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I never write on any subject unless I believe the opinion of those who have the ear of the public to be mistaken, and this involves, as a necessary consequence, that every book I write runs counter to the men who are in possession of the field; hence I am always in hot water...
-Samuel Butler
Mr. Pipes's memoirs, as one would expect of an academic, are somewhat episodic, punctuated often as not by the publication of a new book. And given his personal background, the story he has to tell is most likely to appeal to folks trying to understand Ronald Reagan and his administration or to those seeking to track the influence of neoconservatism in that earlier time. But one would hope for a wider audience too, because the tale he has to tell--of how one man's contrarian stance against the intellectual orthodoxy of his time can affect both him personally and, if he's lucky, the course of events--is quite timeless.

The early portions of Mr. Pipes's life--his family's flight from Poland as the Nazis took over; his happenstance entry into Muskingum College in Ohio; his language training in the Army--are especially entertaining, both because Mr. Pipes turns out to have a sly sense of humor and because we see how a series of what are little more than coincidences led him into the field of Sovietology, where he became quite probably the most perceptive observer/critic of the Soviet Union at least within the professoriate. The humor is displayed, for instance, in the following:
I remembered mother giving me a sandwich of rye bread covered with a thick layer of butter and radishes. As I was eating it in front of the house, the radishes slid off. Thus I learned about loss. Next door lived a boy my age who had a rocking horse covered with a glossy hide. I badly wanted one like it. Thus I became acquainted with envy. And finally, my parents told me that I once invited several of my friends to a grocery store and gave each an orange. Asked by the proprietor who would pay, I replied, "parents." Thus...I learned what communism was, namely, that someone else pays.
He also brings an interesting--Europeanized--perspective to bear on the America he fled to:
American life at the time was pervaded by a great deal of moralizing. What was proper, and what could not be done, what one should think about important matters was prescribed and regulated. For all the freedom of speech, of which Americans were justly proud, there was a great deal of pressure to conform to accepted standards, and from this point of view, Americans enjoyed less personal freedom than Europeans. What later became known as "political correctness" was embedded in American popular culture even then. I did not resent the vice president of my college urging me to abandon Nietzsche because I knew he meant well: but I could not imagine that any European educator would ever dream of exerting such pressure. With such pressure came a genuine concern for people, a sense that what happened to others mattered--something I had not known in Europe where the prevailing philosophy taught one to take care of oneself. This changed profoundly in the 1960s, as did relations between the sexes. I think I prefer the older American culture, before it became so self-indulgent.
Indeed, although he attributes his sense of mission where fighting communism was concerned to the experience of the Holocaust, it seems too that he imbibed that uniquely moralizing tendency of American life:
The main effect of the Holocaust on my psyche was to make me delight in every day of life that has been granted to me, for I was saved from certain death. I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self-indulgence or self-aggrandizement but to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences.
Likely the moralizing nation helped turn Mr. Pipes into an evangelizer.

At any rate, once in the Army he was trained in the Russian language--though the specific mission for which he was intended fell through, due to Stalin's duplicity--and when the end of WWII rendered a two superpower world, he found himself ideally situated to enter the nascent field of studying the Soviet Union. A teaching position at Harvard guaranteed that he'd be a significant personage in the field and his more jaundiced view of communism in general and the USSR in particular than his colleagues guaranteed him attention. Finally, when he developed the view that Stalinism was incipient in Leninism and that the brutal dictatorship of the Soviets was the inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik revolution, rather than a warped result of Stalin's personality, he was guaranteed controversy, even infamy.

It was that very infamy though that brought him to the attention of the incoming Reagan administration in 1980 and brought about the couple short years for which most of us remember him best, and which will prompt most to read the book. Here he offers us fascinating portraits of Ronald Reagan, Richard V. Allen (his first boss at the National Security Council), and Judge Clark (his second boss), and a deeply troubling one of Alexander Haig. Just as Mr. Pipes was something of a fish out of water as a conservative anti-communist Sovietologist, so too was he somewhat out of his depth as an academic in the political bureaucratic morass of government. Yet he did get to influence events in unlikely ways. In particular, the Polish martial law crisis occurred while the NSC was between directors and Mr. Pipes was able to not just advocate a hard-line but to push it through channels in a way he might not have otherwise. If it can be said that Poland was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union--and the inability to quiet Solidarity--then it might be said that events conspired to put him in the right place at the right time. Of equal importance was the contribution he made to Ronald Reagan's great Westminster speech. Mr. Pipes encouraged the President not just to critique the USSR from a Western perspective but to analyze its failure from its own Marxist perspective:
In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then.

