I Worked for State
Bostonian and lifelong Republican, THOMAS D. CABOT is Executive Vice President of Godfrey L. Cabot, Inc., and former President of United Fruit Company. Late in 1950, when the United Nations troops were being repulsed at the Yalu River, his friends Lloyd Brace, the Boston banker. Judge Charles Wyzanski, and Dean Donald David of the Harvard Business School urged him to go down to Washington “to help with an important defense job that needed doing.” This he did, and these are the comparisons which he inevitably drew during his ten months in the State Department.
by THOMAS D. CABOT
IT WAS Under Secretary of State James E. Webb who persuaded me to come to Washington. My title was Director of International Security Affairs, “speaking for the Department of State on matters relating to the North Atlantic Treaty, other similar international programs, and military and economic assistance for mutual defense.” I stayed ten months. The Congress was evidently not impressed with the results, for it has now eliminated the job, and I have returned to a comfortable home life, working only half as many hours as I found necessary to keep up with the load in Washington. I have no regrets for the experience. I acquired far more in educational value than I gave in time. Besides, there were more than enough thrills and satisfactions to compensate for all the hard work.
I went full of criticism and left full of admiration. To be sure, I am not prepared to switch my party allegiance. The demagoguery of New Dealers pleases me no more than the irresponsible obstructionism of Administration critics, but I am prepared to argue that our government’s policy, at least in foreign affairs, is not, and should not be, dictated by domestic politics.
How foreign policy was made in previous Administrations is not my concern. Today it is a composite in which many earnest, intelligent, and devoted public servants have a part. You can complain of the lack of leadership if you will, or of weak leadership, but that is something different from mistaken or prejudiced or corrupt leadership, and I think the difference is important.
I had a good chance to watch policy decisions being made, for much of the work of the State Department was related to my job. Nowadays nearly every important parl of our foreign policy impinges on international security or relates to our alliances. Furthermore, as chairman of the interdepartmental International Security Affairs Committee (ISAC), I had ample opportunity to learn what a large part other agencies of our government, especially those within our military establishment, have in forming foreign policy.
It is impossible for anyone who hasn’t worked in Washington to conceive of the mass of paper work, the clearances and conferences that go into making a composite decision. To a businessman this appears to be a hopelessly slow and wasteful process of reaching a judgment. I am sure one couldn’t run a successful business the same way. But a business is different, not only because decisions are less important and less lasting in their effect, but also because most business decisions involve operations rather than policy.
We are often told that a dictatorship is more efficient than a democracy but. far less safe. I take some comfort from a certain parallelism between the New England town meeting kind of democracy and this Administration’s way of reaching a decision. The town meeting way of hammering out an agreement takes a lot of time. We worked many long, tedious hours resolving differences of view. It might perhaps be charged that sometimes it is mere exhaustion which determines policy. More than one good volunteer has been knocked out by the heavy load of work to which he has been exposed. No doubt the autocratic approach would save a lot of expensive manpower. I am sure that there is great and useless waste from lack of clear leadership in many parts of our government. But, in the field of foreign policy, almost any expenditure is better than a decision which is wrong because it has received an inadequate amount, of prior study and thought.
Of course in any executive group the top man must have the final say — either directly, through the right to overrule, or indirectly, through the right to appoint; but it was my observation that neither Mr. Truman nor Mr. Acheson even appeared to be aware of this prerogative during most, discussions of policy. By this I don’t mean to indicate that. I was present during the most important discussions. I did have the opportunity to compare results with the guidance papers developed at lower levels and thus to appraise the extent to which staff decisions really determine high policy in Washington nowadays.
In saying this I do not wish to belittle the courage of the President in backing those decisions which have required courage. In the cold war there have been many cases where short-term acclaim has been sacrificed to attain long-term advantages for the free world. I am one who believes it took both courage and wisdom to make the decisions to support Greece and Turkey, to carry out the Marshall Plan, to join NATO, and to resist in Korea.
These decisions were made before my time. Whether they developed gradually from staff studies or were made at the highest level, I cannot say, bul I think it probable the discussion at the Cabinet level was little more than a review of and concurrence in staff or working group recommendations.
I do know that some very important changes of policy during my period in Washington weren’t even considered at the political level until all the alternatives had been studied and reported on at many staff-level conferences.
Coming from a business training, it disturbed me a great deal at first that problems of foreign policy were considered concurrently in many places. The results seemed ehaolic, and I longed for the ability, which I enjoyed in industry, to make prompt, final decisions on my own. I thought the system had all ihe faults of committee management multiplied many times. Gradually I came to realize that in government, unlike business, the damage from bad decisions is far greater than ihe cost of slow decisions; and that in attacking the problems of government. the delays due to consideration by many minds of varied training and viewpoint have far greater justification than in attacking the problems of business.
Especially of the State Department can it be said that decisions are rarely hasty or impulsive or based on individual prejudice. There is little doubt that other countries reach decisions on foreign policy quicker and at less cost, If the slower process of discussion and attrition of mind against mind in order to reach a collective view results in better decisions, then it is almost sure to be worth the cost in both delay and dollars.
Coming from business I was also impressed with the degree to which discussions in the State Department gave weight to the opinion of junior officials. I found far less tendency for rank to outweigh logic than has been my experience in business. This had advantages in permitting any and every bit of logic to be aired, but it also tended to bury the important points in a mass of unimportant and barely relevant lines of argument. I was frequently charged with oversimplification, and as frequently was distressed at the lengthy discussion by my professional colleagues of points which seemed to me immaterial.
Perhaps it is fortunate that in recent years a considerable number of businessmen and business lawyers have been brought into the State Department at the policy-making level. Of the dozen top men in the Department at Washington, over half were previously highly successful as corporat ion executives or lawyers. I do not argue that a man who comes from business is as entitled to determine foreign policy as a man who has devoted his life to the subject in government or academic service; I only suggest that the tendency of the professional to substitute discussion for decision can go too far.
The fact that so many of those who determine foreign policy come from the conservative class is a fair answer to the critics of the State Department who charge it with mistakes based on leftist prejudices. One who knows the Department can recognize in tintop echelon of command three who were high executives of companies lisled on the “Big Board,” three who came from law firms usually associated with Wall Street, and two who were Wall Street bankers. The Bussinn propaganda machine doesn’t fail to make the most of this fact.
Now that I am back in business, my patience is often tried by the naïve criticism of our foreign policy by businessmen who should know bettor. Those who have the most to lose by the failure of our government’s policy are frequently the least well informed and least conscious of the dangers of our international position. I too become annoyed when our government leaders admit no errors in our policy. But I can forgive a statesman dependent on politics claiming infallibility more readily than I can forgive the conservative critic who jeopardizes bis government’s foreign policy by damning decisions which are his salvation.