TCS Daily

A Hardliner's Life

By Kenneth Silber - November 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Richard Pipes is an historian who made, as well as studied, history. An expert on Soviet and Russian history, Pipes helped change the direction of U.S. foreign policy. In the 1970s, he headed a government panel of outside experts brought in to assess Soviet nuclear strategy; his "Team B" unit (as opposed to the CIA's "Team A") concluded that the Soviet posture was more threatening than U.S. policy had assumed.


In the early 1980s, Pipes worked in the Reagan administration, heading the East European and Soviet desk of the National Security Council. As such, he pushed for a hard line toward the Soviets, arguing that U.S. pressure could induce changes in the Communist system. This flew in the face of conventional analysis, and received considerable vindication in the years up to and through the Soviet Union's collapse.


Pipes' stint in Washington, notable as it was, is just one episode in a remarkable life, set forth in his new autobiography Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (Yale University Press, $30.00). The book's title is Latin for "I have lived." The subtitle evokes his intellectual nonconformity and disagreements with other historians and Soviet experts. Pipes spent most of his career at Harvard, and Vixi contains interesting reflections on that institution and academic life more broadly.


But Pipes' early years make for particularly engrossing reading. Born in Poland in 1923, and Jewish, he was 16 when the Nazis invaded. Pipes and his parents survived the bombardment and initial occupation of Warsaw. Weeks later, using forged travel documents, they obtained passage to Italy (then under the Fascists but only beginning, under German pressure, to implement anti-Jewish laws). From there, they were able to get visas for the United States, arriving by ship in July 1940. Numerous relatives and friends who were left behind died in the Holocaust.


These experiences instilled in Pipes a loathing for not only Nazism but all totalitarianism, an attitude that helped shape his later thinking about the Soviet Union. Pipes attended a small college in Ohio, and then learned Russian while serving stateside in the Army. After the war, he married and began raising a family. He studied Russian history at Harvard, later joining the faculty. Over the years, his friendships included luminaries such as philosopher Isaiah Berlin, critic Edmund Wilson and diplomat George Kennan (but at one Pipes dinner party, these three had nothing interesting to say to each other).


Pipes wrote prolifically and traveled widely. He formed contacts with Russian dissidents, and was observed keenly by Soviet intelligence organs. At Harvard, he watched the campus unrest of the 1960s with revulsion. He found himself at odds with "revisionist" historians who used Marxist methodology and viewed the Soviets sympathetically. Visiting China in the late 1970s, Pipes met Communist officials who worried that the U.S. was too weak in its policies toward the USSR.


Now 80, Pipes has retired from teaching but maintains an active writing career; he writes poignantly in the book's final pages about retirement, aging, life and death. His intellectual interests include the philosophical and literary as well as the historical, and his erudition is formidable. In the late 1990s, he turned his attention more toward economics, writing a book on the relationship between property rights and freedom.


He seems to have relatively little affinity for science and technology, a disposition not uncommon among conservative intellectuals. It would be interesting to know what role he thinks technology (including not just missile defense but everyday gadgets like copiers and fax machines) played in the Soviet Union's downfall. Pipes is correct, though, in criticizing the naïveté displayed by some scientists (such as those who wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) regarding Soviet behavior during the Cold War.


The current struggles on the world scene are touched upon only glancingly in Vixi. Pipes observes that European, particularly German and French, resistance to U.S. efforts to counter the Soviet Union foreshadowed similar resistance to U.S. efforts against terrorism. Noting that many Polish Jews under German occupation failed initially to grasp the depth of Nazi hatred, Pipes thinks many Israelis were similarly deluded about Palestinian enmity in recent years. (His son, Daniel Pipes, is a noted and controversial expert on the Muslim world, known for advocating a hard line against terrorism.)


Altogether, Vixi tells the story of a life well lived, one in which thought and action combined to improve the world.


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