The dimensions of this failure are astounding: A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people. Were it not for the private sector, the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture, the country might be on the brink of famine. These private plots occupy a bare 3 percent of the arable land but account for nearly one-quarter of Soviet farm output and nearly one-third of meat products and vegetables. Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resource into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people. What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones.
Mr. Pipes explains that:
The London speech infuriated the Russians more than anything Reagan had said or done since taking office. They realized full well its implications: that the USSR was, in Marxist terms, facing inevitable collapse and hence was not a power whose interests had to be taken into account or with which it was worth the trouble to negotiate.
This decision--to treat the USSR as so structurally flawed as to be doomed, and therefore not a serious threat in the ultimate analysis--does seem pivotal, but must also call into question the entire American policy of containment, a policy that under such an analysis appears to have been obviously flawed. How do we justify the massive expenditures, countless lost lives, and social upheavals of the Cold War when the truth is that the USSR was destined to collapse irrespective?

Indeed, one of Mr. Pipes's criticisms of Mr. Reagan seems quite wrong from this perspective:
Unquestionably, Reagan's political and economic ideas were in some respects simplistic: I once heard him say that one million Sears Roebuck catalogues distributed in the Soviet Union would bring the regime down.
One recalls the famous Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate, in which the premier of the Soviet Union had so little comprehension of Western life that he refused to believe that a basic set of appliances could possibly be accessible to the average American family. He assumed he was being shown our version of a Potemkin village. How big a stretch is it to say that if the Soviets had understood just how far behind us they really were in terms of affluence it would have destabilized their system just as surely as their later inability to keep up with our military technology did? To the extent that he moved us away from a belief that the USSR was a permanent rival that would always have to be confronted to the idea that it was going to be defeated and handily, Mr. Pipes deserves great credit, but this was something Ronald Reagan always knew, even if in a more simplistic way. Robert D. Kaplan put it best several years ago in a profile of Henry Kissinger:
In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, Kissinger shared a failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite--notably excepting the scholar and former head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, the British scholar and journalist Bernard Levin, and the Eureka College graduate Ronald Reagan.
If Mr. Pipes was less a mentor to than a partner of Mr. Reagan, there's no shame in that.

Lastly, the book offers one really pleasant surprise: the timeless lessons Mr. Pipes took away from his term of government service, lessons that seem almost unlearnable by the press and the public:
Intellectually, the greatest benefit I derived from the experience was to be able to observe at close range how political decisions are made at the highest level. Like most historians, I used to believe in powerful, invisible forces directing statesmen. Like most educated people, I thought that high politics resulted from a careful, inductive process by virtue of which all the information available to the government is conveyed upwards and there subjected to judicious analysis, with all the pros and cons weighed until a decision is reached.

