October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Comment by Allan Nevins, De Witt Clinton professor emeritus at Columbia University, chairman of the Advisory Board of AMERICAN HERITAGE, and author of many books, including John D. Rockefeller:
The grandiosity, the slapdash lines, and the raw black-white-and-red colors give this study of the Rockefellers all the effectiveness of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. It is entirely sound except that it shows little comprehension of what the Rockefellers really did; no understanding of big-business organization in the United States; and no grasp of the regulatory activities of American government with respect to industry and finance. It is impeccably accurate except for three different kinds of confusion: a confusion of the facts of 1900 with those of 1950; a confused idea that the very few people who own stock exercise control in business; and a confusion of public trusteeships with private exploitation. It is written without bias except that half the sentences contain loaded words. It is well proportioned except that it leaves out all the happiest part of the family record.
John D. Rockefeller, the Soviet Encyclopedia tells us, founded the trust which soon monopolized the petroleum industry in America. Actually a group—H. H. Rogers, Henry M. Flagler, Oliver H. Payne, Charles Pratt, John D. Archbold, and two Rockefellers—established the combination, whose increasingly precarious monopoly ended in thirty years. John D. Rockefeller amassed the largest fortune in the world, we are told, by speculative machinations. Throughout his active industrial career he avoided speculation; not until 1901 did his fortune reach $200,000,000; at its highest point it fell short of $900,000,000—and during his lifetime he gave away $550,000,000.
In 1911, according to the encyclopedia, control passed to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who divided the empire with his six children. A frightening spectacle; but hold!—something seems wrong. Of John D. Jr.’s five sons, in 1911 David and Winthrop were not yet born; Laurence was one year old; Nelson, three; and John D. III, five. The spectacle of these three toddlers and creepers helping sway the vast monopoly is less horrible. And was 1911 really the year when the python tightened his grip? On the contrary, history records that in 1911 the United States government decreed the breakup of the Standard Oil combination. It obeyed the order; the industry was divided among numerous highly competitive corporations; and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., at seventy-two, became as completely inactive in its management as his son had long been.
Why were they inactive? The encyclopedia asserts that it was because they were busy maintaining cont.rol of great oil, chemical, paper, tobacco, electrical, and ferrous companies, of railroads, insurance companies, and titanic banks; expanding their position at the expense of the Morgans. It would be news to Texaco, the First National City Bank, the Equitable, and the Standard of California that the Rockefellers “control” them. When John D. Rockefeller died he had one share of the Standard of California, kept for sentimental reasons. Did it never occur to the encyclopedists to look up what the Rockefellers were really doing? After founding the University of Chicago in 1889, the first Rockefeller for the last forty years of his life, 18971937, substantially dropped business and devoted himself to philanthropy. John D., Jr., gave practically his whole life to philanthropy and public service. The five sons are universally respected as philanthropists and public servants. But of the General Education Board, the Institute for Medical Research, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Peking Union Medical College, and all the worldwide benefactions, not a line in the encyclopedia! Perhaps the word philanthropy is not in the Soviet vocabulary.
It is sad that a basic reference work should give so distorted a picture of a family that has filled America and other lands with useful works. It is still sadder that it should suppress the fact that business in this country is owned by millions of investors, not by a few monopolists; that management is primarily in professional hands; that free competition is jealously maintained; and that the government effectively polices private enterprise in the public interest. Perhaps saddest of all, for it reflects a low view of human nature, is the notion expressed in this article that Rockefeller interest in scientific bodies, Princeton University, and the American Museum of Natural History is somehow predatory. The writer did not know the half of it. One Rockefeller is a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard, another is a trustee of the national Y.W.C.A. and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and a third founded the Museum of Primitive Art. Where will this sinister infiltration end?