Wriston retired from his post as president of Brown University after eighteen years on August 16, 1955, but remained active in his careers as an author and foreign policy expert, in addition to serving on boards and acting as a consultant. His successor at Brown, President Barnaby Keeney, summed up his retirement in 1965 with a medallion and the following citation: "For you, citations are as superfluous as honors are redundant. With this medallion we thank you again for your decisive leadership here, and express our respect for the many accomplishments that have made a mockery of retirement. Yours is truly a life of usefulness and reputation."
Wriston became heavily involved in political life concerning both domestic and foreign affairs. In addition to a new post at the American Assembly in New York, NY, Wriston served on a variety of national committees in Washington. He served as chairman of President Eisenhower's Commission on National Goals, a member of the Department of State's Advisory Committee on Foreign Service, and chairman of the Historical Advisory Committee to the Chief of Military History for the Department of the Army.
Before he was one month out of Brown, Wriston was named executive director (1955-1957) and later president (1957-) of the American Assembly, a program of continuing conferences for non-partisan discussion established by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University, New York, NY. Under Wriston's leadership, the American Assembly emerged as a highly respected institution.
Friend and advisor to President Eisenhower, Wriston was appointed to serve as chairman of the President's Commission on National Goals in 1960, a blue-ribbon commission charged with identifying "the great issues of our generation" for the decade of the 1960s. The Commission consisted of eleven prominent and distinguished Americans who represented education, government, business, labor, the judiciary, and the press and made recommendations regarding economics, government, education, foreign policy, and science. The first few sentences of the introduction to the volume produced by the Commission, Goals for Americans, paraphrase Wristonisms repeated throughout his life: "The paramount goal of the United States was set long ago. It is to guard the rights of the individual, to ensure his development, and to enlarge his opportunity." [Goals for Americans, 1960.]
Wriston served as a member of the U.S. Department of State's Advisory Committee on Foreign Service in Washington D.C. from 1956 to 1958. This consulting role led him to be known as the architect of the reorganization of the State Department, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article from 1978.
Wriston retired as president of the Council on Foreign Relations after 13 years (1951-1964) and was named honorary president of the council.
In 1955, Wriston became chairman of the Historical Advisory Committee to the Chief of Military History for the Department of the Army (1955-1960). He received the Army Certificate of Appreciation for his service as chairman of the Committee in 1957 at a ceremony in the Office of the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. before a group of distinguished guests.
In 1956 Wriston became the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Education of the Alexander Hamilton Bicentennial Commission, Washington, D.C.
Wriston continued to speak and write and publish works about foreign policy and individualism in his retirement. Shortly after his tenure at Brown, the university released a compilation of his talks Wriston Speaking, A selection of addresses [Providence: Brown University Press, 1957.] and a recording with samples of Wriston's speeches entitled Wriston and Brown (1956). The record was produced by two young alumni from recordings made by the electrician who managed the audio system at Brown, unknowingly to Wriston, for the entertainment of his invalid wife.
In 1956 he expanded a series of lectures he had given the year before and published Diplomacy in a Democracy [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.]. Later, Wriston published a reflection on his career in higher education, Academic Procession, Reflections of a College President [New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.] and a second volume of selected articles and speeches, Policy Perspectives [Providence: Brown University Press, 1964.].
Wriston frequently wrote articles for journals and newspapers. Late in life he told a former colleague at Brown that the editors of the Op-Ed page for The New York Times informed him that he was appearing too often, so he had to switch to the Wall Street Journal.
A classic Wristonism appears in his speech Rugged Individualism from 1960: "All I have said can be summarized in a sentence. Life is an individual, as well as a social, experience; in the modern age there is no danger that you will escape social contracts and social pressure, but there is grave danger that you will lose the flavor and the joys which are inherent in the pursuit of happiness, one of your fundamental rights. The wisdom of the ancients was inscribed above the Door of the Temple of the Delphic Oracle: 'Know Thyself.' Any wisdom that I have can be summed up with equal brevity: 'Be Yourself.'"
Wriston continued to receive honorary degrees including those from Williams College, Williamstown, MA (1956), Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY (1957), University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA (1957), Lafayette College, Easton, PA (1959), Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME (1962), Southampton University, England (1962), University of New Mexico (1964).
He also received numerous awards for his service to different organizations and institutions during his retirement including the following honors: Committee of Judges Community Award, by the Foreign Policy Association, New York, NY (1955),Tau Kappa Alpha Speaker of the Year Award (1959), Freedoms Foundation Medal (1960), National Press Club Certificate of Appreciation (1960), an award in recognition of twenty-five years of membership in the College of Electors of The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University (1960), James J. McConaughy, Jr. Memorial Award at Wesleyan University (1961), medallion and citation from President Barnaby Keeney at Brown (1965). Wriston's final appearance on Brown's campus was for Commencement in 1976 when he was awarded the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal, the highest honor the faculty can bestow. He was cited for his skill in "advancing every facet of academia" by a faculty who expressed "deep appreciation of Brown University's advancement through your perceptive offices."
