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Thursday, September 14, 2017


Obsessive readers of this blog will have noted David Palmeter’s comment, four days ago, about disparities between Whites and Blacks in wealth, far greater than the disparities in income, and my approving reply.  The next day, I came across a link to an extremely interesting research paper on that topic published by the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS.  I shall write something about that paper, at which point I shall provide a link, but first, I want to reminisce for a while about my connections with the two founders of IPS, Marcus Raskin and the late Richard Barnet, both whom were my friends.

I got to know Dick Barnet during the later ‘50s, during my Instructorship at Harvard, through our shared commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament.  Dick was a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Institute [the academic home of Barrington Moore, Jr., with whom I co-taught a Social Studies tutorial seminar during the ’60-’61 academic year.]  Dick published a very useful little book, Who Wants Disarmament? In 1961.  It was through Dick that I was introduced to a fundamental and important truth of the world of public affairs, a truth that can be summarized by Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland, CA, “there is no there there.”  It happened like this.

In those days, there was an annual meeting called the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, named after the town in Nova Scotia where it was first held in 1957.  In ’60, I think it was, Walt Rostow, later LBJ’s National Security Advisor, returned from a Pugwash Conference and gave several TV interviews on the nuclear disarmament discussions there, which I watched.  Rostow was invited to give a closed door briefing on the proceedings for a select group of distinguished Harvard experts at the Russian Research Institute, and Dick managed to get me in.  I was very excited, believing that at last I would find out how the experts talked about nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations in private when they were among the cognoscenti.  It was an impressive gathering.  All of Harvard’s big names in Soviet Studies were there, including Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniev Bzrezinski.  As I listened to the discussion, I was dismayed to discover that when these big wigs were talking privately to one another, they uttered exactly the same ridiculous ideological hogwash that they put out to the press and public.  There was no esoteric doctrine, no there there.  They really thought that way!  Admittedly, I was young [twenty-six], but it was an eye-opener that I have never forgotten.

The next Spring, after Jack Kennedy’s election, Dick went to the Disarmament Agency in Washington.  In August of ’61, after my Instructorship ended, I made a first visit to D.C., to see Dick and several other people I knew who had left Harvard for the new Administration.  Dick introduced me to Marcus Raskin, a young man my age from Chicago whom McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had hired as his assistant.  Marc, who was located in the Old Executive Office Building, was supposed to be Bundy’s in-house critic from the left, raising doubts about the policies he was pushing to Kennedy [such as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.]  Marc’s secretary was a rich, well-connected young woman named Diane DeVegh, rumored to be Kennedy’s mistress, who had been placed there to be nearby should the President have need of her services.  Fourteen months later, I was teaching at the University of Chicago, where, among other things, I offered a course in the Political Science Department on Military Strategy and Foreign Policy.  I was at that point very deep into the whole business of the threat of nuclear war, and I was terrified.  When the crisis hit, I loaded up my VW bug with a Geiger Counter and dried food, and made plane reservations for my wife and myself on flights to Canada and Mexico so that we could make an immediate escape north or south, depending on which way the prevailing winds were blowing.  Marc called me from his office to ask what I was doing to help avert a war.  I told him about my escape plans, and he was sternly disapproving, saying that I had an obligation to do whatever I could to work for peace.  I responded by asking him what he was doing, keeping in mind that he sat at the elbow of the chief national security advisor of the President.  He said in a soft voice, as though he were leaning into the phone and shielding his voice so as not to be overheard, “We are trying to reach the Pope.”  At that point, I got really, really scared.

The next year, Marc and Dick started IPS, and it exists to this day.  


s. wallerstein said...

That behind closed doors the big wigs talk the exact same ideological hogwash as they do to the public and the press is revealing and frightening. Never having talked to big wigs, I had always assumed that they were Machiavellian realists when the press and the public is not around. I remember that as a student opposed to the Viet Nam war in the 60's one recurring discussion among friends was whether Lyndon Johnson really believed what he was saying about the war. I always sustained that he did not, but apparently those who insisted that he did were right.

Did you really expect commercial airlines flights to function normally after a nuclear war?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The trick is getting out in time, something I have been obsessed with all my life after reading about German and Austrian Jews who hesitated about fleeing, because of their possessions until it was too late.

s. wallerstein said...

There's a great scene in the Woody Allan movie, Broadway Danny Rose. The mafia is after him and want to kill him, so he and Mia Farrow are hurriedly gathering their possessions to flee the mob, but Woody Allan has to make sure that his socks, which are drying on a clothes line, are completely dry. Mia Farrow is screamingly at him to hurry up, but Woody Allan has to check out sock by sock.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff:

Note that someone could do a book-length study on the concept of “closed-door” meetings and the idea of secrecy within various institutions (government, corporate world, academia, scientific laboratories, etc.). Ostensibly, secrecy within organizations is necessary to keep sensitive information out of “enemy hands” or away from those who might carelessly spread it about. Think here of the old dictum: “Loose lips sink ships.” Nine times out of ten, however, secrecy serves the key purpose of maintaining the rigidity between the class and even caste divisions within a given institution – highlighting the differences in employee job distinctions. Indeed, the issue of secrecy often segregates employees to a degree that some may find humiliating. It is in this sense that secrecy can be used to resocialize employees within their respective job positions. Once an individual is granted access to certain secrets it tends to facilitate feelings of privilege, elitism, and power among those with access. Within organizations practicing secrecy, compartmentalization of knowledge consolidates the power of senior members over their subordinates, who are less well-informed. Note that it is of little consequence that forbidden secrets often turn out to be surprisingly mundane and unexciting once they are revealed. The point is that secrecy is a means by which power constitutes itself as power, and the knowledge of secrets is a perquisite of power. Since most secrets are of trifling consequence, it is relatively easy for “big wigs” to manipulate underlings by granting or denying them access to secrecy.

-- Jim

p.s.: A tip 'o the pen to anthropologist Hugh Gusterson who observed this dynamic while studying the employee culture at the Lawrence Livermore labs. See his book, "Nuclear Rites" (1996).

Matt said...

As I listened to the discussion, I was dismayed to discover that when these big wigs were talking privately to one another, they uttered exactly the same ridiculous ideological hogwash that they put out to the press and public.

When I was in law school (or otherwise spending time at Penn in various positions)it wasn't unusual for some medium to semi-high level government official to come and give a talk. People would get excited, but I never wanted to go, because I knew from experience that it would just be a PR show. I could find out the same stuff from reading something, and that would take a lot less time. Even questions would not help - they would either be an opportunity for someone to grandstand, or would be met with a sort of brush off. I do still expect that, at some level, there is some "realism" within these organizations, where some deeper level of thought is reached, but given the people I know who have gone into government in various ways, and knowing what _they_ thought of these presentations at the time, I am not surprised that there are a large number of people for whom this sort of stuff really does seem like deep, serious, thought.

LFC said...

Of course, "closed door" talk doesn't *always* match public talk.

LBJ taped a lot of his phone conversations w/ people (as did JFK), but it was Nixon who appears to have taped virtually everything said in the Oval Office, and most (if not all) of those tapes are now publicly accessible.

We consequently know, for example, what Nixon and Kissinger were saying privately to each other during the '71 Bangladesh crisis, w Nixon, for instance, referring to Indira Gandhi as a "bitch" and the Indians as "bastards" who needed a "mass famine," and ruminating about using nuclear weapons:

Kissinger: "If the Soviets move against them [the Chinese] and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished."

Nixon: "So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?"

See, e.g.: