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The Forgotten Director? Frank Aydelotte at the Institute for Advanced Study, 1939–1947

Stability and growth when the Institute's future was still decidedly precarious

By Priscilla Roberts Published 2018

Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Digital Collections
Einstein and Frank Aydelotte, Swarthmore College

When I spent the fall 2016 semester at the Institute, working on the impact of unofficial elite networks upon twentieth-century internationalism, I welcomed the opportunity to explore materials in the Institute's Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, especially those relating to Frank Aydelotte's Directorship. I had previously encountered Aydelotte primarily in his capacity as the first American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, and through his involvement in 1940 and 1941 in the World War II pro-Allied organizations Fight for Freedom and the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. Only during my time in Princeton did I come to realize that Aydelotte's contributions as Director were crucial to the Institute's survival.

Who was Frank Aydelotte? Though not explicitly stated in any of the literature, his personal background may have been one factor driving his appointment as the Institute's second Director. Within and beyond the United States, by the 1930s, Aydelotte (1880–1956) was one of the most prominent and well-known American academic leaders. Although his family was not wealthy, its roots in the United States dated back to late-seventeenth-century French Huguenot and British emigrants. A midwesterner from Indiana, Aydelotte taught high school in Louisville, Kentucky, after completing a bachelor's degree at Indiana University, but set his heart on further studies in Britain under Oxford University's newly established Rhodes Scholarship program. The Institute's founding Director, Abraham Flexner, then heading a Louisville preparatory school, began what would be a lasting association with Aydelotte when he tutored the underqualified young man in Latin and Greek, helping to ensure Aydelotte's success in joining Oxford's second intake of American Rhodes Scholars. 

Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Digital Collections
Formal portrait of Frank Aydelotte
Aydelotte's years at Oxford (1905–07) were transformative, laying the foundations of permanent ties to Oxford academics and Rhodes Trust officials while providing opportunities for travel in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Unlike some Rhodes Scholars, Aydelotte found Oxford congenial, studying Elizabethan history and literature intensely while rowing for Brasenose College. Returning to the United States, he taught English at Indiana University and, in 1914, he became founding editor of the American Oxonian magazine. He soon won a reputation as an outstanding teacher and innovative educator. In 1915, Aydelotte moved East as a full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then undergoing rapid expansion. Aydelotte was fiercely pro-Allied in World War I. A poorly set broken arm led the U.S. Army to reject him for active service; instead, the War Department employed him to devise an interdisciplinary and relatively evenhanded War Issues course, which became the foundation of Columbia University's postwar Contemporary Civilization course. As the war ended, he accepted appointment as American Secretary to the Rhodes Trust, a position he would hold until 1952. 

A rising academic star, Aydelotte accepted an offer in 1921 to become President of Swarthmore College, a Quaker liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania where he would spend nineteen years. At Swarthmore, Aydelotte introduced the honors system of individual study and became an integral figure in his country's academic establishment. He served on the boards of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund, establishing fellowships that would enable British scholars to reverse the Rhodes trajectory and study in the United States. As Educational Adviser to the Guggenheim Foundation in the 1920s, he was central in establishing the Guggenheim Fellowships, which support Americans studying the arts and humanities. More darkly, in the following decade, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tightened control in Germany, Aydelotte served on the Rockefeller-funded Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, which helped over five hundred intellectuals in political jeopardy to leave Europe. Even when permanent positions were unavailable, a significant number took up temporary appointments at Swarthmore and other universities, giving themselves breathing space to negotiate more stable affiliations.

From the academic superstar Albert Einstein down, a significant number of the most accomplished refugees found safe haven at the newly established Institute for Advanced Study, some as permanent faculty, others as visitors. From its foundation in 1930, Aydelotte was a member of the Institute's first Board of Trustees, a position that was tribute to both his academic clout and to his close ties to Flexner. The ever diplomatic Aydelotte, perceived by many as Flexner's successor-designate, with Flexner originally contemplating his own retirement as early as 1936, gradually found that his role encompassed mediating disputes that arose between the increasingly hypersensitive founding Director and others—donors, Trustees, and academics—associated with the Institute. 

