The CFR's series of meetings featuring prominent American and foreign speakers, discussion groups, conferences, and publications, including its influential journal Foreign Affairs, established in 1922, soon made the council the leading foreign policy think tank in the United States. Although supposedly committed to no one viewpoint, between the world wars it functioned as a nexus for those Americans who believed that their country should take a greater and more assertive role in world affairs.
Before U.S. intervention in World War II, several CFR officials were heavily involved in leading pro-Allied and interventionist groups, working closely with the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even before Pearl Harbor, in collaboration with the State Department the CFR launched a major project, the War-Peace Studies, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to begin planning for the postwar world, working on the assumption that the United States would take a far more activist international role than in the pre–World War II years.
From 1945 onward the CFR set up numerous study and discussion groups to craft recommendations on U.S. policy regarding international issues, groups whose members included leading government officials such as George F. Kennan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allen W. Dulles, Dean Acheson, and John J. McCloy. Topics covered included aid to Europe, American-Russian relations, Europe's economic and political reconstruction, economic aspects of American foreign policy, and the United Nations (UN). These groups, meeting in strict confidentiality, helped to hammer out an elite consensus on Cold War foreign policy, developing the initiatives that would bear fruit in the Marshall Plan, the regeneration of Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), American rearmament, and U.S. support for European economic union.
Functioning like a comfortable club, the CFR was a well-connected and unobtrusively elitist organization that provided a springboard for the careers of such academic foreign policy operatives as future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. During the 1950s a CFR study group produced Kissinger's best-selling study of nuclear strategy. In the next decade a major study group on China chaired by Dulles recommended that the United States reopen relations with the communist mainland.
During the 1960s, the CFR began to attract extensive public attention. Like other American institutions, it was fiercely divided over the Vietnam War. In 1972 the decision to appoint a major architect of U.S. policies toward Vietnam, former undersecretary of state for East Asia William P. Bundy, as editor of Foreign Affairs provoked fierce though ultimately ineffective protests from CFR members critical of his stance on Vietnam.
Finding the CFR somewhat stuffy, in 1970 younger foreign affairs writers and intellectuals established the rival journal Foreign Policy. The CFR, meanwhile, launched initiatives to broaden its membership to include minorities, women, and other underrepresented sectors of the American population who were increasingly engaged in international policymaking. Increasingly facing competition from new rival think tanks of both rightists and leftifts, such as the Institute for Policy Studies, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation, in the early 1970s the CFR opened a Washington office to facilitate communication with government officials.
Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the CFR continued as perhaps the most prestigious American foreign policy think tank. Ironically, it was also a favorite target of fierce criticism from populist extremists and conspiracy theorists on both the Right and the Left, who regarded it as the home of an undemocratic elite committed to promoting the interests of international capitalism and global world government.
Parmar, Inderjeet. Think Tanks and Power in Foreign Policy: A Comparative Study of the Role and Influence of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1939–1945. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.; Schulzinger, Robert D. The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs: The History of the Council on Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.; Wala, Michael. The Council on Foreign Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War. Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1994.