My wife and I were fortunate to spend a couple of hours with Bill Pfaff and his wife Carolyn in mid-March. He showed no signs of illness, though well into his 80s, propped in a large chair in the corner by the window of his Rue de Lisbonne apartment, a cane at his side. But he rose to greet us, and in two hours of drinking (Prosecco for us, scotch, I think, for him) and eating paté and rustic French bread, his years melted away.
We covered some of the ground of contemporary events: the current French government (Fourth Republic-style mediocrities, he thought); the partial ascent of the National Front (he was less enthusiastic than I, but hardly alarmed); the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean. I thought he might be too pessimistic about the likelihood of war with Russia over eastern Ukraine—and pressed my view that the situation has gotten as dire as it has because Obama and the White House were spending their limited time and energy on trying to nail down a deal with Iran, leaving too much running room to Hillary’s state department holdovers. He reminded us of remarks by Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO commander and propagator (in a widely-shared European view) of propaganda designed to thwart diplomacy to resolve the crisis. I didn’t know Pfaff well, having seen him only a few times before, the first during those helpless, horrible weeks before America started the second Iraq War. In conversations like this, I could more or less hit the ball back to him, but he of course could go several levels deeper.
His final book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny, published five years ago, was a tour de force, an analysis of American foreign policy informed by philosophy and religious history: profound but never pedantic, with bold generalizations or sardonic polemics on nearly every page. I doubt there are a dozen Americans qualified to review it. No one else could have written it, not George Kennan nor Andrew Bacevich, two foreign policy analysts he admired. The book covers ground from the Calvinism of the Puritan founders to the secularized eschatology latent in the attitudes of Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles. For Pfaff, the American belief in knowing the direction of history (towards democracy and unrestrained market capitalism, of course) coupled with readiness to use massive violence to bring history to its desired end was as potentially tragic as those other secularized eschatological movements of the 20th century, fascism and Bolshevism. The neoconservatives may have provided sparks and an accelerant, but they had ample kindling to work with.
Pfaff’s career began in the Midwest; he was from Iowa, and held a BA from Notre Dame. He then went on to military service and a stint at helping organize radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe—part of the cultural Cold War. Early in the 1960s he published his first book (with Edmund Stillman) arguing that the obsession with Soviet power was turning America towards its own version of ideological messianism. Politicized containment could do its job, Asian nationalism—“communist” or otherwise—posed no threat to American interests, and Russia was already in material decline. The book, Pfaff later pointed out, was an “anti-interventionist manifesto” published on the eve of American interventions first in Laos, then, massively, in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Being so prematurely correct—that is, being non-leftist, not an enthusiast for any kind of socialist liberation, and at the same time noninterventionist—was, in Kennedy’s Washington as today, not a path designed to win one influence. A decade later, Pfaff became the Hudson Institute’s man in Europe, where he remained, more or less, for the rest of life.
Pfaff wrote regularly for The New Yorker in the 1970s and ’80s, and frequently for The New York Review of Books. He published a weekly foreign-affairs column in the International Herald Tribune, a jewel that always enhanced a trip to Paris. There probably have always been several thousand Americans who knew Pfaff’s work and considered it brilliant. He perhaps would have been more influential, if less happy, with a position in Cambridge or Washington. But powerful American institutions have little use for those likely to illustrate their foolishness.
When the New York Times took control over the Herald Tribune in 2004, they dropped Pfaff’s column. The paper that had published numerous false assessments of Iraq’s so-called nuclear program, making it (along with the Washington Post) the liberal establishment’s foremost war cheerleader, had no desire to publish someone who had been correct in writing against the bloodbath it had so assiduously promoted.
Equally telling was the fact that Pfaff, who syndicated his column, found few other outlets in the United States. At the time there was really no intellectual of Pfaff’s stature and depth submitting himself to the discipline of writing a tight, well-argued, accessible 800 words week after week. Raymond Aron had done it for Le Figaro and L’Express, and of course there are plenty of smart people who write both columns and books. But Pfaff was unique in excelling at both, as well as being “prematurely” correct on the two biggest American foreign-policy disasters of his lifetime, Vietnam and Iraq.
It was also telling in the months before his death that one could always find in leading newspapers hawkish arguments for greater American belligerence in this arena or that, from David Brooks and Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer and (often) Thomas Friedman and countless others. In the Times you could also find well-argued critiques of hyper-capitalism (Paul Krugman) or well-meaning liberal humanitarian tracts on social issues (Nicholas Kristof) or condemnations of American racism (Charles Blow). But really nowhere in the elite establishment newspaper sphere could you find regular, sustained, and well-informed criticism of an aggressive and overly militarized American foreign policy.
The country is immeasurably worse for it.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.