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Rescuing the World

The Life and Times of Leo Cherne

Andrew F. Smith, Henry A. Kissinger

Publication Year: 2002

Leo Cherne’s life brimmed with paradox and improbability. He was born in the Bronx to a poor, immigrant, Jewish family, and yet rose to the heights of economic and political power in WASP America. A successful entrepreneur and an unofficial advisor to nine presidents, he nevertheless devoted the majority of his time to humanitarian causes, particularly the International Rescue Committee, which he chaired for forty years. From Hungary to Cuba to Cambodia, Cherne traveled across the globe on behalf of political refugees. A consummate networker, he also had the uncanny ability to attract and cultivate talented people before they became prominent, including such figures as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Patrick Moynihan, Claiborne Pell, Tom Dooley, William Casey, John Whitehead, and Henry A. Kissinger. He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 by Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed that although never elected to governmental office, Leo Cherne had more influence on American foreign policy than most elected officials. The underlying theme of his life was that one person, without family contacts or wealthy connections, could make a difference worldwide in political and humanitarian affairs.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title page, Copyright page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

In the Jewish religion, it is said that at any one point in time, God preserves the world because there exist ten just men who, without claiming themselves that they are just, give Him a motive for leaving the world intact. Leo Cherne was surely one of those ten just men. ...

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Introduction [Includes A Note on Sources and Acknowledgments]

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pp. xi-xvi

I first met Leo Cherne in May 1998. I had heard about him for years, but our paths had not crossed. This meeting had been arranged by John Richardson, a mutual friend, who had confided that Cherne had wanted for years to write his autobiography and needed advice. ...

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Chapter 1: Setting the Stage

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pp. 1-15

America is a land populated by successive waves of diverse peoples. Some migrated in prehistoric times; some arrived in chains and slavery; others came as indentured servants and prisoners; but most emigrated because they chose to enjoy religious freedom, escape from somewhere or someone, or seek their fortunes in a new world. ...

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Chapter 2: Researching America

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pp. 17-31

A few weeks after the Luciano verdict in late 1935, Charles Siegel, a law clerk at Blau, Perlman and Polokov, brought to Cherne’s attention an advertisement in the New York Law Journal seeking a lawyer familiar with Social Security laws to work on unemployment insurance legislation. ...

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Chapter 3: Rescuing the Postwar World

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pp. 33-52

By February 1945, the defeat of Germany was imminent. The three major Allied leaders—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Yalta to shape postwar Europe. With the unconditional surrender of Germany in May 1945, the victors carried out their agreement to divide the country into four zones of occupation...

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Chapter 4: Combusting Spontaneously

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pp. 53-76

Soviet military forces occupied Hungary at the end of World War II. Stalin imposed a coalition government on Hungary at first, but in 1948, he installed Matyas Rakosi, a savage Communist dictator. The Soviet Union assisted Rakosi in developing a totalitarian state with a large Hungarian army supported by a powerful secret police force, the AVO (State Defense Section). ...

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Chapter 5: Uncovering Communists

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pp. 77-88

Before World War II, the Depression had shaken many Americans’ faith in capitalism. Socialist, Communist, and other radical philosophies spread across the United States as numerous programs devised by the New Deal failed to improve the nation’s economy. ...

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Chapter 6: Lobbying for Indochina

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pp. 89-111

After Germany defeated France in 1940, Japan occupied French Indochina. When the United States entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, supported small groups of underground and exiled nationalists fighting Japanese occupation. ...

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Chapter 7: Confronting Genocide

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pp. 113-132

As the last American helicopter lifted off from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975, about 130,000 refugees were in motion, fleeing any way they could. Those who left Indochina in 1975 were brought to military bases in Guam, the Philippines, and the United States, and most were resettled in the United States. ...

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Chapter 8: Sculpting the World

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pp. 133-146

After singing at the Metropolitan Opera as a child, Cherne rebelled against classical music for a time. He talked his parents into allowing him to attend a jazz school on 125th Street that taught popular music for twenty-five cents a lesson. During this time, his parents also arranged for him to take piano lessons. ...

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Chapter 9: Ransoming Prisoners

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pp. 147-155

Havana was the first foreign city Cherne ever visited. In 1927, at the age of fifteen, he had enlisted as an ordinary seaman on a tramp steamer transporting cargo and passengers between New York and the Caribbean. Thirty years later, he still remembered his first glimpse of Havana: the stark white buildings in the bright sunshine, and the incredible heat in summer. ...

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Chapter 10: Guiding Intelligence

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pp. 157-170

Leo Cherne was not an admirer of Richard Nixon. Before Nixon became vice president, Cherne and Roy Wilkins had debated him on the radio program “On the Hot Seat.” After the program, Cherne was invited to join Nixon at Wilkins’s Manhattan apartment. ...

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Chapter 11: The Falling Curtain

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pp. 171-178

Throughout most of his adult life, Cherne worked full-time at the Research Institute of America. The Institute was a privately owned corporation, with Carl Hovgard the majority stockholder, and Cherne plus another employee minority stockholders. In 1964, the owners sold the Institute to the Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company in Buffalo. ...


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pp. 179-206

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 207-214


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pp. 215-223

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780791488546
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791453797
Print-ISBN-10: 0791453790

Page Count: 223
Illustrations: 42 b/w photographs
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • International Rescue Committee -- History.
  • Cherne, Leo, 1912-.
  • Human rights workers -- Biography.
  • Human services personnel -- Biography.
  • Refugees -- Services for.
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