climate change

The Rockefellers vs. the Company That Made Them Rockefellers

John D. Rockefeller once said that “God gave me my money,” much as He had given human beings dominion over the Earth, and though John D. couldn’t have known it then, the original sin of the Rockefeller family would be committed in 1863, when he opened his first oil refinery in Cleveland. Within a few decades, Standard Oil controlled more than 90 percent of petroleum production in the United States, and by the time of his death in 1937, God had given John D. a fortune that made him the richest man in the world.

As the 20th century wore on and John D.’s descendants converted the family’s oil money into a broader empire — building Rockefeller Center, becoming governors, senators, vice-presidents — the world began its fossil-fuel-induced march, with increasing speed, toward environmental disaster. Climate change wasn’t directly the Rockefellers’ fault, of course: The family more or less got out of the oil business in 1911, when the Supreme Court deemed Standard Oil too big to exist, splitting it into 34 companies, including two that became ExxonMobil. And if John D. hadn’t dug the wells, someone else would have. But as the 21st century dawned, it became impossible for younger Rockefellers to spend time at the family’s island estate in Maine without recognizing that the waves lapping closer and closer to their home were the result, at least in part, of their good fortune.

All of which is how ExxonMobil found itself in federal court this past November arguing that the Rockefellers were funding a conspiracy against it. Judge Valerie Caproni of the Southern District of New York was hearing the latest arguments in a legal battle that had begun more than two years prior, when members of the Rockefeller clan, in their latest attempt to pressure the erstwhile family business to deal with climate change, funded journalists who uncovered documents showing Exxon had known about the dangers of burning fossil fuels for decades while publicly denying it was much of a problem at all. The Rockefeller-backed reports had inspired multiple state attorneys general to investigate whether Exxon might be liable like tobacco companies that lied about the cancer risks of smoking had been.

“Didn’t Standard Oil grow up to be Exxon?” Caproni asked Justin Anderson, one of Exxon’s lawyers, after Anderson repeated Exxon’s conspiracy claim against the Rockefellers. “That’s ironic, don’t you think?”

“It’s disturbing, Judge,” Anderson said.

“No, it’s ironic — come on,” Caproni said.

“It could be both,” Anderson said. “Ironic and disturbing at the same time.”

“Fascinating,” Caproni said. “What happened to those Rockefellers?”

“Your Honor, what happened was they got on this bandwagon — ” Anderson said, before Caproni cut him off to interject: “They care whether subsequent Rockefellers can breathe.”

Twice a year, many of the 270 living descendants of John D. Rockefeller gather in New York for a family reunion. Attendance is nonmandatory and irregular — “Half of the 270 people I wouldn’t recognize,” said David Kaiser, one of John D.’s great-great-grandsons — and the activities range from the traditions of any family reunion (sharing baby photos, catching up) to the tasks required for maintaining one of America’s largest fortunes: debating, for instance, how to manage Kykuit, the family’s sprawling estate on the Hudson.

During the winter reunion in 2016, Kaiser stood at the front of a conference room at the Museum of Modern Art, which the family helped found. He was addressing a group of his relatives (uncles, cousins, his mom), some of whom wanted to air their grievances about an article detailing the climate allegations against Exxon that Kaiser had recently published in the New York Review of Books. Not every family member was thrilled with their sudden collective position as anti-Exxon crusaders. For one thing, a significant portion of the family’s wealth is still tied up in Exxon stock. “If Exxon’s stock price suffers, the whole family will lose money,” Kaiser said.

While the Rockefellers have been overtaken by more modern fortunes, they remain America’s 23rd-richest family, tied with the Butts (Texas grocers) and one spot ahead of the Gallos (booze and cheese). For decades, Rockefellers have inhabited the most powerful circles of American society: John D.’s grandsons included Winthrop, a governor of Arkansas; David, the CEO of Chase; and Nelson, who was Gerald Ford’s vice-president. “The members of that generation were the ultimate insiders,” said Lee Wasserman, who runs the Rockefeller Family Fund. “They were able to sit down with any world leader they wanted.”

