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

Article excerpt

"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. …