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Monday, April 12, 2010


The more I learned about America's weaponry and its policies for dealing with them, the more convinced I became that the only sane response was some form of nuclear disarmament. I was hardly alone, needless to say. Many of the most distinguished physicists throughout the world, including some who had participated in the invention of the first nuclear weapons, began to speak publicly about the necessity of a negotiated reduction in the weapons, leading to a complete dismantling of the arsenals being created by Russia and the United States. In 1955, Bertrand Russell led an attempt to bring together physicists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to talk about steps toward nuclear disarmament. Eventually, in July 1957, the first of what became a series of yearly conferences took place in the town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, underwritten by a wealthy businessman, Cyrus Eaton. The Pugwash Conferences, as they came to be called, were for some years the focus of the international Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was as a consequence of one of the Pugwash Conferences, albeit indirectly, that I learned a lesson that has stayed with me up to the present time.

I had become friendly with Richard Barnet, a young lawyer at the Russian Research Institute who had made himself an expert on the legal aspects of disarmament. In 1960, I think it was, Walt W. Rostow, later Lyndon Johnson's National Security Advisor, returned from a Pugwash Conference and gave television interviews in which he parroted the standard propaganda line of the American government - that Russians did not really want disarmament, could not be trusted, and so forth. Barnet invited me to a closed briefing at the Institute for Harvard's Russian scholars [the same Institute in which Barry Moore was located], and I jumped at the chance to find out what experts really thought, what they said to one another behind closed doors. Everyone was there - Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, Zbigniev Brzeszinski, all the hotshots. I listened with dismay as Rostow used the same hackneyed jargon that had characterized his public appearances. Worse still, the responses from the experts were couched as well in the cold war boilerplate. It dawned on me that this was the way they actually thought. There was no real insider story that they shared only with fellow experts. They actually believed the nonsense they shoveled out to the public. I was reminded of this experience as I listened to Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condaleeza Rice mouth manifest nonsense about their invasion of Iraq.

My first foray into the public debate was a letter to the New York TIMES on September 25, 1959. Nikita Khrushchev had come to the United Nations to propose General and Complete Disarmament in four years. The western press and the American Government hooted in derision at the very idea of complete disarmament, and dismissed his proposal without the slightest serious consideration. I was furious, and wrote a letter questioning whether America actually wanted disarmament, its public professions to the contrary notwithstanding. I suggested that whereas Marx had said that capitalism thrived on war, he would, if he were alive today, suggest that capitalism now thrived on the preparation for war. The TIMES published the letter, probably because I was an Instructor at Harvard.

The response was extraordinary - one more evidence of the enormous reach of the TIMES and the newsworthiness of the Harvard name.. I got lovely letters, painstakingly hand-written on lined paper, from old socialists in New York who came out of hiding to bless me for speaking out; several sober response to my letter were published in the next week; and the right wing hatemonger George Sokolsky devoted an entire column to denouncing me as unfit to teach the young. I was thrilled.

Over the next two years, I committed more and more of my time and energy to the struggle to arouse Americans to the dangers of nuclear war. I appeared on local television, spoke at churches and synagogues, debated Thomas Schelling on the Harvard campus, and in early 1961 wrote a long attack on Kahn's book that appeared as the cover story in The New Republic. I even debated Kahn in person before a large audience at Jordan Hall in Boston. I prepared myself for the appearance by studying the radiation shielding properties of concrete and the prevailing wind patterns in North America. I can still see myself sitting in the bathtub in my Winthrop House suite, rehearsing my talking points before the big event.

Perhaps the oddest gig produced by my involvement in the campaign for nuclear disarmament was an invitation to make a presentation to Henry Kissinger's seminar on international relations and defense policy. The seminar was regularly attended by young men from wealthy and important families in the Third World, visiting at Harvard to complete their education. In later years, as these men rose to positions of importance in the governments of their home nations, Kissinger used his role as their former professor to expand and solidify his influence. [It is worth recalling that the obsequiously ambitious Marty Peretz played, and still plays, the same role to Al Gore. A Gore presidency would have been vastly better than the Bush disaster, but it would not have been without its problems.]

