A.A. Berle – Virgin Islands Patriot

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A.A. Berle and Charles W. Taussig
A.A. Berle and Charles W. Taussig

Governor John deJongh, Jr. has declared March Virgin Islands History Month. We need to commemorate the accomplishments of Virgin Islanders as well as other individuals who have contributed to the creation of our government.

Adolf Augustus (A.A.) Berle was one such person. I read of Berle’s involvement in the formation of the U.S.V.I. self-government. Several years ago I approached Elroy Sprauve, my friend and mentor, about the scarcity of research sources that show the total factors involved in establishing an independent government for Virgin Islanders to replace the U.S. Naval Administration.

Not only did Danish interests and institutions continue to be a negative factor, but also the U.S. Navy’s outstanding accomplishments in defending the U.S. and fighting our wars was not being replicated in the administration of a civil government for a new group of U.S. nationals known for their intelligence, gentility and loyalty. .

Furthermore, there seems to have been concerted efforts to keep the native Virgin Islanders divided into separate competing and divisive groups that diluted their power to obtain self-government. Mr. Elroy recommended strongly that I read Persecuted and Prosecuted by Leon A. Mawson published in 1987 by Vantage Press.

Mawson had the legal expertise to dissect the nuances and legal restraints in the Virgin Islands during the Naval administration and the initial attempts at establishing self-rule. He was a seasoned writer and researcher who served in several important government positions. He especially made eminent sense of the players and events during the long struggle to obtain self-government.

A well-worn copy of this book is in circulation at our public library. Incidentally, Attorney Mawson was the father of our fellow St. Johnians and friends, Diane Mawson Walker and Marlene Mawson Carney Malacarne.

One of the players in this drama was A. A. Berle who served as Counsel to the Virgin Islands Committee and advised Chairman Rothschild Francis on the legal subtleties of negotiating a law through the U.S. Congress in the fight for the economic and civil rights of his people. Eventually Berle even personally testified before Congress on the state of the Virgin Islands including the endangered Bay Oil industry on St. John.

I began to search the literature to find out more about A.A. Berle. I first found a biography of Berle’s life (1895-1971) written by Jordan A. Schwartz entitled ‘Adolf A. Berle And The Vision Of An American Era’, New York: Free Press, 1987. Berle, a Harvard Law graduate, was practicing law in New York City when called to represent the Virgin Islands Committee.

Francis had discussed his plans with the American Civil Liberties Union who directed him to Berle who had West Indian experience. (Mawson p124) Berle joined the U.S. Army after graduating from Harvard Law School. He was assigned to the Dominican Republic then under occupation by the U.S. military.

This was a turning point in Berle’s life. It introduced him to the sugar trade, the Caribbean area, and Latin America. In February 1918 there was a world shortage of sugar and it was being rationed in the United States. The U.S. Army had received a request for legal aid in untangling a web of landholding laws that inhibited sugar production in the Dominican Republic.

Berle was put on leave from the Army to work on this assignment. He was paid by the New York attorneys for the South Puerto Rican Sugar Company who had made the request. His assignment involved setting up a land court which would quiet title thereby allowing U.S. companies to buy land for growing sugar and denying the sugar to the Germans who had purchased the sugar production.

Berle saw and hated Marine imperialism and reported an incident to the authorities wherein a Marine Captain’s ambush and death was retaliated by the murder of ten Dominican hostages. The Marines responsible were punished. Berle also gained an affection for the ordinary people of Latin America. He wrote in 1920 about the Dominican Republic “rarely has a friendly government been so thoroughly destroyed and a friendly country so completely submerged”.(Schwarz p22)

Berle and Francis wrote the memorandum in support of the February 25, 1924 legislation introduced in Congress. They wrote “Further, the citizenship status of all Virgin Islanders remains unsettled. They are citizens of nowhere. They are technically nationals of the United States meaning that they have the duties but not the rights of citizens.” (Mawson p27)

Berle’s public papers are in FDR’s Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY where I found a letter from R. Francis as editor of THE EMANCIPATOR in which he praises Berle for the role he was playing and reviews the paper’s accomplishments;

“…our pages, they have championed the cause of the weak against the strong. They have denounced injustice whether in our executive mansion, in our courts, or in our police department; they have condemned hypocrisy in our pulpits, self-interest in our legislatures, and incompetence in our schools.”

Surprisingly enough I discovered that through the years Berle had worked closely with the Rockefeller family on real estate deals, US State Department activities and in brain trusts.

In 1927 Berle joined the Columbia Law Faculty and married Beatrice Bend Bishop. The Bishop family wealth was in New York City real estate. The Rockefeller family had obtained a long term lease from Mrs. Berle’s father, but they wanted to buy the property and negotiated with A.A. Berle who represented the family. The sale in 1943 netted the Berles more than $2.3 million dollars.

Both Nelson Rockefeller and A.A. Berle received major State Department appointments in FDR’s New Deal. During the interval between the election and his first inauguration FDR sent Berle and C.W. Taussig to Cuba to report on conditions there. Eventually Berle was appointed Assistant Secretary of State in which he became a leading authority on Latin American affairs. Taussig also went on to hold important posts such as FDR’s Advisory Council on the Virgin Islands. He passed in 1948.

Nelson A. Rockefeller was appointed as the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs at State. He developed plans for the economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean. Not just preliminary plans but full blueprints on how to accomplish the objectives he set out. Laurance was soon at his side concentrating on the development of tourism and aviation. Laurance concentrated on planning hotels as well as the replacement of German airlines in South America with American or American-financed airlines.

As the emphasis at State shifted to rebuilding Europe after WW II, Nelson’s plans were shelved at State but became the subjects for the Rockefeller-funded private Council on Foreign Relations and Twentieth Century Fund. Schwartz writes that Nelson Rockefeller was Berle’s personal friend. Berle liked Rockefeller’s sense of noblesse oblige. In the 1950s Rockefeller generously put his money to work by endowing task force studies of capital formation and foreign affairs. Berle frequently brain trusted for the task forces and wrote papers for Rockefeller for which he was compensated.In the book “Navigating the Rapids, 1918 – 1971; from the papers of Adolf A. Berle” edited by Beatrice Bishop Berle and Travis Beal Jacobs and published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973, A.A. Berle is reported to have made the following diary entry on March 20, 1952:

“Later in the afternoon to meet Nelson Rockefeller, and Wallace Harrison. Nelson Rockefeller has fitted up a little house on 54th Street back of the Museum of Modern Art, to be a center for a very small and singularly esoteric group of serious thinkers. As Nelson said, if the capitalist system has any way of getting things done …the (five Rockefeller brothers) have access to it… The members consist of the Rockefeller brothers, Wallace Harrison, Beardsley Ruml and myself which makes it about the most esoteric group there is; and, of course, the tangential contacts run into many billions of dollars. ”

“What is really happening is that the old generation is passing, and the five Rockefeller brothers are increasingly picking up the burden of empire. But, though the private fortunes are large, this is not power in the sense of old J.D. They are struggling with the fact that there is no central intellectual concept and so no way of pushing ideas or physical development and no way of combining the two, and Nelson’s always generous and always active mind is seeking some method of giving some intellectual and philosophical direction to this blob of influence and, occasionally, power inherent in their position.”

Of course, it’s easy to see how the meetings and concentrations of these great minds could work wonders for Virgin Islanders, and it’s also difficult to see how “local” great minds like Mawson, Sprauve, and Moorehead were able to channel this tide to insure that Virgin Islanders received what was best for them.