Chicago — Former Chicago advertising man Melvin Brorby has been a passionate supporter of more dialogue among nations for the better part of a lifetime. While a college student in the 1920s, he sat in with eager interest on League of Nations meetings in Geneva. He still considers it a tragic mistake that the United States did not join the League.
In the mid-1940s, when the United States did help found the United Nations, Mr. Brorby scouted out advertising experts to volunteer their skills and their organizations to produce and underwrite the cost of a series of congratulatory ads in Chicago newspapers.
Now, in his retirement years, Brorby's cause celebre has become an interest in building a better relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.
''Unless we stop the name calling, have some kind of speaking arrangement with the Russians, and begin to make some agreements and have a little confidence in each other, the risk of war will increase,'' he insists.
''This country is still scared to death of the word communism, even though there are all kinds of communism just as there are all kinds of capitalism. . . . The Russians have a tremendous inferiority complex. They aren't used to having power, and they're using it badly. . . . We have to learn how to treat them so they will moderate their views.''
His own views are admittedly strong for a one-time Iowan who grew up in the isolationist Midwest. His friends say that's part of what makes him such an interesting person to be around.
But caring about such issues himself has never been enough for this particular ad man, a former chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
Brorby has long considered it a vital part of his civic duty to encourage other citizens to take an interest in national and international problems and how they are resolved. Without more such interest and caring, he says, the American brand of democracy will not survive.''It's we who must make it work,'' he insists.''We must be better prepared.''
Thus, despite a demanding job as one of the founding partners of what is now Needham Harper Worldwide, Brorby has worked energetically over many decades to further the cause of citizen education. He has done it as a past president and board member of the 63-year-old Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR), now one of the largest and most successful such citizen groups in the US, offering members some 200 programs each year. And he has done it as a trustee of the Institute of International Education, which fosters student exchange programs, and of Wisconsin's Johnson Foundation.
As program committee chairman, he helped choose many of the topics (from US-German relations to the plight of the American Indian) for the Johnson Foundation's many conferences at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, red brick Wingspread Center near Racine, Wis. He also launched the public radio broadcasts of those discussions and the Wingspread Fellows program through which 400 top college students attended the conferences.
Brorby recently resigned from the foundation but remains an honorary trustee. ''I never intended to stay 23 years, but it combined all the things I was interested in and focused on all the things in the country that needed fixing.''
''Mel is a world citizen; he's made a real difference,'' says Marshall Shulman, director of Columbia University's W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union and a former consultant to the Johnson Foundation. ''I've just admired the way he as a private citizen has taken on civic obligations and made an effort to get people to pay attention to international problems.''
Professor Shulman, an eloquent spokesman on the need for improved relations with Moscow, was the guest speaker (at Brorby's request) at a recent Chicago Council on Foreign Relations dinner honoring the Chicago ad man a few days after his 90th birthday.
In an interview the morning after the dinner, Brorby recalled the days in the 1940s and 1950s when strong isolationist sentiment made the CCFR's educational mission and interest in international affairs appear downright suspect in the eyes of many Chicagoans. Conservative Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, through his newspaper, often took a dim view of the council's program efforts, once accusing it of having the ''blood of Korea'' on its hands. That atmosphere, notes Mr. Brorby, made it exceedingly tough to persuade any Chicago business leaders to support the Council. ''The important people in town were scared. They wouldn't join,'' he says.
Finally he hit on the idea of starting an exclusive Chicago committee to which only top leaders (and no substitutes) would be invited. He persuaded the Johnson Foundation to fund the group's first year of luncheon programs.
''We made it snobby and finally succeeded in breaking the ice to get the real power of Chicago involved. It was an important turning point,'' he recalls. The CCFR's membership began to grow - it now stands at 14,000 - and its assets increased significantly, says Brorby.
Brorby traces his strong conviction on international issues back to his college days. After two years at the University of Wisconsin, he served with the US Army in France during World War I. After the war he studied at Oxford, the University of Strasbourg, and the Sorbonne. Later, he and a friend visited the League of Nations in Geneva and traveled in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Then they spent close to a year in India.
When Brorby returned to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a bachelor's degree and Phi Beta Kappa key, he founded an Anglo-American club on the Madison campus. He says his interest in citizen education and close ties across the sea took off from there.
Any conversation with Melvin Brorby inevitably turns to US-Soviet relations and what he sees as the need for improvement. Introducing Professor Shulman at the dinner, Brorby described him as having ''the sanest point of view on the most serious problem facing this country.'' Brorby, always interested in getting the word out, emphatically urged council leaders to do what they could to disseminate Shulman's speech. Both the CCFR and the Johnson Foundation intend to reprint the address.
In his speech, Shulman asserted that Washington's policy in recent years of ''confrontation'' toward the Soviet Union, with minimal diplomatic and economic contact, has encouraged a ''siege mentality'' in Moscow. ''Our arms buildup has spurred theirs,'' he said, and ''increased the Soviet Union's determination not to be seen as weak or vulnerable to pressure.''
Suggesting an alternative policy with more contact, which he said has been wrongly characterized as ''appeasement,'' the Soviet expert told the audience that Washington's relationship with the ''expansionist and repressive'' regime in Moscow can and must be managed in a way that does not lead to war and encourages a more ''serious'' attitude about arms control. ''The gulf between the two sides has not been so great that it cannot be bridged,'' he said.
The irrepressible Brorby says the Shulman speech could easily be packaged with the views of George Kennan, another Soviet expert whom he greatly admires, as a quality television program. ''Now, of course, we can't order the networks around,'' he admits reluctantly. But his tone of voice suggests he intends to give it his best try and won't readily take no for an answer.