It’s Who You Know

Governments are managed by elites who are beholden to somewhat larger elites for support. Members of the former usually spring from the latter. Whether the nature of rule dictates this sort of cozy arrangement, as pronounced by the Iron Law of Oligarchy, or not, we see this type of tight, inbred elite rule in virtually every society, regardless of its declared ideological commitments and ideals.

In U.S. history, defense and foreign policy making has exemplified this pattern to a greater degree than anything else. Ever since the United States began to exert itself aggressively on the world stage at the end of the nineteenth century, a relative handful of persons drawn from a common, highly unrepresentative background has tended to call the shots in foreign and defense policy making. Perhaps this pattern has weakened somewhat in the past two or three decades, but it has certainly not disappeared.

Earlier it was so blatant as to be unmistakable. People at the top of the heap in foreign and defense policy making often had attended the same exclusive boarding schools, the same universities, and the same law schools. They generally had worked in top law firms or top investment banks in New York City. They had often known one another since boyhood. (Girls didn’t play in this league until very recently.)

One of the most important figures of the twentieth century in U.S. foreign and defense policymaking was Henry Stimson, who was twice secretary of war (under Taft and then under Franklin Roosevelt and Truman) and once secretary of state (under Hoover). Stimson, who epitomized the elite’s exclusivity, drew the same sort of people to him, giving them an opportunity to put their noses under the tent of power, where many of them kept themselves until quite recently.

In reading a biography of Stimson by Godfrey Hodgson, The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950, I came across a passage (on pp. 247-48) whose content is so remarkable, not to say astonishing, that I am moved to share it. This passage has to do with the men Stimson took on as his chief subordinates at the War Department after he became secretary there in 1940: Harvey Hollister Bundy, Robert A. Lovett, John J. McCloy, George Harrison, and Robert Patterson.

Stimson, Bundy, Lovett, [and] Harrison were all members of Skull and Bones [a secret society of students at Yale]. Only McCloy and Patterson of the inner circle were not. Stimson, Bundy, Harrison, McCloy and Patterson were all graduates of the Harvard Law School; only Lovett was not. Stimson, Harrison, Lovett, McCloy, and Patterson were all prominent on Wall Street; only Bundy was not, and he practiced law on State Street, the nearest thing to Wall Street in Boston. All six men were Republicans. The plain fact is that, during a war for democracy conducted by a Democratic President—which was also, more than any previous foreign war in American history, a democratic war in the sense that millions of men from every corner of American life fought it together—the War Department was directed by a tiny clique of wealthy Republicans, and one that was almost as narrowly based, in social and educational terms, as a traditional British Tory Cabinet.

Readers who wish to learn much more about such men, their backgrounds, their thinking, and their leading roles in the conduct of official affairs may wish to read The Wise Men, by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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