News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

The hard-liner

Harvard historian Richard Pipes shaped the Reagan administration's aggressive approach to the Soviet Union. His support for confrontation over containment prefigured the Bush foreign policy of today.

OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS, the Bush administration has inspired one of the more stimulating scavenger hunts in recent memory -- the search for the Ur-theorist of its bold foreign policy initiatives. With each new turn another name has emerged. "Regime change" gave us the political philosopher Leo Strauss. The "shock and awe" campaign brought forth the Cold War calculations of military strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Hints of follow-up aggression against Syria and North Korea had some consulting Trotsky's writings on "permanent revolution."

A likelier candidate might be Richard Pipes, the eminent historian of Russia who two decades ago interrupted a thriving career as a Harvard professor to help the Reagan administration articulate an assertive foreign policy that strikingly prefigured the "Bush doctrine" of today.

Drawing on themes he first explored as a scholar in the 1950s and `60s -- in particular, the brutal top-down nature of Russian power and its ultimate fragility -- Pipes wrote hardline policy memos that gave impetus to the "second Cold War" of the late 1970s and `80s in which negotiation with the USSR was replaced by political confrontation. His influence peaked in 1981-82 when, as an official at the National Security Council, he helped steer Ronald Reagan toward the belief that the Soviet regime could and must be defeated.

Pipes's journey from the archive to the cabinet meeting is related in his newly published autobiography "Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger" (Yale). A compact volume, modest in scale if not in tone, "Vixi" (Latin for "I have lived") might as well be titled "Vinci," for it is very much a record of unlikely triumph over formidable odds, beginning with its gripping account of Pipes's days as a young Jew living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.

Pipes's father, a successful businessman, plied his many contacts and at last secured passports for his family. They fled in 1939, when Pipes was 16, escaping through Italy to the United States. The son, recreated as an American, served in World War II, received a doctorate from Harvard, stayed on as an instructor and was tenured in 1958. He soon established himself as one of his generation's leading experts on Russia.

Beginning with his 1954 book "The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923," Pipes focused on the endurance of Russia's autocratic traditions. His thinking derived in part from his own brief experience of totalitarianism. "When I was in Poland under the Germans, any German in uniform could take out his revolver and shoot me just because he didn't like my face," Pipes said in a recent interview. "When you see this violence, when you see these cruel barbarities, you tend to look at things more realistically." More realistically, he means, than do most Americans, to whom such barbarity "all seems very remote."

But then so does it seem in the substantial Cambridge home where Pipes lives in easeful retirement, with a Toyota Corolla in the driveway and a front lawn fringed by evergreens. In person he is scholarly and genteel, with distinct traces of Mitteleuropean elegance. Even at home, he dresses formally -- on this Saturday morning he is wearing an immaculate gray suit, not-quite crimson necktie, and soft black leather loafers. (In "Vixi" he observes that on trips to the mall he's the only one in sight wearing a tie.)

Composing himself in a sitting room tastefully furnished with Oriental sculpture and prints, Pipes exudes an air of Continental detachment, especially when the discussion turns to recent events. "Americans say a new era of history began," he remarks of Sept. 11, 2001. "How can you say this? Three thousand people perished. Under Stalin in 1937-38, 3,000 people were executed in one single day."

In his historical writings, Pipes contends that the 1917 revolution, though the central event of its time, simply replaced one elite with another. The Kremlin nomenklatura, like the royal despots before them, appropriated the nation to themselves. "You look at a picture of [Lev] Kamenev at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918," Pipes says of an early Bolshevik hero. "He's slender. Two years later he's fat, obese. It is a Russian story." The great mass of people, whether subjects or comrades, understood that order and continuity flowed only from above. The country had no enduring secular institutions, no legitimate rule of law, no private property. Pipes's views were confirmed in visits to Russia and China, where he discovered, as he writes in "Vixi," that "culture is more important than ideology: that ideas accommodate to the cultural soil on which they fall."

Initially, Pipes's work was received respectfully. "I was not considered to be a hardliner or a cold warrior," he says. But then, in the 1960s, "things began to split" in the ranks of Sovietologists, owing in large part to the Vietnam War. "Guilt-ridden" establishment figures like George F. Kennan drifted leftward "and became more tolerant of the Soviet Union." Meanwhile, a younger academic cohort, some of its members tutored in the antiwar movement, insisted that capitalism and communism were not really so different and that the two enemy superpowers might be headed toward "convergence."

