Had Albert Einstein been an ordinary mortal or even an ordinary scientist, his views on life, politics, and human destiny…
I don’t write on physics: why do you write on politics?
Max Nomad to Albert Einstein
Had Albert Einstein been an ordinary mortal or even an ordinary scientist, his views on life, politics, and human destiny would have had no great significance. Nor would they have received much attention or have influenced his fellow men. But as the foremost scientific thinker of our time, the only one whose name could be coupled with Isaac Newton, Einstein was naturally solicited for his views on all sorts of questions not related to the central discipline of his life. The authority of his judgment on public affairs in the minds of the public was enhanced after the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, since the manufacture of the bomb was the practical consequence of one of his scientific discoveries.
Although it could be argued that the explosion of the bomb over Hiroshima (but not over Nagasaki) brought the Japanese war to an abrupt close, and probably saved the lives of millions on both sides that would have been lost had American troops attempted to storm the beaches of Japan, the use of atomic weapons generated a fear of a world holocaust that has intensified over the years. In some quarters it has generated a distrust of science and scientists—despite the fact that the decision to manufacture and use atomic and then thermonuclear weapons was a political and not a scientific one.
The public fear and distrust of atomic weapons were never directed against Einstein, who on occasion had second thoughts about the wisdom of the policy that led to their emergence. His well-known pacifism and his pronouncements on curbing the use of these weapons gave him an immunity from the criticism and suspicion often visited on scientists dedicated to the defense of the nation. They in no way affected his authority or the eagerness with which the public attended to his periodic statements on matters of public policy.
It is too much to expect the public to have been aware of the divagations of judgment of the world’s great scientists (or, for that matter, its great artists and musicians) whenever they have wandered into fields unrelated to those in which they achieved greatness. Educated laymen seem to be aware that there is no automatic transference of learning from one field to another, but in social and particularly political affairs there is a tendency, especially in modern times, to give undue weight to the political judgments of great figures in art, literature, and science. Moreover, although the natural skepticism of common sense soon discounts the political declarations of a Picasso, a T. S. Eliot, or a Jean-Paul Sartre, it does not extend so readily to the political judgments of scientists, primarily because their vocation seems to express the quintessential practice of rationality.
And yet reflection shows that carrying over some of the attitudes and values of scientific inquiry to the consideration of political affairs may result in disaster. Aristotle recognized long ago that it was foolish to apply the standards of exactitude and rigor from one field of investigation to another whose subject matter was quite different. A historian who thinks like a geometrician can make no sense of human behavior. A scientist who tries to live up to the same policy of openness and trust he follows in his dealings with his colleagues would make a very poor diplomat.
The situation is complicated by the fact that in politics many more variables are involved than in any scientific discipline, and that the intention of the political agent cannot be regarded as a reliable datum. The logic of scientific method makes the scientist a skeptic of results until they are independently confirmed, but he tends to take for granted the truthfulness of the reports he receives. Dealing in political affairs and unschooled in the history of human conflict, he is always at a loss and disadvantage in assessing proposals and overtures by individuals whose principles of behavior stem from a world view or an ideological commitment profoundly different from his own. This is particularly true when a scientist nurtured in a democratic culture discusses foreign-policy issues with someone who is committed to the dogmas of a totalitarian society.
The bearing of these remarks will be more apparent as I discuss my correspondence over the years (and conversations on two important occasions) with Albert Einstein.
My first exchange with Einstein on a political issue took place in February 1937 when, together with others, I sought to organize an International Commission to Investigate the Truth about the Moscow Trials. (I had had one previous exchange with him in 1935, when I sought, and he graciously provided, a recommendation backing the appointment of Hans Reichenbach as a professor of philosophy at New York University. This fell through because the Turkish government refused to release Reichenbach from his contract to teach at the University of Istanbul.)
The first large public trial of alleged conspirators in the Soviet Union had been held in 1936. Although not in the dock, Leon Trotsky was accused not only of organizing attempts to assassinate Stalin and destroy the Soviet economy but of collaborating with Hitler, the Japanese militarists, and the British secret service to overthrow the Soviet regime he and Lenin had forged in the October Revolution of 1917. At the time, Trotsky was being harassed in Norway from where he was soon to be deported. A committee had been set up to defend Trotsky’s right to political asylum and a public hearing, and it was under these auspices that a commission was launched.
John Dewey had been persuaded to accept membership on both the committee and the commission. I set about to enlist the support, or expression of sympathy, of leading figures in the cultural world for the effort to give Leon Trotsky a hearing where he could state his case against the shocking accusations being hurled against him—accusations supported by no material evidence but only by the confessions of the Moscow defendants. Bertrand Russell, Morris R. Cohen, Horace Kallen, Arthur O. Lovejoy, and others endorsed our project. George Santayana refused, and was stirred to wrath by my invitation to him to leave the Olympian heights from which he surveyed all time and eternity. (He may have felt that an intervention on behalf of Trotsky ill comported with his expressed admiration for Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin.)
On February 22 I sent the following letter to Einstein:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I am enclosing a document of great international importance drawn up by Professors John Dewey (Columbia) and Horace M. Kallen (New School for Social Research) and signed by a number of eminent American liberals. It concerns not only the right of political asylum but perhaps the most fundamental of all human rights, viz., the right to answer in an open hearing grave charges against honor and life before being adjudged innocent or guilty. There is no one in the world whose moral authority is greater than yours on the issues involved. At the suggestion, therefore, of several members of our committee, I am writing you for an expression of opinion on the Dewey-Kallen statement. In addition to the names of those listed, endorsements of the statements expressed in the statement have been received from Professor Morris R. Cohen and from Dr. Alvin Johnson, director of the New School for Social Research, and founder of the University of Exile.
I shall be glad to send additional information upon request.
Einstein’s reply was prompt. On February 23, 1937 he wrote (the following is an English translation of the German):
Dear Professor Hook:
According to my view there is no doubt that every accused person should be given an opportunity to establish his innocence. This certainly holds true for Trotsky.
The only question that can be raised is how this should be done. That question is pertinent because Trotsky is an active and skilled political personality who is sure to seek an opportunity for the effective propagation of his political goals in public. I believe that a public procedure would serve Trotsky’s purposes to the highest degree. There is on the other hand the question whether such a public procedure, conducted in this country, would really further the ends of justice. For it is questionable whether sufficiently competent judges can be found in view of the great difficulty of assembling authentic material evidence. I fear that the only consequence will be the achievement of an effective propaganda for Trotsky’s cause, without the possibility of reaching a well-founded verdict.
That is why the public character of the proposed undertaking seems to me to be mistaken. If a number of intelligent jurists were to investigate the case privately, and if, after they were successful in reaching a truly convincing conclusion, went public with it, I would welcome such an approach with much enthusiasm. For it would serve the ends of justice and at the same time avoid side effects whose harm under the circumstances could far outweigh the value of any positive results.
To this letter I replied on March 10, 1937 (and give here the English translation of my German text):
Dear Professor Einstein:
To begin with, permit me to express my gratitude to you for taking the time to write me about the subject of my recent communication. We are all heartened by your expression of interest in the establishment of an impartial commission of inquiry to investigate the charges against Trotsky.
The question as to whether the hearings of the commission should be public has been discussed at great length by our committee and the tentative conclusions reached were as follows:
In the event that either one of the parties invited to appear before the commission refuses to put in an appearance, secret sessions at which only one party is present would have no validity and be suspect in the eyes of the world. Further, the announcement that such sessions would be secret would provoke a storm of criticism, which would turn public opinion away from interest in the commission.
The danger that Trotsky might use the open hearings for his own political purposes was, also, considered at length. The upshot of the discussion seemed to show that there were few people who believed that Trotsky, who now has every opportunity in the press to make propaganda for his political purposes, would seize this particular opportunity to do so. He would have nothing to gain by such procedure, for first, it would be irrelevant, and ruled out by the commissioners, and, second, its effect would be prejudicial to his own demand for justice on the specific charges made against him.
It is, also, clear that the commissioners would take testimony bearing only upon the specific charges made (of where, when, and how), so that in a properly conducted inquiry, even if Trotsky were foolish enough to attempt to make political propaganda, this could easily be checked.
Balancing the definite disadvantages which would follow the announcement that the hearings of the commission would be secret, against the possible dangers that open hearings might be used for political purposes, the overwhelming sentiment of our committee was in favor of the latter alternative.
