All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American PowerIn this excerpt from her best-selling new book, Nomi Prins writes about the period during the administration of Lyndon Johnson when bankers began to move away from the president as they saw their global ambitions hemmed in by the Vietnam War.
The following excerpt is from Truthdig contributor Nomi Prins’ best-selling new book “All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power.” In this section, Prins writes about the period during the administration of Lyndon Johnson when bankers began to move away from the president as they saw their global ambitions hemmed in by the Vietnam War.
Johnson and the Bankers’ Economy
In his spirited inaugural speech on January 20, 1965, Johnson declared, “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty. In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry.”
He made good on his word. When Johnson began his second term, 20 percent of people in America were living in poverty. Between 1965 and 1968 he raised federal expenditures addressing the War on Poverty from $6 billion to $12 billion (Nixon would double the figure again to $24.5 billion by 1974). That spending, in conjunction with a booming economy, made a big impact. When Johnson left office in 1969, the poverty rate in America had dropped to 14 percent.
On February 18, 1965, Johnson increased his focus on his friends in finance. He invited Rockefeller, Weinberg, and other prominent bankers to an intimate White House dinner to discuss his voluntary program for an early reduction in the balance of payments deficit. His plan would require each of their firms to curtail their international transactions so as to limit dollar outflow, a request that brought the ire of Wriston when it came from Kennedy but solicited no such reprimand under Johnson.
Johnson also established a nine-member advisory committee on balance of payments, which included Weinberg, George Moore, and railroad mogul Stuart T. Saunders to keep the business community engaged, and on his side, on the issue.
That same day, Rockefeller, in turn, invited Johnson to a Business Group for Latin America gathering the following month. Johnson informed Rockefeller that he would be pleased to meet with the group in Washington. Johnson knew how to swap favors.
After the event, Johnson wrote Rockefeller a warm note: “I appreciate more than I can express every line of your fine and thoughtful letter. To put it in a Johnson City way, I got more than I gave from being with you and your associates on the Council.”
Even when the two were at odds, Johnson maintained a deferential tone with the financier. “Thank you for sending me your views, which I am always glad to have, even when we disagree,” the president wrote on November 30, 1965, after Rockefeller described some of Johnson’s Great Society policies as “handouts.”
The bankers acted against their own profit motives and for the economic strength of the United States, possibly for the last time in American history, when they responded to Johnson’s request to streamline some of their international capital outflows. On March 3, 1965, Johnson thanked Morgan Guaranty Trust Company president Thomas Gates for “the response of Morgan Guaranty and other banks to my request to voluntarily limit their foreign lending.” He assured Gates, “You can count on our willingness to work with you closely.”
Everything was up for bargaining between Johnson and the bankers, and everyone would get something out of it, including the Main Street economy. Like other key bankers, Gates, who was appointed to the Committee on Voluntary Overseas Activities in February 1967, earned Johnson’s gratitude and supported his efforts over the years. His backing included a crucial press release in August 1967, in which he regarded “a war tax essential to the support of our effort in Vietnam and the conduct of vital domestic programs,” hoping it would “be enacted without delay.”
Johnson and Mergers
Toward the middle of 1965, Johnson spoke widely of national economic growth, progress, and the Great Society. He presided over the enactment of the Medicare program, and when he signed the Medicare bill into law on July 30, 1965, at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, he paid homage to a plan that “all started” with Truman.
A year later, Johnson presented Truman and his wife, Bess, with Medicare cards number one and two. With respect to financial regulations, however, Johnson was nearly as laissez-faire as his banker friends. Both Johnson and the bankers felt the country had moved past the more prudent restrictions of the Great Depression (the bankers more publicly so). Neither Johnson nor the bankers saw any reason to entertain legislative restrictions on the bankers’ desires to grow freely. Like Eisenhower, Johnson equated strong American banks with a strong America. He also equated the size of US companies with national strength. The pace of US corporate mergers had already accelerated under Kennedy. In 1963, the number reached 1,311, the highest figure since the Federal Trade Commission began tracking mergers in 1951. The number of antitrust cases filed by the Justice Department had also risen—to twenty by the end of 1963. This became a key concern for Johnson. As U.S. News & World Report noted, “For the first time . . . businessmen have sounded protest against this action in [Johnson’s] administration.”
