You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The End of an Elite

The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment

By Geoffrey Kabaservice (Henry Holt, 573 pp., $30)

The commitment of America's great universities to admitting students on the basis of merit rather than lineage--whether or not that commitment is wholly observed in practice--is today virtually uncontested. Similarly, the belief in the value of diversity, while under assault in courts and legislatures, is a core conviction of almost all educators. Among its many other achievements, Geoffrey Kabaservice's account of the career of Kingman Brewster, who served as president of Yale from 1963 to 1977, makes clear how recently and with what difficulty the world of higher education embraced these and other now-common values.

Consider the experience of R. Inslee Clark, who became director of admissions at Yale in 1965. Clark had the typical profile of a senior Ivy League administrator of his time. He was a Yale College graduate, an alumnus of Skull and Bones (the college's most elite secret society), and a former teacher at the Lawrenceville School. But he was hardly typical in other ways. When Brewster asked him whether he aspired to be an "engineer" or an "architect" of Yale's admissions policy, Clark (who was then thirty) said unhesitatingly: "an architect . . . I'd like to design a different student body from the one we have now." The extraordinary education that Yale offered, he argued, should serve "the most able, the most motivated, those with the most potential," not just those with the appropriate social background. Brewster supported this vision, and together--perhaps unaware of the furor that it would create--he and Clark set out to realize it.

A few months after taking his new job Clark visited Andover, which had long been Yale's largest "feeder school." When asked what his attitude would be toward the bottom quarter of the Andover class (a group accustomed to favored treatment at Ivy League universities), Clark answered bluntly: "Yale can do a lot better than the bottom quarter at Andover." The response was savage. Yale alumni who had attended Andover (many of whom had come from the now-scorned bottom quarter of the class) wrote furiously to Brewster, to the board of trustees, and to one another protesting the change. The Yale Corporation, the university's small governing body drawn from the high elite of Yale alumni, summoned Clark to one of its meetings. After listening to Clark explain his policies, one member replied: "Let me get down to basics. You are admitting an entirely different class than we're used to. You're admitting them for a different purpose than training leaders." Clark replied that the world was changing, that leaders would likely now emerge from untraditional sources. His challenger responded: "You're talking about Jews and public school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table. These are America's leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here."

That statement was more true than not, even in 1965, not just at Yale but throughout much of American academia. Kabaservice's central argument in this ambitious book is that members of a generation of leaders drawn from traditional elites were complicit in the shattering of their own monopoly on leadership; that the much-derided WASP establishment became, for a short time, part of the process of its own dethroning. Although Kingman Brewster is at the center of this story, Kabaservice gives significant attention as well to other establishment figures from Yale who formed, he argues, a coherent "circle," reinforcing one another in the task of trying to advance (but also to moderate) the vast transformations that the nation was experiencing in the 1960s and 1970s. The group included McGeorge Bundy, Cyrus Vance, John Lindsay, Paul Moore, and Eliot Richardson.

While Kabaservice has had to reach (sometimes a considerable distance) to connect several of these men to the process of progressive social change, the collective portrait provides some support to his argument. But it also feels at times like a distraction from what is essentially a biography of Brewster, who exemplifies better than any of the others (with the notable exception of Paul Moore, an aristocratic Yale socialite who became a controversial reformer as Episcopal bishop of Washington and New York) the way in which those who were in some ways the most threatened by social change in the 1960s managed to embrace and to advance it.

Brewster, Kabaservice claims, had "the hallmark of one whom the gods had ordained to be a leader." His family could trace its lineage to the Mayflower. His father was a wealthy, successful, and (unlike his son) politically reactionary lawyer, who spent most of his career in Washington. His mother was an educated and sophisticated woman with a strong interest in literature and the arts, and with significant inherited wealth. His parents divorced a few years after Kingman's birth in 1919, and he spent most of his youth living first in his mother's imposing family home in Springfield and then, after her remarriage to a Harvard professor, in Cambridge. He spent summers sailing off Martha's Vineyard. He attended the Belmont Hill School in suburban Boston and was alone among his classmates in choosing to go to Yale rather than to Harvard (in an era when young men at elite schools largely chose the universities that they would attend, rather than the other way around).

