need to be answered before one can assess how disinterested was his public service.
Not quite the epitome of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches American success myth, McCloy grew up on the wrong side of Philadelphia’s “Chinese Wall,” a Pennsylvania railroad viaduct separating the common people from their “betters.” His father, a high-school dropout, rose to a chief clerkship at Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company but was himself denied a policy because of a heart murmur. His untimely death forced his widow, Anna, into a career as a hairdresser. Anna’s wealthy clientele included the family of George Wharton Pepper, a prominent Main Line attorney who would become young McCloy’s first role model.
With frugal planning, Anna was able to launch her son on a path of upward mobility. The first stop was New Jersey’s Peddie Prep School, then on to Amherst College and Harvard Law School, with the summers of 1915 and 1916 spent with the right people at Plattsburg military training camp. Returning home after World War I, during which he missed most of the action, McCloy was advised by George Wharton Pepper to practice law in New York City, where his plebeian blood lines would not be so much a liability.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, McCloy specialized in helping corporate clients avoid governmental regulations and, in some instances, file dubious bankruptcy claims that fleeced independent stockholders. When some of his colleagues were hauled before Senator Burton K. Wheeler’s Committee on Interstate Commerce, it appeared to McCloy that big business was unfairly being scapegoated as criminally responsible for the Great Depression. No New Dealer, he helped prepare the Schechter “sick chicken” brief that nullified Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration.
The case that most enhanced McCloy’s reputation and in many ways was the formative experience of his life was a decade-long effort to recover damages from the so-called Black Tom disaster. In 1916, at a munitions terminal located in New York harbor, German secret agents had blown up wagons full of high explosives awaiting shipment to France. McCloy’s relentless pursuit of clues paid off in a lucrative 1939 settlement from the Mixed Claims Commission. Thereafter, he was...
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