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Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996

Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996

By Peter Grose

Council On Foreign Relations Press, 1996, 82 pp.

This sprightly work tells the story of the Council on Foreign Relations, established in the aftermath of the First World War and now in its 75th year. Peter Grose, a managing editor and executive editor of Foreign Affairs from 1984 to 1993, locates the origins of the council in the Inquiry that Woodrow Wilson's envoy, Colonel House, with the journalist Walter Lippmann's aid, established for the benefit of the American peace delegation at Versailles. What had prompted the Inquiry in the first place -- the absence within the State Department of the detailed knowledge of European conditions that would be required for redrawing, as fairly as could be done, the map of the world -- led some Inquiry members, together with a select group of English citizens, to concur on the need for an organization that would "continue the inquiry" after the war. The plan for a joint Anglo-American enterprise miscarried, as both sides developed sober second thoughts; and there was a moment, on the American side, when physical exhaustion and spiritual depletion made the whole venture seem dauntingly problematic. But the project was revived, and the scholars -- badly in need of money, as always -- joined forces with a parallel undertaking of financiers and international lawyers. The council incorporated itself on July 29, 1921, with the first issue of its flagship journal, Foreign Affairs, rolling off the presses in September 1922. Its mission was not only to "inform" but also to "guide" American public opinion.


The need for information -- nay, for guidance -- was pressing. American domestic opinion was returning, with a vengeance, to the insular habits that had long characterized it. If the idea for the council had been conceived in the most cosmopolitan of firmaments, the new child saw its first light under a different sign. The Philadelphia Record's comment of 1928 -- "The American people don't give a hoot in a rainbarrel who controls north China" -- was expressive of that insularity. Against the attitude of smug indifference to the external world the council has always stood. But its internationalism was, at the same time, hesitant and quizzical, unsure of the answers but convinced that the questions needed a full airing. Its first president, Elihu Root, had played a critical role in formulating the Republican reservations to American membership in the League of Nations, reservations that proved unacceptable to Woodrow Wilson and doomed American participation. Between an unreconstructed Wilsonianism and a blind insularity, some new way would have to be found.

The heyday of the council's influence came with the Second World War and the United States' assumption of world leadership and responsibility. The council represented the establishment when there was an establishment to represent; it embodied the consensus when the consensus seemed sturdy and immovable. The council always enjoyed a semiofficial status, close to the government but distinct from it; its members worried about giving the sanction of its authority to anything suggestive of the lunatic fringe. But in the early days, no less than in the heydays, the activities of the council -- the study groups, Foreign Affairs and other publications, the confidential discussions among the luminaries after dinner, cigars, and brandy -- reflected a genuine receptiveness to the lure of ideas. Despite his reservations, the first editor of Foreign Affairs, Archibald Cary Coolidge, published "Worlds of Color" by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1925; four more contributions from Du Bois appeared under Coolidge's successor, the formidable Hamilton Fish Armstrong. Within the confines marked out by decorum, gravitas, and the search for the vital center, the challenge to received ideas was encouraged, even relished.


Vietnam destroyed the foreign policy consensus and fractured the establishment; the divisions it prompted were as deep and bitter within the council as in the larger society. In recovering from that trauma, the council faced a domestic scene very different from what it had known. Its status had changed, suddenly and palpably: it was no longer at the center of things. Its relationship with Washington was now often distant, the attitude of presidents sometimes resentful, sometimes (worst of all) indifferent. Competitors to Foreign Affairs arose, almost as good as the original, a veritable hairsbreadth away in general excellence, as often as not supplying the best essay of the season. While Foreign Affairs maintained and then increased its dominance in circulation, it was now one voice among many. Indeed, it was itself many voices; its pages were opened to a spectrum of opinion as wide as that of any of its competitors, for it no longer had a consensus to represent, only a set of questions to investigate. The council's membership rolls swelled, as it accommodated the newly recognized diversities of gender, ethnicity, and region. And though many of its officers, fellows, and members continued to await the call to government service, and some of them still got it, the status the council had once enjoyed was not, and could not be, recovered.


Anniversaries are moments not only for celebration but also for reflection. Grose has provided a fond recital of past accomplishments, recalled long-forgotten quarrels, and sketched a handsome outline of institutional history. If the brevity of his account is such as to pique, rather than satisfy, the curiosity of the historian, one must acknowledge that the occasion would have been ill served by a lengthy tome. What Grose does capture is the spirit of the undertaking: the sense of its founders, as well as its renovators, that America has a continuing need to be drawn out of its parochialisms. The insularity of the public attitude is not the only parochialism at issue; that afflicting the academic world, though it has different manifestations, is equally alarming. In drawing scholars from their narrow specializations, and businessmen, lawyers, and financiers to a broader perspective, the council has performed a vital public service. The partnership improved all its partners, while also enlightening public opinion and providing fruitful warnings and breadth of vision to governments.

Grose does not speculate about the future, but his characterization of the past provides ample material for reflection on its possibilities and hazards. At 75 years, the council approaches the term of human life; it is surely not immune to the forces that decree decay and the erosion of vitality on all living things. In the autumn of its influence, it must compete for attention in a world that values instant opinion and startling images; its leaders, like those of virtually all other intermediate associations in this society, must devote enormous efforts to fundraising, with the subtle deflections from purpose that often entails. It must grow in order to accommodate itself to a changing and diverse society, but risks losing through growth the qualities that made it distinctive. Its best sense of itself has always lain in the application of wide-ranging intelligence to the pressing international problems of the age, informed by the humble recognition that the public good is best discovered through scrupulous analysis and open debate. If these qualities are lost, all will be lost; if retained, the centennial of 2021 should provide good cause for renewed celebration. And good cause as well for reintroducing the cigars and the brandy.

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