Like most teachers, I have learned at least as much from my students as they have learned from me. An Argentinian graduate student at St. Louis University came to me for help on his M.A. thesis in 1970 or so, having heard that I supposedly knew something about contemporary American foreign policy. He was a communist, he said, whose brother was a Jesuit fighting the revolution (with machine guns) in northeastern Brazil. He wanted to prove that the burden of U.S. policy in Latin America was not economic (as all of us were taught in those days) but political.
The text he presented to me was Prospect for America: The Rockefeller Panel Reports, published by Doubleday in 1961. Surprisingly few Americans knew of its existence, despite the fact that its second chapter, “International Security: The Military Aspect,” had been introduced by Nelson Rockefeller on Dave Garroway’s Today Show in 1958. Garroway offered his audience free copies, with Rockefeller’s permission, and the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund ponied up for the over 200,000 orders that came in.
Ernesto Ruiz, my student, considered Prospect the smoking gun of American politics: We were building an empire of democracy and gearing up to enforce it all over the world. Anaconda Copper, Standard Oil, United Fruit—it was all a smokescreen. The empire of democracy was the end, and everything else was means. The United States had been testing things in Latin America for decades. He said that Vietnam was a distraction. The goal was much bigger.
I had recently finished a doctoral dissertation on U.S. relations with Spain during World War II, reading thousands of State Department condemnations of the evil Franco, while the same progressives proclaimed that the (much worse) “neutral” Swedes had “given us an inward and spiritual grace, but not necessarily an outward and visible sign” of their purity. The liberal statists had endless tolerance for progressive Swedish hypocrisy, and no appreciation for the strategic subtlety of the “fascist” caudillo. Perhaps I was prepared for my commie student’s argument.
The Rockefeller Panels were convened by Nelson in 1956 after he had split from Ike over his administration’s reluctance to tax us into unlimited “foreign aid.” Rockefeller would go on to beat fellow billionaire Averell Harriman in the New York governor’s race and turn over the panels to his brother David, but Nelson had already purchased the best Americans money could buy. Henry Kissinger chaired the panels but stepped aside to write his own Realpolitik book once the Dean Rusks and Maxwell Taylors and Adolf Berles and Chuck Percys turned them into a Wilsonian dreamworld. The panelists became a Who’s Who of JFK and LBJ empire builders; look for the guys and gals who gave us Vietnam, and they are there.
Prospect for America does not represent a conspiracy. On the contrary, it was the most public, up-front, in-your-face statement of American empire since Albert Beveridge’s “March of the Flag” speech in 1898. It stands directly in the line of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman (whose NSC-68 summed it all up but was still “top secret” when the Rockefeller Panels met). It prefigured Kennedy’s “pay any price” and Johnson’s Great Society in Southeast Asia, and surfaced again in Clinton’s bombs over the Balkans and in the Bush Doctrine of 2002.
Furthermore, it was “bipartisan.” One recalls here M. Stanton Evans’ quip that the “stupid party” and the “evil party” get together to do something really stupid and evil, which is called “bipartisanship.” Prospect envisioned a world of peacefully cooperating states, tied together by what we now call “globalization” and enforced by a strong U.S.-dominated series of shifting alliances. It called for political, economic, social, educational, and military initiatives powered by the “Democratic Idea.” The glue was the struggle against the Soviet Union; the goal was “the future of America and the freedom of the world.” It is a short leap forward to the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and a short leap backward to Beveridge’s call for us to be “the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.”
It is one thing to proclaim and another thing to act, although sometimes a “planning process” results in self-fulfilling prophesies. Dean Rusk, David Sarnoff, Townsend Hoopes, Harlan Cleveland, Maxwell Taylor, Roger Hilsman, Walt W. Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, and dozens of others would move into policy positions in the (very educable) John Kennedy and (very aggressive) Lyndon Johnson administrations. An interesting character, unknown to most of us, who tied much of this together, was the Ultimate Insider, Roswell Gilpatric.