Kissinger was not a new-style defense intellectual. He was actually an old-fashioned diplomatic historian whose early work had been on Bismarck. But he was very ambitious, and had the wit to jump on a bandwagon as it was passing by. He had written a rather facile and superficial book called The Necessity for Choice, which stole liberally from On Thermonuclear War and was transparently designed to catch the attention of John Kennedy, then running hard for the presidency. In his ponderous Germanic manner, Kissinger dismissed pro-disarmament types like me as insufficiently aware of the enormous profundity of the issues, stating in a letter to the Harvard Crimson that this was all "a very serious and difficult subject."

Because of my background in logic and mathematics, I was able without too much trouble to master the formal materials derived from Game Theory and Bargaining Theory that Schelling, Morton Halperin, Albert Wohlstetter and others used to give some aura of scientific precision to their speculations. When I showed up at Kissinger's office on the day of the seminar, I asked whether there was a blackboard in the room. Kissinger wanted to know why I needed one, so I explained that I was going to put some Game Theory matrices on the board, as a focus of my critique of Kahn and Schelling. Kissinger reacted rather oddly. Needless to say, he understood not a word of Game Theory or Bargaining Theory, and he suggested nervously that there was no need to go into such things. Rather maliciously, I insisted, pointing out that this was a "very serious and difficult subject."

As I became more and more involved in the disarmament movement, I began to link up with the many other people in the Harvard community who shared my anxieties. In response to my TIMES letter, David Riesman, recently appointed the first Ford Professor of the Social Sciences, had written me a congratulatory note with an invitation to stop in to see him on the top floor of Emerson Hall, where Harvard's Social Relations Department was located. When I diffidently poked my head into his office, asking whether I was disturbing him, he gestured broadly for me to come in. "That's the trouble with this place," he complained. "No one talks to anyone else. I am right down the hall from Mr. Sociology [he meant Talcott Parsons] and I have never had a conversation with him."

Riesman had the habit of taking up young people, more or less in the manner of the Boston Amorys, and I suddenly found myself receiving copies of every memorandum and letter that he wrote to anyone on the Harvard campus. He and a number of others, including the grand old pacifist A. J. Muste and the brilliant, eccentric psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson, were reviving the Revolutionary War tradition of Committees of Correspondence. I began attending their meetings, and published several essays in their Newsletter. Riesman was open and accessible, almost to a fault, but I found Erikson rather distant, and never established any sort of real relationship with him.

The liveliest circle of critics and activists, of which I became a charter member, was a small group of graduate students and young faculty that took to calling itself "The New Left Club of Cambridge," in ironic imitation of its English prototype. We weren't really a club, just some like-minded men and women who enjoyed hanging out together and talking politics. For the year that I ran Social Studies, we used to meet in my office for a bag lunch every week or so.

The group included Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, Steven and Abigail Thernstrom, Gordon Levin, Michael Walzer, Nadav Safran, and on occasion H. Stuart Hughes, although Hughes was rather older than the rest of us. Martin Peretz joined the group, as did Michael Maccoby.

Gaby and Joyce were wonderful old-fashioned radicals, already doing the first-rate research that eventually resulted in Gaby's fine 1962 book, Wealth and Power in America. I have taught the book many times over the years, until my copy is tattered and held together with scotch tape. What can I say about Steve and Abby? Steve was a graduate student in History, doing the research on the New England working class in the eighteenth century that made his reputation and won him tenure at Harvard. The two of them were tigers when it came to political issues, stepping out front on a number of progressive causes. I have no idea why they have turned sour, bitter, and reactionary, although I once heard a rumor that it was somehow connected with the fact that Steve became an object of student criticism during the Harvard troubles of the late sixties and early seventies. Abigail Thernstrom, in particular, has turned into a veritable Lynn Cheney. She reminds me of Jean Elshtain, who was a bright, lively young scholar when I knew her at UMass, and has since turned hard right. But that is a story for a later installment.

Marty Peretz was essentially a young wannabe, trying to latch onto what looked to him then to be a group of comers. Marty had been an undergraduate student of Max Lerner at Brandeis, who wrote a regular column for the New York Post. Marty actually traveled around the country after he graduated, arranging for the syndication of Lerner's column.

Mike Walzer was a sweet, soft-spoken lovely man, the fair-haired boy of Louis Hartz and the political theorists in the Government Department. His earliest work was on the political theories of English Puritans during the Revolution of 1640. He was awarded tenure at Harvard and eventually moved to a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he is today. I liked Mike enormously, and thought that he and I were kindred spirits. He told me once that when his first child was a little baby and teething, he would walk up and down the apartment carrying her on his shoulder and patting her, trying to soothe her. To keep himself awake, he would open up a picture book of Marilyn Monroe and lay it on the dining room table, allowing himself one page turn for every complete tour of the apartment.

Many years later, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, I was called in Northampton by a young political scientist in New York who told me that a group of political scientists were trying to raise the money to take a full page ad in the TIMES calling for the impeachment of Nixon. The TIMES, rather hard-headedly, wanted the money for the ad up front, and this young man was calling to ask whether I could help him reach Barry Moore or Marty Peretz for contributions. I told him to forget about Barry - like many upper class types with inherited money, Barry was quite stingy when it came to giving it away. But I was pretty sure I could reach Marty through Mike. I phoned Mike, exchanged pleasantries, and then explained why I was calling. There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Very softly, Mike said, "well.... you see .... we are supporting Nixon." I was so astonished that I exploded, asking him what on earth he was talking about. There was an even longer pause. Then, in a sweet, sad voice, almost as though he were describing something being done to him, rather than something he was doing, he said, very hesitantly, "Well... you see ... Israel." Nixon, whatever his crimes, had adopted a strongly pro-Israel policy, and that, it seemed, trumped all other considerations.

I was so embarrassed for Walzer that I got off the phone as fast as I could, and have not talked to him again. Ever since that time, it has seemed to me that Mike's work, whatever its ostensible subject, is really about Israel. Freud says somewhere, talking about the conduct of a psychoanalysis, that if there is any subject that it is not permitted to discuss freely in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that subject.

The wackiest episode of the New Left Club of Cambridge was our flirtation with Erich Fromm, the émigré fugitive from the Frankfort School of Social Research. Fromm was living in Mexico, and Mickey Maccabee had been in touch with him. Somehow, Mickey had managed to give Fromm the impression that there was a large mass of budding socialists up north just waiting for a charismatic leader to transform them into a political powerhouse. Mickey arranged for Fromm to come to Cambridge, and our little handful dutifully turned out to hear him speak. Fromm was obviously dismayed by the size of his army, and lacking the staying power of a Stalin or a Lenin, turned tail and headed south again.

With the 1960 presidential campaign heating up, everyone at Harvard became very excited, needless to say. We were all fanatic Kennedy supporters. After all, he was a Harvard man, his wife spoke French, and he had won a Pulitzer Prize [even if the book that won it for him was, as it later became clear, written by Ted Sorenson.] I ran into Barry Moore on the campus one day and gushed a bit about the race. He looked at me from a height as much intellectual as physical and observed that there was not the slightest bit of difference between Kennedy and Nixon. It took me many years to realize that he was quite right.


Jacob T. Levy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacob T. Levy said...

On a first reading I'd thought that your Walzer-Nixon story was set in 1960, not 1973-4-- the comment deleted above was premised on that misunderstanding.

Jesse B said...

It is preposterous to believe the Soviets wanted disarmament, when the Soviets had attacked Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.

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