Richard Pipes

Fascinating profile of Richard Pipes in the Boston Globe by Sam Tanenhaus. Pipes, eminent Russian historian, has recently authored a short autobiography entitled Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger. It should be a great read as Pipes has lived a fascinating life. Pipes escaped Nazi occupied Warsaw at the age of 16; served in the US Army during WW II; and eventually received his PhD from Harvard. Pipes stayed on at Harvard and became a tenured professor in 1958. His early scholarship was respected and viewed as mainstream but in the sixties things began to change:

“Guilt-ridden” establishment figures like George F. Kennan drifted leftward “and became more tolerant of the Soviet Union.” Meanwhile, a younger academic cohort, some of its members tutored in the antiwar movement, insisted that capitalism and communism were not really so different and that the two enemy superpowers might be headed toward “convergence.”
Pipes, as a staunch anticommunist, came under attack and responded in kind. “He was courageous to write at the time when the dominant school was revisionism,” says Walter Laqueur, a historian of modern Europe and a recent biographer of Stalin. “He thought that the Soviet experiment was a disaster, and of course this was vindicated.”


It was this courageous anti-communism that brought him to the attention of Washington. His contacts with Democratic Senator Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson soon pulled him into the infancy of what is now refered to as neoconservatism. If you believe that US policy is currently controlled by a neocon cabal, Pipes was in on the ground floor:

“They put me up at the Hay-Adams,” Pipes recalls of his first meeting with Jackson in Washington. “A young kid came to pick me up” — Richard Perle, one of a new cadre of hawks who opposed all but the toughest arms negotiations with the Soviets. Recast as a Kremlinologist, Pipes drew out the implications of his theories in papers he wrote for Jackson and in testimony before Congress. In late 1975, a dramatic reshuffling of the Ford administration installed a new defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, a new chief of staff, Dick Cheney, and a new CIA chief, George H.W. Bush. It was Bush who approved the formation of “Team B,” a group of 16 outside experts charged with challenging what some considered the CIA’s sanguine estimates of Soviet military strength. Pipes, named the group’s chairman, brought in a brilliant young weapons analyst, Paul Wolfowitz. “Richard Perle recommended him,” Pipes says of Wolfowitz today. “I’d never heard of him.”

Pipes moved from advising the Ford administration to working in the Reagan administration, joining the National Security Council staff in 1981. Pipes the historian made his and other’s work easier by keeping detailed journals. The journals obviously allowed him to write his autobiography but will also serve future historians well as they try to capture this important and controversial period. Pipes plans to donate his material to Harvard provided they are sealed for 10-15 years.

Before you assume that Pipes is a full blooded neoconservative, however, he makes it clear that he continues to bring a historically informned realism to the issues of the day:

“I think the war was correct — destroying this invasive evil. But beyond this I think they’re too ambitious,” he says. He bluntly dismisses the promise of a democratic Iraq — “impossible, a fantasy” — citing obstacles similar to Russia’s. “Democracy requires, among other things, individualism — the breakdown of old clannish, tribal organizations, the individual standing face-to-face with the state. You don’t have that in the Middle East. Iraq is tribally run.”
What about the constitution soon to be written in Baghdad? Pipes laughs. “Stalin had a wonderful constitution, the most perfect constitution in the world. There’s a lot of naivet in that. I should think we’d be satisfied with some kind of stability, preventing Saddam Hussein from coming back. It’s fantastic that we haven’t caught this man. He sits there somewhere.”

As I said, a fascinating man and a fascinating profile. On my short term reading list is Pipes recent work Property and Freedom and of course my review of his Modern Library Chronicles volume on Communism is posted here.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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