Part 1: The CFR: An Introduction

0123_council_on_foreign_relationsIn 1977 political scientist Thomas Dye delivered his presidential address to the Southern Political Science Association at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His topic: the role of allegedly ‘private’ policy-making organizations in determining US policy. His address was then published in 1978 as a research paper in The Journal of Politics, and much space was devoted to the importance of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the making of United States foreign policy. [1] All around, this was a rare event that helped correct a failing identified by sociologist G. William Domhoff in his 1970 book, The Higher Circles: The Governing Class in America: “there never has been any research paper on [the CFR] in any scholarly journal indexed in the Social Science and Humanities Index.[2] Many political scientists, apparently, thought this was a proper state of affairs and wanted matters to remain thus, because Dye wrote in the first page: “I appreciate the assistance of G. William Domhoff, University of California, Santa Cruz. I apologize to those eminent political scientists who told me that [studying] the activities of private policymakers was not ‘political science.’”[3]

It is certainly curious that “eminent political scientists” should be opposed to research on the Council on Foreign Relations and other supposedly ‘private’ policy organizations. We shall return to these matters. First, however, let us get a sense for what the CFR is and give some context to evaluate Dye’s use of the phrase “private policymakers” in reference to this organization.

In his paper, Thomas Dye writes:

“Political scientist Lester Milbraith observes that the influence of [the] CFR throughout the government is so pervasive that it is difficult to distinguish CFR from government programs: ‘The Council on Foreign Relations, while not financed by government, works so closely with it that it is difficult to distinguish Council actions stimulated by government from autonomous actions.’”[4]

You could say it in the reverse direction, as well: it is difficult to distinguish government actions stimulated by the Council from autonomous government action. Dye gives a list of quite major US foreign policy initiatives which the CFR led, “including both the initial decision to intervene militarily in Vietnam and the later decision to withdraw.” Further, he points out that many important members of the CFR are simultaneously top government officeholders. For example, “Council members in the Kennedy-Johnson Administration included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge P. Bundy, CIA Director John McCone, and Under-Secretary of State George Ball.”[5] A list of important figures in the CFR over the years up to 1978, which Dye also provides, shows that many are former top officials in the United States Government.[6]

But the CFR is not merely where present and former officeholders meet; it is also an incubator for future officeholders. As William Domhoff observed:

“Douglass Cater, a journalist from Exeter and Harvard who served on the staff of President Lyndon B. Johnson, has noted that ‘a diligent scholar would do well to delve into the role of the purely unofficial Council on Foreign Relations in the care and breeding of an incipient American Establishment.’ …Turning to the all-important question of government involvement… the point is made most authoritatively by John J. McCloy… director of CFR and a government appointee in a variety of roles since the early 1940s: ‘Whenever we needed a man,’ said McCloy in explaining the presence of CFR members in the modern defense establishment that fought World War II, ‘we thumbed through the roll of council members and put through a call to New York.’”[7]

In what sense, then, can we say that the CFR is private? In this technical sense: the money to support the CFR comes from private foundations and corporations. It is obvious, now, why “[the] CFR was called by [Washington journalist Joseph] Kraft a ‘school for statesmen [which] comes close to being an organ of what C. Wright Mills has called the Power Elite — a group of men, similar in interest and outlook, shaping events from invulnerable positions behind the scenes.’”[8] Financial backers of the CFR get to turn their views into policy without the scrutiny that would accompany running for office, under the cover of a supposedly ‘private’ organization. Even the academic world of “eminent political scientists,” as we have seen, cooperates in keeping the CFR in a penumbra, because according to them studying what the CFR does is supposedly not‘political science.’

This penumbra obscures not only the process of foreign policy-making in the United States, but in the Western world as a whole. Thomas Dye writes:

“A discussion of the CFR would be incomplete without some reference to its multi-national arm — the Trilateral Commission. The Trilateral Commission was established by CFR board Chairman David Rockefeller in 1972, with the backing of the Council and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Trilateral Commission is a small group of top officials of multi-national corporations and governmental leaders of industrialized nations, who meet periodically to coordinate policy among the United States, Western Union, and Japan.”[9]

Given all this, it seems important, the better to understand what the CFR is, and what it’s for, to shine some light on the penumbra in which it quietly sits. I will explain who finances the CFR, and what their ideological views appear to be.

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