Pipes, as a staunch anticommunist, came under attack and responded in kind. "He was courageous to write at the time when the dominant school was revisionism," says Walter Laqueur, a historian of modern Europe and a recent biographer of Stalin. "He thought that the Soviet experiment was a disaster, and of course this was vindicated."

Stephen Sestanovich, a Russian expert in the Clinton Administration who now teaches at Columbia, agrees. "Revisionist views don't look so good [today] in the sense that Soviet Communism collapsed in a miserable heap." Vladimir Putin himself, Sestanovich adds, "uses the word `totalitarian' even though American scholars spent a generation squirming at the word."

But if Pipes's politics alienated many in the academy, they won him an attentive audience in Washington, particularly among those convinced, as he was, that the USSR was at once a menacing regime and a vulnerable one. It should not be merely "deterred" or "contained" but defeated in a war of attrition that would pit America's flexible democracy against what Pipes deemed "a rigidly conservative regime that had more in common with the absolutism of a Nicholas I than with the utopian fantasies of 19th-century radicals." The United States should strike where the enemy was weakest -- Russia's decrepit economy, its flagging national morale, its submerged dissident culture.

In 1970, while still at Harvard, Pipes found a patron in Democratic Senator Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, a Cold War liberal who mobilized early resistance to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of dente, with its overtures to Moscow. "They put me up at the Hay-Adams," Pipes recalls of his first meeting with Jackson in Washington. "A young kid came to pick me up" -- Richard Perle, one of a new cadre of hawks who opposed all but the toughest arms negotiations with the Soviets. Recast as a Kremlinologist, Pipes drew out the implications of his theories in papers he wrote for Jackson and in testimony before Congress.

In late 1975, a dramatic reshuffling of the Ford administration installed a new defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, a new chief of staff, Dick Cheney, and a new CIA chief, George H.W. Bush. It was Bush who approved the formation of "Team B," a group of 16 outside experts charged with challenging what some considered the CIA's sanguine estimates of Soviet military strength. Pipes, named the group's chairman, brought in a brilliant young weapons analyst, Paul Wolfowitz. "Richard Perle recommended him," Pipes says of Wolfowitz today. "I'd never heard of him."

Team B was engulfed in controversy from the outset. A top CIA analyst called it "a kangaroo court of outside critics all picked from one point of view." Others said its mission was to hype the Soviet threat. Pipes disagrees. "We dealt with one problem only: What is the Soviet strategy for nuclear weapons? Team B was appointed to look at the evidence and to see if we could conclude that the actual Soviet strategy is different from ours. It's now demonstrated totally, completely, that it was," he says, adducing documents in Polish archives that show the Soviets planning to use nuclear weapons in the event of war.

Still, the debate persists, as much because of the panel's methods as its findings. While some Team B reports (for instance, Wolfowitz's on intermediate-range missiles) were closely reasoned, others drew on what Pipes himself calls "soft evidence" such as Soviet "theoretical writings that showed they didn't share the MAD doctrine." (That is, the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction," the premise that both sides would avoid a first nuclear strike for fear of unleashing armageddon.)

At times, Team B performed logical somersaults that eerily foreshadowed Bush administration statements on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Just because superweapons like a "non-acoustic anti-submarine system" couldn't be found, Pipes's report argued, that didn't mean the Soviets couldn't build one, even if they appeared to lack the technical know-how.

Today Pipes defends his approach. "Hardware doesn't tell you anything. You can have a neighbor who's a peaceful man who likes to collect guns because he likes to collect guns. But he may also be a criminal, or someone who collects them for a different reason." The big question, in other words, is intention. The CIA ignored it because its analysts were prone to "mirror-imaging," the presumption that the Soviets thought just as we did. In fact, says Pipes, the latter-day tsars of the Brezhnev era viewed the Cold War struggle as a zero-sum game from which only one victor would emerge.