The FTC was launching more complaints against big companies like US Steel, GM, and AT&T, as well. Fortunately for him, the major bank regulator, the comptroller of the currency, sided on behalf of bank mergers. This helped Johnson’s and the bankers’ cause. Johnson was not above using his muscle to support mergers that would increase political power. The Houston Chronicle, for instance, had been critical of him and endorsed Richard Nixon in 1960.
But John Jones Jr., the Chronicle’s president, was also the president of Houston’s National Bank of Commerce and was attempting to merge with Texas National. The merger had been agreed upon by both boards of directors but was stalling at the Federal Reserve, which tended to approve eastern mergers more quickly than other ones. But Johnson intervened; he made Jones guarantee him the Chronicle’s support as long as he held the presidency. Following an off-radar meeting at Johnson’s ranch, the president got his guarantee and Jones got his merger.
Manufacturers Hanover president Gabriel Hauge was fighting his own merger battle against Donald Turner, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, who had filed several suits against bank mergers on the grounds that they violated Section 7 of the Clayton Act and Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which prohibited anticompetitive or monopolistic mergers (though not generally for banks). On August 24, 1965, Hauge sent an eleven-page letter defending his bank’s 1961 merger to Congressman Richard Bolling. He deemed Turner’s August 6 letter to him “such an extraordinary amalgam that I cannot let it pass without comment.” Turner had contended in that letter, “there is no room for the argument that the antitrust laws were displaced in whole or in part by the Bank Merger Act [of 1960], and if Mr. Hauge’s materials are intended to assert to the contrary, they are plainly wrong.”
Hauge argued that his merger occurred “in good faith” and was “legal under then existing law.” Further, he had never received notice from the Justice Department that it intended to sue either of the banks involved in the merger. Turner eventually dropped his charges, and Manufacturers Hanover, the merged entity, remained intact. A few months later, the bank merger bill finished its route around Washington. When the House, Senate, and Johnson passed the subsequent Bank Merger Act of 1966, it gave the appearance that more mergers would be rejected for “monopoly” reasons under Section 7 of the Clayton Act and Section 1 of the Sherman Act. But in practice, the bill left major bank mergers open to approval by the comptroller of the currency and the Federal Reserve, both of which supported the consolidation of the financial arena. Eight months later, an antitrust suit was filed to block a proposed merger of First City National and Southern National Bank in Houston on the grounds it would substantially reduce competition and increase “concentration in commercial banking in the Houston area.”
The merger had been approved by the comptroller of the currency. With Johnson’s intervention, it remained so. A month afterward, Special Assistant Joe Califano told President Johnson that “Stuart Saunders has been calling me about the Penn-Central merger. He claims that you told him if he ran into any problems delaying the merger, to get in touch with you and that you would move things along.”
In response, Johnson signaled his support directly: “You can be certain that I will be watching your merger developments, and wishing you all success.”
Penn Central would become America’s biggest bankruptcy in the 1970s.
The Latin American Alliance
On the foreign policy front, Johnson and the bankers remained in agreement over where America should wield power: both wanted to infuse more US private enterprise into Latin and Central America. Not much had changed in that regard since Eisenhower, despite a diversion by Kennedy to be more willing to provide aid based on economic need rather than strict ideological assurances. Johnson had stated, “We are embarked on a great adventure with the Latin Americans. It is nothing less than to transform the life of an entire continent.” In a letter to Rockefeller, Johnson noted, “I share your view that the private sector throughout the hemispheres has played a creative role in the life of the Alliance [for Progress].” Johnson was “especially grateful” for the “leadership” of Rockefeller and his colleagues in this “great undertaking.”