Today’s Rockefellers have comfortable nest eggs but relatively little of their ancestors’ backroom influence. David Rockefeller, his generation’s last surviving member, died in 2017, and Jay Rockefeller, who served as West Virginia’s senator for 30 years, retired in 2015, leaving behind descendants who are academics, aspiring novelists, digital marketers, green architects, couture equestrianwear designers, and the owners of hip clothing stores in Minnesota. (In 2008, The Wall Street Journal reported that newer branches of the sprawling family tree would be unlikely to live solely off their ever-smaller slices of the Rockefeller trust.) If the Rockefellers have a modern means of exerting influence, it is primarily through their web of philanthropies: the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the country’s largest private charities; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, named for John D.
Jr.’s five sons — “There was also a sister, but times were different back then,” Wasserman said — and the Family Fund, which the brothers created to encourage their children’s philanthropy.

America’s business titans have a tradition of turning, late in life, to charity. Andrew Carnegie gave away nearly 90 percent of his fortune, and Henry Ford left much of his to an eponymous foundation, which now has an endowment of $12 billion. But it is rare for an American dynasty to confront the source of its wealth. The Sacklers, for instance, recently passed the Rockefellers on the Forbes list of the country’s wealthiest families, thanks to profits from OxyContin, now one of America’s most abused drugs. They have donated many millions of dollars to museums, universities, and other institutions but have given next to nothing to combating the opioid epidemic.

The Rockefellers, however, have long been interested in environmental issues. The Family Fund, in particular, “came of age at a time when there was considerable tumult in society, and the interests of the cousins were those kinds of issues — the environment, economic justice for women, corporate accountability,” said Wasserman, who is not a Rockefeller. Many of the family’s newer members have adopted the wealthy liberal’s preferred mix of safely progressive causes combined with a mild embarrassment at their inherited affluence: Several told me how much easier life was for those who had married out of the family name. When I asked Kaiser, the Family Fund’s current board president, how much of the family’s environmentalism stemmed from guilt, he demurred. “I always think it’s sort of embarrassing when people talk about how proud they are of their great-great-grandfather,” he said. “I don’t think I get any credit for the good things he did. I also don’t think I deserve any blame for any of the bad things.” But others pointed out that, guilty or not, there was an element of atonement. “There’s something about the moral imperative of what we’re doing — or trying to ‘undo,’ ” Peter Case, another of John D.’s great-great-grandsons, told me. “I mean, what would you do?”

Rex Tillerson and Lee Raymond in 2005. Photo: Donna McWilliam/AP Photo

The Rockefellers’ campaign against Exxon began in 2003, when Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, an economist at Tufts and John D.’s great-granddaughter, co-sponsored a resolution at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company study climate change’s impact on its business. Investor activism was unusually plebeian for a Rockefeller — Goodwin’s father, David Rockefeller, told her it was “mostly carried out by nuts” — and the resolution failed. But a year later, Goodwin and several other family members secured a meeting at Rockefeller Center with Exxon’s head of investor relations. “We wanted to say, ‘There’s a crisis building, and you’re part of it,’ ” Goodwin told me. The Exxon employees seemed surprised, she said, and responded by saying, “I guess our PR folks should be fired.”

In 2006, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s former CEO, invited David Rockefeller, who remained one of the most influential people in New York finance, to lunch with Rex Tillerson, who was taking over Raymond’s job. Rockefeller had become concerned about climate change and asked that his daughter join them. Goodwin told me Raymond’s staff initially objected on the grounds that “Tillerson didn’t need to be subjected to that kind of thing,” but her father insisted, and the foursome met at a seafood restaurant looking out on the Rockefeller Center skating rink. (At Exxon’s Texas headquarters, Raymond and Tillerson often ate in the company’s Rockefeller Room.) Goodwin said she “was told to behave myself and not say much,” but she managed to ask why the company wasn’t investing more in alternative energy. “We tried that, and it didn’t work,” Raymond said. According to Goodwin, Tillerson largely deferred to Raymond.

The following year, Exxon earned the largest profit in American corporate history — $40.61 billion — but the 2006 release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had also served as a galvanizing moment for the environmental movement. During a meeting at the family’s summer reunion at Kykuit, in a building decorated with portraits of their ancestors, a dozen Rockefellers agreed to take on Exxon in public. In 2008, Goodwin and several others held a press conference at the Parker Meridien Hotel to announce they were sponsoring three climate-change-related shareholder resolutions. “ExxonMobil needs to reconnect with the forward-looking and entrepreneurial vision of my great-grandfather,” Goodwin said at the time, encouraging Exxon to pursue wind and solar energy just as John D. had embraced the shift from whale oil to petroleum. It was a relatively buttoned-up moment in the annals of activism — “These are people who were bred not to raise their voices too forcefully in public,” Daniel Gross wrote in Slate, reviewing the press conference — and the resolutions were soundly defeated. The effort prompted a Wall Street Journal columnist to ask, “Do the Rockefellers still matter?”

A number of family members signed letters urging Tillerson to take action on climate change, but the company’s response to one letter, Goodwin said, was, roughly, “If you don’t like the company, sell your stock.” Exxon — currently valued at $367 billion — had grown so large that, during the shareholder battle, Exxon said that the dissenting family members owned just .006 percent of its shares. Those Rockefellers who tried to sell their stock found that much of it was tied up in a trust whose managers rejected requests to divest. When the Brothers Fund considered divesting from Exxon in favor of renewable-energy stocks, which it eventually did, some board members expressed concern about diminishing returns.

Meanwhile, the Family Fund had begun pursuing “a project that seemed potentially interesting but might not go anywhere,” Kaiser said. In 2013, Wasserman met with Steve Coll, the dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, who had published a book called Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. As they discussed the fund’s possible endowment of a reporting project on climate change, Coll said one topic from his book that had gone uninvestigated was the suggestion that what Exxon knew about climate change internally did not fit with its public proclamations. “Don’t believe for a minute that ExxonMobil doesn’t think climate change is real,” a former Exxon manager had told Coll.

The Family Fund gave Columbia $550,000 to look into the topic. Around the same time, InsideClimate News, a website that covers the environment and receives significant funding from the Brothers Fund, began a similar investigation. Both sets of journalists say they initially looked into a number of fossil-fuel companies but it quickly became clear that Exxon had not only done the most robust climate research but had also sown doubt about climate change. When Coll gave an update to the Family Fund, he warned it that the soon-to-be published investigation would likely focus on Exxon.

So what did Exxon know? “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon-dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” James Black, an Exxon scientist, told company executives in 1977. “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” Five years later, an internal report declared that without “major reductions in fossil fuel combustion,” a number of “potentially catastrophic” events, such as the eventual flooding of “much of the US East Coast, including the State of Florida and Washington D.C.,” could occur. The changes wouldn’t come for decades, the report said, but “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

The journalistic investigations, published in late 2015 by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, which collaborated with Columbia, made it clear that while Exxon’s scientists acknowledged the inherent uncertainty in predicting the future, they said that the scientific community had reached consensus and that Exxon had an “ethical responsibility” to study the problem and make its findings public. The company seemed to agree, spending $1 million in 1979 to outfit a supertanker with equipment to analyze carbon-dioxide levels along the ship’s route between the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico.

It wasn’t surprising to find that Exxon, which employs some 16,000 scientists and engineers, was an early climate-research leader. “They have astrophysicists on their payroll, for Chrissakes,” Kaiser said. What was surprising, and helpful to the journalists, was that some former Exxon employees turned out to be pack rats and had kept copies of decades-old reports. An early break came when InsideClimate News spoke to Mike MacCracken, a former government scientist whose great-grandfather, coincidentally, was John D. Rockefeller’s legal counsel. (“We still have the silver tea set he gave my great-grandfather,” MacCracken told me.) MacCracken had worked with Exxon in the 1980s and ’90s and said its research was among the best, citing a 1985 report that concluded that the Earth would warm two to five degrees Celsius by 2100. “That’s exactly what we’d say today,” MacCracken said.

By the late ’80s, the rest of the world had begun to grasp the problem; for 1988, Time named the “Endangered Earth” its second-ever nonhuman “Person of the Year,” after “The Computer.” By then, Exxon and other fossil-fuel companies had begun factoring climate change into their business decisions. “We considered climate change in a number of operational and planning issues,” Brian Flannery, Exxon’s in-house climate adviser at the time, told the Columbia reporters. In 1989, Shell raised a natural-gas platform in the North Sea by several feet to accommodate rising sea levels, while engineers designing a pipeline owned by several companies, including Exxon, said they would have to account for the “considerable increase of the frequency of storms as a result of climate change.” A researcher at an Exxon subsidiary even argued that climate change offered a silver lining as the company looked for oil in the Arctic: “Potential global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs.”

What Exxon knew in 1982: The company’s scientists predicted dire effects from climate change.

Publicly, however, Exxon was working to cloud the debate. In 1988, an Exxon spokesperson wrote a memo arguing the company should “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions.” In the decades to come, Exxon gave millions to groups that denied climate change, including the American Petroleum Institute, which waged a $6 million public-relations battle in the late ’90s against the Kyoto Protocol, one of the world’s first attempts to deal with the issue. “Victory will be achieved when: average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” and when “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom,’ ” one memo read. The strategy echoed one promoted by a tobacco executive in 1969: “Doubt is our product.”

Lee Raymond, Exxon’s CEO at the time, was a devout believer in fossil fuels. He once suggested carving the words “Crude Oil” into stone at company headquarters, and shut down Exxon’s early efforts in renewable energy, which he saw as acquiescence to environmentalists in Washington. “Presidents come and go,” Raymond told Steve Coll. “Exxon doesn’t.” In public, Raymond pressed the case that climate science was far from settled. “Many people — politicians and the public alike — believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty. But it’s not,” he said in 1997. In 2000, as the world considered the Kyoto Protocol, Raymond put up a slide at Exxon’s shareholder meeting showing a widely circulated list purporting to include thousands of scientists who had signed a petition questioning the climate consensus — a list that included several Star Wars characters and a Spice Girl. A year later, the Bush administration abandoned Kyoto.

The Rockefeller-funded articles sent climate activists into a frenzy. Bill McKibben, the writer and environmentalist, was arrested while protesting at an Exxon gas station with a sign that read, THIS PUMP TEMPORARILY CLOSED BECAUSE EXXONMOBIL LIED ABOUT (#EXXONKNEW) CLIMATE. A hashtag was born, and activists tried naming a melting Antarctic iceberg “Exxon Knew 1” and brought a 13-foot “Exxon Knew” ice sculpture to the company’s shareholder meeting. For the Rockefellers who had taken a risk with the grant, the results were validating. “It proved the whole debate over climate change was a phony construct from the beginning,” Wasserman said.

Exxon, meanwhile, struggled to come up with a defense. The company sent a letter to Columbia, accusing its journalists of cherry-picking documents, to which Coll responded with a six-page letter defending the reporters and pointing out that Exxon didn’t seem to be challenging any facts. (The journalists suffered cyberattacks after their stories were published but weren’t able to determine who was responsible.) During a Fox Business appearance, Tillerson punted on a question about the controversy — “I’m not sure how helpful it would be to talk about it” — just as he did later, during his confirmation hearing as nominee for secretary of State.

By spring, Exxon had decided to play the victim. “We all sat around the table and said, ‘This feels very orchestrated,’ ” Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice-president of public and government affairs, told Bloomberg in 2016. Exxon cited a meeting between various environmental groups at offices shared by the Brothers Fund and the Family Fund; one participant had sent an email with possible discussion topics, including how “to establish in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm.” When the Family Fund announced it was divesting from Exxon as a result of the company’s “morally reprehensible” behavior, Exxon responded, “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”

There was, of course, precedent for condemning the Rockefellers as shadowy puppet masters. The Trilateral Commission, which David Rockefeller founded in 1973 to connect nongovernmental organizations in different countries, has long been a central node in any conspiracy theorist’s map of the globalist power structure. David Rockefeller never completely rejected the accusation — “Conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure — one world, if you will. If that’s the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it,” he wrote in his memoir — and his descendants did not deny having coordinated their efforts to bring Exxon to task. They simply disagreed with the idea that they had done anything wrong. “We’re getting creamed by the right, and Exxon, for doing nothing but associating with other civic associations to try to address larger societal problems,” Wasserman said. “They are attacking behavior that is pretty central to what this country is about.”