Reality turned out to be quite different. For one, personalities play an enormous role in high politics: likes and dislikes as well as fears, anger, and hopes. Previously I had found it difficult to believe the claim of contemporaries that Nicholas II had dismissed his chief minister, Sergei Witte, because he could not abide his coarse manners. This seemed too flimsy a reason to lose the services of a devoted and talented officials. But observing Reagan's reactions to Haig, I concluded that such personal feelings could indeed play a decisive role in politics. [...] Second, as concerns the process of decision-making, it is not the result of careful weighing of data and all the pros and cons. The information which the bureaucratic machine spews out is too voluminous, complicated, and contradictory for statemen to absorb. Decisions are therefore made ad hoc, on the basis of intellectual predispositions and the mood of the moment.
These lessons will be familiar to anyone who's worked in politics or government, but may be shocking to anyone who has not. What they do more than anything else is suggest why men of strong predispositions ands optimistic mood--like FDR, Reagan, and George W. Bush--succeed. Their well-known core ideas inform their entire administrations and their faith and forward-looking natures mean that they're always pushing for those ideas. More introspective or less self-confident men--LBJ, Nixon, George Bush Sr., Clinton--tend to fall prey to the forces of the bureaucracy and the tide of events. Not that the whole book isn't worthwhile, but it would be a must read even if it only taught these lessons.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Richard Pipes (3 books reviewed)
Richard Pipes Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (Yale University Press)
    -BOOKNOTES: Richard Pipes, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (C-SPAN, 12/07/03)
    -Richard Pipes (Benador Associates)
    -ESSAY: Where Sovietologists Went Wrong (RICHARD PIPES, History News Network)
-ESSAY: Private Property, Freedom, and the Rule of Law: Juxtapose the history of England with that of Russia. What emerges? The importance of private property. (Richard Pipes, Spring 2001, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: The Last Empire: Historians may argue over why the Soviet Union collapsed so quickly, but, according to Richard Pipes, the real question is how it survived so long (Richard Pipes, 2001, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: Life, Liberty, Property (Richard Pipes, March 1999, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: Let Russia Fend for Itself (Richard Pipes, August 29, 1998, The New York Times)
    -ESSAY: Is Russia Still an Enemy? (Richard Pipes, September/ October 1997, Foreign Affairs)
    -ESSAY: Can the Soviet Union Reform? (Richard Pipes, Fall 1984, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of KHRUSHCHEV: The Man and His Era By William Taubman (Richard Pipes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Alone Together by Aleksandr Solhenitsyn (Richard Pipes, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Stalinism As a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents by Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov (Richard Pipes, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of ECHOES OF A NATIVE LAND: Two Centuries of a Russian Village By Serge Schmemann (Richard Pipes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of RUSSIA: People and Empire, 1552-1917 By Geoffrey Hosking (Richard Pipes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TROTSKY The Eternal Revolutionary. By Dmitri Volkogonov. Edited and translated by Harold Shukman (Richard Pipes, NY Times Book Review)
    -PBS: Think Tank: Richard Pipes
    -INTERVIEW: Frontpage Interview: Richard Pipes: Dr. Pipes talks to Frontpage Interview about Iraq, the War on Terror. . and his own role in bringing down the Soviet regime. (Jamie Glazov, 1/19/04, FrontPage)
    -PROFILE: 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. (Sam Tanenhaus, 11/2/2003, Boston Globe)
    -PROFILE: A Hardliner's Life (Kenneth Silber, 11/20/2003, Tech Central Station)
    -LETTER: The New York Times, Richard Pipes and historical truth (An open letter to the New York Times from delegates attending the Socialist Scholars Conference)
    -ARCHIVES: Richard Pipes (New Republic)
    -Author PageÊ-ÊRICHARD PIPES (Foreign Affairs)
    -ARCHIVES" "richard pipes" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES" "richard pipes" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES" "richard pipes" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger by Richard Pipes (Mark Falcoff,
    -REVIEW: of Vixi (
    -REVIEW: of Vixi (
    -REVIEW: of Vixi (
    -REVIEW: of U.S.-Soviet Relations in the Era of Detente by Richard Pipes (John C. Campbell, Foreign Affairs)
   -REVIEW: of Survival Is Not Enough: Soviet Realities and America's Future by Richard Pipes (John C. Campbell, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes (John C. Campbell, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Communism: The Vanished Specter by Richard Pipes (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Russia under the Bolshevik Regime by Richard Pipes (Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of THE UNKNOWN LENIN: From the Secret Archive Edited by Richard Pipes (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE UNKNOWN LENIN: From the Secret Archive Edited by Richard Pipes (Orlando Figes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Property and Freedom By Richard Pipes (Charles R. Morris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia. By Richard Pipes (J. Bottum, First Things)

    -The -Ism That Failed: Neoconservatism relies on a history in which it alone won the Cold War. But that's not what happened. As neocons lead us deeper into holy war, it's time for a history lesson. (John Patrick Diggins, 12.1.03, The American Prospect)

Book-related and General Links: