Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Richard Pipes, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard who is one of the world's leading authorities on Soviet history. He is the author of 19 books, the most recent being his new autobiography Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger.
Frontpage Magazine: Dr. Pipes, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is an honor to speak with you.
Let’s begin with your own personal role in the defeat of the Soviet Empire.
You served in the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, during which you pursued a touch approach toward the Soviet regime. Your assumption was that U.S. pressure would crack the communist system. I guess it is undeniable that history has vindicated your approach.
Could you talk a little bit about the strategy you pursued and what you think history now says about? And also comment on what it feels like to have been personally responsible for helping destroy one of the most evil regimes in history.
Pipes: I am proud to have played a part in bringing down the Soviet regime. Although at the time I was almost universally condemned for my views of the USSR and for the strategy which I recommended to deal with it. The situation has dramatically changed in the past several years and now praise greatly outnumbers criticism.
FP: But what is the situation that has changed and why do you think this change has occurred?
Pipes: Undoubtedly, I get more praise than criticism for my views on the USSR and Russia today because I have been proven largely right. What in the 1970's and 1980's were controversial speculations are now facts.
FP: Let’s turn to the War on Terror. Do you think some of the same tactics that worked in defeating communism can succeed in our present war with Islamism? Does the present threat outweigh that posed by the Soviet Empire? What strategy do you think is crucial now?
Pipes: The threat of Islamism is quite different from that posed by the USSR -- both less menacing in that its adherents are much weaker, and more so in that they are fanatics with whom it is impossible to negotiate. History indicates, however, that in the long run all terrorist movements are defeated by firm action and police penetration of their structures.
FP: Expand a bit on what you mean by “police penetration” and how this would work with a terror group like al Qaeda.
Pipes: By "police penetration" I mean planting agents in the terrorist organizations. They can forestall terrorist acts. Their presence also sows suspicions and demoralizes. The Israelis have developed excellent methods to this end and have a lot to teach us.
FP: Let’s talk about your memoir and your personal journey. Your subtitle of being a “non-belonger” is in reference to you having been an outsider as a Soviet historian among your academic colleagues, most whom, as we know, were – and remain – sympathetic to the Soviet regime and to communism.
It is interesting that your son, Daniel, has followed in your tradition, and remains an “outsider” in his profession as well -- in Mideast scholarship. Like his father, he refuses to follow the favorite Party Line in academia: to toe the anti-American line and to sympathize with the tyrannical entities in his field of study.
Why do so many academics who flock to their professions admire the most despotic creatures and regimes of their studies? What made the Pipes scholars different?
Pipes: I have never been able to understand the penchant of US academics for totalitarian regimes. This is a matter for psychologists and psychiatrists.
FP: Ok, now in your memoir, you discuss how Harvard reminded you of the early Soviet educational experiments, where institutions of learning were used for learning, but as political instruments for social change. Why do you think the Left has been so successful in dominating -- and suffocating -- academia? And what do you think of the potential of David Horowitz’s manifesto, the Academic Bill of Rights, which calls for universities to function without discriminating against political or religious beliefs?
Pipes: The predilection not only of academics but intellectuals in general for left-wing causes is a complicated matter that does not lend itself to quick analysis. I have dealt with it to some extent in my Russian Revolution. Russian experience from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is, in this respect, not irrelevant to us.
FP: In your memoir, you give a powerful and moving account of your Jewish family's escape from the Nazis in Poland after the outbreak of the Second World War. Could you talk a bit about how your brush with the evil of Nazism nurtured your spider sense vis-à-vis tyranny and how, in turn, this influenced your interest in Russian history and your view of communism in general and the Soviet regime in particular?
Pipes: Since I left Poland after the outbreak of World War II, I experienced the siege of Warsaw and lived one month under German occupation. As I write in the book, my knowledge of Nazi totalitarianism has conditioned me to feel extreme hostility toward its Soviet variant.
FP: In your scholarship, you have emphasized the traditional authoritarian character within Russian political culture and how, therefore, communist tyranny was in continuity with the Russian past, rather than an aberration or break from it. Why has Russia historically been so addicted to authoritarianism and so reflexively opposed to liberal Western notions?
I come from Russia and I have always been mesmerized by my people’s peculiar inability to think in terms of individualism. The boundaries between what is your business and others’ business are extremely blurry. And there is a very eerie need to believe that some kind of stern father figure is in charge out there somewhere, and that he is thinking of you. It was not just communism that created these instincts and characteristics.
Could you give an insight here?
Pipes: The Russian penchant for authoritarianism is also too complicated a subject to be discussed in this format. I have given it a great deal of thought. My general conclusion is that it stems from the traditional absence in Russia of firm civil rights which has the effect of Russians mistrusting each other and looking to the government to protect them from their fellow-citizens.
FP: Who is your favorite U.S. president of the 20th century? Your least favorite?