Of course, once the commission were established, it could adopt rules and regulations to guide its own procedure with a particular eye upon the dangers of a public hearing.
We would be very grateful to you if you would give these considerations some further thought and would make whatever suggestions or comments you believe might be helpful in the situation.
A few days later, receiving no word from Einstein, I telephoned his residence and spoke to someone who, I assume, was Helen Dukas, Einstein’s secretary, and asked whether I could visit him briefly at his convenience with a friend. Time was growing short. The panel of commissioners was incomplete and although we had no real expectation that Einstein would serve, we hoped to get at least an endorsement of the project on the basis of which we would try to enroll other commissioners. An appointment was set up and together with Benjamin Stolberg, the well-known labor journalist, who spoke German, I journeyed to Princeton. Unfortunately, I kept no notes of our conversation, but as I have related the story many times the main points of our interview have remained fixed in my memory.
Einstein received us cordially in his study, smoked his pipe, and spoke to us in English which, although heavily accented, was surprisingly good. I restated our case and invitation and placed particular stress on the fact that John Dewey, America’s leading liberal philosopher, had agreed to serve on the commission. Einstein heard me out without interruption. When I concluded, he began by expressing his high respect for John Dewey but then went on to point out that the commission was not likely to succeed because it gave the impression of onesidedness. I assured him that the commission would surely invite the Soviet government to send any witnesses and representatives and even someone to question or cross-examine Trotsky. He was dubious about this and said that since the commission had no legal power to summon witnesses its judgment could not help appearing arbitrary.
Stolberg intervened to say that the commission would not necessarily reach any conclusion; that depended on what the hearings, scheduled in Mexico City, New York, and Paris before its subcommittees, would reveal. But regardless of whether or not sufficient evidence was uncovered to pronounce a well-grounded judgment, the commission would accomplish one thing that had not been done. It would give Trotsky his day in court—an opportunity to answer the charges made against him at the Moscow Trials and in the world press, and to reply to any questions put to him by the commissioners or by any representative of the Soviet government, even if it were Vishinsky, the Moscow prosecutor himself. Einstein remained unconvinced, repeated his doubts, and then went on at some length to say that he was aware of what Communists were capable of doing, making specific mention of their mischievous role in Germany. At the very end he made the startling statement, “From my point of view both Stalin and Trotsky are political gangsters.”
Stolberg, on hearing this, threw up his hands. I, too, was taken aback and for a moment was at a loss for words. Then falteringly I replied: “That may be, but in a civilized community it is important to see that even gangsters receive justice.”
To which Einstein rejoined with a warm smile: “You are perfectly right. But I am no policeman.” I knew then that we had come in vain. I changed the subject and we talked, with Stolberg silently glowering, about the philosophy of science. When I got up to go, Einstein gave me an inscribed copy of his lecture before the Franklin Institute. He insisted on walking us to the railroad station from his house. It was a mild day and he was attired in a threadbare sweater and wore sneakers without socks. Our conversation was about conditions in Germany. Einstein spoke very resentfully about the municipality of Berlin which had cancelled the gift of a house to him, and scornfully about the alleged weapons—a kitchen bread-knife—that had been found in the house. He made a number of other remarks about Hitler’s persecutions but I recall definitely only one: “If and when war comes Hitler will realize the harm he has done Germany by driving out the Jewish scientists.”
Although I was keenly disappointed by Einstein’s refusal to join or endorse the commission of inquiry into the truth of the Moscow Trials, in contradistinction to Stolberg and others I could appreciate his reasons. It was evident to me that he did not take the Moscow Trials at their face value, and that if he had little enthusiasm for Trotsky he had still less for Stalin. I came across no references to the Moscow Trials in anything he published; he died a year before Khrushchev’s famous talk about the crimes of Stalin before the 20th Congress of the Russian Communist party in 1956. Although not mentioning the principals of the Moscow Trials, Khrushchev’s revelations of the monstrous deeds of Stalin shook the beliefs of even the staunchest Stalinists in the validity of the trials.
Years later, to my profound shock, that remarkable historian of ideas, Lewis Feuer, called my attention to a letter written late in 1938 by Einstein to Max Born and published in the volume of Born’s correspondence with Einstein long after the latter’s death. Here Einstein confided to Born that he had changed his mind about the trials and had been persuaded by those “who know Russia best” that they were authentic and not staged! Had I known of the existence of this letter and Einstein’s sentiments at any time while he was alive, I probably would never have written him about anything else except the evidence in those trials and the counterevidence compiled in the final report of the commission, Not Guilty.
In an effort to find out who had dissuaded Einstein of his initial judgment that the trials were faked, I wrote last year to Dr. Otto Nathan, who until recently was a trustee of the Einstein estate. He had been known while teaching at the School of Commerce at NYU to be a fanatical anti-anti-Communist, and I was under the impression that he had taken the Moscow Trials as genuine. I wondered whether he had been instrumental in changing Einstein’s mind. I therefore sent a letter to him on August 10, 1981 asking whether Einstein had been referring to him in speaking of “those who know Russia best.” Since I received no response from Dr. Nathan we shall have to suspend judgment on this point.
Despite the failure of my efforts to enlist Einstein’s support for the commission, our relations remained friendly. I addressed the following letter to him on Tune 15, 1940:
Dear Professor Einstein:
May I turn to you with a simple question concerning a remark the late Edward Bernstein reports as having been made to him by you? The answer will help me in some scientific work I am doing. I am at work on an extended critique of “dialectical materialism,” the state philosophy of Soviet Russia, which seems to me every whit as false and pernicious as current “philosophical” doctrines in Germany. One of the sources of this philosophy is Engels’s posthumous book on Dialektik und Natur. When I was in Berlin in 1928 Edward Bernstein told me that he had asked you to read the manuscript and that you had declared that although it might have some interest as an item in Engels’s personal biography, in your opinion it is of no importance either for contemporary physics or for the history of physics. I am in complete accord with this judgment.
However, in an effort to rehabilitate the “authority” of this manuscript, Stalinists are claiming, both here and abroad, that the only part of the manuscript which Bernstein showed you was the section on electricity and not the sections on Dialectic, Forms of Motion, Heat, etc. which they claim are very profound indeed and which you presumably did not see. I had gathered from Bernstein that you had seen all there was to see but Riazanov, formerly head of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow (now liquidated), told me in 1929 that you had not. In a review of the manuscript in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 1, another Stalinist, D. Struik, actually claims that you regard the manuscript as important for science. Latterly, J. B. S. Haldane, an English Stalinist, has been claiming that you only saw the essay on electricity.
My question briefly is whether you saw the other sections of the manuscript, as Bernstein claimed, and whether your original judgment was intended to apply to the whole of it. I shall, of course, be grateful for anything else you may care to say about the subject.
I received the following response from Einstein, which I have translated from the German:
Dear Professor Hook:
Edward Bernstein put the whole manuscript at my disposal and my expression of opinion related to the whole manuscript. I am firmly convinced that Engels himself would find it laughable if he could see how great an importance is being attached after such a length of time to his modest attempt.
My next communication was addressed to Einstein a few years later on a matter unrelated to politics, having to do with a debate then raging on the teaching of science in colleges and universities. Einstein responded briefly and cordially, and I was subsequently granted permission to publish his letter in a book I was completing, Education for Modern Man.
The second and last time I met Einstein was on the occasion of the Princeton University Bicentennial. I had been invited to participate in a three-day conference, to be held February 19-21, 1947, on “The University and Its World Responsibilities.” The conference was well attended. A number of social events were provided for the participants in the intervals between sessions.1Among the events was a visit to the Institute for Advanced Study, which I joined out of curiosity. No one had seen Einstein at the sessions of the conference despite the fact that at the time he was urging the formation of a world government. Very few people were in their offices at the Institute as we were guided through the building. But suddenly Einstein made a shy appearance and was casually introduced to our party, most of whom seemed just as shy about interrupting the labors of the great man. As the party went on I drew back, entered Einstein’s office through the half-open door, and introduced myself. He recognized me at once, waved me to a chair, and we chatted for almost a half hour.
