Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979), an heir to the enormous Standard Oil fortune amassed by his grandfather, forsook business for a career in state and national politics, which included four terms as governor of New York, several attempts at the presidency, and a brief tenure as vice-president of the United States.
Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, July 8, 1908. He was the third of six children of John B. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Greene Aldrich. His grandfathers were John D. Rockefeller, Sr., founder of the Standard Oil Company, and U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich (Republican, Rhode Island).
Despite his family's great wealth, Rockefeller had a fairly frugal upbringing. He attended the Lincoln School, which was composed of students from diverse economic strata. For college, he attended Dartmouth, where he majored in economics, taught a Sunday school class, and occasionally worked in the school cafeteria to earn spending money. In 1930 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude from Dartmouth and married Mary Todhunter Clark, a Philadelphia socialite, two weeks later. (They subsequently had five children.)
An Expert on Latin America
Rockefeller began his professional career working for his family's companies. By the age of 30 he was president of the New York Rockefeller Center. Business did not retain his interest, however. Several trips to Latin America in the late 1930s convinced him of the region's importance to national security, and in 1940 he accepted his first major governmental position as the head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. The office strove, through advertising and trade agreements with Central and South American countries, to lessen the influence of the Axis powers in those areas. In 1944 he was promoted to assistant secretary of state in charge of Latin American affairs, but a year later he resigned and resumed a private career. Despite his brief tenure, many of the Latin American countries rewarded his efforts. President Rios of Chile inducted Rockefeller into his country's Order of Merit in 1945. The following year Brazil made him a member of the National Order Southern Cross, and in 1949 Mexico enrolled him in the Order of the Aztec Eagle.
Although removed from government, Rockefeller continued his efforts to promote a higher standard of living in underdeveloped areas of the world through the American International Association for Economic and Social Development, a private agency he created with the aid of his family's funds. In 1950 Rockefeller resumed his public career by accepting President Harry Truman's appointment as the chairman of the International Development Advisory Board, which combatted Communism in underdeveloped nations by encouraging economic growth in depressed areas.
President Dwight Eisenhower advanced Rockefeller's political ascent in 1952 by appointing him chairman of the Advisory Committee on Government Organization. Recommendations submitted by his committee helped to reorganize such basic government agencies as the Defense Department, the Office of Defense Mobilization, and the Agriculture Department. In addition, under Eisenhower's orders Rockefeller organized a new agency, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and then became its first undersecretary. Rockefeller believed that good government meant efficient management of resources. He once stated, "The goal of society is to provide every individual with an opportunity to develop his highest potential as a citizen, as a productive member of society, and as a spiritual being."
Rockefeller served as undersecretary until 1954, when President Eisenhower made him one of his special assistants. As a special assistant Rockefeller aided the president with Cold War tactics, helping to develop such proposals as the "open skies" plan, the Atoms-for-Peace Plan, and the Aswan Dam program.
A Mixed Success in Politics
In 1956, frustrated with his ability as an appointed official to merely implement, rather than to initiate, government policy, Rockefeller resigned as special assistant and created, with his own monies, the Special Studies Project. The project, directed by Henry Kissinger, researched and suggested solutions to some of America's most demanding social problems. A book, Prospect for America (1961), recorded the proposed solutions.
At 5 feet, 10 inches Rockefeller was physically compact and forceful. He once noted, "nature gave me a strong body. I can keep going when a lot of other people fold up." He drew on his stamina heavily in 1958 during his successful campaign for governor of New York. His subsequent administration was notable for balancing the state budget and substantially reducing the state debt.
In 1961 Rockefeller divorced his wife. Despite some public disapproval of this, he maintained enough support in New York to win his second term as its governor the following year. In 1963 he married Margaretta Fitler "Happy" Murphy, who was 19 years younger than he and who would bear him two sons. Five weeks before marrying Rockefeller "Happy" Murphy had divorced her husband and had given him custody of their children. The remarriage caused so much public disenchantment with Rockefeller that a Gallup poll showed his decline after the remarriage from the frontrunner among the 1964 Republican presidential hopefuls to that of distant second behind Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller nonetheless announced his candidacy for the nomination. The Republican convention of 1964 chose Barry Goldwater, however, and Rockefeller continued his duties as governor.
Rockefeller won four gubernatorial elections in New York, but he lost three attempts for the presidency. On December 11, 1973, more than a year before his fourth term expired, Rockefeller resigned as governor in order to head the National Committee on Critical Choices for Americans and the Commission on Water Quality. He denied resigning to plan a rumored fourth presidential attempt.
Rockefeller once admitted to desiring the presidency "Ever since I was a kid. After all, when you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?" As early as 1967 he claimed to have lost his presidential cravings, but the political commentator Bill Moyers stated, "I believe Rocky when he says he's lost his ambition. I also believe he remembers where he put it."
Rockefeller nearly realized his presidential aspirations on December 19, 1974, when he was selected as vice-president under President Gerald Ford (who had moved to the White House following the resignation of Richard Nixon). After his two years as vice-president, however, Rockefeller began to substitute art for politics. Art had long intrigued him. The year of his college graduation he had become a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he served as president of the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. He founded the Museum of Primitive Art in 1957 and amassed extensive collections of modern paintings, sculpture, and all types of primitive art.
His own collections proved impressive enough to prompt the opening of a boutique which sold reproductions of his collected works. He also signed a contract with Alfred A. Knopf publishers to produce five books about his art collection. He only produced one of the contracted books, Masterpieces of Primitive Art (1978), before he died of heart failure on January 27, 1979.
Rockefeller wrote three other books: The Future of Federalism (1962), Unity, Freedom and Peace (1968), and Our Environment Can Be Saved (1970). In sum, Nelson Rockefeller 's career in politics and philanthropy significantly contributed to the change in the family's reputation from that of avaricious manipulators to that of politically active philanthropists.
Further Reading on Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller
Among the extensive literature on Nelson Rockefeller is Stewart Alsop's Nixon & Rockefeller: A Double Portrait (1960). Robert H. Connery and Gerald Benjamin's Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the Statehouse (1979) documents Rockefeller's gubernatorial career. The Rockefeller File (1976) by Gary Allen harshly criticizes the Rockefeller wealth and power. Nelson Rockefeller: A Political Biography (1964) by James Desmond analyzes primarily the business and political aspects of Rockefeller's life. Frank H. Gervasi's The Real Rockefeller: The Story of the Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of the Political Aspirations of Nelson Rockefeller (1964) is one of the most favorable books about Rockefeller and chronicles his 1964 presidential attempt. The Rockefeller Record (1960) by James Poling anticipates a great political career for the then rising Rockefeller. Rockefeller's Follies: An Unauthorized View of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1966) by William Rodgers portrays Rockefeller as a skilled administrator hindered by a shortsighted determination that his own will prevail. Michael Kramer and Sam Roberts "I Never Wanted To Be Vice-President of Anything:" An Investigative Biography of Nelson Rockefeller (1976) and Nelson Rockefeller: A Biography (1960) by Joe Alex Morris give additional political and character analyses.
Additional Biography Sources
Persico, Joseph E., The imperial Rockefeller: a biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982; Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike Press, 1982.
Reich, Cary, The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1908-1958: worlds to conquer, New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Rockefeller in retrospect: the governor's New York legacy, Albany, N.Y.: Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Govt., 1984.
United States. 96th Congress, Memorial addresses and other tributes in the Congress of the United States on the life and contributions of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1979.