Johnson aligned solidly with Rockefeller, and changed or reversed certain Kennedy policies. Kennedy had been sympathetic to leaders of Latin America and its people, but under Johnson, the Alliance for Progress once again served neocolonialist goals, encouraging bankers to infiltrate the region for their own private gain.
As the White House concluded in an internal note to Walt Rostow in June 1966, “Our modest security assistance to Latin America ($80 million annual) is small enough an investment to protect our major investment ($1 billion annual) in the economic, social and political development of the area.”
Thus, as with many foreign policy ventures, US military and financial goals meshed. Robert Kennedy made this a bone of contention with LBJ early on in his campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination for president from him. He wanted to carry on his late brother’s wishes for a more peaceful, economi- cally just Latin America. An October 31, 1966, Washington Post article, “RFK Would Cut Latin Aid,” noted that he proposed a reduction of economic aid to Latin American nations engaged in military buildups at the expense of social reform. RFK’s position was a swipe at Johnson’s policies. “This proliferation of arms,” he warned, referring to sales of fighter planes to Peru and twenty-five Skyhawk jets to Argentina, “threatens to cause conflict and instability between nations and to obstruct the great objectives of the Alliance [for Progress.]”
RFK was right about the more idealistic aspects of the Alliance for Progress as his brother had conceived it. The region had only seen the beginning of future abuses at the hands of US corporate and banking interests. These would blossom in the 1970s and implode catastrophically in the 1980s. Arguably, if JFK or RFK had lived and retained the mantra of economic equality or self-sufficiency in Latin America rather than a free-for-all profit grab accompanied by military alignments, the third world debt crisis, which enabled bankers to use the federal government to support private speculation (the harbinger of more such maneuvers to follow), might never have occurred. But because the third world remained a bastion of opportunity for private bankers, and there was no political doctrine to tone down their zeal for such activity, there were no barriers to stop US bankers and their business clients from going off a speculative cliff. Once they did, the US government backed their losses, while the developing countries suffered extreme economic hardship when they were forced to default on their debts. Bankers and Vietnam At first, bankers were supportive of the Vietnam War. They recognized that war in general had buoyed the US economy as well as their domestic and international businesses. Indeed, by early 1965, Chase and other banks had experienced skyrocketing demand for credit, particularly from their subsidiaries abroad, as demand for war-related funding had increased. The balance of payments had even gravitated toward the United States during the buildup to the war. Following Johnson’s efforts to engage the bankers on the issue, the balance of payments showed a whopping surplus of $259 million by the week ending March 3, 1965. Johnson expressed gratitude to the bankers for standing firmly behind him on Vietnam. On April 12, 1965, his aide Jack Valenti—who would go on to be Hollywood’s supreme lobbyist for several decades—wrote First National City Bank president George Moore to say, “We are deeply grateful for your articulate analysis of the President’s Vietnam address and your sound, patriotic response to the business luncheon. The knowledge that the President’s policies stand your penetrating examination is both comforting and encouraging.” But two months later, Moore saw causes for financial concern. He warned that the balance of payments increase might be short-lived, and predicted another $100 billion of gold would be pulled out of the United States that year. He was aware that “certain people overseas” were growing nervous. “Banks in Asia and Europe and individuals are doing the buying.” As quickly as it had boosted the balance of payment a few months earlier, the war began to take a toll on foreign investment in the United States. On August 25, 1965, following a dinner at the White House, Moore gave Johnson suggestions on how to reverse the process. “For example,” he said, “it is important to promptly enact H.R. 5916 [for] the removal of tax barriers which have served to discourage foreigners from making investments in the United States.” He stressed, “This would also help to restrain inflation influences which may be heightened by the Vietnam War.”
War had other economic costs too. On January 14, 1966, Treasury Secretary Fowler transmitted to Congress details of the tax program that Johnson announced in his State of the Union address, intended to raise billions of dollars to help pay for the war. The program was signed into law in mid-March 1966.
By then, half a million troops were fighting in Vietnam and the population was openly protesting it. The Dow, however, was inspired by war. It hit a record 1,000 on February 6, 1966, and it kept rising through April 1968. Additionally, the US housing market was booming. In five years, George Champion quintupled the size of Chase’s real estate credit portfolio; it reached $1 billion in 1966, outpacing the growth of all other Wall Street commercial banks. First National City ratcheted up its personal credit and auto loans. The Vietnam War was proving great for banks. Rockefeller used the war to expand into Asia. In 1966, he raised the ire of peace protesters by opening a Chase branch in Saigon. He also engaged two former Chase men, John McCloy and Eugene Black, to drum up financial support from the banking community for the war. But Rockefeller rarely operated without a quid pro quo, and the war boom was now revealing a troubling side for him. On January 25, 1966, he sent his concerns to Johnson that Vietnam was draining focus from Latin America. “Latin Americans are concerned that the harsh exigencies of the war in Vietnam may again make Latin America a low-priority area in U.S. pol- icy,” he wrote. “We ourselves are well aware that your Administration gives Latin America a high priority indeed, but we are equally well aware that Latin Americans need constantly to be reassured of that fact.”
Rockefeller’s worries were soon shared by many bankers who had originally supported Johnson. Though they saw the war’s early benefits, they now feared it could be detrimental to their global expansion goals, particularly if it escalated into full-scale multiregional battles. From a domestic standpoint, Vietnam wasn’t going to be a war of national unity that would open channels for them; it was becoming a nuisance. Construction companies that were engaged in war material production were fine with US intervention and military escalation into Southeast Asia because it brought them more contracts and profits.
But in general, elite support was fading. As University of Houston professor Robert Buzzanco put it, The bankers and other corporate elite who had global visions for American investment and commerce came to believe that the war in Vietnam was damaging their interest because it focused resources on Indochina and undermined their larger goals by running up huge deficits and providing resistance from traditional European allies. And so, significant elements in the ruling class opposed the war in Vietnam . . . not because they believed the war was wrong, but because it was, in their estimation, breaking doctrinal ligature that defined foreign relations since Wilson: free-trade imperialism and non-intervention.
Regarding the Great Society, bankers were also becoming lukewarm. In truth, the success of those policies mattered less to bankers than overseas growth did. As long as bankers were making money and increasing their global influence, what happened domestically was of secondary importance; providing support to Johnson was no hardship. But now they were growing wary of backing Johnson’s efforts. In 1966 Johnson signed the Participation Sales Act, which encouraged substitution of public credit with private credit. The initiative, started by Eisenhower and extended by President Kennedy’s 1962 Committee on Federal Credit programs, was meant to be a favor to the bankers.
By replacing $3.3 billion in outstanding public debt (through government-issued bonds) with private debt (or bank-issued bonds), the government effectively converted public loans into private loans for the banks, giving them $3.3 billion of business guaranteed by the US government. Soon after the bill was signed, Johnson’s aide Robert Kintner suggested that Johnson form a confidential program to determine how “important business, financial, and industrial leaders feel toward the job being done by the President and particularly how they feel in relation to the Vietnam operation, the President’s European and Latin American policies, the character and duration of prosperity, and the President’s economic, financial and social policies.” The survey would be based on off-the-record interviews with prominent figures including David Rockefeller, Sidney Weinberg, Roger Blough, and Bobby Lehman.
But Johnson preferred the route of his private soirées at the White House, which increased in frequency as public opinion turned against the war. As long as the finance and business community could be swayed to support the war, he figured, funding would continue unabated.Wait, before you go…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.Support Truthdig
There are currently no responses to this article.
Be the first to respond.