Commentary Magazine

Suicide of an Elite?

There is a tendency in books about the Vietnam war—notably David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1969) and now Patrick Lloyd Hatcher’s The Suicide of an Elite (1990)1—to focus on the role of a not very precisely defined “elite” and/or “establishment.” Thus, Hatcher speaks of the miraculous growth of “a small internationalist elite, operating on both major American political parties” which converted a staunchly “unilateralist” state—the America of 1783 to 1939—to the assertive internationalism of the World War II era and beyond, and then allegedly committed suicide in Vietnam. Similarly, according to Godfrey Hodgson in The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson (1990),2 these internationalists were a nonpartisan and “a self-recruiting group,” who “exercised practical influence on the course of American defense and foreign policy.” They included Stimson himself, Dean Acheson, Charles E. Bohlen, George F. Kennan, Robert A. Lovett, and John J. McCloy, whose composite careers were the substance of yet another book, The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (1986).

These people, none of whom ever held elective office, found diplomacy particularly attractive because, as Henry Adams said in The Education, circa 1904, the conduct of foreign affairs was the most aristocratic branch of American government in that it was the least susceptible to popular pressures. (This, of course, later changed.) All of Adams’s forebears had been active in diplomacy—two of them had also been elected President—and even he, resisting appointment and power, played the role of éminence grise to his close friend, John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In Hodgson’s “self-recruiting elite,” Hay begat Elihu Root and Root begat Henry L. Stimson and Stimson begat McGeorge Bundy, who was the son of Harvey Bundy, who had served Stimson as Assistant Secretary of War in the Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt administrations.

Many of those men fitted loosely into the social category of patricians—characterized by Henry Adams’s great-grandfather, John Adams, in the middle of the 18th century, as “men of family, property, and education.” Lower levels of State Department personnel also reflected this pattern, owing mainly to the influence of Joseph C. Grew, a Philadelphia patrician who, very early in the 20th century, entered the diplomatic service rather than the family banking business. Through more than four decades in a variety of postings, Grew put his stamp on departmental personnel. He stood ready to disqualify applicants who might pass the written examinations mandated by the Rogers Act of 1924 but who did not conform to a type which was fixed by the right family, prepping at Groton or St. Paul’s, and attendance at an Ivy League college. George F. Kennan, Princeton-educated but no patrician, personally insecure with a none-too-good academic record, believed that he owed his appointment to the mother of one of his classmates, who was a Cabot, and who hosted a dinner for Grew to which Kennan was invited. Seventy-five percent of embassy secretaries appointed between 1914 and 1922 were from Eastern preparatory schools and from Ivy League colleges. “A pretty good club,” someone wrote of the State Department.

Members of the “club” were qualified by genealogy to appreciate the advice given by McGeorge Bundy in his 1968 Godkin lecture at Harvard. In choosing a career, Bundy said, “if there is a serious family tradition you should think twice before you turn away from it. . . . To succeed to an established role can save extremely valuable time. . . . I respect the reinforcement of tradition, and names like Adams and Roosevelt remind us that this is not an un-American notion.”



But the year in which Bundy delivered this lecture, 1968, was rather late for the “club.” On November 29, 1968, Henry Kissinger, not only foreign-born but Jewish, was named by President Richard Nixon as his Assistant for National Security Affairs. Why did Nixon appoint Kissinger who was, after all, a Rockefeller Republican, not a Nixon man? One reason is that Nixon was an outsider, or saw himself as such. He hated the establishment, which he viewed as constituted of highly educated and influential people who were also marked by intellectual arrogance, an obsession with style, fashion, and class, and a permissive attitude toward drugs. Nixon also blamed the establishment for the loss of the Vietnam war. At one point he instructed his aide, H.R. Haldeman, to “quit recruiting from any of the Ivy League schools.” Nixon aspired to create a new group of foreign-policy administrators that was more open to middle-class people like himself and more sensitive to middle-class values to the extent that the latter could be defined.

Kissinger, then, commended himself to Nixon because he too was an outsider. Bundy, Kissinger recalled, tended “to treat me with the combination of politeness and subconscious condescension that upper-class Bostonians reserve for people of, by New England standards, exotic backgrounds and excessively intense personal style.”

Yet Kissinger was also an insider to the extent that his rise was by way of traditional establishement paths: Harvard, the Council on Foreign Relations, Nelson Rockefeller. In this respect, he was a strange choice for Nixon. But Kissinger, in attempting to define the role of the National Security Council as an agency for the conduct of foreign policy that would bypass the State Department and center foreign policy in the White House, was simultaneously acting upon Nixon’s complaint that the State Department was “dominated by the Ivy League colleges” and “liberalism.”

