A Life in Our Times

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

These well-written, witty memoirs describe many principal events and personalities of the twentieth century and summarize the life, thought, and achievements of their author. John Kenneth Galbraith’s life has combined a keen intellect with impressive writing, speaking, and conversational skills. He has mastered a great body of complicated and controversial material in political economy and has made this material understandable to millions in the United States and overseas.

Galbraith’s career has spanned three areas of expertise: economics, diplomacy, and politics. Educated as an agricultural economist, he served as adviser to various New Deal agencies and taught agricultural economics at Harvard University during the Depression years. During those years, he developed a keen interest in the revolutionary ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and eventually Galbraith became the government’s chief price controller during World War II. After the war, he turned to serious writing on the nature, structure, and problems of the American economy and produced a number of books recommending fundamental structural changes. The World War II price-controlling job also enabled him to move into the State Department toward the close of the war, a brief introduction to international affairs which stood him in good stead when he became the American ambassador to India during the John F. Kennedy Administration. Periodically during the postwar period, from his base at Harvard’s department of economics, he served as speech writer, campaigner, and adviser to a number of Democratic presidential candidates—Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George McGovern. He was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War and a supporter of Eugene McCarthy’s peace candidacy in 1968.

Galbraith was born in Ontario, Canada, of sturdy Scottish ancestry; among his many books is a history of these people, The Scotch (1964). In his youth he attended the Ontario Agricultural College, now the University of Guelph, where he pursued a standard agricultural major and won a scholarship to study agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley he did well, completing a Ph.D. dissertation on California’s financing of local agricultural programs. Hired immediately by Harvard University to teach agricultural economics, he also served as a consultant to several New Deal agencies struggling with the chronic farm problem of the 1930’s.

While teaching at Harvard, Galbraith was exposed to the then startling ideas of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, and arranged to take a year’s leave in order to observe Keynes at firsthand at Cambridge University (Cambridge, England). Apparently Galbraith spent much time traveling on the European continent, sightseeing, and visiting various economists, and little with Keynes himself, who showed up at Cambridge only when inclined to do so. All this branching out resulted in denial of tenure at Harvard, and Galbraith was forced to retreat to Princeton University and eventually to the Chicago offices of the Farm Bureau organization. In 1940, with the approach of World War II, he decided to carve out a niche for himself in government, where he joined the New Deal economists in their struggles with the nation’s businessmen. Eventually, Galbraith emerged as the chief World War II price controller, a position demanded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a public in no mood to tolerate any significant inflation. Galbraith’s job proved to be among the most controversial in wartime Washington, and he was forced to resign in 1943.

Galbraith next took up writing on business topics for Fortune magazine in New York City, but by 1945, he was back in Washington directing a German and Japanese bombing survey to ascertain the exact damage done those...

(The entire section is 1569 words.)