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Adolf A. Berle

Adolf A. Berle

American diplomat
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American diplomat
Countries United States of America
Occupations Diplomat Lawyer Economist Educator
Gender male
Birth January 27, 1895 (Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
Death February 17, 1971 (New York City, New York, U.S.A.)
Education Harvard Law School, Harvard University
The details

Adolf Augustus Berle Jr. (; January 29, 1895 – February 17, 1971) was a lawyer, educator, author, and U.S. diplomat. He was the author of The Modern Corporation and Private Property, a groundbreaking work on corporate governance, and an important member of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's "Brain Trust".

Early life

Berle was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Mary Augusta (Wright) and Adolf Augustus Berle. He entered Harvard College at age 14, earning a bachelor's degree in 1913 and a master's degree in 1914. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School. In 1916, at age 21, he became the youngest graduate in the school's history.


Early career

Upon graduation Berle joined the US military. His first assignment as an intelligence officer was to assist in increasing sugar production in the Dominican Republic by working out property and contractual conflicts among rural landowners. Immediately after World War I, Berle became a member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, advocating for smaller nations' rights of self-determination. In 1919, Berle moved to New York City and became a member of the law firm of Berle, Berle and Brunner.

The Modern Corporation and Private Property

Berle became a professor of corporate law at Columbia Law School in 1927 and remained on the faculty until retiring in 1964. He is best known for his groundbreaking work in corporate governance that he co-authored, with economist Gardiner Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property. It is the most quoted text in corporate governance studies. Berle and Means showed that the means of production in the US economy were highly concentrated in the hands of the largest 200 corporations, and within the large corporations, managers controlled firms despite shareholders' formal ownership.

Berle theorized that the facts of economic concentration meant that the effects of competitive-price theory were largely mythical. While some advocated trust busting, breaking up the concentrations of firms into smaller entities to restore competitive forces, Berle believed that that would be economically inefficient. Instead, he argued for government regulation and became identified with the school of business statesmanship, which advocated that corporate leadership accept (and theorized that they had, to a great extent, already accepted) that they must fulfill responsibilities toward society in addition to their traditional responsibilities toward shareholders. Corporate law should reflect this new reality, he wrote in The Modern Corporation: "The law of corporations, accordingly, might well be considered as a potential constitutional law for the new economic state, while business practice is increasingly assuming the aspect of economic statesmanship."

Roosevelt's Brain Trust

Berle was an original member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Brain Trust", a group of advisers who developed policy recommendations. Berle's focuses ranging from economic recovery to diplomatic strategy during Roosevelt's 1932 election campaign. Roosevelt's "Commonwealth Club Address", a speech written by Berle on government involvement in industrial and economic policy, was ranked in 2000 as the second-best presidential campaign speech of the 20th century by public address scholars.

While remaining an informal adviser of Roosevelt after the election, Berle returned to New York City and became a key consultant in the successful mayoral election campaign of reformer Fiorello LaGuardia. From 1934 to 1938, Berle managed the city's fiscal affairs as its last Chamberlain. Then, from 1938 to 1944, Berle was Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Berle's official duties in New York City and as an Assistant Secretary of State did not limit his perception of his real responsibilities or expertise, and in any case, Roosevelt appreciated both his speechwriting skills and his advice on a wide range of international and economic concerns. As a result, throughout the Roosevelt administration Berle consulted on important international and industrial New Deal projects, such as creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway, development of the administration's Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, and establishment of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Outside of Latin America, Berle argued "that control of the incomparable energy reserves of the Middle East would yield 'substantial control of the world.'"

During his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, Berle rented Woodley Mansion, which had once been owned by Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren, from secretary of war Henry Stimson in 1939. On September 2, Whittaker Chambers arrived at Woodley to tell Berle that several senior government officials, including Alger Hiss, a respected member of the State Department, were members of a Soviet "apparatus" designed to influence US policy and pass classified documents and information to the Soviets. Chambers's autobiography asserts that Berle and the journalist who set up the meeting, Isaac Don Levine, met with Roosevelt and conveyed what Chambers told them, but Roosevelt unequivocally refused to take any action. Hiss remained at the State Department during and after the war in positions, including as Roosevelt's principal adviser on Soviet affairs at the Yalta conference, as a delegate to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference and as Secretary General of the San Francisco conference establishing the United Nations. In 1948, Chambers repeated his accusations to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hiss denied the accusation in testimony to the Committee, leading to his trial and conviction for perjury. Berle provided incorrect and misleading testimony before the House Committee about his meeting with Chambers, which was contradicted by both his notes taken subsequent to the meeting and a personal diary entry that acknowledged that Chambers had implicated Hiss in espionage. Explaining Berle's evasive testimony, Allen Weinstein wrote in his book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case: "His major concern in 1948, at a time when Berle was a Liberal Party leader in New York working for Truman's election, was to defuse, if possible, the influence of anti-Communist sentiment and of the case itself in that election year."

In 1943, Berle's duties in the State Department involved political supervision of the various clandestine activities necessitated by the war. Working with his assistant Charles W. Yost, Berle liaised with the OSS, and with the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Berle also was a major architect in the development of federal farm and home owners' mortgage programs and in the expansion of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1944.