We talked about two things, Germany and Russia. The drift of the conversation has remained with me and I vividly remember some of the expressions Einstein used. We spoke in English, but sometimes Einstein would say something in German when the English words failed him. I made no mention of the Moscow Trials or of the Dewey Commission, whose report had long since been published, or of my visit to him a decade previously (if I had been aware then of his letter to Max Born, my conversation would have centered on that).
I began by expressing my surprise and curiosity concerning his view of the collective guilt of the German people for the crimes of Hitler. I pointed to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Germans had been jailed or sent to concentration camps. He replied that of course he did not mean to include Hitler’s victims but the entire adult population that had supported Hitler to the very end. When I said that guilt was an individual thing, he countered that the Germans had acted as individuals in what they failed to do as well as in what they did. And then he went on to make some general comments about Germans and Americans. The Germans were an arrogant people (Die Deutsche sind ein hochnässige Volk) and the Americans were naive and sentimental in their postwar judgments and reactions. The Russians knew the Germans better. When I said something about the behavior of the Red Army in the working-class district of Wedding in Berlin, he remarked that the Americans always seemed eager to believe the worst about the Russians.
I then changed the subject to the Soviet Union and pointed out that it was a threat not only to Eastern Europe but Western Europe as well. (This was after Churchill had delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Mo.) I said that he, Einstein, seemed to me to be taking a Christian Science attitude toward the Soviet Union, explaining the Christian Science view of the nature of evil. He seemed amused at the expression “Christian Science” but denied that the Russians constituted a threat to the West. “It is foolish [lächerlich, laughable] to be afraid of this halbwilde Menge [half-savage horde].” He brushed aside my retort that they knew how to use weapons and that in the past Europe had been ravaged by other “half-savage hordes.” (This phrase stuck in my mind; in subsequent correspondence Einstein denied he had used it in any invidious sense with respect to the Russians alone.) There were many things the Soviets did of which he did not approve but the Soviet Union was less of a threat to peace than some Americans who spoke of preventive war. I pointed out that this was certainly not the postion of the American government, and that in a free society all sorts of irresponsible opinions were expressed.
Despite our spirited differences our conversation seemed friendly enough. But I felt that I had taken too much of Einstein’s time. I arose apologetically and thanked him for having taken the time to talk with me. He shrugged and there was a gleam of amusement in his eye when I bade him goodbye.
A little more than a year later, having read that Einstein had endorsed the program and candidacy of Henry Wallace for the Presidency of the United States, I wrote him the following letter:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
According to the New York Times of March 30, 1948 the National Wallace for President Committee claims that you have endorsed Wallace as a man who is “clear, honest, and unassuming,” and that you have declared yourself in agreement with the fundamental premises of his program for peace.
Because of the gravity of the issues involved, I am taking the liberty of writing to inquire whether this report is accurate. If it is, I think it is nothing short of disastrous for the cause of genuine peace and cultural freedom with which your name has been until now indissolubly associated.
Proof in social affairs is notoriously difficult. But if anything is demonstrable it is that in his public utterances Mr. Wallace has not been intellectually honest or clear or unassuming. I need only cite here his distortion of the Baruch-Lilienthal proposals, his willful refusal to repudiate an acknowledged error, his charge that the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia was a defensive action against the interference of the American Ambassador, his deletion of all criticism of Soviet expansionism from his speeches, his refusal to protest against the vast network of concentration camps in the Soviet Union and its satellites, his declaration that the U.S. suffers from an excess of political or Bill of Rights democracy and that the Soviet Union enjoys “economic democracy” but not political democracy, as if you could have the first without the second.
All this would be comparatively unimportant if it bore only upon Mr. Wallace’s personal qualities. The issue is not personal but fundamentally political—and this is what makes the implied claim of the Wallace for President Committee that you are endorsing its candidate so momentous.
Politically, Wallace today is a captive of the Communist party whose devious work in other countries you are familiar with much better than most scientists. His speeches are written for him by fellow-travelers. His line is indistinguishable from that of Pravda and the Daily Worker. It expresses from the first to last the illogic of appeasement.1
One does not have to be an unqualified supporter of American foreign policy or even of American culture—and as a democrat, a Socialist, and a Jew I, for one, am not—to recognize that, so long as the self-corrective procedures of the democratic process are left intact, the incomplete patterns of freedom in the Western world are infinitely preferable to the brutal totalitarianism of Soviet Communism.
If this premise is granted then it remains only to establish the fact of whether or not the Soviet Union is committed to a policy of expansionism or ultimate world-conquest, to derive the general line of policy for peace-loving democrats.
Three lines of evidence point to the fact that the Stalin regime is committed to a program of world expansion: (a) what it says, (b) what it does, and (c) how it is organized for action abroad.
- The state doctrine of the USSR makes it clear that its regime does not believe that it can be secure until all other forms of government—whether democratic or not—are destroyed. I shall be happy to cite chapter and verse on request.
- What the regime of the USSR has done is illustrated in its long list of treaty violations which surpasses in length that of Hitler; its forcible annexation of territory and peoples which never belonged to it; its use of the veto; its refusal to support any feasible plan of international control of nuclear energy; its systematic defamation of all individuals who espouse a program of world government as agents of British-American imperialism.
- The intensive use of Fifth Columns to overthrow democracies has been part and parcel of the Kremlin’s policy from the very beginning until the present. You know how it operated in the Weimar Republic. You can see today how it is girding itself for action in Italy and France.
Wallace is the Gottwald of tomorrow. His policy is designed to put the U.S. and its allies in a position where before long the only alternative to internal chaos and the threat of external annihilation would be capitulation to Stalin—the road which Beneš took.
When we spoke last at Princeton on the occasion of the reception given by the Institute for one of the Bicentennial Conferences you professed skepticism that the Russians—“a half-savage horde,” as you called them—could ever constitute a menace to the U.S. I can only repeat now what I said then. This “half-savage horde” by itself is not hostile to us but only their regime which unfortunately controls them. This regime with the help of its Fifth Column can take all of Europe and Asia which they will undoubtedly do if Wallace’s policy prevails. An organized Europe and Asia can within a decade amass such power that we in the West can have no chance for survival as a free people.
This letter is already overlong. I know how busy you are and how remote the chances are that I can come to talk to you—which I would dearly love to do—and bring you my evidence for the statements I have made. I do not believe my mind is closed to counterevidence and argument and I do not advocate as Bertrand Russell does a preventive war. But the prima-facie case against Wallace’s policy is so strong, that I hope you will reconsider your endorsement of it.
In reply to the foregoing Einstein wrote to me in English on April 3, 1948. I abbreviate the contents of his letter:
Dear Professor Hook:
I must openly confess that I was very astonished by your letter. What I have really done was to recommend warmly Wallace’s book—in one sentence—paid tribute to Wallace as a man who is above all the petty interests. I have furthermore never spoken of the Russians as a “half-savage horde,” for this is not my way of expression. I believe one could say this with some justification of every nation on earth; but I don’t like the expression.
In my opinion your views are far from objective. If you ask yourself who, since the termination of the war, has threatened his opponent to a higher degree by direct action—the Russians, the Americans, or the Americans, the Russians? The answer is, in my opinion, not doubtful and is accurately given in Wallace’s book. It is, furthermore, not doubtful that the military strength of the USA is at present much greater than that of Soviet Russia. It would therefore be sheer madness if the Russians would seek war. On the other side I have heard influential people in this country pleading for “preventive war” even before the last war was finished.
I am not blind to the serious weaknesses of the Russian system of government and I would not like to live under such government. But it has, on the other side, great merits and it is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods. If you should be interested in my opinion you may read my answer to a few Russian scientists which I am enclosing.
An oral discussion seems to me not promising because I see from your letter the rigidity and one-sidedness of your judgment.
Before replying to Einstein’s letter of April 3, I read very carefully the report he had sent, which consisted of an “Open Letter from Four Soviet Scientists” and Einstein’s reply, both of which had appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in February 1948. I was puzzled, for the exchange had very little relevance to the points at issue between us. The Soviet scientists had published a very sharp criticism of Einstein’s proposal for a world government and the abolition of the absolute validity of national sovereignty. They saw in this proposal for a world state the cunning effort of American imperialism to achieve world hegemony, and they charged Einstein with being an unwitting catspaw of American imperial interests. In his reply Einstein had no difficulty in refuting these fantasies, delivered himself of a number of miscellaneous observations on the United States and its economic system, most of them hostile, gently chided the Soviet Union for its failure to accept the American proposal to internationalize atomic energy, and conclusively established that his advocacy of world government was only motivated by the belief that the concept and practice of unlimited national sovereignty in the age of atomic energy could result in the catastrophe of war—an evil of such magnitude that it dwarfed all differences over political and economic matters.
