Remembering Leo Cherne, Citizen-Diplomat

by Ken Weisbrode

The policy entrepreneur is a curious historical figure. The entrepreneur sells, and the goods need not be tangible. There are norm entrepreneurs, fashion entrepreneurs, and so on. The policy entrepreneur sells something different from an idea or a piece of physical merchandise, however. If politics is the art of the possible, then policy is the operational plan for getting from here to there, and the policy entrepreneur is a Sherpa who sells plans but also optimism.

Few Americans performed this role better than Leo Cherne. From the 1930s to the 1990s, Cherne was a persistent mobilizer of governments, starting with his own. He was a Zelig when it came to policy-making: he popped up nearly everywhere, seeing that his wishes were heard and acted upon. He usually succeeded.

Cherne was not quite a household name but he was better known a generation ago than he is today. As head of the International Rescue Committee for 40 years, he was the public face of liberation and sanctuary for some of the world’s most mistreated people. Yet he did more than helping refugees. According to his biographer, Cherne “was considered variously as a Renaissance man, a dynamic orator, a lightweight gadfly, a behind-the-scenes power broker, a thoughtful advisor to nine presidents, a flamboyant economic futurist, a playboy closely connected with the nation’s rich and famous, a high-level fundraiser for humanitarian causes, a master spy in the employ of an American intelligence service, a highly successful businessman, and a powerful conservative Cold Warrior.” Not bad, as they say, for a poor boy from the Bronx. He was also a talented sculptor and composer.

Cherne was born in 1912, the son of immigrants, Dora Bailin and Max Chernetsky. They opened a small shop selling stationery, candy, and various collectibles. Following a short time as a merchant seaman, Leo made his way to university and received a law degree, but did not last long in the law firm that had hired him. He left to start an organization called The Research Institute of America along with a Kansas Bible salesman named Carl Hovgard.

The RIA was one of the first organizations to attach itself successfully to the New Deal. There was a policy revolution in which the US federal government, hitherto known by most Americans, income tax and the local post office notwithstanding, as a distant, nearly invisible presence that barely touched them in their daily lives, became a problem-solver and savior of first resort. The Great Depression was responsible for that revolution, but it is fair to say that it would not have happened had it not been sold in easy, comforting language that the mythical milkman from Omaha could understand.

The RIA set itself up as the interpreter of what later was called Big Government into an acceptable, even desirable, concept for middle America. Cherne published a series of pamphlets and reports telling readers what the new legislation and regulations meant for them. The pamphlets sold very well. When war came, Cherne and the RIA adapted. Soon came more pamphlets and books: Adjusting Your Business to War; M Day and What it Means to You; Your Business Goes to War; and The Rest of Your Life. Cherne complemented this work with frequent newspaper editorials and his own radio program called “Impact!.”

In addition to all that, Cherne had acquired the reputation of a soothsayer. He accurately predicted decisions of the US Supreme Court, passing of bills in the US Congress, industrial strikes and their results, and even war in the Pacific. A childhood friend once said that Cherne’s eyes showed a unique, almost divine intensity, so perhaps he had one or two supernatural gifts; or maybe he was uncommonly lucky. Either way, Cherne went on to deliver his predictions at an event in the Waldorf-Astoria which happened annually for 50 years.

Following a brief and unhappy experience helping General Douglas MacArthur govern Japan, Cherne moved back to the United States and joined the International Rescue Committee. He took what had been a genteel and pious organization headed by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and reinvented it into a human rights powerhouse and, to state it baldly, a front-line weapon in the Cold War.

Cherne performed that role literally. Not content raising money and influencing politicians and diplomats stateside, he traveled around the world to see for himself the state of its refugees and to lend a direct hand where he could. He delivered food and medicine to Hungarians during their revolt in 1956; he went to Cuba to witness the Cuban Revolution; he kept on his desk a piece of metal taken from the stomach of a Vietnamese boy he had met; he toured refugee camps full of Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese.

All the while the sold the cause of refugees, enlisting as many names as he could: Joan Baez, Liv Ullmann, Claiborne Pell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Whitehead, Bayard Rustin, Bill Casey, Dickey Chapelle, John Richardson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, Lane Kirkland, Clare Boothe Luce. He invited these people with him to see and hear from refugees, or to help them in some way. Later one came to take for granted this sort of charitable exhibitionism from the likes of Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Princess Diana. Cherne pioneered and perpetuated it, mainly because it worked.

Cherne was known for his loyalty to most of these people and used them (and let himself be used by them) over the course of his life. He hired Casey to work for the RIA and Casey repaid the favor several decades later when, as Ronald Reagan’s Director of Central Intelligence, saw to the restoration of Cherne’s membership on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, otherwise known as the PFIAB, which Jimmy Carter had disbanded.

Cherne loved this work. Not because he was naturally conspiratorial (although it is fair to say that his way of entrepreneurship did involve some degree of conspiracy, albeit in the open), but rather because it stimulated his thinking about the future, and probably because it facilitated and furthered his intimacy with people who could be useful to his mission: selling humanitarianism.

William F. Buckley, a friend, has described Cherne as an upright and bloody-minded warrior, and an “expert on everything.” In other words, no mere salesman. He was a militant prophet, determined by a higher calling to impose moral action upon the rest of us. His determination was evident, for instance, in his calling out the abuses of Senator Joseph McCarthy when nearly everyone else was too afraid to do so. Cherne debated him in public and denounced his methods as a gift to the Soviets, as well as pointing out that it was not ironic that some of McCarthy’s early supporters in the labor movement were actual Communists.

Taking the religious motif a step further, Henry Kissinger has written that, according to Jewish tradition, “God preserves the world because there exist ten just men who, without claiming themselves that they are just, give Him a motive for leaving the world intact. Leo Cherne was surely one of those ten just men.” That may be overstating things a bit because, to repeat the adverb, Henry Kissinger surely cannot have had hard evidence for his claim. Yet, in accompanying similar, superlative claims of Cherne’s importance, it compels one to ask precisely why this man mattered so much to so many. Moynihan, for example, said he was “for 40 years one of the best-kept secrets of American foreign policy.” And, “I think it is safe to say Leo Cherne’s life helped to redeem the 20th century.”

Human rights and their abuses can inspire a rare passion. There has always been an ideological, even fanatical element in such activism and in the diplomacy required to effect it; some people probably grew tired of Cherne forcing refugees down their throats. Yet his salesmanship was the means to a noble end: freedom. Cherne died in 1999 at the point that such passion took a darker, less optimistic turn, and when for some reason activists came to sound more like inquisitors than liberators. There is the same spectacle and “gall,” but one now hears less about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Refugee Convention, and the Helsinki Final Act, and more instead about vague rules and their array of sanctions, embargoes, and claims of tu quoque. There are fewer educated citizens imagining greater possibilities, and more mountebanks like Senator McCarthy holding culprits “accountable.” Somewhere along the way, somebody stole Cherne’s product and inverted it.

Maybe Dr. Kissinger was right after all, and the world lost one of its ten righteous individuals with the passing of Leo Cherne. Who then will redeem this century?