Kaiser expected Exxon to go after the family but was surprised by the ferocity of the attack. “There’s not a giant appetite for being the next name after Soros in all these right-wing screeds,” Kaiser said. A writer for Natural Gas Now, one of numerous pro-oil sites that began denouncing the family, declared, “It’s time to RICO the Rockefellers.” (“This guy from Daily Caller writes about us every other day,” Wasserman said.) Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas, filed subpoenas against the Rockefeller funds and various environmental groups alleging they were attempting to “deprive” Exxon of its First Amendment rights. When Kaiser went on an NPR call-in show alongside an Exxon spokesman who dismissed the allegations as “so-called journalism that was hired and paid for by two Rockefeller organizations,” Kaiser took a call from Tony in Michigan, who identified himself as “somewhat of a skeptic” about climate change. “I feel that the taxes and all the things that happen because of the so-called climate-change crowd affect a small person like myself as opposed to Mr. Rockefeller,” Tony said, referring to Kaiser. “I would just like to ask Mr. Rockefeller how he gets around the country and the world — is it one of his family’s many private jets or private yachts?” Kaiser replied that he flies commercial — “economy, by the way” — and that every family, including his, could do more.

The Rockefellers themselves are not uniform in their views. There are conservative and liberal Rockefellers. Some still work in the fossil-fuel business. Ariana Rockefeller, a 35-year-old competitive equestrian rider who runs an eponymous fashion brand, called the campaign by her relatives “deeply misguided,” and told CBS, “I don’t think denouncing a family legacy is the best way to go about doing this.”

Kaiser would not admit to any significant familial tension — “Ari and I just disagree about this” — and the Rockefellers I spoke to were generally just as committed to a patrician sense of discretion as they were to the environment. Whenever I asked about intrafamily conflict, Kaiser would pause, then speak at a pace that would make any lawyer proud. He was nervous enough about the family reaction to his NYRB piece that he warned some relatives about its impending publication and asked the NYRB not to title it “The Rockefellers v. Exxon.” During the discussion at MoMA, several relatives objected to the Exxon campaign on ideological grounds, while others said they simply didn’t like seeing the family name in the news. But Kaiser declined to say which of his uncles and cousins thought what. “We had a very civil conversation,” he said. “And nobody persuaded anybody of anything.”

In 2015, Lee Wasserman met with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s office to discuss whether Exxon’s alleged climate deception might have violated the Martin Act, a wide-ranging New York State securities law that prohibits “all deceitful practices contrary to the plain rules of common honesty.” Schneiderman was already pursuing similar claims against Peabody Energy, the world’s largest public coal company, and shortly after the Exxon articles were published, Schneiderman announced he would investigate whether Exxon had defrauded its shareholders, and the public, by denying the impact of climate change.

Exxon has since devoted considerable effort to delaying that process. As attorneys in Schneiderman’s office made their way through Exxon’s subpoenaed emails, they found an address with the name “Wayne Tracker,” which they discovered was an alias used by Tillerson. Exxon had not turned over all emails from the account, and an attorney for the company said that it would be “an interesting test of whether the attorney general’s office is reading the documents.” (Exxon says that many emails from the account cannot be found.) The company also sued Schneiderman and Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, who had launched an inquiry, arguing that their investigations were politically motivated. Exxon filed the suit in Texas, where Judge Ed Kinkeade wondered aloud whether New York and Massachusetts would be so worried about climate change if they had as much oil as Texas. “I’m just saying, think about it,” Kinkeade said. (Kinkeade eventually acknowledged he didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the suit and sent it to Judge Caproni.) In the meantime, 11 Republican state attorneys general filed a brief questioning the AGs’ right to conduct the investigation — and thus their own ability to conduct similar investigations — by arguing that they “falsely presume that the scientific debate regarding climate change is settled” and that, “regardless of what one believes about global warming and climate change, no one’s views should be silenced.”

The First Amendment claim was a curious one for Exxon, in part because its official position on climate change has shifted. The company’s spokespeople routinely respond to questions about its climate record by noting that, today, “ExxonMobil acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action.” When Tillerson became CEO in 2006, other fossil-fuel companies had begun acknowledging the problem — British Petroleum changed its name to BP, for “beyond petroleum” — and Tillerson created a task force to reconsider the company’s position. In 2007, Exxon promised to stop funding climate-change deniers, and just before Barack Obama’s inauguration, Tillerson announced his support for a carbon tax. The shift was more of a strategic adjustment to new realities than a sincere change of heart: The Obama administration was pushing a cap-and-trade system that would have tackled the issue more aggressively than a carbon tax, and some observers believe Exxon’s carbon-tax campaign helped scuttle the administration’s plan. The change also appeared to have a more practical rationale: According to Coll, Exxon had begun to realize that its climate position “might do shareholders real damage, in ways comparable to the fate of tobacco companies,” and that “if ExxonMobil were ever judged in a courtroom to be cooking science, it could be devastating.”

