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Biography: John J. McCloy

He has been called “the most influential private citizen in America” by Harper’s magazine, “the conscience of America” by DIE ZEIT, and “the godfather of the new Germany” by former Federal German President Richard von Weizsaecker. John Jay McCloy, however, would have demurred that he was merely part of a team attempting to salve the wounds of the war, with a goal of reintegrating Germany into the postwar world. Indeed, he wrote that when he was appointed U.S. High Commissioner for Germany in 1949, to serve as the top U.S. official in the defeated nation, “our goal was to transform Germany from an occupied enemy into a trusted and reliable partner.”

Born in 1895, Mr. McCloy was educated at Amherst College and Harvard Law School. He interrupted his legal studies when World War I broke out to enlist in the U.S. Army, and he served with distinction as an artillery captain in France. Upon his graduation from Harvard, Mr. McCloy worked as a lawyer at the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and then with Cravath, de Gersdorff, Swaine & Wood, where he remained for more than 15 years. He dedicated more than a decade of his life to investigating an emotional case of Imperial German sabotage in New York Harbor that dated back to 1916, almost a year before the United States had entered World War I. The so-called Black Tom Island explosion case went on to become a landmark in international law.

Mr. McCloy was “present at the creation” of the post-World War II world order, to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase, and he had a unique role in shaping the political landscape. His public service career began in 1940, when he became an advisor to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, before serving as Assistant Secretary of War from 1941 to 1945. In one of his first key wartime policy decisions, Mr. McCloy saved the historic town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber from a planned American attack. When diehard Nazi troops dug in behind the city’s medieval walls, Mr. McCloy suggested that the town might be persuaded to surrender without dropping any bombs. Negotiations began and the town gave up the following day. He was later named a patron and honorary citizen of Rothenburg in gratitude. In another example of his foresight, he was steadfast in his opposition to the Morgenthau Plan, which in essence would have extinguished Germany’s industrial ambitions and established an agricultural society. The plan was ultimately defeated. In the summer of 1945, together with Secretary Stimson, he drafted a comprehensive plan for the economic rehabilitation of Europe in general and Germany in particular. Mr. McCloy was part of the small circle of trusted presidential advisers who were aware of the Manhattan Project. Mr. McCloy strongly recommended a political solution to end World War II in Japan, but events took a different turn, toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1947, after a year with the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hope, Hadley, & McCloy, he was appointed President of the World Bank. In this capacity, he chartered a course for development efforts for years to come. Mr. McCloy stepped down from this post when he was named the first civilian U.S. High Commissioner for Germany by President Truman. At a time when many Americans were wary of connections to a recent foe, Mr. McCloy set out to build bridges between the citizens of the two nations and to support Germany in its efforts to adopt democratic principles and join the community of Western nations. He also was a pivotal figure in granting Chancellor Konrad Adenauer the authority truly to govern his own country, in concert with the Allied High Commissioners.

Mr. McCloy and his wife, Ellen Zinsser McCloy, were pivotal in the formative years of the American Council on Germany, along with other prominent figures, such as Eric M. Warburg, Lucius Clay, and Christopher Emmet. Founded in 1952, the Council became a nexus where these luminaries could build on their personal mission of bringing together people from both sides of the Atlantic and fostering a transatlantic community where individuals could share ideas and gain a better understanding of one another. Mr. McCloy, who served as the Chairman of the Council from 1972 to 1987, believed strongly that younger Americans and Germans in particular would benefit greatly from meeting their transatlantic peers. In fact, former Minister-President of Saxony Kurt Biedenkopf put it well when he said that Mr. McCloy “had a way of assuring the younger ones that they were headed for a bright, interesting, constructive, and very important future,” even in the aftermath of a devastating war.

After returning from Germany in 1953, Mr. McCloy was named Chairman of the Chase National Bank, and he oversaw its merger with the Bank of Manhattan in 1955. He went on to become President Kennedy’s advisor on disarmament and was Chairman of the General Advisory Committee on Disarmament from 1961 to 1974. President Kennedy’s declaration of “Ich bin ein Berliner” might not have become a reality were it not for Mr. McCloy. The President’s advisors had warned JFK not to travel to the city, where tensions were high in the summer of 1963. President Kennedy changed his mind only after consulting with Mr. McCloy, who admonished him that he should not go to Germany at all if he did not go to Berlin. Mr. McCloy negotiated the U.S.-Soviet Joint Statement of Agreed Principles of arms control and disarmament in 1961, which led to the first earnest arms control agreement. In addition, he drafted the bill that led to the establishment of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, he was named a member of the Warren Commission.

Mr. McCloy served in a number of other leadership capacities throughout his life, including Honorary Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations and Chairman of the Ford Foundation, and served on the Boards of various firms, including Mercedes-Benz of North America. Mr. McCloy received a litany of accolades for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also was named a citizen of the city of Berlin, the highest distinction the city can bestow, and an honor which has been awarded only a handful of times in postwar history.

Mr. McCloy’s vision of a Europe united in cooperation has become a reality in many ways today. When Mr. McCloy called on Chancellor Adenauer as he was departing as High Commissioner, the Chancellor asked him for his personal advice on future German policies. Mr. McCloy’s answer was: “Make peace with France; two world wars were enough.” He was instrumental in Germany’s admission into NATO. He also advocated American acceptance of the Schuman Plan, which led to the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community, then the European Economic Community, and eventually the European Union.

In his distinguished career, spanning the private and public sectors, Mr. McCloy served nine U.S. Presidents and remained a strong believer in the value of the German-American relationship, staying active in the American Council on Germany until shortly before his death in 1989. The Council’s programs today are the living legacy of Mr. McCloy, a true architect of the postwar world order whose commitment to transatlantic dialogue was unwavering.