Owen D. Young

Owen D. Young
Owen D. Young, lawyer, industrialist, political adviser, and diplomat, was born Oct. 27, 1874, in Van Hornesville, N.Y., the son of Jacob Smith Young and Ida Brandow. The family's eighty-acre farm provided an adequate living. Young's early life was typical for a nineteenth-century farm boy, with daily work in the fields and education at a one-room schoolhouse and the nearby East Springfield Academy.

Young enrolled at St. Lawrence University (B.A., 1894), where he was a first-rate student and a campus leader. He intended to enter Harvard Law School, but was discouraged by the authorities when he announced that he intended to work part-time. He therefore attended Boston University Law School, from which he graduated in 1896. The same year he entered the law practice of Charles Tyler in Boston. For the next seven years he also taught night classes at Boston University. On June 30, 1898, he married Josephine Sheldon Edmonds. They had five children.

After he became Tyler's partner in 1907, an increasing part of Young's work involved the firm of Stone and Webster, an important company in the electrical industry. This work brought him to the attention of Charles Coffin, the head of the General Electric Company (GE), who convinced him to join that firm as general counsel and vice-president in 1913.

At GE, Young's tasks were to deal with labor problems and to settle patent disputes with competitors in the industry. During World War I he negotiated a settlement of a strike at GE's Lynn, Mass., plant, the last major labor disturbance during his tenure with the company. He dealt with the patent disputes by speeding licensing, cross licensing, and the exchange of patents between electrical companies. Young took an increasing interest in bettering industrial relations within the company and improving GE's image with the public. He was one of the first American industrialists to recognize the need for greater attention to these two areas of corporate life. He served on President Woodrow Wilson's National Industrial Conference in 1919 and 1920 and President Warren Harding's Unemployment Conference of 1921.

In 1919, Young, with the cooperation of the American government and the support of GE, organized and became chairman of the board of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The formation of RCA came about as a result of an attempt by the British Marconi Wireless Company to secure exclusive rights to GE's Alexanderson alternator, a radio sending device that revolutionized long-distance wireless communication. Rear Admiral W. H. G. Bullard, representing the U.S. Navy, persuaded Young and GE to discontinue negotiations with British Marconi and form a company powerful enough to meet British competition. Young then founded RCA and negotiated a series of agreements pooling the radio technology of major American companies and dividing the radio equipment and transmission business.

In subsequent years he engineered a series of agreements with foreign companies that divided the world into radio zones and facilitated worldwide wireless communication. The United States became a leader in the field of radio communication, and RCA controlled virtually all radio traffic in the western hemisphere. Young believed that international radio service and broadcasting were important forces for the advancement of civilization and world peace.

In the mid-1920's Young was instrumental in the founding of the National Broadcasting Company, which became a leader in American radio. When a federal court order in 1933 forced him to give up the chairmanship of either RCA or GE, he chose to stay with GE. Leaving RCA was one of the greatest disappointments in his business career.

In 1922, Young became chairman of the board of GE. Partially through Young's influence, Gerard Swope was named president of the corporation. The two men served in their respective posts until 1939 and formed one of the most brilliant and progressive business teams in American corporate history. They fostered labor-management cooperation, improved GE's public image, and increased the firm's production and sales. As advocates of the "new capitalism," they urged closer business-government cooperation and corporate self-regulation under government supervision. In the field of labor relations, the team introduced a plan for profit-sharing, a pension and life-insurance system, and a scheme to provide unemployment insurance for GE employees. Although not all of these plans succeeded, GE's labor relations during the Young-Swope era were generally amicable. As a frequent public speaker and member of many prestigious business organizations, Young established himself as one of the foremost spokesmen of the new capitalism.

Young and Swope transformed GE into a firm strictly concerned with engineering and the production of electrical equipment. Beginning in 1924, they sold GE's utility holdings. The voluntary nature of this divestiture was in keeping with their view that business should be as self-regulating as possible. Another dramatic change at GE during the 1920's and 1930's was the increased emphasis on the production and sale of consumer goods. The firm had been primarily a supplier of capital goods. Young and Swope put it into the larger electrical appliance field. By 1940 the production of consumer goods accounted for about half of GE's output. Its concentration on the appliance market made the firm a household name and further improved its public image. At the end of the Young-Swope period at GE, the firm employed 67,000 people and did about one-quarter of the nation's electrical business.

During the 1920's, Young became involved in international diplomacy. He was a major spokesman for the Democratic party in foreign affairs. In response to the breakdown of reparations payments and the subsequent collapse of the German economy in 1923, the Allied Reparations Commission appointed two committees of experts to devise a plan to reconstruct Germany's economy and to propose a new formula for the payment of reparations. At Hughes's suggestion, Young and Charles Dawes, a Chicago banker, were appointed to the first committee in December 1923. In early 1924 this group constructed the Dawes Plan. Young was its chief architect and the leader of the American delegation at the Paris meetings of the First Expert Committee.

Drawing upon his business experience, Young skillfully constructed the plan by balancing the various interests at the conference and steering the plan through the committees. The Dawes Plan set forth a formula for the restoration and stabilization of German finances, a temporary solution to the problem of transferring reparations that greatly reduced the yearly payments, and a proposal to raise an international loan for Germany. The reparations experts unanimously accepted the plan on Apr. 9, 1924.

