The Los Angeles World Affairs Council was founded at a meeting on September 8th 1953 in Room 3 of the California Club in downtown Los Angeles.The idea of the four founders – Paul Hoffman, Preston Hotchkis, John McCone and Mrs Frank L. Pellissier, was to present speakers to help Americans better understand the outside world, and the role the US could play in the world. It was part of a loosely affiliated movement nation-wide to form World Affairs Councils to counter the rise of isolationist tendencies that occurred after both World Wars when many Americans were inclined to turn their backs on what some saw as the problems of others.
The founders of the Council had broadly outward-looking views, seeing both opportunities and threats around the world as US corporations looked for export markets at the same time as the Cold War set in. Paul Hoffman, who had been head of the Marshall Plan for Europe and president of the Ford Foundation, summed up the Council’s vision at the first meeting. According to the minutes: “Mr. Hoffman outlined briefly the necessity at the present time that adequate information be brought to the American public so that intelligent decisions regarding United States foreign policy should be made…”
Hoffman later went on to run the United Nations Development Program, while Preston Hotchkis, who was elected as first chairman of the LAWAC board, later became the US Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. John McCone, a former Under Secretary of the Air Force, went on to head the Atomic Energy Commission and in 1961 was made director of the CIA. The fourth founder, Mrs Frank L. Pellissier, was married to a man from an established land-owning family in Los Angeles, and also had broad internationalist views.
At that first meeting, the directors voted to expand the board to 35 members, and decided to invite Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard Nixon as some of their first speakers.
John F. Kennedy
In its first years in operation, the Council also managed to get as speakers the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, General Douglas MacArthur, the publisher William Randolph Hearst, King Hussein of Jordan and, in 1956, an up-and-coming senator from Massachusetts, John F Kennedy, who told the Council “We cannot afford to approach foreign policy with partisan distortion.”
In 1959 Nikita Khrushchev, the Chairman of the USSR, came to Los Angeles and repeatedly boasted how superior the Soviet Union was to the US. On the evening of Sept 19th he addressed the Los Angeles World Affairs Council at the Ambassador Hotel, where he was upbraided by Mayor Norris Poulson, who said: “We do not agree with your widely quoted phrase ‘We shall bury you.’ You shall not bury us and we shall not bury you. We are happy with our way of life. We recognize its shortcomings and are always trying to improve it. But if challenged, we shall fight to the death to preserve it.”Khrushchev quickly became animated, and responded: “You live under capitalism, let us live under socialism. Let time show which system is better.” The next day the Los Angeles Times headline ran across all columns at the top of the front page: “Mr. K Hurls Hot Retort at Poulson”.
From the beginning the Los Angeles World Affairs Council has been self-avowedly non-partisan, and has accepted speakers from all parts of the political spectrum and both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union’s permanent representative to the UN, Oleg Troyanovsky, addressed the Council in 1977, and Khrushchev’s son Sergei Khrushchev came to the Council in 1990. The President of China, Li Xiannian, spoke to the Council in 1985, and two years later LAWAC hosted Yang Shangkun, the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission who went on to become the next President of China.
The Dalai Lama came to the Council twice in 1979 and 1984, and there have also been a long list of Taiwanese officials, including the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, David Lin, in 2013. From the Middle East there have been five Israeli Prime Ministers: Levi Eshkol in 1964, Golda Meir in 1969, Yitzhak Rabin in 1976, Yitzhak Shamir who came four times between 1987 and 1991, and Benjamin Netanyahu in 1997. King Hussein of Jordan spoke four times between 1959 and 1995, and his son King Abdullah II came in 2000.
From Saudi Arabia Prince Talal al Saud spoke in 1983, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-time ambassador to the US, came twice. In April 2011, as the Arab Spring uprisings were beginning to unseat dictators across the Middle East, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, told the Council “No regime can now behave or act as if people don’t exist or there is no public opinion.”
Domestically the Council has hosted Presidents and other politicians from both sides of the aisle: Presidents John F. Kennedy and President Bill Clinton as well as President Carter’s Vice President Walter Mondale from the Democratic side, Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush from the Republican side. In 1987 President Reagan said: “Conflict results from miscalculation by aggressive powers who misjudge the will of democratic nations.” The following year President Reagan, approaching the end of his tenure in the White House, questioned perhaps half-seriously whether the presidency really should be limited to just two terms.
NOTABLE FIGURES, NOTABLE EVENTS
Apart from political leaders, the Council has invited a long list of scientists, authors, economists, diplomats, military leaders and corporate executives to share their international experiences – and in some cases extra-planetary journeys. Space exploration has been a recurring theme at the Council, starting with NASA administrator James Webb in 1963, and a panel of the Apollo 16 astronauts in 1972 , and leading to talks by Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, in 2009 and 2013 and Charles Elachi, the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the challenges of landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. As Elachi explained, the eight month, 350 million-mile journey required the same level of accuracy as if one were “to hit a golf ball from Boston, across the US to the Rose Bowl, and not just land inside the stadium, but land on a specific seat.”
In 1977 His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, celebrated the “strong and close Anglo-American connection”, a topic that was taken up by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1991, when she said that the US alliance with Britain and Europe was in the security interests of the US. "Even America cannot be truly safe and secure in isolation…America prospers when Europe and the wider world prosper.” In 2003 the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan gave a spirited defense of the value of the United Nations, saying “The United Nations is not perfect, but it is precious”.
Since the 9/11 attacks on the US, many speakers have dealt with security issues and the future of the Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told LAWAC in 2006 that ultimately there would not be a military solution to the “war on terror”, and that the fight against extremism “can only be won by showing that our values are stronger.” General James Mattis, the commander of Centcom, speaking about the Arab Spring in 2011, said “the Middle East is in a wildly turbulent time right now. There’s a lot of promise there. I am paid to watch for the dangers.” Ryan Crocker, who during a 40 year-long career with the State Department served as US ambassador in six countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, made a strong plea for diplomacy in a 2013 address to the Council, saying “Negotiations with your enemies are more important than talks with your friends.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, the Los Angeles World Affairs Council focused on other parts of the world – particularly the rising economies of Asia and the Pacific Rim. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan said in 2012 that “The 20th century was the Atlantic Century. The 21st century with be the Asia Pacific Century – and it must be all of ours.” Mexican President Vicente Fox made a strong economic case for immigration reform, saying in 2008 that the US “taught us and taught all the nations of the world that we should open our borders, open our markets…the American dream is you work and you get what you deserve. The American dream is freedom for everyone.”
The Council has also increased its focus on education, looking at what lessons can be learned from overseas as the US struggles to improve its own public education system. In 2013 former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee told the Council that “we are not going to be able to compete in the global marketplace in the long term until we fix our public education system.”