One could agree with every word of Einstein’s response to the Soviet scientists—I did not—and wonder what relevance it had to the points I had made. Incidentally, there was a lacuna in Einstein’s argument that a world government would insure mankind against war: it overlooked the possibility of civil war! The fiercest war in the history of mankind until the 20th century had been the American Civil War of 1861-65. But this was also completely irrelevant to the support that Einstein gave Henry Wallace’s program and candidacy.
Naturally, I replied immediately to Einstein’s letter of April 3:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
What prompted me to write you was the use the National Wallace for President Committee was making of your praise of Wallace and his position, and my honest doubt as to the accuracy of the report. I regret it very much if you found my letter annoying in any way. We are all groping for the truth on matters of great moment and in the past I have set some store on your political insight.
Naturally, I am grieved that you should consider my judgment, for which I indicated the lines of evidence, so “rigid and one-sided” as to make oral discussion unfruitful. And knowing how limited your time is, I certainly cannot expect you to engage in lengthy correspondence. But I do hope you will not take offense if I tell you, as one American citizen to another, why I do not find your remarks convincing even though I have pondered over them for a long time. There are probably many others who think as I do, and since you believe us mistaken it may perhaps be of some interest to you to see what our assumptions and arguments are. If we are wrong, you will find it easier to convince us than the Soviet scientists.
The question is: which foreign policy on the part of the U.S. to the USSR is most likely to preserve peace? and not the question of the internal regime of the USSR. The answer to the first question depends on how we assess the evidence which bears on the intentions of the Soviet regime. When you warned the world against the spread of Hitlerism, on what evidence did you rely? On what Hitler said—not to [George] Lansbury3—but to the Nazi party, and on what Hitler did. I have pointed to the evidence which shows what Stalin believes—the regnant dogmas of the Communist party—and the record of his actions. Together they reveal a program of world conquest.
You do not challenge this evidence. You do not present contrary evidence. Instead you ask: “Who has threatened his opponent to a higher degree by direct action—the Russians, the Americans, or the Americans, the Russians?” This is a fair question. Reviewing in my mind the events that followed the end of the war, and considering America not as isolationist but as part of the world community, I should say that the Soviet Union by her violation of the principles of the Atlantic Charter, by her violation of her agreements to permit free elections and a free press in Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, etc., by the coup she inspired in Czechoslovakia, by her war of nerves against Finland, and now Norway and Sweden, by her behavior in Berlin, by her sabotage of the UN commissions on Greece, the Balkans, and Korea, and almost all of its agencies—that by all this, the Soviet Union has been the aggressor.
What actions of the U.S. do you consider as direct aggressions of equal weight against the Soviet Union? Do you mean the Marshall Plan in which the Soviet Union was invited to participate?
In 1940 American isolationists used to ask us whether America under Roosevelt had not been guilty of more hostile acts against Hitler’s Germany than vice versa. You will recall how we answered that. It seems to me that the actions of the Soviet regime warrant even more strongly the inference that it is actively hostile to the existence of American democratic institutions.
You point out that the military strength of the U.S. is much greater than that of the USSR. Since this has been denied by many “experts,” I should like to know on what evidence this judgment is based. But granted its truth, I am a little puzzled as to what follows from it in the way of foreign policy. Should we weaken our military strength or increase it? Are not the official Baruch-Lilienthal proposals significant in this connection as an indication of our willingness to submit to an international authority? Those few Americans who talk about a preventive war against the USSR speak as individuals. What they say can be matched by equally inflammatory statements in the official Soviet press. It seems to me that American policy should be judged by our official words and actions and not by the words of private citizens. That policy proclaims the belief that we are more likely to have peace if the democracies remain strong than if they disarm or appease.
The internal character of the Soviet regime is not relevant to our discussion. There exists no Jeffersonian International to overthrow the Soviet Union comparable to the Comintern. But I must confess to a bewilderment at the qualified nature of your judgment about the Soviet Union. In estimating its nature the point is not whether you, the greatest scientist in the world, would or would not like to live in the Soviet Union. You probably would be treated no worse than Pavlov if you remained silent about world government and similar matters. The point is how the average individual fares in the Soviet Union in respect to security of life, personal and political freedom. Have you any doubts on that score?
Nor do I understand your meaning when you write: “It is difficult to decide whether it would have been possible for the Russians to survive by following softer methods.” Precisely what methods have you in mind? I am puzzled on what evidence anyone can assert that cultural purges and terror in astronomy, biology, art, music, literature, the social sciences, helped the Russians to survive, or how the millions of victims in concentration camps of the Soviet Union, not to speak of the wholesale executions, contributed in any way to the Russian victory over Hitler. The Russians defeated Napoleon who was relative to his time even mightier than Hitler. But I don’t believe you would find it difficult to decide that this in no way constituted a historical justification of serfdom.
There was no reply from Einstein to the foregoing letter. I had occasion to write to him again when it was revealed that he was a sponsor of the Waldorf Astoria “peace congress” of March 1949 in which the foreign policy of the United States was roundly condemned and the Soviet Union hailed as the champion of world peace. There were many other sponsors, including Dr. Otto Nathan. The following letter, dated March 4, 1949, is identical with one I sent to Thomas Mann and other innocent and not-so-innocent sponsors of the Waldorf affair:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
I have been refused permission to present a paper by the Program Committee of the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace. In this paper I wished to defend three theses which seemed to me of the greatest importance today:
- There are no “national truths” in science, and that it is only by its deficiencies that a science can ever become the science of one nation or another.
- There are no “class truths” or “party truths” in science. The belief that there is confuses the objective evidence for a theory which if warranted is universally valid with the uses, good, bad, or indifferent, that are made of it.
- The cause of international scientific cooperation and peace has been very seriously undermined by the influence of doctrines which uphold the notion that there are “national” or “class” or “party” truths in science.
Not only have I been refused permission to present a paper at any of the sessions, but I have also been refused permission to lead the discussion at the plenary session. I requested at least fifteen minutes.
Since your name is listed as a sponsor of this congress, I am appealing to you to support my request that I be permitted to read a paper, preferably at the plenary session. No arrangements have been made, apparently, by the program committee to have the point of view which I represent presented to the congress. Further, no person who has in recent years ever spoken a critical word against all varieties of totalitarianism, including Stalin’s, has been invited to the congress. Neither John Dewey nor Ernest Nagel nor Professor Muller nor Horace Kallen nor James T. Farrell nor Dos Passos nor Edmund Wilson nor hundreds of others have been invited to this congress for world peace.
This morning’s newspaper reports the resignation of Professor Irwin Edman from the sponsoring committee of the congress on grounds that it is designed to promote “the Communist point of view or one closely approximating to it.” I sincerely hope that this is not true. But the way this congress has been organized and my experience with it suggests that it is on the order of Wroclaw-Breslau.4
I never really expected Einstein to resign from the sponsoring committee of the Waldorf “peace congress” since I knew that some of the tactics of some groups opposed to the meeting, as well as difficulties the American government was making in granting visas to delegates from some countries, would meet with his disapproval, as it met with the disapproval of the group I helped organize to hold a counter-demonstration at Freedom House. But I wanted to leave no doubt in his mind concerning the questionable bona fides of the Waldorf organizers. I consequently sent some documentary material to him through his secretary.
My correspondence continued with Einstein. Although I suspected he was annoyed with me and was probably being regaled with tales about my “reactionary” views by Dr. Nathan, who, for reasons no one has been able to fathom, became one of Einstein’s advisers, I knew that Einstein would respond to an honest query concerning the coherence and consistency of his views. I had been asked to review his book, Out of My Later Years, for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and found passages in the book which did not jibe with one another. And so on May 15, 1950 I wrote Einstein as follows:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I have been asked to review your recently published Out of My Later Years by the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science—and I am in a quandary. Some of the passages in the book seem to be at variance with each other even when allowance is made for differences in the context and date of the different papers. Since these passages are of some importance in assaying your present views on social and political issues, and since I dread running the risk of misunderstanding you on matters of such high concern, I am wondering whether you would be good enough to clarify the apparent inconsistency.
