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Lewis F. Powell’s 1971 memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — “Attack on American Free Enterprise System” — may or may not have been the first shot fired in the nation’s late-20th-century right-wing revolution. But from the document’s title to its ominous conclusion — “Business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late” — it was a literal call to the political arms that have subsequently driven the nation’s devolution from democracy to oligarchy.
While the then-Richmond, Va., lawyer couched his message in noble-sounding calls for openness, balance, truth and fairness, his overall tone was doomsday and militant. Referring to the enemies that Powell said were arrayed against the Chamber — largely on campuses, in the media and in the courts — he used the term attack 18 times; revolt / revolution / revolutionaries five; war / warfare four; assault four; hostility two; destruction two; and shotgun attack and rifle shot one each. The stakes, he said, were tantamount to life and death.
“The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival — survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people,” he wrote just two months before being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard M. Nixon.
Powell submitted the 6,400-word treatise on Aug. 23, 1971, at the request of Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., chairman of the U.S. Chamber’s Education Committee. The purpose, he wrote, was to identify the problem and suggest possible avenues of action for consideration at a discussion the next day between Sydnor, Chamber Executive Vice President Arch Booth and others.
Sydnor was a Richmond businessman who served one term each in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate from 1953 to 1959. Upon his death in 2003, the House passed a joint resolutionhonoring his service.
According to Booth’s July 10, 1985, obituary from the Associated Press, he was a Wichita native who served as the Chamber’s chief spokesman for two decades. Between 1947 and 1973, he served as the organization’s manager, executive vice president and chief operating officer. He was named its president in 1974 before retiring the next year.
As described by PBS’s Primary Sources website, the Powell Memo called for business in general and the Chamber in particular to play more aggressive roles in politics. And while there is disagreement about how influential the memo actually was, its perceived impact has assumed the scope of legend.
In a brief introduction to the document itself, the Primary Sources website declares, “The memo is credited with inspiring the founding of many conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Manhattan Institute.”
In an October 2011 speech at Public Citizens’ 40th anniversary gala in New York City, journalist Bill Moyers pinpointed its submission as the moment today’s ruling oligarchy began taking form. An excerpt titled “How Wall Street Occupied America” was published in the Nov. 2, 2011, issue of The Nation.
“The rise of the money power in our time goes back 40 years,” he said. “We can pinpoint the date. On Aug. 23, 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell — a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future justice of the Supreme Court — released a confidential memorandum for his friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.”
Rising to the rank of colonel, Powell spent four years in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Europe and North Africa during World War II, the bio says. As a “special branch ultra officer,” he helped break “the highest level German codes.” He returned to his old firm after the war and became a partner in 1958.
Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Powell to the National Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, where he served from 1965 to 1967. Also a member of the National Advisory Committee on Legal Services to the Poor, he was appointed by Republican President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel, which studied the Department of Defense.
On Oct. 21, 1971, Nixon nominated Powell as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on Dec. 7, 1971. He took office on Jan. 7, 1972, and retired from active service as a justice on June 26, 1987.
Powell died at his home in Richmond on Aug. 25, 1998, just a month shy of his 91st birthday. At the end of an Aug. 27 editorial tribute, the WLU bio says, The Washington Post cited his “role as a bridge-builder between opposing visions. … Justice Powell’s moderation — born of principles, not their absence — has much to teach the federal courts today.”
A 2005 article in The American Prospect, written by its former executive editor Mark Schmitt, said Powell and Sydnor were neighbors when the memo was written. Powell, he noted, was a conservative Democrat and moderate jurist, not a Goldwater Republican.
In the article titled “The Legend of the Powell Memo,” Schmitt disputes the notion that the document represented a turning point in American political history, doubted its transformative role and traced its history.
“The memo was circulated within Chamber of Commerce circles and became public after Powell’s confirmation to the court, when journalist Jack Anderson unearthed it to question Powell’s judicial temperament,” he wrote. “After that, it seems to have been forgotten.”
Schmitt credited the Alliance for Justice’s 1993 report “Justice for Sale” with reviving interest in the Powell Memo. He termed the report “a superb and still-relevant analysis of the use of corporate and right-wing foundation funds to reshape the legal academy, to introduce judges to ‘law and economics’ dogma, to promote tort reform and to build right-wing public-interest law firms.”
Two books in the early 2000s cite the memo, he wrote. John B. Judis’s The Paradox of American Democracy, published in 2000, credits it with convincing businessmen that they should be more active politically. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2004 book The Right Nation devoted a single paragraph to it, in reference to the history of the Heritage Foundation.
Schmitt said the most likely source of the renewed, 21st-century interest in the Powell Memo was a 2002 article by Jerry Landay on the website mediatransparency.org, which tracked conservative funding. The website was acquired in 2008 by the Media Matter Action Network, where a search for “Powell Memo” returned no results.
“While the Landay article contains everything there is to know about the memo, including the specific newspaper clippings that Powell attached to personal letters that he sent to friends accompanying the memo, it falls short of establishing its premise that the memo ‘changed America,’” he wrote.
A biography of Powell, which Schmitt did not name, never mentions it, he wrote. Nor do several books on the right, including The Conservative Revolution, by Lee Edwards; The Idea Brokers, by James A. Smith; The Rise of the Counterestablishment, by Sidney Blumenthal; A World Turned Right-Side Up, by Godfrey Hodgson; or the authoritative The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George Nash.
Still, Schmitt said, the Powell Memo has been “routinely invoked as the blueprint for virtually all of the conservative intellectual infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s – ‘a memo that changed the course of history,’ in the words of one analysis of the anti-environmental movement, ‘the attack memo that changed America,’ in another account.”
As evidence of the consensus that the Powell Memo was indeed the first rifle shot in the neoconservative counterrevolution, Schmitt, who worked for former Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in the late 1990s, quoted an op ed his former boss wrote for the New York Times on March 30, 2005.
“In 1971 he wrote a landmark memo for the United States Chamber of Commerce in which he advocated a sweeping, coordinated and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses, in academic journals and in the news media,” Bradley wrote.
The 34-page, 16-subsection memo is a comprehensive analysis of what Powell saw as an all-out war on American business from liberals, leftists, socialists and communists. He mentioned four by name — consumer advocate Ralph Nader, UC-San Diego Professor Herbert Marcuse, Yale Professor Charles Reich and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
The memo details the dimensions, sources and tone of the attack; the apathy and default of business, responsibility of business executives and possible role for the Chamber of Commerce; and analyses and strategies for reaching the campus, the public, and the “neglected” political, judicial and stockholder arenas.
He ends by casting the conflict as an apocalyptic struggle for economic and individual freedom.
“As the experience of the socialist and totalitarian states demonstrates, the contraction and denial of economic freedom is followed inevitably by governmental restrictions on other cherished rights,” he wrote. “It is this message, above all others, that must be carried home to the American people.”
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternartive.com.