After World War II

After the war, Berle served as Ambassador to Brazil from 1945 to 1946. In October 1945, two days after the deposition of president Getulio Vargas, Berle pledged for the freedom of the Brazilian communists who were being incarcerated by the government since the beginning of the month.

He then returned to his academic career at Columbia. Berle was a founding member of the New York State Liberal Party, a breakaway faction of the American Labor Party, which had lost support as a result of its sponsorship of Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a Communist sympathizer. For nearly a decade, Berle served as chairman of the Liberal Party. His main goal was to fight off far-left and Communist influences. He also chaired the Twentieth Century Fund for the two decades following World War II.

Berle briefly returned to government service for the first half of 1961, serving under President John F. Kennedy as head of an interdepartmental task force on Latin American affairs. During that time, he was primarily involved in forming the US response to a newly communist Cuba, which included both the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the initiation of the Alliance for Progress, an economic development policy aimed at the region.

Berle continued to write academic work related to corporate law. His article on "Property, Production and Revolution" was a key statement of the theory behind the Great Society program of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Personal life

Adolf Berle married Beatrice Bishop (1902–1993), the daughter of Cortlandt Field Bishop (1870–1935) and Amy Bend (1870-1957), in 1927. Beatrice was the granddaughter George Hoffman Bend (1838–1900), a member of the New York Stock Exchange and prominent in New York Society. Adolf and Beatrice had two daughters, and a son, who in turn, had 10 children.

  • Beatrice Van Cortlandt Berle, who married Dean Winston Meyerson in 1953.
  • Alice Bishop Berle, who married Clan Crawford, Jr. in 1949.
  • Peter Adolf Augustus Berle III (1937–2007), a lawyer and member of the New York Assembly who married Lila Sloane Wilde in 1960.

In 1971, Berle died in New York City, aged 76.

His wife edited and published selections from his diaries posthumously in 1973 as Navigating the Rapids: From the Papers of Adolf A. Berle.


  • Studies in the Law of Corporation Finance. Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1928. Rpt. 1995, Buffalo: W.S. Hein & Co.
  • Cases and Materials in the Law of Corporation Finance. St. Paul: West Pub. Co., 1930.
  • (with Gardiner C[oit]. Means) The Modern Corporation and Private Property. Council for Research in the Social Sciences, Columbia University. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1940. Rev. Ed., 1968. Rpt. with a new intro. by Murray L. Weidenbaum and Mark Jensen, New Brunswick [New Jersey]: Transaction Pubs., 1991.
  • (with Victoria J[ohanne]. Pederson) Liquid Claims and the National Wealth: An Exploratory Study in the Theory of Liquidity. Council for Research in the Social Sciences, Columbia University. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1934.
  • New Directions in the New World. New York, London: Harper & Bros. Pubs., 1940.
  • National Realism and Christian Faith. The Ware Lecture, Boston, 1940. American Unitarian Assn., Tracts, No. 356. Boston: American Unitarian Assn., [1940?].
  • The Natural Selection of Political Forces. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1950. Electronic copy from HathiTrust http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001138920 Rev. Ed. 1968.
  • The Emerging Common Law of Free Enterprise: Antidote to the Omnipotent State?. [Philadelphia]: Brandeis Lawyers' Society, 1951.
  • The 20th Century Capitalist Revolution. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1954.
  • Economic Power and the Free Society. Fund for the Republic Pamphlets. New York: Fund for the Republic, 1957. Electronic copy from HathiTrust http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/005119950
  • Tides of Crisis: A Primer of Foreign Relations. Apollo Editions, A-56. New York: Reynal & Co.; London: The MacMillan Co., 1957. Rpt. 1975, Westport [Connecticut]: Greenwood Press.
  • The Bank That Banks Built: The Story of Savings Banks Trust Company, 1933-1958. New York: Harper & Bros., Pubs., 1959.
  • Power without Property: A New Development in American Political Economy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1959.
  • The Motive Power of Political Economy.. [New York]: New York Society for Ethical Culture, 1960.
  • The Cold War in Latin America. The Brian McMahon Lectures, 1961. [Storrs (Connecticut)?, 1961?].
  • Latin America: Diplomacy and Reality. New York: Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper & Row, 1962. Rpt. Westport (Connecticut): Greenwood Press, 1982.
  • The American Economic Republic. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World; London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1963.
  • If Marx Were To Return. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Information Service, 1965. Electronic copy from HathiTrust http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009984714
  • The Three Faces of Power. [Originally presented as the Carpentier Lectures, Columbia University, March 1967.] New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
  • Power: Epilogue in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. (Taken from the author's Power to be published in 1969, and "published as a New Year's greeting to friends of the author and the publisher.")
  • Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.
  • Leaning against the Dawn: An Appreciation of the Twentieth Century Fund and Its Fifty Years of Adventure in Seeking To Influence American Development toward a More Effectively Just Civilization, 1919-1969. New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1969.
  • Navigating the Rapids, 1918–1971: From the Papers of Adolf A. Berle. Beatrice Bishop Berle, Travis Beal Jacobs, Eds. Max Ascoli, Intro. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
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