Even before 1968, however, the number of Ph.D.’s in the State Department had been growing at the expense of the old establishment. “The years from 1947 to 1968,” writes Hodgson, “were the heyday of the American foreign-policy establishment.” Yet at the same time, Hodgson notes, “the geographical and sociological cachement [for the recruiting of State Department personnel] widened considerably, if for no other reason than that the GI bill enabled almost any keen young man of average intelligence to get into a good school.” Hodgson might have added that lowering the discriminatory barriers in the Ivy League enabled men of foreign birth like Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski and native Americans of non-Wasp background to be admitted. They studied international relations, became eligible for faculty appointments, and were recruited as consultants to prestigious organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations.

This Ph.D. route gradually replaced law school and the Wall Street law firm as (in Hodgson’s words) “the prime avenue to the seats of the establishment.” The result was that the hubris of the traditional State Department establishment, grounded in genealogy, confronted the hubris of the political scientist with the somewhat questionable reputation of that discipline for problem-solving. (One is reminded of Max Weber’s belief that bureaucracy ranks with democracy as an enemy of aristocracy.)



Brzezinski, like Kissinger, was an outsider with insider credentials: Harvard, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Columbia faculty, the Trilateral Commission. Like Kissinger in relation to Nixon, Brzezinski became National Security Adviser to an outsider President, Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia. Ever conscious of being of Polish origin and a Catholic, Brzezinski noted that Carter was not a member of the Wasp elite, “and it certainly was not easy for me to relate to it, either.” Nevertheless, Carter balanced his appointment of Brzezinski by naming as his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a lawyer who qualified as an establishment figure and who was not overly fond of Brzezinski. Another foreign-policy patrician involved in the Carter administration, Averell Harriman, considered Brzezinski an ill-mannered Pole who wanted to involve the United States in a war with Russia. But Carter liked “Zbig” and so did his wife, Rosalynn.

Brzezinski granted that Vance “epitomized that which is best in both the Anglo-American tradition and Wasp values.” As a member of the “once-dominant Wasp elite” and the legal profession, continued Brzezinski, Vance functioned in accordance with “values and rules” which were of declining relevance both domestically and overseas. Vance, allegedly, was reluctant to use force in dealing with “thugs” on the international scene.

However, Brzezinski’s one experience with the use of force—the attempt to free the American hostages held by Iran—foundered in the desert. Brzezinski had led Carter into this disastrous episode over the opposition of Vance, who resigned. This left an opening for Brzezinski to follow in Kissinger’s footsteps into the position of Secretary of State. But the exigencies of domestic politics intervened. Confronted by the 1980 elections, Carter needed all the support he could muster, and Senator Edmund Muskie became Secretary of State. Brzezinski professed not to mind because Carter, Brzezinski said, really wanted to be his own Secretary of State.

Why did Vance fail to fight back against Brzezinski? According to two members of Vance’s staff, Anthony Lake and Leslie Gelb (writing in collaboration with I.M. Destler), Vance neither knew nor wanted to learn how to do so: “Vance would live by the gentlemen’s rules from the old era—and eventually be hit by the new rules. . . . He did not want to recognize the lengths to which Brzezinski and his allies would go in trying to win.” Also, Vance might have been experiencing a spell of traditional patrician malaise, a failure of nerve which, decades earlier, the patrician man of letters, Charles Eliot Norton, had ascribed to the descendants of those who first came to these shores. Brzezinski sensed something of this sort when Vance was reluctant to provide the deposed Shah of Iran with a sanctuary in the U.S. He later wrote that over this issue

our national honor was at stake. It bothered me . . . that the one to speak up for American honor was a naturalized American. I wondered what this indicated about the current American elite and whether we were not seeing here symptoms of a deeper national problem.

Destler, Gelb, and Lake are sympathetic to Vance. They lament the passing of the

old establishment of relatively homogeneous, part-time, pragmatic, and mostly bipartisan Northeasterners [which] has been subsumed by a much larger, more diverse elite of fulltime foreign-policy professionals. Their diversity and expertise are valuable. But they are far more political and ideological than their predecessors.

The establishment, for all its shortcomings and tendency toward being doctrinaire, served as a brake on politics. It stood for common sense, a willingness to bear out and accommodate other views within a certain range, and a sense of responsibility and proportion about policies and institutions. Today’s foreign-policy elites help to drive policy into domestic politics and push debates toward the extremes.

This is also Hodgson’s opinion, expressed in his biography of Stimson. Professor F.C. Mosher, once editor of the Public Administration Review, lamented in 1968 the absence in the American public service of “an administrative class of gentlemen” who would serve as “generalists.”

Yet as Destler, Gelb, and Lake admit, there is no returning to the days when the foreign policy of the United States could be conducted on a part-time basis by patricians or other establishment figures commuting between the law offices and board rooms of Wall Street and Washington. Professionals have become essential. And in any case, it is by no means clear that the old establishment was that much better than the new elite.



On the other hand, contrary to what both Kissinger and Brzezinski have alleged, the so-called Wasp establishment did possess a long view of American foreign policy, even an ideology. Defined by Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Hay, among others, its core was linkage to England in the context of Eurocentrism. Adams’s concept of an Atlantic civilization halted at the Elbe, beyond which was the “barbarism” of Russia and China which Adams saw as a glacial mass threatening to crush Europe. In the context of the Atlantic system, Adams believed that geography had cast Germany as a consistent element of disquiet—not powerful enough to control Europe but sufficiently strong to try. Adams even predicted with uncanny accuracy the date of the outbreak of World War I, though he did not live long enough to see World War II. Significantly, it was in defense of NATO, the military extension of Atlanticism, that Kissinger in May 1971 assembled the “Old Guard”—among them John J. McCloy, George Ball, Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert Lovett, and others—which was to be, for some of them, a last public service.

Atlanticism originally presupposed a passive, undeveloped third world which Atlanticists believed should be more or less policed by the “civilized” nations. This aspect of what Vance characterizes as “our traditional understanding” he finds strained by the fact that “by the year 2000 eight of every ten people will live in the developing world.” Vance does not propose a policy to deal with this situation, and neither does Brzezinski, who is also aware of the demographic facts.

One means of countering these facts is force. Brzezinski attacks Vance for preferring to “litigate issues endlessly, to shy away from the unavoidable ingredient of force in dealing with contemporary international realities,” and for having an excessive faith that all issues can be resolved by compromise. “Unfortunately, in a revolutionary age, such an approach more often than not tends to be exploited by the Qaddafis, Khomeinis, or even the Brezhnevs or Begins of our age.” This contrasts strikingly with Brzezinski’s pleas for litigation and/or compromise prior to the war with Iraq and his shying away from the ingredient of force against Saddam Hussein.

Actually, the Wasp-patrician tradition of an Atlantic civilization, to which Brzezinski sees Vance as an heir, was not marked by a reluctance to use force. The essence of Atlanticism in the view of Theodore Roosevelt, that quintessential Wasp patrician, was the idea of a superior civilization and the willingness to defend it. Henry Stimson, nine years younger than Roosevelt, idolized the older man, and Hodgson’s persistent emphasis in his biography of Stimson is upon the martial spirit that impelled this distinguished public servant. Stimson was Secretary of War for William Howard Taft, Secretary of State for Herbert Hoover, and again Secretary of War for Franklin Roosevelt. He saw frontline action in World War I at the age of fifty. “Colonel” was the title by which he preferred to be addressed. Theodore Roosevelt, Stimson, and very many other patricians disproportionately supported the preparedness movement prior to World War I, as well as the war itself. Before World War II, patricians were also disproportionately represented in the Committee to Defend America by Supporting the Allies. Finally, not to be found “soft” on Communism was an impelling circumstance dictating patrician support of the Vietnam war, which Kissinger identified with the foreign-policy establishment and which, he believes, contributed to its demise.

Everyman’s tough guy, especially Hatcher’s, is President Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson’s determination to prosecute the Vietnam war was at least partly a creature of the influence of his patrician advisers, toward whom he felt a reluctant deference. To Johnson, the patricians in his entourage were, collectively, “Harvards,” who had come into the world fully clothed, whereas he felt himself naked no matter how much power he had acquired. “My Daddy always told me,” Johnson recalled, “that if I brushed up against the grindstone of life, I’d come away with far more polish than I could ever get at Harvard or Yale. I wanted to believe him, but somehow I never could. . . .”



The present Secretary of State, James A. Baker 3d, is a scion of old Texas money, educated at Princeton with a law degree from the University of Texas, rather than an advanced degree in international relations. His patrician status is affirmed by his friendship with George Herbert Walker Bush, and his Southwest origin is suggestive of where future patricians may be coming from. How much the stand of these men during the Persian Gulf crisis can be attributed to traditional patrician toughness, of the sort exhibited by Stimson—“somebody has got to show some guts”—is difficult to say. It is well known that George Bush has installed a portrait of Stimson’s idol, Theodore Roosevelt, in the cabinet meeting room. It is not known to what extent, if any, Bush shares Roosevelt’s belief that “civilized” nations should somehow control the “uncivilized.”

In any case, none of this adds up to Hatcher’s conception of elite “suicide.” There has been change in the foreign-policy elite involving differences in training and background, but it is questionable whether there has been a decline or even whether foreign policy itself has been all that much affected. Finally, after victory in the Persian Gulf, George Bush’s claim to have “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” eliminates what had been the prime cause of the alleged elite “suicide.” George Bush is a true heir to the Theodore Roosevelt, Root, Stimson, and Acheson tradition, which is now in place in the State Department.


1 Stanford University Press, 429 pp., $35.00.

2 Knopf, 402 pp., $24.95.


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