Cracks in the Consensus: The Rockefeller Brothers Fund Special Studies Project and Eisenhower's America.


"The age in which we live is one of deep and widespread ferment. We have been witnessing a revolution in politics, social order, science, economics, diplomacy, and weapons."(1) This is not the usual characterization of the "Eisenhower equilibrium" in the 1950s, but it was how Laurance Rockefeller introduced the printed volume of panel reports for the Special Studies Project of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in November 1960. It was not only the conclusion reached after four years of study by bipartisan panels of experts drawn largely from government, private foundations, and industry, but it was also the governing assumption for the entire project. An early draft for panel consideration, written in November 1956, began, "There can be little doubt that we are living through a revolutionary period." The author then went on to cite what became the central themes for the ensuing study: a concern with the pace, implications and destabilizing tendencies of weapons technology, the revolution of rising expectations in economics, the communist threat to Western values, the question of whether the United States could live up to its own values, the dangers of complacency or stagnation, and the need for the United States to rediscover its national purpose. "Above all," wrote the anonymous author, "the challenge of the present revolutionary period is not technical but moral; it is to strengthen our sense of direction domestically and to unite it with humanity groping for a new definition of itself and of its purpose. We therefore cannot avoid a more explicit consideration of our values."(2)

The Special Studies Project of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) was organized in 1956, when Nelson Rockefeller took over the presidency of the RBF from his older brother. Its final report outlined its three major objectives: (1) "To define the major problems and opportunities that will challenge the United States over the next ten to fifteen years"; (2) "To clarify the national purposes and objectives that must inspire and direct the meeting of such great challenges"; and (3) "To develop a framework of concepts and principles on which national policies and decisions can be soundly based."(3) A close study of the Special Studies Project panel reports provides a provocative glimpse into American elite thinking as the country prepared to enter the 1960s. Although designed to forge a strong consensus over the future direction of American policy, the study represented a challenge to and critique of the Eisenhower administration's policies. It also served as a platform for Nelson Rockefeller's run for the presidency in 1960 and as the framework for Henry Kissinger's subsequent career in matters of state and national security. A series of other events--a successful revolution in Cuba, the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the Eisenhower administration's sponsorship of what became the Gaither report, and subsequent discussions of a "missile gap"--together with the prestige of the Special Studies Project's participants and the forthcoming presidential election in 1960 created an environment receptive to a critical evaluation of America's course. There seemed a sense of national urgency about these matters by 1960 that had not been present four years earlier, amid a fear that American policies were inadequate to meet the repeated challenges of the communist world. The Special Studies Project represents one of the first public efforts to advance a critique of America's postwar policies.

The project actually began with a somewhat different agenda. Henry Kissinger, who directed the early phases of the project, summarized its purpose to James Killian with the comment that "many of our difficulties, both domestic and foreign, are due not so much to an absence of good ideas, but to our inability to find concepts and attitudes to deal with a situation changing more rapidly and in directions different from what our national experience has led us to expect." Leadership groups in the United States, Kissinger lamented, "are taught to administer rather than to conceptualize, to specialize rather than to think in general terms." The project would bring together "individuals recognized as leaders and their fields and respected for their lack of partisanship." Various individuals prepared "thought" papers looking at the shape of the next ten to fifteen years, at the world they would like to envision.(4) "Our concern," Nelson Rockefeller commented, "is not with writing specific policy recommendations but to develop the conceptual framework on which the consideration of policy might be based, to sketch longer term trends and to outline alternative means of coping with them." The magnitude of American domestic achievements and military strength since World War II, Rockefeller concluded, "appear in some ways to have outrun our goals."(5)

Most of the "ideal world" responses were brief and general; at least one was only a paragraph long. The distinguished authors, ironically, could discuss programs but seemed to have difficulty conceptualizing policies and envisioning a future much different from the past or present. Their new agenda seemed to be chiefly an effort to make small adjustments in existing policies. A few respondents reached further, however. Saville Davis, managing editor of The Christian Science Monitor, argued that the two great forces of freedom and justice be reconciled to bring the American dream to the world community, insisting that international cooperation and disarmament were essential to move beyond nationalism to an international community. David Riesman, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, urged Americans to look within themselves and "be concerned with individual satisfaction and ... stress this as against those who emphasize the need to compete with the Russians or with our own past performance--a view which I regard as defeatist since it assumes we cannot create new goals but must extrapolate from the past ones or borrow from those of our competitors in the international field."(6)

Underlying most of the responses were three central assumptions, most clearly outlined by Gerhard Colm of the National Planning Association. Colm believed that there would be no all-out war during this period and that the arms race would be somewhat limited, although "localized military actions" would occur with some regularity. In addition, except for an occasional interruption in the flow of oil, international trade would not change drastically. Finally, he assumed that the pace of technological change would continue. The central question for most nations in the immediate future, according to Colm, would be the pursuit of abundance. In fact, he wondered if a "civilization of abundance" was "innately self-destructive."(7)

The most important statements, given the positions their authors held, came from Nelson Rockefeller, sponsor of the project, and Henry Kissinger, its director. Rockefeller clearly articulated the theme of the American century: "Our goal is the general promulgation throughout the free world of the basic political philosophy on which our nation was founded." It should pull peoples behind the Iron Curtain to encourage them to "break away from Sino-Soviet Communist domination" and join an international system directed by the United States. Rockefeller outlined a new collective security scheme within the framework of the United Nations. All nations would surrender some of their national sovereignty through regional associations that would accelerate economic growth and opportunity. But the United States would dominate. Kissinger directed his concerns to the need for a moral purpose: "without great goals, it is impossible to achieve great things." He criticized the Eisenhower administration's weak response to the Hungarian Revolution and insisted that "I fully subscribe to the notion that you do not defeat a Messianic movement without getting a sense of Messianic purpose yourself."(8)

The Special Studies Project ultimately produced six panel reports, outlining what the participants hoped would be an agenda for the future. In fact, the reports represented not only a critique of the Eisenhower administration and a platform for both Democrats and Republicans in 1960 but also a glimpse into the thinking of American elites. Implicit in the reports--indeed, in the idea for the study itself--was an argument that the United States was entering a new era. The previous fifteen years had seen the postwar world stabilize; even its challenges and periodic outbreaks of violence had a certain pattern to them. If we were to advance, the reports argued, we had to move beyond merely trying to cope with the changes wrought by World War II and the cold war and try to shape a new environment at home and abroad--but especially abroad. All the participants assumed that the times were critical; indeed, no one argued the contrary. Between January 1958 and September 1960, the various panels published their separate reports; ultimately, all were collected together and published as Prospect for America.

The sense of crisis that the panelists experienced is critical to an understanding of what they produced. This was, however, both a virtue and a weakness. The panel reports exuded an apocalyptic tone, emphasizing foreign dangers and competition with the Russians. More than that, most of the panelists operated within very narrow intellectual boundaries. Few questioned fundamentals. They pursued reform, not structural change. They professed to seek a wider vision, but most often fell short. Because they were so determined to convince Americans that "the very life of our free society may be at stake," their reports were frequently didactic rather than provocative. Yet, in one respect, they were quite perceptive, for they insisted that the United States had to stand for something. In saying this, they, perhaps unwittingly, unleashed what became a...

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