Pipes: I don't know that I have a single 20th President whom I would call my "favorite." I would list among them Truman and Reagan. L.B. Johnson was the most disastrous, in my judgement.
FP: Why do you see L.B. Johnson as the most disastrous? For the legacy of his Great Society and all the problems it triggered. His escalation of Vietnam? Both?
Pipes: I consider L.B. Johnson to have been a disastrous president because he was responsible for the so-called "Great Society", including Affirmative Action, which did far more harm than good. And, of course, the Vietnam War which not only claimed thousands of American lives to no purpose, but seriously undermined America's willingness to engage in an active political and military policy overseas.
FP: I am aware that some of these questions cannot be dealt with simply here in this forum. But let me try to at least get a morsel of wisdom from you on anti-Semitism? There is no easy or simple answer of course, but what if you asked to give a sound bite on its causes? I would say envy and jealousy. How about you?
Pipes: Anti-Semitism really cannot be discussed in this format: it is far too complex a phenomenon. Yes, envy plays its part but there is much more to it.
FP: Would Leon Trotsky have been just as big of a henchman and mass murderer as Stalin if he had taken power? After all, for one thing, how do you impose forced collectivization without terror?
Pipes: Trotsky was not the idealist that his admirers make him out to be, but I think he did not suffer from the kind of murderous paranoia that afflicted Stalin. In any event, as he well realized, being a Jew he had no chance of rising to the top of the Soviet political hierarchy.
FP: Fair enough, let’s end our discussion by touching on Iraq. Did you support the war? If you were asked to advise Bush on what to do in Iraq now and in the War on Terror in general, what would you say?
Pipes: I support the Iraqi campaign which. I believe, has dramatically changed the balance of power in the Middle East for the better: observe the behavior of Libya and Syria. But I would advise President Bush to forget about installing a western-style democracy in Iraq and concentrate on setting up an effective tribal government.
FP: Fair enough, the argument is clear that perhaps we can’t bring Western-style democracy to Iraq for many reasons, etc. But there is a legitimate argument that the effort is worth it. In any case, let’s say Bush sets up an “effective tribal government.” Could you just expand a bit on a scenario and how this would work?
Pipes: Tribal government: I think I would be willing to let tribal elders run Iraq. Democracy requires that all institutions standing between the individual citizen and the state be eliminated, but this is not possible in countries with strong tribal traditions.
FP: What do you think of how the Democrats are coming off in terms of Iraq and the War on Terror? Would it be a tragedy to our national security if they won the next election? Who are you personally in favor of and why (in terms of leading the U.S.)?
Pipes: I don't think a Democratic administration would be a "tragedy" but a Republican one is preferable, especially because Bush has made the war on terror his personal cause.
FP: Well, our time is up. Thank you for joining us today Dr. Pipes. I would like to take this opportunity to make a brief personal comment. I just want to tell you that, as you might know, my parents, Yuri and Marina Glazov, were Soviet dissidents. I think you met my dad back in the 1970s. He is no longer with us.
My parents admired you greatly and your name was often mentioned in our household. I grew up hearing about you all the time. After our nightmarish experience in the Soviet Union (my parents just barely escaped being imprisoned), we suffered in an environment of Western intellectuals who glorified the Soviet regime and demonized the United States. My parents were university professors in the West and many of their colleagues hated us and what we stood for. These academics were enamored with the Soviet regime and cherished the figures that spawned its bestial terror, especially Lenin and the rest of his crew.
But there was a certain scholar out there, by the name of Richard Pipes, who I heard about as a youngster, who told the truth about Soviet history, and even told the truth about Lenin – the icon of the leftists who berated my family about our anti-communist views. You exposed not only the truth about the pernicious evil of communism, but also about the monstrosity of Lenin and the others who engendered the Gulag Archipelago.
In so doing, you were one of the figures who brought a certain personal affirmation to our family and all of our experiences; you validated our history and reality in a sea where we were told that we didn’t live what we lived, didn’t suffer what we suffered, and didn’t see what we saw.
During all my young years, both my father and mother spoke of you in very respectful and admiring ways.
I would like to take this moment, that I will maybe never have again, to thank you for having the courage to have told the truth about communism, despite the price you had to pay for doing so. Because of people like you, the truth has been engraved in the historical record, which no one can erase. And because of people like you, the human lives that were extinguished by the Soviet killing machine will mean something, will live on in our memory, and will perhaps touch our souls in their own profound and mysterious way – rather than being relegated to the invisibility that the Left has always attempted to impose on the nightmarish outcome of its own ideas.
And I would also like to thank you for your own personal contribution, as a member of the Reagan administration, in helping put Soviet communism on the ash heap of history.
Dr. Pipes, you have always been a hero to me. It was a great honor for me to speak with you. Thank you.
Pipes: I am flattered by your kind remarks Jamie. Thank you.
I welcome all of our readers to get in touch with me if they have a good idea/contact for a guest for Frontpage Interview. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr