Monday, January 12th
Jesse, Harvard ’16
We spent our first day in the Dumbarton Oaks Study, a dimly lit, wood-paneled library where the men among the Blisses’ circle gathered after dinner for drinks and cigars. (In a similarly purposed room connected by a hidden passageway, the ladies would convene for tea and gossip, explained James Carder during our initial tour.) However, the room has more history than that. “Much of the heavy lifting” in the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations during the Second World War, a process that led to the creation of the United Nations, “happened in this very room,” Director of Dumbarton Oaks Jan Ziolkowski pointed out.
Throughout the course of the day, I found myself imagining what happened in this room, where the deciders did their talking, as opposed to the large Music Room, pictured below, which hosted the larger delegations. Under the weight of a new international order forming, did they have time to look up at any point and notice the ceiling pattern and its flowers, an echo of the gardens outside?
The setting prompted me to reflect on Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Canada’s long history of international leadership and its role in the United Nations. Adam Chapnick’s The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations describes the perhaps disappointing role the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations played in Canada’s emergence as a nominal “middle power.” While not a superpower like the United States or Soviet Union, or great power like Great Britian, Canada was one of the primary Allies in the Second World War and rose to be among the strongest of the West’s, if not the world’s, middle-sized players.
The tone of that strength was represented by William Lyon Mackenzie King, one of the most important of Canada’s prime ministers, who served four terms and twenty-two years, from the 1920s through the 1940s, longer than any prime minister before or since. Revelant to the legacy of this room, as we explore the interstitial space between in arts and power, philanthropy and diplomacy, was his decision not to demand a voice in the conversations hosted at Dumbarton Oaks, but instead to let British ambassadors express and dictate Canadian interests.