Pipes, completing the neoconservative transition from Jackson Democrat to Reaganite, joined the National Security Council in 1981 and manned its Eastern European and Soviet desk. He stayed on just two years -- the maximum time away from campus that Harvard permits. He stumbled initially when he blurted to a journalist that "dente is dead." But the administration backed him up, and he soon learned to move carefully in an alien bureaucratic world.

Those eventful years are covered in detail in "Vixi," which draws on journals Pipes kept at the time. "Most evenings I would sit down and write out what happened," he says. "I have about five or six volumes." He could easily mine this material for another book or two but has no plans to so. Instead he will deposit the material at Harvard with the proviso that it remain sealed for 10-15 years.

To judge from the snatches quoted in "Vixi," historians will eagerly consult the journals, not least for their closely observed picture of Reagan, whom Pipes repeatedly briefed in the Oval Office. Departing from current Reaganolatry, Pipes depicts a man of strong conviction but shallow intellect, crestfallen when a gathering of Soviet dissidents was already familiar with his full repertoire of Communist jokes and often "stumped" by policy discussions."

I was surprised to see how little deference [Deputy Chief of Staff Michael] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker showed Reagan," Pipes writes. "They seemed to treat him rather like a grandfather whom one humors but does not take very seriously."

More intriguing still, Pipes evokes an administration bitterly divided in ways that bring to mind today's "interagency" fissures. Pipes and his allies at the NSC and the Pentagon, who wanted to roll back communism, clashed with Foggy Bottom diplomats sold on "appeasement." "Whenever we went to the State Department, we always felt we were entering enemy territory," Pipes says. He is openly contemptuous of Reagan's Secretary of State George Schultz and his "CEO" approach to Moscow, that of a bargainer content to "haggle over the division of profits."

Meanwhile, Pipes says, America's cynically self-seeking NATO partners created "the kind of problems we would experience later on, in the 1990s and early 2000s, after the Communist threat had vanished and the European governments began openly to resist our efforts to cope with the new global threat, Islamic terrorism."

All this history seems to point in one direction. Does Pipes mean to say the "second Cold War" was in fact a rehearsal for the "war on terror"?

He is carefully agnostic on the matter. But the connection is hard to ignore. "If your view is that the problems the United States faces today are analogous to those of the Cold War, that you face an organized opponent with a radically different worldview," says Sestanovich, "you can then see some similarities between a comprehensive strategy to get at that worldview that was developed by Pipes during the Cold War and the strategy the Bush administration has developed since 9/11."

It is all the more remarkable, then, that Pipes has some misgivings about the most recent application, in Iraq, of the approach he helped formulate. "I think the war was correct -- destroying this invasive evil. But beyond this I think they're too ambitious," he says.

He bluntly dismisses the promise of a democratic Iraq -- "impossible, a fantasy" -- citing obstacles similar to Russia's. "Democracy requires, among other things, individualism -- the breakdown of old clannish, tribal organizations, the individual standing face-to-face with the state. You don't have that in the Middle East. Iraq is tribally run."

What about the constitution soon to be written in Baghdad? Pipes laughs. "Stalin had a wonderful constitution, the most perfect constitution in the world. There's a lot of naivet in that. I should think we'd be satisfied with some kind of stability, preventing Saddam Hussein from coming back. It's fantastic that we haven't caught this man. He sits there somewhere."

It is not lost on Pipes that his criticism goes directly to the judgment of the Bush team, conservatives like himself, in some cases former colleagues, most prominently Team B's own Wolfowitz. "Paul didn't have much education in history," Pipes says. "It's not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn't have a particular understanding of other cultures."

The administration official with whom Pipes is most in sympathy is its resident Russian expert, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. "She came to see me after I left Washington in 1983," Pipes says, though he has not heard from her since. Perhaps now that her portfolio has been expanded, the call will come.

Sam Tanenhaus, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley.

past coverage
A series on the thinkers who have shaped the Bush administration's view of the world.
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART ONE: The philosopher (By Jeet Heer, 5/11/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART TWO: The analyst (By Neil Swidey, 5/18/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART THREE: The farmer (By Laura Secor, 5/25/03)
 THE MIND OF THE ADMINISTRATION | PART FOUR: The hard-liner (By Sam Tanenhaus, 11/2/03)
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months