At the London Conference (July-August 1924), Young worked behind the scenes to negotiate a series of compromises that led to the acceptance of the Dawes Plan by the interested governments. He remained in Europe to iron out details and to convince skeptical American bankers to underwrite a sizable loan for Germany. Young was chosen interim agent general for reparations, a post that made him virtually a receiver for the German government. During his short tenure he put the complex Dawes Plan machinery in motion. Later in the fall of 1924, he relinquished the position to Seymour Parker Gilbert, convinced that there was now a "new spirit determined to restore tranquility in Western Europe."

The Dawes Plan helped to restore prosperity in Europe, and created a climate for greater political cooperation among the major powers. But it was only a temporary solution to the reparations problem. The massive influx of private loans into Germany was undermining it. By late 1928, European and American leaders were seeking a final reparations settlement.

Young was appointed chairman of the Second Expert Commission on Reparations on Feb. 9, 1929. He brought the opposing sides together by convincing them, according to Ida Tarbell, that "any settlement was infinitely better than no settlement--'too dear to take, yet too cheap to leave.'" The resulting Young Plan (June 7, 1929) reduced German reparations payments, restricted them to fifty-nine years, and unofficially linked them to the Allied war debts owed to the United States. It also withdrew all economic control agencies from Germany and paved the way for the termination of Allied military occupation of the Rhineland.

Perhaps the most creative feature of the Young Plan was the creation of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). As a bank for central bankers under business control, the BIS could serve as a clearinghouse for international accounts, facilitate the movement of exchange between central banks, and solve problems inherent in the gold exchange system. Young hoped that the BIS would take the reparations problem out of the sphere of politics and allow business leaders to make the decisions that would eventually eliminate all governmental indebtedness associated with World War I. He believed that the creation of the bank might be "the most construtive job done in our generation."

The Young Plan and the BIS went into operation in May 1930. But the Great Depression soon made the plan unworkable. Although the BIS survived, it was unable to prevent the collapse of the international banking structure.

During the early years of the Great Depression, Young served on President Herbert Hoover's Organization on Unemployment Relief. But he became increasingly impatient with Hoover's resistance to recovery measures he thought important, including federal assistance for the unemployed. In 1932 it was widely speculated that Young would be a Democratic candidate for president, but--not least because of his wife's precarious health--he declined all overtures. He was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's close advisers during the 1932 campaign.

After Roosevelt's election, Young's relationship with the president-elect began to cool. Roosevelt apparently believed that Young's ties with Wall Street and the public utility industry would be a liability to his administration. Although Young was a candidate for secretary of state, Roosevelt chose Cordell Hull for the post.

Young took a guarded position on New Deal policies. He praised some programs, but criticized New Deal tendencies toward overcentralization and interference in the business sector. While privately deploring the adversary relationship with labor which the Wagner Act made probable, Young and Swope accepted philosophically the Congress of Industrial Organizations' successful organization of GE's factory workers, and no "sit-down" or other strikes ensued. As a member, and later chairman, of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (19231940), Young was highly critical of the Banking Act of 1935, which he believed might undermine the Federal Reserve System by centralizing too much power in Washington without the checks and balances of the local Federal Reserve banks.

Josephine Young died in 1935, and on Feb. 20, 1937, he married Louise Powis Clark. In 1939, Young retired from GE. After the United States entered World War II, he returned to GE as chairman (19421944). He was also chairman of the wartime American Youth Commission--youth being for him a major concern.

In 1947, Young served on President Harry S. Truman's Committee on Foreign Aid, which made recommendations on European relief and reconstruction under the Marshall Plan. The following year he was a member of the Hoover Commission, which studied the organization of the executive branch of government.

Throughout his life Young took a strong interest in education, giving numerous commencement addresses in which he exhorted graduates to appreciate the advantages of learning. As chairman of the New York Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University (1946), he helped to raise the question of the state university system above the realm of partisan politics. Owing in large part to Young's skills as a negotiator and administrator, the final report recommended one of the most far-reaching higher education systems in the nation.

During his last years Young spent much time tending his farm and a citrus grove in Florida. He died at St. Augustine, Fla.

text by John M. Carroll, Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965. American Council of Learned Societies, 1981.


An extensive collection of Young's papers is in the possession of the Van Hornesville Community Corporation, Van Hornesville, N.Y. A biography of Young is Ida M. Tarbell, Owen D. Young (1932). A full-length study is by Everett Case and Josephine Young Case, Owen D. Young and American Enterprise,, 1982. A biographical sketch, "Life of Owen D. Young," is in Fortune, Jan.-Mar. 1931. In the area of foreign policy, see Brady A. Hughes, "Owen D. Young and American Foreign Policy, 19191929" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969). On his work in reparations, see Stephen A. Shuker, The End of French Predominance in Europe (1976), and Melvyn P. Leffler, The Elusive Quest (1979). Frank C. Costigliola, "The Other Side of Isolationism," Journal of American History, Dec. 1972, discusses Young's contributions to the formation of the BIS. For Young's career at GE, see David Loth, Swope of GE (1958); and Kim McQuaid, "Young, Swope, and General Electric's 'New Capitalism,'" American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 1977, and "Competition, Cartelization and the Corporate Ethic," ibid., Oct. 1977. On the formation of RCA, see Michael J. Hogan, Informal Entente (1977).Also see Raymond Moley, After Seven Years (1972); and Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal (1973). An obituary is in the New York Times, July 12, 1962.