On page 181, you write:
The humanitarian ideal of Europe appears indeed to be unalterably bound up with the free expression of opinion, to some extent with the free will of the individual, with the effort toward objectivity in thought without consideration of mere utility, and with the encouragement of differences in the realm of mind and taste. . . . I only know that I affirm them with my whole soul, and would find it intolerable to belong to a society which consistently denied them.
On page 187, however, you write:
One must bear in mind that the people of Russia did not have a long political education, and changes to improve Russian conditions had to be carried through by a minority for the reason that there was no majority capable of doing it. If I had been born a Russian, I believe I could have adjusted myself to this situation.
The passage on page 187 was written later than the one on page 181; although on one interpretation they are not formally contradictory, their spirit clearly is. Would you please tell me how both views can be reconciled? In view of the regime of cultural and political terror in the USSR, whose intensity has increased over the years, one would imagine that no free mind loving freedom could adjust to this situation.
This seems to be a reasonable inference from your remark on page 149 that
Without such [intellectual] freedom there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, and no Lister.
Taken in conjunction with the fact that followers of Mendel and Morgan have been fiercely persecuted, that physicists who have accepted your views on space and time have been liquidated for smuggling “counterrevolutionary Trotskyism into astronomy,” and that even the translation of your recent book (with Infeld) on The Evolution of Physics has been denounced as “a serious mistake” (Sovietskaya kniga, August 1949, pp. 35-40)—you know how “serious mistakes” are punished there—it is a little hard to understand the warrant for your statement.
A similar ambiguity of position seems to affect your discussion of other themes which involve the Soviet Union. For example, in discussing the powers of the world government on page 186, you say that it should have the power
to interfere in countries where a minority is oppressing a majority, and so is creating the kind of instability that leads to war. Conditions such as exist in Argentina and Spain should be dealt with. There must be an end to the concept of non-intervention, for to end it is part of keeping the peace.
Excellent! But why no mention of countries in the Soviet orbit in which minorities are oppressing the majority in much worse fashion than in Argentina, e.g., Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic countries, Hungary, etc.?
I realize how many and urgent are the pressures on your time and energy. But since the ambiguities which trouble me probably trouble many other students of social and political affairs, I am confident that their resolution will contribute to a more accurate understanding of your position and make discussion more fruitful.
My surmise was justified. In a matter of days I received a reply from him in English. His letter is in many ways extraordinary and in some respects startling:
Dear Professor Hook:
Thank you for your letter of May 15th. The two statements you mentioned do not contradict each other. In the first (page 181) I profess to intellectual and moral individualism. In the second statement (page 187) I try to seek understanding for the necessity of the Russian revolution and recognize (resp. voice the opinion) that under the circumstances prevailing in Russia at that time this revolution could only have been undertaken successfully by a resolute minority. It was natural, under the conditions, for a Russian who had the welfare of the people at heart to cooperate with and submit to this minority because the immediate goals could not have been achieved otherwise. It cannot be doubted that for an independent individual this meant a painful temporary renunciation of his personal independence. But I believe that I myself would have deemed it my duty to make this temporary sacrifice (as the lesser evil).
However, with this I do not mean to say that I do approve of the direct or indirect interference by the Soviet government in intellectual and artistic matters. Such interference seems to me objectionable, harmful, and even ridiculous. As far as the centralization of political power and the limitations of the freedom of action for the individual are concerned, I am of the opinion that these restrictions should not exceed the limit demanded by exterior security, inner stability, and the necessities resulting from a planned economy. An outsider is hardly able to judge the facts and possibilities. In any case it cannot be doubted that the achievements of the Soviet regime are considerable in the fields of education, public health, social welfare, and economics, and that the people as a whole have greatly gained by these achievements.
A proper reply to this letter would have required an extended comment on every sentence but I knew that this was not feasible and that there were limits to Einstein’s patience. And so on May 23, 1950 I sent the following relatively brief reply:
Dear Professor Einstein:
I am very much obliged to you for your reply to my letter. It certainly makes your present position clearer. But in the light of your reply, would it not be a legitimate inference that you no longer believe the following paragraph which appears on page 182 of your book?
Is it justifiable to set aside for a time the principles of individual freedom in deference to the high endeavor to improve economic organization? A fine and shrewd Russian scholar defended this point of view to me in comparing the success of compulsion and terror—at least at the outset—in a functioning Russian Communism with the failure of German Social Democracy after the war. He did not convince me. No purpose is so high that unworthy methods of achieving it can be justified in my eyes. Violence may have sometimes cleared away obstructions quickly, but it never has proved itself creative.
In your letter of May 16 you indicate that you would have regarded it as your “duty” to make a “temporary renunciation of personal independence” and the principles of individual freedom in order to achieve what you consider to be the gains of the Russian people under the Soviet dictatorship. Surely, if the principle of contradiction is still valid, this cannot be squared with the paragraph on page 182. Or am I in error about this?
P.S. There are other interesting questions I shall not trouble you with, e.g., how you know that the sacrifice of individual freedom is only temporary in view of the constant growth of the terror, and what evidence there is that whatever gains have been made could not have been achieved by other methods.
I hardly expected a reply to this letter and did not receive one. But his letter of May 16 sorely troubled me. In view of the stream of revelations pouring from the press by individuals who had actually lived in the Soviet Union, I could not bring myself to believe that Einstein could be so uninformed about the true conditions of Soviet life. This was after Stalin’s break with his bloody henchman Tito, after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and after the Berlin blockade. Nevertheless I resolved to send him firsthand materials on the Soviet Union by individuals who had lived there. And I chose with care books by individuals who had also something to say about the fate of the Jews and those accused of Zionism in the Soviet Union.
One was by Margaret Neumann-Buber, Under Two Dictators, in which she related among other gruesome incidents the transfer by Stalin to Hitler, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, of the Jewish Communists who had fled to the Soviet Union when Hitler came to power. A second was by Jerzy Glicksman, Tell the West, the harrowing account of a Polish Jew in Soviet concentration camps. A third, in German, was Eleanor Lipper’s Eleven Years in Stalin’s Concentration Camps. Although I was a hardened reader of Soviet refugee literature, these books had moved me to tears, and I was confident that if Einstein read them his great humane instincts would be aroused and his perspective would be altered on the achievements of the Soviet Union with respect to the areas in which he thought impressive progress had been made.
I was deeply disappointed. Herewith the text of his letter of July 24, 1950:
Dear Professor Hook:
I thank you very much for sending me the two informative books, Under Two Dictators and Tell the West, and also the one by Mrs. Lipper which I received today; I will try to find time to read them. I do not expect to find anything therein that is new to me in principle. I am trying, however, to form for myself an objective picture of Russian life. Having never been an enthusiast, I cannot be so deeply disappointed by the shortcomings of this vast enterprise.
Naturally I was mystified by Einstein’s failure to come to grips with the revelations of the victims of Stalin’s terror, for these books and others of their kind, with which he seemed to profess familiarity, contained important information not only about the terror but about the actual conditions of life of the general population in the very fields in which Einstein had believed there were great achievements. I was even more mystified, and remain so, by his silence concerning the brutal treatment of Jews, especially Zionists like Einstein, in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Some day the mystery may be clarified. During the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia in 1952, when the Western world was shocked by the trials’ anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones, I recall that Irving Kristol wrote to Einstein inviting him to make public comment on these outrages, but there was no response.
My next exchange with Einstein began innocently enough in 1952. The Korean war was raging and the Communists had broadcast throughout the world the canard that the United States was waging germ warfare in Korea. Joliot-Curie, the Communist French Nobel Prize winner, issued a statement that he had personally investigated the evidence and found that the allegations against the United States were true. His remarks produced an uproar. I believe it was Norman Thomas, the leading figure on the executive committee of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, who proposed that a round robin be drawn up inviting a number of American Nobel scientists to make public a letter to Joliot-Curie asking him either to withdraw his charge or join them in an objective scientific investigation of the facts. The letters were sent out under my signature as then chairman of the Committee for Cultural Freedom on April 22, 1952. All the invited American Nobelists consented to sign the proposal to Joliot-Curie, with the exception of Albert Einstein.
