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The Chairman: John J. McCloy: The Making of the American Establishment.

He was, in Richard Rovere's famous characterization, "The Chairman of the Board of the American Establishment." John J. McCloy was chairman also of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as Chase Bank (the Rockefellers bank), president of the World Bank during the Marshall Plan era, the American proconsul who rebuit Germany after the war (traveling about in a private train that had belonged to Hitler), the Wall Street lawyer to the Seven Sisters oil companies during the sixties and seventies, and a king of Grand Vizier to Cold War presidents from Truman to Nixon. In 1965, in a memo to Lyndon Johnson entitled "Backing from the Establishment," National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote, "The key to these men in McCloy."

For all that, he was surprisingly humble. McCloy was a modest man from modest circumstances. His mother "did heads," he liked to say; she was a hairdresser to Philadelphia society matrons. As a boy, hat in hand, McCloy knocked on doors in the WASP oasis of Northeast Harbor, Maine, offering to do chores for the summer magnates. Even after he became the establishment's all-purpose chairman, he remained self-effacing. His motto was to "run with the swift" in the hopes that one day he would "finish second."

Self-effacement is often a WASP affectation, a subtle reminder that modesty best befits greatness. But McCloy was genuinely humble. In many ways, his Horatio Alger story is admirable, even heart-warming: the poor boy who came to embody the American merticracy without succumbing to hubris along the way.

Yet one wonders, reading this thorough, careful, and overly long biography of McCloy (*), whether our hero wasn't a bit too humble--at least toward his perceived betters. McCloy became known as a great statesman. But, judging from the evidence provided by Bird, he remained at heart a chore boy, tipping his forelock to Mr. Rockefeller as he asked for the tip. His cheerful countenance always seemed to aim up at his betters--never down, the direction from which he came.

As a student at Amherst College and Harvard Law School, McCloy was a grind who plodded rather than shined. He was in his career a doer, not a thinker. The most revealing testament to his conceptual abilities were the Godkin lectures he delivere at Harvard in 1953, just as the Cold War was locking in. The lectures made no attempt to ask why; they werer merely concerned with the process--how to make the bureaucracy work better to face off against the Soviet Union. Organizing for victory was McCloy's strength. He could sit at a conference table with a roomful of feuding government officials and amiably but firmly prod them into consensus. McCloy called it "yellow padding." Busily jotting notes, he could resolve an impasse by breaking down the various arguments and fitting them back together in a design that suited everyone. Too often, however, he was less concerned with direction than with getting there.

As a lawyer, McCloy was particularly adept at skirting the law. Throughout World War II, he helped his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, circumvent the various rules and regulations that stood in the way of mounting the war effort. At times, those bothersome rules included the Constitution. It was McCloy, more than any official, who guided and sanctioned the internment of Japanese Americans. He brushed aside the legal qualms of Attorney General Francis Biddle; the war effort came first, and in war, moral concerns become mere sentiment. Thus, McCloy refused to allow American bombers to blow up the rail heads at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was later estimated that a few bomber raids could have saved 100,000 Jews from the gas chambers. At the time, however, McCloy felt he could not afford to divert Allied airplaned from other targets.

In the years after the war, McCloy was bitterly criticized by Japanese and Jewish groups for his insentivity; he was called by some, sotto voce, a racist and an anti-semite. This is in some ways too harsh a judgment. McCloy was not overtly bigoted. Rather, he tended to reflect the attitude of his class and time. Thus he felf obliged to advise a young lawyer attending a debutante ball in Washington during the war that he could bring some bachelor friends, but out of deference to the hostess, "no Jews, please."

McCloy could be blinkered, but he was not amoral. It was McCloy who argued, albeit unsuccessfully, to warn the Japanese before striking them with the atom bomb. McCloy regarded the bom as a "primordial weapon" and, after the war, pushed, again vainly, for international control of the nuclear secret. The wartime devastation of Germany depressed him. Offered an armchair that had belonged to Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, McCloy demurred. "I felt as if I were very much a looter," he recalled.

Philadelphia egos

McCloy could be principled; still, his moral sensitivities were a lot more likely to be aroused over the rights of the powerful than of the dewntrodden. Believing, correclty, that Germany had to be rebuilt rather than permanently punished. McCloy as German High Commissioner released war criminals like the Krupps with an alacrity that some found unseemly. McCloy urged President Eisenhower to stand up to Senator Joe McCarthy, but the analogy he cited was revealing: He likened McCarthy's bullyboy tactics to those used by congressional investigators against Wall Street financiers in the thirties.

Bird presents these facts yet refrains from passing too many judgments. Rarely does he delve into McCloy's character; his personal life is barely mentioned. Rather, the author lays out his copious research in a clear and somewhat plodding fashion. The book reads like a long term paper McCloy might have written about himself. Bird does take McCloy to task for specific errors of judgment on the Nisei internment and on Vietnam, where McCloy allowed himself to be seduced by the military and LBJ despite initial misgivings about the war. But the larger questions about McCloy's life remain for the most part unexamined.

The same can be said about a book that I co-wrote in 1986, The Wise Men. In our group biography of a half-dozen pillars of the old foreign policy establishment, Walter Isaacon and I did not delve too deeply into McCloy's character and morality (and I should add that Bird's research is more thorough than ours). But reading anew about McCloy makes me want to explore questions that merely nagged at me when I was writing about him some years ago.

These questions arise most disturbingly in the overlap between McCloy's public career and his business career. McCloy seemed able to serve two masters, but his patrons, the Rockefellers, had a flinty-eyed view of whose interests came first. In explaining why he wanted to retain McCloy to advise him on an antitrust matter, John D. Rockefeller Jr. confided to a colleague that "McCloy knows so many people in government circiles . . . he might be the way to get information from various quarters about the matter without seeking it or revealing his hand." At times, McCloy, the government servant, and McCloy, the Wall Street lawyer/dealmaker, seem indistinguishable. As chairman of Chase and then as senior partner of Milbank, Tweed, McCloy functioned as the de facto ambassador between major oil companies and the governments of both the United States and the Arab oil-producing nations. In this role, he was afforded extraordinary latitude. When he told President Kennedy that it was necessary for the oil companies to work together, the president picked up the phone and told the attorney general (Kennedy's brother, Robert) to grant McCloy a blanket exemption from the antitrust laws. After all, McCloy was a statesman, not a lawyer. As with General Motors, what was good for McCloy was good for America.

Or was it? It was, so long as McCloy helped to keep a steady stream of cheap oil flowing into the American economy. But when the interests of the oil companies and the United States diverged in the energy crises of the seventies, McCloy was left uncomfortably and unsuccessfully trying to referee. The nadir came when McCloy, along with Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, badgered Jimmy Carter to grant asylum to the Shah of Iran in 1979. The president feared that the mullahs would seize American hostages as a result, but he caved in to McCloy's lobbying campaign on behalf of his client, the Shah--whose country had $6 billion in deposits in McCloy's bank, Chase. Two weeks later the hostage crisis began.

McCloy never accepted responsibility for this tragedy, or earlier ones that occurred on his watch, like the Nisei internment. Confronted by reporters when the issue of Japanese-American reparations came up in the mid-eighties, McCloy protested. "I was just a leg man," he said. Precisely.

Evan Thomas is the Newsweek Washington bureau chief and coauthor of The Wise Men.

(*) The Chairman: John J. McCloy: The Making of the American Establishment. Kai Bird. Simon & Schuster, $27.50.
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Author:Thomas, Evan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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