Brewster was an active, prominent, and successful undergraduate at Yale. He was tapped for Skull and Bones but declined to join, claiming that the secret process of electing members was incompatible with his democratic principles. But Brewster did not need the validation of Skull and Bones. He was already an undisputed campus leader: chairman of the Yale Daily News, president of the Elizabethan Club (an elite literary society), head of the undergraduate political union. Although he partook avidly in the social life of the college, he also looked critically at some of Yale's ossified traditions. "The world we shall live and work in is being refashioned," he wrote in the first editorial he published in the Yale Daily News. "Parts of the Yale machinery that are rusty with complacency and stiff with tradition will have to be hauled out and re-examined."

Brewster's most significant commitment at Yale was not to the college at all, but to a controversial position on the greatest issue facing the world in the late 1930s: the specter of a second world war. Brewster was a founding member of the America First Committee, which eventually became the leading organization in the effort to keep the United States out of World War II. Much maligned in retrospect for its many reactionary arguments, for the anti- Semitism of some of its members, and most of all for having taken a position discredited by history, it began as an optimistic, democratic movement of the left. Combining a vague Christian pacifism with a romantic faith in democracy, Brewster argued against fighting the Nazis, insisting that "nazi-ism can only be defeated by making democracy work as an alternative."

Many reputations--including that of the idolized Charles Lindbergh, whom an adoring Brewster invited to speak at Yale--were destroyed by their connection with America First. Brewster, who was frenetically active on behalf of the movement, speaking widely on campuses and radio stations around the country, emerged from this misbegotten effort unscathed, possibly even strengthened. Perhaps that was because he resigned from America First in the spring of 1941, after the passage of the Lend-Lease Act, which he unconvincingly argued made the committee's efforts moot. Perhaps, too, it was because Brewster was so securely part of the eastern establishment elite, so widely considered a young man of golden promise, that he paid here, as elsewhere, a much smaller price for being wrong than did others.

In any case, he was quick to put his America First past behind him and join his establishment-bound contemporaries as a staunch Anglophilic internationalist. Brewster worked in the State Department under Nelson Rockefeller, served in the Navy Air Corps, and entered the postwar world convinced that he was destined to be a leader of a generation whose "best years" would "fall in the zenith of American power and potential." He went to Harvard Law School, where he helped to organize the Massachusetts chapter of the American Veterans Committee and became active in United World Federalists. After graduation he moved to Paris to help administer the Marshall Plan, returned to Cambridge to teach briefly at MIT, and then, in 1950, accepted a position on the faculty of Harvard Law School, where he remained for the next ten years. Harvard was a good platform for talented, ambitious young leaders to make connections and to expand their activities. Brewster--a conscientious teacher but an indifferent scholar--excelled at becoming a faculty leader at the university and at involving himself in establishment activities near and far. In 1960, while sailing off Martha's Vineyard with Yale president Whitney Griswold, he agreed to leave Harvard and to return to New Haven as provost.

Brewster was a great admirer of Griswold, and especially of Griswold's commitment to raising the academic quality of the Yale faculty. But he chafed sometimes at the president's conservatism on other matters. The social traditions that made Yale such an insular place were ones with which Griswold felt comfortable, but which Brewster disliked. Still, he was a pragmatist, and he devoted his energies to the things he knew he could help to change. He began working with his deans to attract "the best and the brightest" to Yale at the same time that many of his friends were in Washington helping President Kennedy attract "the best and the brightest" to government. Brewster's liberal energies seemed to infect Griswold as well, who in 1961 supported a proposal to democratize the Yale admissions process and to provide financial aid to all students who needed it. Before the plan could be implemented, however, Griswold died of cancer. Brewster was soon elected to succeed him.

