The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment Summary

Geoffrey Kabaservice


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Geoffrey Kabaservice, who earned his Ph.D. degree in history from Yale University in 1999, has written a well-researched book on the extraordinary influence of Kingman Brewster and other Yale graduates on American public policy during the 1960's and 1970's. This is a sympathetic study about a period of American history that may seem quite alien to modern readers. Kabaservice describes well why Brewster and other Yale graduates from the 1930's and 1940's felt that their Yale educations gave them superior wisdom which they were obliged to share with the American public. Kabaservice recognizes that such an attitude strikes most people as arrogant and condescending, but he does not question the sincerity of these wealthy men who considered themselves to be part of the “liberal establishment” that somehow was entitled to play a major role in American politics and industry.

Until the 1960's, Yale and other Ivy League universities admitted students largely from prestigious private preparatory schools, and graduates of such schools felt that they were entitled to Ivy League educations because of their parents’ wealth and social or alumni connections. Academic qualifications were much less important than such advantages in determining whom the admissions committees would accept, believing their main responsibility was to form the future leaders of America. Social elitism was the accepted attitude at Yale. Kabaservice argues that the main goal at Yale during the years before World War II was not to challenge students intellectually but rather “to maintain the culture of the WASP [white Anglo-Saxon Protestant] upper class.” At that time, Yale saw little need to admit many students from ethnic, racial, or religious minorities; women were not admitted as undergraduates until 1969.

Kabaservice argues persuasively that Brewster and his fellow Yale graduates from the pre-World War II era viewed themselves as members of the ruling class of a country that they never fully understood because they had such limited contact with average Americans during their formative years. Kabaservice explains that they were largely out of touch with the profound social and political changes that took place in the United States during the 1960's and 1970's because they did not understand the profound transformations of the roles of women, religion, minorities, and politics in a changing society.

Brewster and his friends from Yale fought valiantly in World War II, but after the war's end they believed that the United States should return to the way it had been before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Brewster believed that a world government would help prevent another world war, and he never fully appreciated the visceral fear of communism expressed not just by Senator Joseph McCarthy but also by such mainline politicians as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and John Kennedy.

Brewster earned his law degree at Harvard and then he taught law there until his return to Yale in 1960 as its provost. Alfred Whitney Griswold, who served as Yale's president from 1950 until his death in 1963, believed that the social elite should be composed of well-connected and wealthy, moderate Democrats and Republicans who wanted to protect the influence of the ruling WASP social class in the United States. President Griswold and the members of the Yale Corporation, which is the equivalent of the board of trustees at other universities, felt that Brewster would not make major changes at Yale.

Brewster was proud of the fact that two of his Yale classmates, McGeorge Bundy and Cyrus Vance, were playing influential roles as national security adviser and military adviser, respectively, to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Their misguided advice contributed significantly to the badly planned war in Vietnam that they continued to defend throughout the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Although Brewster apparently held private...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)