William Pfaff: Clarity in the American Interest

A man I never met but felt I knew

Title page of one of William Pfaff's books.

I am not taking time now to dig around and find some of the best examples of the clear-headed perspective that William Pfaff brought to thinking about American interests in the world, through nearly all of my conscious life. I will try to do that soon.

But on hearing today of his death, at age 86, I wanted to note what sad news that is, and how remarkable his writing had been over the decades, and how well I think it will stand up in long-term perspective.

William Pfaff speaking in Austria in 2011 (US Embassy Vienna)

One reason Pfaff's name is no longer as well-known as it should be in the United States is that he did not live by the rules of the modern media-industrial complex. He moved to Paris in 1971, in his early 40s, and never moved back. If he ever appeared on an American TV program, I don't remember seeing it. Although I felt as if I knew him, through the clarity of his expression and thought, I never saw or heard him in person. Until I went looking for pictures of him just now, I had no idea what he looked like, and I still don't know how his voice would sound.

His voice on the page was unmistakable, a relentless "let's cut the crap" examination of what the latest panic, posturing, or crusade in domestically driven U.S foreign policy would mean when converted to a war, a boycott, or alliance somewhere else.

The most maddening thing about most foreign policy "debate" in America is how little it has to do with the realities of the country supposedly under discussion—Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, China, Cuba, take your pick—and how much it is an extension of domestic disagreements and suspicions. That is, we're against Country X, mainly because Domestic Rival Y is sympathetic to that country. Pfaff had exactly zero patience for this sort of displacement or confusion. Here's one example: a NYRB essay in which he compared the domestic-U.S. roots of the Vietnam war with those of the invasion of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, he was against both wars.

On reading his bio, I learn that Pfaff was all-American in his origins: born in Iowa, raised there and in Georgia, educated at Notre Dame. He was an infantry and Special Forces veteran during and after the Korean War. As he never concealed, he had gone to Europe in the late 1950s as an executive of the Free Europe Committee, a CIA-funded Cold War anti-Communist organization that worked to get broadcasts and publications to audiences behind the Iron Curtain.

Few American analysts wound up as truly cosmopolitan in outlook as Pfaff. He was remarkably able to understand how his country looked from outside—why and when it was admired, and why resented or feared—and his books and articles were in a sense running lessons on that theme. Perhaps this was another reason why his audience and influence dwindled in the United States as they grew internationally. Through the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote frequently in William Shawn's New Yorker. After that, his most regular outlet was a column mainly carried outside the U.S. in the International Herald Tribune, plus some essays in the NYRB and his books. Here is a sample from ten years ago in Harper's:

George W. Bush and the price of torture By William Pfaff, Harper's Magazine November 2005.

The most important reason for the tension that exists between the United States and most of the rest of the democratic world is that American claims about the threat of terrorism seem grossly exaggerated. The extravagance of its reaction seems disproportionate and unrealistic, even suggestive of the sweeping and utopian political fantasies that convulsed the mid-twentieth century, meant in their day to bring “an end to history.”...

The American insistence that September 11, 2001, was the defining
event of the age, after which “nothing could be the same,” is regarded
as simply untrue. The only thing that really changed was the United States. That it may never again be the same is profoundly depressing.

And here is a sample of an article from five years ago in Foreign Affairs:

Manufacturing Insecurity
How Militarism Endangers America

By William Pfaff

It is time to ask a fundamental question that few government officials or politicians in the United States seem willing to ask: Has it been a terrible error for the United States to have built an all-but-irreversible worldwide system of more than 1,000 military bases, stations, and outposts? This system was created to enhance U.S. national security, but what if it has actually done the opposite, provoking conflict and creating the very insecurity it was intended to prevent?

You don't have to agree with Pfaff's answers to these questions to respect the clarity, depth, and unsentimental honesty with which he presents and examines them. A searchable archive of his articles since 2000 is here. (Update: and a very interesting interview in Harry Kreisler's wonderful Conversations with History site at UC Berkeley is here.)

Pfaff's web site says that Arthur Schlesinger had called him "Walter Lippmann's authentic heir." As Ronald Steel's magnificent biography of Lippmann made clear, Lippmann was steeped in and a master of the New York/DC political-media intrigues that Pfaff distanced himself from. And I realize that the Lippmann reference itself, or mention of Schlesinger, may also be unfamiliar for some of today's readers. But if the comparison means an ability to think clearly about the intersection of world and American interests, and an attempt to minimize the effects of hysteria, paranoia, or utopian fantasies, it is apt.