Brewster's fourteen years as president of Yale were among the most important in the university's history--and they were important as well to the future of elite universities throughout the United States. The impact of those years was only partly a result of Brewster's own energies and talents. Some of the changes that he oversaw had been set in motion by his predecessor. And of course many of the changes that he embraced were forced on him by the wide- ranging social and cultural changes to which Brewster had to respond but which he in no way led. Yet when one looks at the leadership of other major universities that faced serious troubles in those years--Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and others--and considers the catastrophes that uncomprehending and uncompromising leaders brought to their institutions, it is hard not to be impressed with Brewster's performance at Yale.

Brewster accepted and even embraced a series of fundamental changes in the character of Yale that the new, more democratic ethos of the 1960s and 1970s all but required: coeducation, active recruitment of minorities, widening the base from which students at Yale were drawn, diversifying the curriculum and responding to new areas of knowledge that were emerging out of the turbulence of his time. He also responded better than most academic leaders to the challenges of student radicalism, and in the process saved Yale from the deep polarization that so damaged other major universities.

The character of Brewster's response to radicalism was particularly visible in the most famous event of his presidency: the turmoil following the American invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Yale students, like students on most American campuses, were radicalized by this jarring event; but that radicalization built upon already existing tensions connected to the impending murder trial in New Haven of Bobby Seale, the head of the Black Panther Party. Radicals from around the country were traveling to New Haven to protest the trial, putting additional pressure on Yale. Brewster gathered around him the friends and advisers on whom he had always relied. In the midst of the crisis, Brewster turned to Cyrus Vance late one night and said, "You know what this is all about? It is a test as to whether we are right or they are right."

University administrators had been saying the same thing on other campuses, but their version of the test was a choice between defending legitimate authority or surrendering to mayhem. Brewster was making an entirely different point. The test as he saw it was whether stability was best served by the hard- line divisiveness of the nation's political leaders at the time (symbolized by the tragedy of Kent State) or by what Kabaservice calls "the liberal establishment's tolerance, openness, and flexibility" and what Brewster himself called "taking the risk of latitude for freedom." Instead of denouncing the demonstrators pouring into New Haven, he welcomed them onto campus. Instead of rejecting their concerns, he told the Yale faculty that he was "skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States," a statement that inevitably found its way into the press and for which Brewster paid a very high price with the political establishment, Yale alumni, and others for many years.

But Yale survived the demonstrations, and the Vietnam era generally, without terrible violence or serious damage; and while the presidents of other troubled campuses were driven from office in the aftermath of turmoil, Brewster survived- -weakened perhaps, but still a formidable figure--until he left Yale in 1977 to become the American ambassador to Britain. Brewster served successfully as ambassador throughout the Carter administration, practiced law (somewhat unhappily) for five years in New York and London, and in 1986 became master of University College, Oxford, where he was an outspoken defender of British academia against what he called the Thatcher government's "vendetta" against the universities. Two years later, he died of a stroke.

It is now four decades since Brewster became president of Yale. His almost effortless ascension to that position through the vehicles reserved for the old upper class appears an anachronism today. Although the United States still remains very far from being a true meritocracy, neither is it any longer a society ruled by an inherited aristocracy of leadership. Evidence of that is visible in Brewster's own cohort--Ivy League presidents--among whom there is no one today whose social profile looks even remotely like his. Women, Jews, African Americans, public school graduates, and others from backgrounds far different from those of Brewster and his establishment circle now occupy virtually all the major university presidencies, and a similar transformation has occurred in many other areas of society.

But Kingman Brewster, who could easily have become--like some of his contemporaries--a victim of this change, was in fact an agent of it. Cautiously, sometimes boldly, occasionally rashly, he advanced the very goals that most threatened his own social world. He surely knew that much of what he was doing was bound to diminish the influence of the traditional eastern establishment from which he had emerged, but he proceeded nevertheless. One could portray Brewster as the beneficiary of unearned social privilege, which to some degree he was. But one could also argue that he vindicated at least some part of the old establishment's role in modern America by helping transfer authority relatively peacefully from inherited elites to a more democratically chosen community of leaders.

This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.