Henry A. Kissinger was U.S. secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.
In an egalitarian society such as America, the inheritance of great wealth presents a complex challenge. In an aristocratic world, status provides an automatic legitimacy. But in the United States, great wealth can produce ambivalence. The line between personal advancement and the pursuit of high principle can grow elusive.
For David Rockefeller, who died this month at age 101, that line did not exist. He saw his life as an obligation to enable the consequential issues of our time to be pursued by the most talented and committed men and women, for the sake of our society and the peace of the world. David devoted his long life to identifying the able, forming them into a study or action group, and then supplying the means, often by a combination of financial contributions and assistance in fundraising efforts — a task in which his tenacity often overcame the challenge presented by a Rockefeller raising money. Most frequently, he joined the efforts he was creating, but I can remember no occasion on which he took the floor for personal commentary. Amid prevalent self-absorption, he pursued a staggering range of important objectives with unobtrusive humility.
Character and integrity were the sources of David’s inspiration. We met 60 years ago as part of a study group at the Council on Foreign Relations, among the first such efforts to discipline the ominous aspects of nuclear technology by moral and political purposes. Shortly afterward, he encouraged a discussion group, which later was developed into what is now known as the Bilderberg Group, an annual meeting of European and American leaders to explore their challenges and common purposes.
A decade later, David called on me, at the time secretary of state, to inform me that, in the view of some of the colleagues he had brought with him, the scope of U.S. foreign policy needed broadening. A truly global study to include Asia was required for that challenge. His associates, in fact, included Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Zbigniew Brzezinski; in other words, a government in exile waiting to replace the administration in which I served. But David’s combination of dedication and innocence was such that the thought never took hold. Instead, I became a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, which thrives to this day.
I have described David’s activities in the political world, which also included the Americas Society, International House, the Dartmouth Conference, the International Executive Service Corps, the Emergency Committee on American Trade and the Business Group for Latin America, because it was what I could personally observe. In fact, David’s impact was far more embracing. He was a dedicated supporter (and collector) of art and a mentor of medical science. He participated in the leadership of the Museum of Modern Art and of Rockefeller University, dedicated to medical science.
As a universal benefactor, David was received around the world like a head of government. On one occasion, in the late 1980s, I accompanied him to the Soviet Union for a visit to Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss nuclear issues. David had invited former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and me to produce a document on dealing with nuclear proliferation. Only David would have been capable of bringing about that combination of participants or, for that matter, conceiving the idea. The only hitch turned out to be that David had brought a gift with him for Gorbachev. His wife, Peggy, had suggested that he deliver a vial of bull semen to the Soviet leader to enhance Russian livestock. The nuclear discussion paled before the impossibility of convincing the staggered customs officials to grant permission to store a gift for which they could discover no applicable regulation.
Service was one facet of David’s life. Devotion to his family was its equal. In 1979, when the Shah of Iran was being exiled, some close friends appealed to David to help find refuge for a ruler who had demonstrated his friendship with America in various international crises. David regretfully refused because of his obligation to Chase Bank. Such was their sense of family that his brother Nelson took David’s place. Three weeks later, Nelson died. And without comment or another request, David assumed the task and helped the Shah find refuge, first in Mexico, then in Panama, regardless of the commercial impact of the decision.
It was uplifting to observe David’s pride in his children and their reciprocal care for him. When he retired from business two decades ago, there was some concern in the family that he might become depressed. Self-pity was not a quality of David’s, nor was imposing his needs on others. Instead, in the last part of his life, he arranged trips to every part of the globe, often accompanied by a grandchild, to look into his many projects, to discover new challenges and to indulge his love of sailing.
David would often mention departed friends with whom he had shared part of his life. They would merge in his recital as if still part of a continuing, never-ending effort. Now, as he joins their number, he will be in our mind as a permanent part of our life, and to our country he will remain a reminder that our ultimate legacy will be service and values, not personal ambitions.