“Ros,” as he was known, was a Democrat who frequented the Rockefeller and later the Kennedy social circles, and became the intimate of Robert S. McNamara. “Ros and I,” Big Mac often wrote, believe this about this and that about that. As undersecretary of defense, a member of the National Security Council and its “ExCom,” Ros was in on everything from 1961 to 1964. He was a Yalie (Phi Beta Kappa, 1928; law, 1931) and quickly became a partner in the Cravath firm in Manhattan. Cravath has provided us with many “public servants” thanks to its generous policy of encouraging partners to take time off to help presidents do their duty; “It was felt that government experience would be helpful.” Ros was “a rainmaker whose extensive business contacts brought business to the firm.” He was handsome, charming, and most of the time he kept out of sight.
He liked Nelson Rockefeller, as most people apparently did, and quietly helped him get elected as New York governor (firms such as Cravath have to cover their bases). He moved from the Rockefeller Security Panel to the Department of Defense seamlessly, having also cultivated the Kennedys a few years earlier. Ros was a loyal guy, most of the time. He helped take the fall for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, took on the job of giving the speech that (had anybody been listening) blew Kennedy’s cover on the “missile gap” lies of the 1960 campaign, was in the middle of the Mongoose operation that never got Castro, and apparently was one of the very few who knew that the Vietnamese generals were going to assassinate Diem.
This shameful episode is one we know something about, despite the almost total lack of access to the Kennedy papers at Harvard (which, as long as even one Kennedy draws a public breath, will be closed to public scrutiny). JFK appointed Ros to organize an Interdepartmental Task Force (a euphemism for ignoring and overriding the legally constituted responsibilities of the State and Defense Departments, the CIA, USIA, and military intelligence) to “appraise” and “recommend” actions for the already (by 1961) out-of-control mess in Southeast Asia. Ros’s group came up with “A Program of Action to Prevent Communist Domination of South Vietnam” in just over two weeks. It recommended, among other things, the introduction of U.S. ground troops. But a sticking point was both the image and the recalcitrant reality of South Vietnam’s leader: Diem had to be, or at least had to seem to be, a democrat—or in Kennedy terms, a reformer. Washington’s action had to be predicated upon the aims of Prospect for America in Southeast Asia.
Ros’s report had two problems to address that couldn’t be discussed publicly: How to cover unilateral American aggression under the Geneva Accords, and how to deal with Diem if he didn’t want to become a democrat. The former Ros dismissed with a little bit of sophistry: Since the communists ignored Geneva Accord inhibitions, so then could we. It wouldn’t be hard to fool the American people about such morally relative matters. Just do a covert war, and explain it later. The latter Ros was more ambivalent about, but his report gave the clear implication that if Diem continued to be a problem, then eliminate the problem.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave voice to this approach in the fall of 1961 when he recommended that if we were to introduce ground troops it would be best simply to take over the machinery of government in the South. Rusk was no stranger to such thinking: In 1949-50, as a functionary in Dean Acheson’s State Department, he had favored promoting a coup—even an assassination—against Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT regime in the waning months of the Chinese civil war.
Ros did not say, “Let’s kill Diem and take over the government of South Vietnam so we can effectively prevent communist domination of Southeast Asia.” He did produce a report that triggered a series of other reports—a memorandum from McGeorge Bundy, a very public dispatching of Vice President LBJ to Vietnam, a less publicized but crucial “fact-finding mission” to Vietnam by Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow—which represent Prospect for America in action. Ros was probably not the idea-man for all this. He was a sycophant and spear-carrier. But he was in the middle of a gang that took our empire to a new level.
Ros had to whisper convincing things in a lot of ears to be in the middle of so much. He got too close to Kennedy to last long under LBJ, but was given good exit cover as chairman of a study on nuclear proliferation.
If one studies the self-serving memoirs and histories of his era, Ros emerges as the Ultimate Insider. He knew everybody. He evaded all scandals (including his own obvious connection between General Dynamics and very shaky defense contracts). It is hard to determine what he believed, except that his loyal support of empire was apparently tempered by a certain ambivalence. He is supposed to have said in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Essentially, Mr. President, this is a choice between limited action and unlimited action; and most of us think that it’s better to start with limited action.” His Maryland farm was a kind of Kennedy compound south; his movement around Wall Street and the farm and Washington Got Things Done.
Ros also rivaled his presidential mentor: Lots of women. Unlike JFK, he had four wives, the third of whom divorced him because of his affair with—Jacqueline Kennedy. “She dumped me for Onassis,” he said. Such is the fate of the Ultimate Insider, and such is the course of empire. Ever heard of him? The neocons have.
John Willson is professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College.
This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.