Flexner envisaged the Institute as an intellectual powerhouse across a range of disciplines, including mathematics and theoretical physics, the humanities, including historical studies, art, and archaeology, and the social sciences, economics, politics, and international relations. Following his coup in hiring Albert Einstein in 1933, Flexner recruited extensively, attracting such existing and future luminaries as the mathematicians Oswald Veblen, James W. Alexander, John von Neumann, Hermann Weyl, and Marston Morse, the classical scholars and archaeologists Benjamin Meritt, Ernst Herzfeld, Elias Lowe, William Campbell, Erwin Panofsky, and Hetty Goldman, the historian Edward Mead Earle, the political scientist David Mitrany, and the economists Walter Stewart, Winfield Riefler, and Robert Warren. In 1936, the Institute also bought the 265-acre Olden Farm property on the outskirts of Princeton, where Fuld Hall was constructed in the late 1930s, as a dedicated home for the expanding Institute. Unfortunately, financing these developments and other expenditures cut into the Institute's endowment, prompting serious reservations from Louis Bamberger, the Institute's founding financial benefactor and patron, over whether he should contribute any further funding. In 1939, the Institute ran its first deficit. Flexner, by then seventy-three, was also deeply at odds with several prominent Institute Professors, former supporters who resented his authoritarian management style, while perhaps failing to appreciate the tightening pressures afflicting him.

Antisemitism was also a concern. By 1934, the predominance of Jewish faculty within the Institute was apparently raising hackles around Princeton University, with President Harold Dodds reportedly confiding in the mathematician James W. Alexander that "all the young people on the Princeton faculty are up in arms against the Institute, the German refugees, and the Jews" (Batterson, 216). Institute Members were reputedly somewhat unwelcome in the neighboring golf club where Princeton elites congregated. Flexner declined to admit the existence of such prejudice, but as war in Europe became ever more probable, it posed an additional handicap for the Institute, one that the appointment of the all-American, well-connected Aydelotte might help to address.

Photo featuring James Alexander, Marston Morse, Albert Einstein, Frank Aydelotte, Hermann Weyl, and Oswald Veblen
Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Digital Collections
Left to Right: James Alexander, Marston Morse, Albert Einstein, Frank Aydelotte, Hermann Weyl, and Oswald Veblen

Aydelotte had originally anticipated that, as Flexner's successor, he would enjoy a comfortable budget surplus and would spend his pre-retirement years developing such fields as Chinese studies, Latin American studies, and English literature, while resuming his own research. Instead, on taking over in October 1939, he inherited an Institute where the cost of funding existing appointments and the maintenance of Fuld Hall already surpassed endowment income. Apart from hosting temporary visiting Members, some of whom—notably the mathematician Kurt Gödel—later joined the Institute permanently, expensive new appointments or initiatives were not immediately feasible. To meet the deficit and special expenses, including unfunded pension provisions, Aydelotte for several years persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation and Bamberger to provide short-term donations. Eventually, he overcame Bamberger's doubts over Flexner's past free-spending financial management. When Bamberger and his sister, Carrie Fuld, died in 1944, both made the Institute their residuary legatee, effectively doubling the Institute's endowment.

Although Aydelotte was unable to launch ambitious new programs, his policies during his tenure did much to raise both the Institute's profile and credibility and to reaffirm to Bamberger and others its fundamental value. His appointment also offered valuable protective camouflage in a politically sensitive time. The international situation and the war that broke out in Europe in September 1939, a few weeks before Aydelotte finally became Director, dominated his tenure. At the beginning of August 1939, Einstein and several other top scientists had written to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging that the United States should launch a massive program to develop nuclear weapons. Their pleas were a major factor driving the wartime Manhattan Project that invented the first atomic bombs. As staunch an interventionist as he had been in the previous war, Aydelotte was an influential figure in both major pro-Allied nongovernmental organizations, Fight for Freedom and the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. 

Given his midwestern background and lengthy North American ancestry, Aydelotte—who officially embraced the Quaker faith on leaving Swarthmore—was a poor target for accusations that seeking to affect the outcome of the European conflict represented an unpatriotic identification with foreign countries or alien, especially Jewish, interests. A passionate golfer, his malfunctioning right arm notwithstanding, the Institute's new Director was welcomed to the Princeton links, especially when accompanied by such prestigious guests as Lord Lothian, the British ambassador who had been the British Rhodes Trust Secretary from 1925 to 1939. Lothian, who died en poste in December 1940, was as committed as Aydelotte to winning U.S. support for the Allies, a cause in which a significant number of former American Rhodes Scholars assisted them. Aydelotte also strongly encouraged Institute personnel in all fields of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to make their academic expertise available to all branches of the U.S. government, a practical demonstration of support for the war effort that he proudly detailed in his successive annual reports, highlighting the government awards several Institute scholars received. 

Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Digital Collections
Frank Aydelotte, seated at desk 
Understanding international affairs and planning for the postwar world rapidly became top Institute priorities. In September 1940, in an arrangement funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and brokered by Aydelotte after the German blitzkrieg of Western Europe earlier that year, most of the staff and files of the Economic and Financial Secretariat of the League of Nations arrived in Princeton. Aydelotte negotiated this move and obtained State Department and White House approval for it. Led by the Scotsman Alexander Loveday, whom Aydelotte bore off for a round of golf immediately after he arrived, a cosmopolitan group of assorted League financial experts were based in the newly completed Fuld Hall for the next five years, paying a token daily rent of one dollar as they drafted plans that contributed to the creation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the 1944 Bretton Woods monetary arrangements, and the 1947 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, as well as the United Nations that replaced the League of Nations in 1945. Their work supplemented other projects in which Aydelotte was a central figure, especially several summer conferences at the Institute on proposals for the postwar world order that led to the establishment in 1943 of the Harvard-based Universities Committee on Post-War International Problems and a comparable group at Yale University. Meanwhile, the Institute's Edward Mead Earle worked with the Office of Strategic Services research office, drafted German surrender proposals, and proved a key figure in the development of the discipline of international relations within the United States, promulgating thinking that underpinned the long-term expansion of U.S. overseas commitments at the end of World War II. In recognition of his long-time work for refugee scholars, at U.S. President Harry S. Truman's request, Aydelotte spent the first four months of 1946 serving on an Anglo-American Joint Commission on Palestine, which tried unavailingly to devise and recommend an acceptable solution for the contested British mandate of Palestine, while providing for the future of displaced Jewish refugees in Europe. 

Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Digital Collections
Aydelotte's handwritten sketch and notes on the Institute's first building, written on the back of a menu from the City Midday Club
As the war ended, with the Institute at last on a financially solid footing, thanks to the Bamberger and Fuld bequests, Aydelotte hoped finally to fulfill his long-cherished plans to launch new initiatives in the areas of American civilization and Chinese studies. He put these ambitions to one side, however, when asked in late 1945 to provide funding for what would become an Institute signature project, John von Neumann's proposal to build the world's first stored-program computer, an expensive undertaking that required staff and a new building. The Institute appropriated $100,000, and Aydelotte obtained comparably large grants toward it from the Radio Corporation of America and the U.S. Navy. In his last two years in office, Aydelotte also contributed $500,000 to Princeton University's Firestone Library in exchange for unlimited access by Institute scholars to its resources of all kinds. The Institute hired new permanent Faculty, Kurt Gödel and Homer A. Thompson, a well-known archaeologist. In June 1947, the Institute hosted a reunion for American Rhodes Scholars, the first such gathering since 1933. And with younger academic members who had completed their wartime service flocking back to the Institute, Aydelotte established what would become a much-loved Institute feature, the nursery school. 

Somewhat to his own regret and that of many Faculty members, Aydelotte retired in October 1947, on his sixty-seventh birthday. Until his death in 1956, he remained based in Princeton, living on Battle Road and spending summers in Waterford, Connecticut, and winters in Florida. His time as Director bore little resemblance to the relatively tranquil pre-retirement stint he had first anticipated, but it was, for that very reason perhaps, even more valuable to the Institute. "The Institute would not be here today if Frank Aydelotte had not organized it," said one eminent IAS professor in the late 1960s. 

The reverse of a prima donna, Aydelotte brought stability and ultimately growth to the Institute when its future was still decidedly precarious. He preserved and consolidated the vision and accomplishments of the prickly Abraham Flexner, and provided the basic resources and foundations that would underpin the Institute's expansion during the nineteen-year tenure of the longest-serving Director to date, Robert Oppenheimer. In the seventy years since he retired, the second Director's successors have brought to fruition some of his long-contemplated but repeatedly deferred plans. But his greatest legacy is that the Institute he served with quiet and nonspectacular dedication is still here.

Priscilla Roberts, Member (2016) in the School of Historical Studies, is completing a study of Anglo-American think tanks and China policy after 1950, and compiling a volume of case studies focusing on the role and influence of foreign policy think tanks in the conduct of international affairs from the 1920s to the 1980s. Roberts is Associate Professor at the City University of Macau and co-director of that university's Asia-Pacific Business Research Centre.