Einstein replied brusquely April 30, 1952:
Dear Dr. Hook:
I received your letter of April 22nd. I too am disappointed by the insincere attitude of Mr. Joliot-Curie. However, I cannot believe in any favorable effect of such a theatrical counteraction promoted by politicians. I feel, therefore, unable to sign the proposed letter.
P.S. The receivers of the Nobel Prize in science have no right to moral indignation for they have never collectively protested against the military abuses of science, a much more important issue than the present one.
I was shocked and somewhat indignant at the tone of Einstein’s letter, and wrote to him on May 6, 1952:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
You have every personal right to refuse to sign the letter to M. Joliot-Curie and to question its efficacy. But you have no moral right to cast slurs at the good name of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom by referring to this letter as a “counter-action promoted by politicians.” Our committee is not interested or active in politics from a narrow, partisan point of view. We speak for no political party. We are not a Communist-front organization. We have not solicited your signature under false pretenses.5 We are interested in defending those values which are essential to the preservation of a free culture and the life of a free mind and, in this case specifically, in establishing the truth about the grave charges made by Communists the world over about the use of germ warfare by the United States.
As Americans, we are concerned, of course—if these charges are established as false—in clearing the good name of our country, but we are even more concerned with the question of moral responsibility and the intellectual integrity involved in fanning the flames of war and hatred by accusations such as those levelled by M. Joliot-Curie.
We are also convinced that unless these charges are answered, the truth established and broadcast, the probability increases that some day bacteriological warfare will be used by some criminally irresponsible regime.
All we asked of you is that you join other fellow scientists in raising your voice in a request for an objective inquiry into the truth of these terrible charges. That you should have regarded this as a “counter-action promoted by politicians” both grieves and mystifies us. We find it all the more mystifying in the light of the fact that you have knowingly lent your name and great scientific authority time and again to many Communist-front groups for exploitation here and abroad. The most recent one was the Communist Waldorf-Astoria “peace” meeting of 1949. Even if we are “politicians”—and perhaps, since we are as unalterably opposed to Communism as to fascism, you may insist on so regarding us—we are at a loss to understand the double standard employed and why our proposal should not be considered on its merits.
Nor do we see the relevancy of the moral indignation expressed in your footnote about the absence of moral indignation by Nobel scientists at the military abuses of science. This is not the primary issue at the moment; primary is the issue of truth, atrocity mongering, and the use of the calculated lie to embroil peoples in war. The military abuse of science began centuries ago and culminated in the use of atomic warfare against the foes of democracy in the last war. We do not know whether Nobel scientists were ever collectively asked to protest the military abuses of science; we do know that some of them did not hesitate to urge upon the governments the possible non-military uses of the liberation of nuclear energy on the eve of World War II. If it is desirable for Nobel scientists to condemn the military abuses of science, as you now seem to think, surely the action we propose at the very least can be considered a step in that direction. We, therefore, see no valid reason why, even believing as you now do, you should refuse to sign the letter to M. Joliot-Curie.
Under separate cover, I am sending you the Freedom Manifesto and other publications of our committee so that you can determine for yourself the nature of our organization.
Einstein’s reply to this letter, in German, was the nearest thing to an apology he ever wrote:
Dear Dr. Hook:
I see with regret that you have interpreted my letter in a certain sense as insulting. I am sorry indeed particularly since I subsequently realized that I had not written in that gentle mode of expression attributed to St. Francis. And so I approach the matter once more sine ira et studio.
Naturally it is true that as a novice I have stumbled into organizations that operate with decent arguments but dishonest intentions. That is a relatively new stratagem that your special Russian friends have invented.
However with respect to the case before us, I-look at the matter in this way. Joliot-Curie has obviously made an assertion of whose accuracy he certainly cannot be convinced. That is really disgraceful for a scientist. Yet one should ask oneself whether it is sensible and justified to make such a huge fuss out of the incident. What would be accomplished thereby? The Soviet Russian public would certainly not be affected by it, and the public in the West was in no way influenced by Joliot’s declaration. The proposed step can at best have only one consequence, to unleash in the Western public a new wave of hate against the East. Such a result from my point of view is harmful to international development. A viable modus vivendi between East and West simply cannot be founded on hatred.
Further, it can hardly be wondered at that a government is suspected of using that kind of “weapon,” when its systematic development is broadcast to the public in our press, not without pride and satisfaction. Under the circumstances would you not also agree that silence is always better than accusations?
The question with which Einstein closed his letter gave me the peg for my rejoinder:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
In reply to the question with which you concluded your letter of May 7th, I am firmly convinced that the policy of silence is not the policy of wisdom in respect to the charge of M. Joliot-Curie. Nor, as the text of the letter to him shows, is the request made of Joliot-Curie likely to inspire hate among decent people. The letter is written in a sober, reasonable tone and asks only that he withdraw the charge or join the other Nobel Prize scientists in asking for an objective investigation by an impartial international body.
There are two assumptions in your reply which conflict with the evidence in our possession—viz., that we cannot reach the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, and that public opinion in democratic countries is not affected by the wild charges made against the United Nations and the United States. There are many ways in which the publication of the letter to M. Joliot-Curie can be brought to the attention of the satellite countries and even the population of the Soviet Union. We know that the events, for example, in which Madame Kosenkina was involved in New York were known a few hours later in Moscow.6
Much more important is the fact, attested to by a great deal of evidence from the press, that charges about germ warfare are being given audience in Western European countries and Asiatic countries. This is unfortunate but true. Official denials by American authorities are brushed aside as meaningless. The letter of the Nobel Prize scientists cannot be so treated, particularly since it requests an objective investigation. Our French committee informs us that the letter made a great impression on French public opinion.
I feel you underestimate the effect of the calculated lie on public thought and feeling. When I was a boy in high school I was denounced as pro-German in 1917, and almost expelled, for challenging the universal belief among my teachers that the German army systematically cut off the hands of Belgian children, and that it used human corpses to derive much needed fat for industry. After the war, these tales were laughingly revealed as wonderful propaganda.
In consequence, when the first news came out about Hitler’s cremation camps, Stalin’s forced labor camps, and similar outrages against mankind, many people dismissed them as more atrocity stories.
They didn’t turn out to be atrocity stories. The feeling now is that any piece of barbarism is possible and the Soviets are making excellent use of this new mood of credulity. The immoral thing about these carefully planted lies is that if they are believed they make people fanatical to the death in fighting those who are lied about. If the lies are finally exposed, the result is likely to be invincible incredulity to atrocities when they do occur.
That is why it is of the first importance to build up the moral authority of some international organization which can speak with the full weight of science and objectivity behind it. The world will listen to any group to which Nobel Prize scientists give support, especially on matters so close to scientific fact. In this way, in the terrible years which lie ahead, public opinion can avoid the extremes of credulity and incredulity for something closer to scientific skepticism.
I have been in Europe often during the last few years. I have been shocked to discover that because of Communist propaganda, the United States is hated and feared more than Hitler’s Germany was in 1939. I am not denying that there may be, and are, other causes too, but it is simply incredible what lies are told about the United States and believed. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that truth is the best answer to the propaganda of the lie—not counter-propaganda. But I have learned enough from modern psychology to know that silence is no answer at all.
That is why, dear Dr. Einstein, I cannot accept your method of fighting for freedom and peace. Just as neither Christian love nor Trappist silence would have deflected Hitler, so they will fail with Stalin. The only thing that could have prevented Hitler from going to war was both an adequate defense in the West and making the truth known to the German people about what was happening in Germany, and what Hitler had in store for them. And having studied Stalin’s mind for twenty-five years, I am convinced that the only thing that will prevent him from giving the signal for war is an adequate defense in the West and knowledge of the truth about the West among the peoples of the Soviet Union.
It is as a contribution to the truth that the American Committee for Cultural Freedom endorsed the letter of the Nobel Prize scientists to M. Joliot-Curie.
This brought another friendly response from Einstein, also in German, dated July 27, 1952:
Dear Mr. Hook,
With regard to your letter of July 25 I should like to make the following observation. Personally I find it improbable that accusations will have any successful results. I would welcome it if an agreement could be brought about for carrying through an objective investigation of the case in question. Such an argument, 1 am convinced, would contribute to an improvement in international relations. On the other hand, one should not become indignant in the face of such accusations so long as one has not accepted the obligation to forswear the first use of bacteriological weapons.