Proving Exxon’s legal culpability remains a difficult task, and veterans of the tobacco litigation, which produced more than $200 billion in settlements, point out that it took many years for incriminating documents to emerge and the legal process to play out. Exxon’s lawsuit against the AGs remains in front of Judge Caproni, and there is no saying when a trial might begin, if ever. But the Rockefeller-funded journalistic investigations have helped open the door to a range of litigation. Several coastal cities in California, including San Francisco and Oakland, have sued Exxon and other fossil-fuel companies over the costs of adapting to rising seas, and the SEC launched an investigation into whether Exxon has improperly valued what have come to be known as “stranded assets” — oil reserves that companies count as potential profit on their books but that may go unused if the world makes a serious effort to regulate fossil fuels. In January 2017, Exxon wrote down more than $2 billion in such assets, and the company seems nervous enough about potential lawsuits that when it recently renewed its support for a carbon tax, it backed a plan that would also protect it from liability in climate litigation.

In May, Exxon’s shareholders approved a resolution, for the first time, demanding the company prepare a report on the impact of climate change on its business. (An equal-pay resolution got just 8 percent of the vote.) Neva Goodwin, who led the Rockefellers’ early shareholder efforts, said she had largely lost faith in the strategy but that things had changed when major financial institutions like BlackRock and Vanguard expressed their concern about stranded assets. Bob Litterman, a former head of risk management at Goldman Sachs, told me that he had helped the World Wildlife Fund make what he called a “stranded-asset total-return swap” as part of its endowment strategy, essentially betting against companies with potentially stranded assets, like Exxon, which is one of the swap’s largest positions. So far, it has returned a 64 percent profit.

When I met David Kaiser for coffee in the fall, his family had come under attack again, this time for sponsoring two Harvard researchers’ analysis of Exxon’s claim that the journalists had “cherry-picked” documents. The academics rejected Exxon’s assertion, but the company’s supporters quickly dismissed the report as part of “the Rockefeller Family Fund cabal,” and Exxon accused the Rockefellers of seeking “reparations.” Kaiser admitted as much — adapting to climate change will cost trillions, and someone will have to pay for it — but insisted he and his relatives weren’t interested in destroying the family business. “I would be delighted if ExxonMobil was able to stick around, but looking very different,” he said, citing renewable energy as a way forward.

But Kaiser said he believed the most good would come from Exxon admitting that its history of climate denial had been disingenuous all along. A recent study found that Republicans identify with Exxon more than any other brand — Democrats see themselves most in Starbucks — but climate change had not always been partisan. “It’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about,” George H.W. Bush said, urging action on global warming in 1988. In Kaiser’s view, Exxon had turned it into a divisive issue and was now uniquely positioned to undo that damage. “I would like to see Exxon come clean and admit to the public what they’ve done,” Kaiser said.

What the Rockefellers hoped, in essence, was to push Exxon toward the light, just as their own family came to understand the various ill effects of its success. In the early 1900s, Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles in McClure’s magazine lambasting John D. Rockefeller’s business practices:

Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner for the kind of influence [Rockefeller] exercises. From him we have received no impulse to public duty, only lessons in evading it for private greed; no stimulus to nobler ideals, only a lesson in the further deification of gold …

Over time, the family took such criticism to heart. After the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which two dozen workers were killed during a strike at a Rockefeller-owned mine, John D. Jr. tried to improve relations with workers. His son John D. III later wrote his college thesis on the topic and said his father’s efforts hadn’t gone far enough. And in 1932, five years before his death, John D. himself acknowledged the fortune God had given him would require amends. “As a nation,” Rockefeller said, “looking proudly to our past where it has been noble, and recognizing with humility our mistakes of extravagance, selfishness, and indifference, let us with faith in God, in ourselves, and in humanity, go forward courageously resolved to play our part in worthily building a better world.”

*This article appears in the January 8, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

The Rockefellers vs. Exxon, the Company That Made Them