On His Own Terms | Richard Norton Smith

Summary of: On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller
By: Richard Norton Smith

Final Recap

Nelson Rockefeller’s life was marked by his ability to overcome personal challenges, his immense drive to improve the world, and his unwavering commitment to progressive values. As a politician, he faced opposition and underwent various controversial moments, including the Attica prison crisis and his anti-drug policies. Despite these challenges, Rockefeller’s legacy remains as a testament to his profound impact on art, education, and the pursuit of social justice. His journey reminds us of the importance of staying true to one’s principles, even in the face of adversity, and the lasting impact one can make in the realms of politics and philanthropy.


Delve into the fascinating life of Nelson Rockefeller, a prominent figure in American politics with an illustrious family legacy. Through this summary of the book ‘On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller’ by Richard Norton Smith, we will explore Nelson’s early struggles with dyslexia, his passion for art and philanthropy, and his journey as a diplomat, entrepreneur, and political leader. The summary will also highlight Nelson’s various political roles, including his tenure as Governor of New York, Vice President, and his multiple attempts at running for President.

The Creative Business Instincts of Nelson Rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, struggled with dyslexia while growing up. However, he had supportive tutors and enrolled in a progressive educational institution that contributed significantly to his academic achievements. Despite his average grades, he went on to attend Dartmouth College, where he developed a passion for photography, art, and architecture. Rockefeller also inherited his father’s philanthropic passion, focusing his creative business instincts to improve the world.

Nelson Rockefeller’s Artistic Influence

Nelson Rockefeller, inspired by his mother, developed a passionate interest in art. He played a crucial role in establishing the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and introducing artists such as Picasso and Matisse to the American public. At the same time, he assisted his father in building Rockefeller Center and was closely involved in the artistic aspects of both projects. His advocacy for local architects and commissioning of Diego Rivera’s mural in the Rockefeller Center lobby were controversial but reflected his commitment to promoting art. Despite the controversial mural, Nelson continued to admire Rivera and mended their friendship years later.

Nelson Rockefeller’s Journey to Philanthropy and Politics

Inheriting $3.2 million in stock from his father, Nelson Rockefeller used his entrepreneurial talent to pair his love of art with philanthropy. Visiting South America as a representative for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he noticed the severe inequality in the region and launched the Venezuelan Basic Economy Corporation. This philanthropic mission won him his first job in politics as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In this position, he proposed new legislation and improved relations between the US and South America.

Nelson Rockefeller’s Latin American Mission

Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican supporter, was an admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During World War II, Rockefeller’s position as the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) grew in importance. He led the effort to establish democracy and capitalism in Latin America, advocating for foreign aid packages, public health campaigns, and foreign investment. Despite adversity, including the U.N.’s formation and Washington’s lack of interest in aiding South America, Rockefeller fought hard to secure a regional peace treaty and a place for Argentina in the U.N.

Nelson Rockefeller’s South American Connection

After Harry Truman became president, Nelson Rockefeller was out of a job but managed to establish the American International Association for Economic and Social Development (AIA) to counter the rise of Marxism in South America. He also formed a for-profit extension called the International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC) to fund the charity. Through the AIA, Nelson was able to successfully halt a cholera outbreak among Brazilian hogs and helped farmers increase their yields. However, IBEC took over a decade to turn any profit, and the AIA could not overcome the complicated and dangerous political climate in South America. Despite the difficulties, Nelson Rockefeller was able to stay connected to South America and continue his philanthropic work.

Nelson Rockefeller’s UN Quest

Nelson Rockefeller’s determination and political power made New York City the home of the United Nations in 1946, and he later became a crucial figure in international politics.

Nelson Rockefeller was frustrated with the problems he faced in his philanthropic work, but his political power shined when he received a tip in 1946 that New York City was in the running to headquarter the United Nations. Rockefeller found this challenge invigorating and determined to be the man to solve it. Together with his partner, Wally Harrison, Rockefeller drew up plans for the UN building and secured a location in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay through some wheeling and dealing. With the deal nearly closed, he convinced his father to pay $8 million for the land, sealing the deal and securing the UN for New York City.

Rockefeller’s efforts not only pleased many New Yorkers, but they increased his popularity in the city. However, he was still hoping to get back into international politics, and when the Korean War broke out in 1950, he found just such an opportunity. His political power helped put a good face on capitalism, and Truman gave him a job on the International Development Advisory Board. In this respect, Rockefeller became instrumental in creating Partners in Progress, an initiative that improved job training, education, and public health in underdeveloped nations, while promoting free trade and foreign investment. Rockefeller’s determination and political power not only earned New York City the home of the United Nations, but it also made him a vital figure in international politics.

Nelson Rockefeller’s Political Journey

Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, gradually watched the party shift further away from progress, which created disagreements during Eisenhower’s administration. Despite the tension, he remained loyal to the Republican Party and became the Undersecretary in the newly founded Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In this role, he proposed progressive changes but was unable to implement them due to the party’s focus on smaller government. This led to his resignation. However, he was authorized to conduct the Special Studies Project, which gathered brilliant minds to discuss politics, business and defense, as well as improving the federal government and military. Future presidents would use many of the ideas arising from the project.

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