On October 26, 1952 I wrote to Einstein again:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
The New York Times recently carried an abbreviated report of a letter which you sent to some individuals in Japan explaining the necessity which moved you and your co-workers to recommend research on the development of the atomic bomb. Judging from the newspaper story, my impression is that your letter is both enlightening and important on a matter which has troubled many people. I wonder whether it would be possible for me to procure the full text of the statement. Since the story was published in the newspaper, I assume that the communication which you sent to Japan was not of a personal nature.
In response Einstein was kind enough to send me the German text of his reply to Kaizo with a bitter complaint that the publication of the bowdlerized version in the New York Times was a beautiful example of what he used to call telling “lies through the truth.” I do not recall his writing to the New York Times, nor did he expect me to do so since he indicated in his lettter that the material he sent me was confidential, for my personal information only. I never understood why he requested me to keep his answer confidential; it contained nothing he had not already written elsewhere. I present it in translation herewith:
My participation in the development of the atomic bomb consisted in one single action. I signed a letter to President Roosevelt which stressed the necessity of undertaking large-scale experiments to investigate the possibility of producing an atomic bomb.
I was quite conscious of the terrible danger that the success of this undertaking held for mankind. But the probability that the Germans would work on the same problem with prospects of success compelled me to take this step. I had no other choice despite the fact that I was always a convinced pacifist. To kill in war according to my conception is no better than ordinary murder.
So long, however, as the nations of the world have not decided by common action to abolish war and to solve their conflicts and defend their interests by peaceful decisions based on law, they will feel compelled to prepare themselves for war. They see themselves compelled—all of them—to arm themselves with the most contemptible means in order not to be surpassed in the general arms race. This road leads necessarily to war which under present-day conditions spells universal destruction.
Under these circumstances, struggle against the means of war has no prospects of success. Only the radical abolition of war and the danger of war can be of any help. That is what one should work for, and to be resolved not to permit oneself to be compelled to engage in any actions that run counter to this goal. This is a severe demand on any individual who is aware of his social dependence. But it is not an impossible demand to meet.
Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time, has indicated the way. He showed what sacrifices mankind is capable of making when it has recognized the right way. His work of liberation for India is living evidence of the fact that a will ruled by firm convictions is stronger than apparently unconquerable material force.
Einstein’s position was such an extreme defense of absolute pacifism and the Gandhian way of combating evil that I felt I owed him an explanation of why I could not accept his point of view. I sent the following letter to him on November 10, 1952:
Dear Dr. Einstein:
I was very much moved by the noble statement you sent to Kaizo and feel it is a pity that the full text was not released in this country, too.
The subject you discuss is the most fateful of our time. The position of Gandhi (and of Tolstoy) has always seemed to me to be a live option, and I have often been tempted to embrace it when reflecting on the bitter cost of even the best victory. One thing has deterred me, viz., the realization that Gandhi could have been successful only with the British or a people with the same high human values. I am afraid he would have failed utterly with the Japanese military, with the Gestapo and SS, and the Soviet MVD. What is even worse, the new methods of “scientific” torture would have reduced him to a broken-spirited, miserable wreck of a man, stuttering back the confessions suggested by a cunning and cruel prompter manipulating the coercions of hunger, pain, and crazed desire for sleep or even death.
I do not know whether you have read, or remember, Weissberg’s book on his experiences in the hands of the GPU, and how narrowly he escaped from becoming a groveling, crawling creature—a mockery of a man. This was twelve years ago or more, and since then the diabolical techniques of unmaking the mind and degrading the person have been perfected. No, I fear not even Gandhi could have withstood them, and few human beings had Gandhi’s spiritual discipline.
When I think of how many millions of Jews permitted themselves to be slaughtered in what was in effect a passive resistance to evil, I find myself wishing that they had died like the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. It sounds smug and hollow to say that when one must die in any event, one should do it nobly. Perhaps one should try only not to die ignobly.
That is why I cannot accept a position which seems to be one of unilateral pacifism, in the face of an enemy who degrades before he kills. Even my good friend, Norman Thomas, recognizes that unilateral disarmament today would provoke Stalin to reach out his hands for the necks of all free men. And that is why if I were a scientist, and if I thought that the Kremlin had the remotest prospect of inventing a hydrogen bomb, with a heavy heart I would make the same decision you made in 1939.
And unless one believes life itself is an evil, surely your decision at that time was justified by the tragic events—was it not? The loss of life would have been no less, and perhaps more, if the bomb had not been used—although I never could understand why no demonstration was made on an uninhabited island as a warning to induce surrender. The Russians, anyhow, would have taken up the bomb where the Germans left it, even if we had not worked on it. You know what life under the Nazis was, and if you ever have spoken as I have in West Berlin to the simple Russian men and women who fled from the Soviet sphere, you would know that life there is not much different.
But, forgive me for going on this way—I didn’t intend to write at such length.
I did not expect a reply from Einstein to my long screed. I had counterposed my faith to his and thought he would let the matter rest. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to receive another friendly note dated November 12, 1952:
Dear Mr. Hook:
You are right that under the circumstances that have developed in the last twenty years (not only through the fault of the Russians) a sudden transition to the methods of Gandhi could not be ventured by any responsible statesman. I see the only possibility of improving the situation in abandoning the armament race and issues productive of conflict. Naturally the first step would be the neutralization and demilitarization of Germany. Despite the evil methods of the Russians, I regard as completely false the point of view that would represent them or treat them as common criminals. At the very least, from an education standpoint, any such attitude is impermissible.
I was not aware of anyone who had proposed that the Russians be treated as common criminals. Even those who had opposed the presence of Soviet representatives on the judges’ bench at Nuremberg had not urged that they be put in the dock. I found it noteworthy that although Einstein conceded my point about the utopian character of the Gandhian approach, he insisted that the first step required the neutralization and demilitarization of Germany. In effect, this would mean the demilitarization and neutralization of West Germany, not East Germany. It was natural, in view of his own personal experience, that he should fear the Germans more than the Russians or Japanese or Chinese. His attitude was typical of German Jewish refugees of almost every social stratum. It was not that they had any genuine sympathy for Communism—except for those who before the rise of Hitler had thrown in their lot with the Kremlin—but that their hatred of Germany and their acceptance of the doctrine of collective guilt made them willing to accept any initiative that would punish their former persecutors and their descendants. It was psychologically understandable but politically unwise.
The letter of November 12, 1952 was the last letter I received from Einstein. Nor did I write him again. But I did hear indirectly from Einstein in 1954 when he sent a German reply to Norman Thomas, who had written him on March 9, 1954 explaining why he could not join in the birthday celebration for Einstein then being prepared by the Emergency Committee for Civil Liberties. Einstein asked Thomas to show his reply to me so that I could translate it. He drily observed that I, too, would be interested in the contents. But first the letter of Norman Thomas:
My dear Doctor Einstein:
It is with deep regret that I am declining an invitation to a conference and luncheon in your honor at the Nassau Tavern in Princeton, N.J. on Saturday, March 13th.
I share the respect and admiration for you that is felt by millions of people throughout the world. We cannot pay too great honor to the man who has given us a new conception of the physical universe; the man who, more than any other, gave us mastery over the awful power of the atom. With it all, you have stood with prophetic earnestness for the dignity and freedom of man, above all for his right to know.
Nevertheless, I must decline to express my appreciation by coming to your birthday celebration. The reason is that prominent and dominant personalities in the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee which has arranged this celebration have shown through the years anything but a consistent love of liberty, in or out of the academic field. I say this with regret but with knowledge born of long years of work in the field of civil liberties. I am thoroughly persuaded, as I think you are, that the test of freedom in America and indeed among thoughtful men everywhere is a capacity to oppose both Communism and the thing that in America we call McCarthyism. These two movements interact to help each other. Unfortunately, persons now leading the Emergency Committee have steadily condoned, if they did not actually defend, Communist crimes against liberty, which crimes are inherent in the doctrine and practice of a conspiratorial movement seeking universal power over the bodies, minds, and souls of men. These men and women work under a double standard which I am sure you do not accept.