The following words accompanied his reception of the James J. McConaughy, Jr. Memorial Award at Wesleyan University: "As teacher, fund raiser, college president, author, foreign affairs expert and valued advisor to many organizations, Henry Merritt Wriston has rendered superb service to education, to our nation, and to the world. Graduating from Wesleyan in 1911, his achievements and honors are now so numerous that to list them would be tedious. The breadth of his interests and knowledge may be indicated by his recommendations which resulted in the reorganization of the Foreign Service of the United States Department of State and by the significant findings last fall of the President's Commission on National Goals which he served as chairman. He is now President of the American Assembly. Unusual insight and understanding of current and past events, qualities which characterized the work of our classmate, are present to an extraordinary degree in the many creative accomplishments of Dr. Henry Wriston. This award is presented in affectionate memory of James L. McConaughy, Jr. and the other members of our Class who have died since our graduation."
Wriston became a member of the following organizations: National Committee for the John R. Mott Fellowship Fund, Findlay, OH (1955), Board of Sponsors of the World University Service, New York, NY (1955), Administrative Board of the Howard Foundation, Brown University (1956), Committee on Annual Awards for Distinguished Advertising in the Public Interest for The Saturday Review (1956), Board of Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1957), Project Advisory Committee of the Council for Financial Aid to Education (1957), Advisory Committee of the Opinion Reporting Workshop of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (1957), Public Policy Committee of The Advertising Council (1957). In addition he became a Trustee of the American Universities Field Staff, New York, NY (1955), Wesleyan University (1956-1961), chairman of Historical Advisory Committee to the Chief of Military History of the Department of the Army (1955-1960), and Consultant to the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA (1955) and Tufts University, Medford, MA (1956).
As in his professional life, Wriston packed his free-time with an extraordinary variety of recreational activities. He was said to have a tendency "to keep a finger in every pie" and once said "Everything interests me. I am never bored." He had a keen interest and broad knowledge of many fields as well as a zest for life and a wonderful sense of humor. As he exhibited with many building and construction projects at Brown during his tenure, Wriston had a long-standing interest in architecture and remodeled and drew plans for houses. He was an amateur carpenter and built furniture along with tinkering with electrical gadgets. He also maintained a darkroom in the cellar of his house to help him pursue one of his favorite hobbies, photography. In addition, Wriston was an avid sports fan who often listened to broadcasts of baseball games and retained a great knowledge for players' averages and trades. He was a voracious reader, not only in the fields of education and foreign affairs, but also for mystery novels. He could readily name the latest song on the radio, as he listened in the early morning hours when he had difficulty sleeping.
Wriston's daughter Barbara served as director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago. His son Walter became chairman of Citicorp and its subsidiary, Citibank, New York City's largest bank, in 1967. A year before, Walter's wife, Bobby Wriston, died in New York, NY. In 1968, Walter remarried Kathryn Ann Dineen, daughter of the chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life on whose Board Wriston served while at Lawrence. In 1971, Walter's daughter Cassy, Wriston's only grandchild, married Richard Martin Quintal in New York, NY and gave birth to his great-grandson, Christopher Wriston Quintal, in San Francisco, CA in 1977.
Wriston died March 8, 1978 at age 89 in New York, NY after a long illness. Even after his death, Wriston's family continued to receive citations for the great work he had accomplished.
Wriston's legacy not only lives on in his many writings and speeches and through the transformations he initiated at Brown, but also through fellowships, chairs, and buildings. These began during Wriston's lifetime with a gift initiated by Thomas J. Watson, Jr. '37 in 1972, for The Wriston Fellowships at Brown University. Wriston requested the fund be used for fellowships targeted at younger faculty members to encourage educational developments through innovative scholarly work and travel. The fellowship embodies words Wriston articulated in The Nature of a Liberal College [Appleton: Lawrence College Press, 1937.]: "Refreshment is a significant word for teaching; everything possible should be done to prevent staleness. Travel is one of the best methods of renewing the teacher; a college can make no more rewarding investment than the encouragement of its staff members to move about with sufficient leisure so that they do not get a tourist's eye view of the world, but gain something of significant insight."
In 1989, Lawrence University dedicated the Wriston Art Center in honor of Henry Merritt Wriston and his wife Ruth Bigelow Wriston. Embodying Wriston's belief that art should be central to the liberal educational experience at Lawrence, the 33,000-square-foot building is devoted to the study, creation, and viewing of art complete with a library, exhibition space, auditorium, and classroom space.
Upon the death of Wriston's son Walter in 2005, the Henry Merritt Wriston Chair in Public Policy at Wesleyan University was initiated. The chair is to be held "by a senior member of the faculty whose research and teaching speak most directly and with greatest clarity and depth about important matters of public policy." Professor Marc Allen Eisner was elected the inaugural Henry Merritt Wriston Chair at Wesleyan in 2005.