This committee has circulated your replies to five questions submitted to you on the meaning of academic freedom. Your replies restate forcefully and carefully your well-known position. It is a position which I heartily accept with one qualification: I cannot agree with you that it is an infringement on liberty for proper authorities in the state, in the university, or the schools, to raise a question concerning the allegiance of men who seek posts in which it is of the utmost importance that their allegiance should be solely to their consciences in search of truth. It is allegiance to Communism as a dictatorial conspiracy, not as a heresy, which warrants proper inquiries under proper circumstances. The right to stay out of jail is not the right to hold every sort of position. It isn’t the right to guide the young, who, if they are to build a more glorious democracy, cannot have their faith in freedom impaired, or their allegiance won, by any organization, Communist or fascist, which denied personal freedom. This truth is not negated by the blameworthy tactics of congressional committees.
Your answer to questions on academic freedom in the document which has reached my desk ends with an appeal from you or the committee—it is not clear which—for funds: “the collection and use of which should be put in the hands of a small organization under the supervision of persons known to be trustworthy.” I should not for a moment challenge the integrity of the Emergency Committee in using funds for the defense of persons fully entitled to their day in court. But I am compelled to express regret that the committee has appropriated your great name for a concept of freedom far different from yours. There are rights to which Communists, fascists, and their fellow-travelers and apologists are clearly entitled, but civil liberties cannot effectively be defended by Americans who through the years have condoned its absolute denial in the Soviet Union, while rushing hurriedly to the aid of men into whose primary political allegiance some sort of inquiry may be warranted.
Although I approved in general of Norman Thomas’s letter (it was based on a distinction I had proposed between heresy and conspiracy), I would have restated some of his positions to indicate that not the violation of political allegiance but the violation of accepted standards of professional ethics is involved in barring conspirators from positions of public trust. Both Norman Thomas and Roger Baldwin, the leading figures in those days in the American Civil Liberties Union (which now unfortunately has fallen into the hands of those who opposed them), believed that with respect to employment, anyone who owed a primary allegiance to a foreign government was unfit to serve in his own, and certainly not in any post regarded as sensitive. After all, the Nazi-American Bund and the American Communist party made no secret of where their primary political allegiance lay. Aside from strict government service, however, in schools, universities, and research centers, the criterion must not be political allegiance but allegiance to the standards of professional ethics enforced by committees of one’s peers.
Einstein replied promptly to Norman Thomas:
Dear Norman Thomas:
I was very pleased to receive a letter from you, for I felt instinctively that you are one of the few whose every word carries true conviction, untarnished by hidden intentions. One feels, as well, your good will toward all. This encourages me to answer you as if I were speaking to an old friend.
The very beginning of your letter puts me in a happy mood. There you deplore that you have declined an invitation, as if I myself had invited you to that function. In reality, this function has something to do with my person only insofar as those who arranged it used my name and my birthday—both of which are not to my taste.
However, the fact which in a certain sense puts me under obligation is that this group has stood for civil rights with decisiveness and in a sense which is close to my convictions. When I declined to come to a function of that sort or to act as sponsor for the committee (that is to say, for the function), I suggested this: Send me some questions. I’ll answer them in writing to the best of my ability. This was done. I do not know anything about the people who actually head up that committee, nor is it known to me what that committee has done in the past.
Now I come to the principal point, namely, to the question whether the position I took in my answers is objectively justified. In any case, I personally am fully convinced of this. I see with a great deal of disquiet the far-reaching analogy between Germany of 1932 and the USA of 1954.
On one point we are of the same opinion. Russia is, in a very clear sense, a “politically underdeveloped country,” about like Europe at the time of the Renaissance and a bit later. Murder, with and without legalistic accoutrements, has become a commonplace means of daily politics. The citizen enjoys no rights and no security against arbitrary interference from the power of the state. Science and art have become wards of those who govern.
All this is certainly abominable to the taste of modern civilized man. But I believe that it is the problem of the Russian people to make changes there. We cannot advance a progressive development there by threatening Russia from the outside. Similarly, our well-intentioned criticism cannot help because it will not come to the ears of the Russians.
It seems to me, therefore, more useful to confine ourselves to the following question: How about the danger which America faces from the side of its own Communists? Here is the principal difference of opinion between you and me. In short, I believe: America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the hysterical hunt for the few Communists there are here (including those fellow citizens whose red tinge is weaker, à la Jefferson). Why should America be so much more endangered than England by the English Communists? Or is one to believe that the English are politically more naive than the Americans so that they do not realize the danger they are in? No one there works with inquisitions, suspicions, oaths, etc., and still “subversives” do not go unchecked. There, no teachers and no university professors have been thrown out of their jobs, and the Communists there appear to have even less influence than formerly.
In my eyes, the “Communist conspiracy” is principally a slogan used in order to put those who have no judgment and who are cowards into a condition which makes them entirely defenseless. Again, I must think back to Germany of 1932, whose democratic social body had already been weakened by similar means, so that shortly thereafter Hitler was able to deal it the death-blow with ease. I am similarly convinced that those here will go the same way unless men with vision and willingness to sacrifice come to the defense.
Now you will clearly see our difference of opinion. Who is right cannot be decided through a logical process of proof. The future will tell. . . .
I content myself with only two observations on Einstein’s letter. (I assumed Norman Thomas wrote a rejoinder. Otherwise, since Einstein asked him to show the letter to me, I would have written.)
Einstein was not the only one who regarded Joseph McCarhy’s meteoric demagogic flight, which came crashing down into oblivion in that very year 1954, as a prelude to the triumph of fascism in America. Bertrand Russell actually made a wager with Malcolm Muggeridge that Senator McCarthy would be elected President of the United States! It was a pity the bet was for only five pounds.
With respect to the questions Einstein asked, I had treated them in detail several years earlier in an essay on “Security and Freedom” published in Confluence, a periodical edited by Henry Kissinger at Harvard. I specifically addressed myself to the differences between the English and American security systems and showed that public servants suspected of being security risks enjoyed far greater legal protection in the United States than in Great Britain. The essay is reprinted in my Political Power and Personal Freedom. I had sent a copy to Einstein but he had obviously not read it, or my articles on ideologically inspired treason and espionage in the New York Times Magazine during the early 50’s.
This was long before the startling disclosures of the vast penetration of Britain’s security services by the Soviet KGB and the disastrous consequences for hundreds of human beings, not to mention the advantages thereby given to the Soviet Union in becoming privy to practically all the secret details of Western foreign policy. This penetration resulted primarily from British indifference to the early ideological commitments of those recruited for official posts. It also reflected the view current in many circles in the United States that the Communist parties of the world were not really different from other political parties and that their members, despite their submission in those days to the absolute control of the Kremlin, should enjoy the same rights and privileges to government employment as members of other political parties. This questionable view is still held within ritualistic, as opposed to realistic, liberal circles.
1 It was at the evening banquet of the Bicentennial that Harold J. Laski brought down the house with a detailed and eloquent account of his private midnight interview with Stalin in which, after dismissing the interpreter, Stalin took him under the arm and walked him to his car, and said, “Mr. Laski, please take a message from me to the people of England. Tell the people of England that I want peace.” The incident, as Laski’s biographer attests, was made up of whole cloth. Laski understood no Russian and Stalin could not speak a word of English!
2 Wallace himself was somewhat discomfited by the use the Communist party sought to make of him and subsequently denounced the Communists for their chicanery.
3 The British Labor party pacifist leader who resigned in 1935 on the issue of League of Nations sanctions against Italy. In 1937 he visited Hitler and Mussolini in an effort to avert war.
4 A Communist meeting preceding the Waldorf congress at which plans were drawn up for a series of subsequent “peace meetings.”
5 I should perhaps state that several years after this letter was written, and when I was no longer chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, I learned that when it was unable to pay its rent, Norman Thomas, a member of the executive committee, telephoned Allen Dulles of the CIA and requested a contribution. Subsequently, when I questioned Thomas about this, he said that he and Dulles had been friends and classmates at Princeton—both being protégés of Woodrow Wilson—and that he had solicited the contribution purely on the basis of his personal friendship. Under the circumstances I was quite dubious about the wisdom of the request. In any case, to the best of my knowledge, at the time my letter to Einstein was written, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom received no clandestine support from the CIA.
6 Madame Kosenkina was an employee of the Russian consulate in New York who in 1948 jumped to freedom from the consulate windows.
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My Running Debate With Einstein
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.