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(Sheldon S. Wolin, died on Oct 21, 2015 at the age of 93) Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin discusses his time in the academy and the role of universities in post-war United States history

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CHRIS HEDGES, PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST: Welcome back to part five of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, who taught politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal works on political philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated.

I wanted to ask about the nature of superpower, and particularly the role of the military in superpower. And I thought I’d begin by asking, because the military is something you have personal experience with, your own–you were a pilot of a B-24. Were these flying fortresses? Was that–? That’s what they were.

SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: [crosstalk] bombardier and a navigator was what I was.

HEDGES: A bombardier and a navigator. And in the South Pacific?


HEDGES: And you flew how many combat–?

WOLIN: Fifty-one.

HEDGES: Fifty-one missions. And what was–from when to when, and what were you targeting?

WOLIN: Well, our group started from Guadalcanal when the Americans took it over, finally. And what we were, essentially, was the air force to support MacArthur. And MacArthur’s strategy was to proceed island by island, taking them back from the Japanese and getting closer and closer to Japan proper. And we were the support group for that, which meant softening up the Japanese island holdings prior to invasion. And then the other unfortunate mission we had was to chase the Japanese Navy, which proved disastrous, because–.

HEDGES: Isn’t that a novel use of–

WOLIN: Oh, it was a terrible–.

HEDGES: –aren’t those, like, about as maneuverable as a tank in the air?

WOLIN: It was terrible. And we received awful losses from that, because these big lumbering aircraft, particularly flying low trying to hit the Japanese Navy–and we lost countless people in it, countless. So we spent that. And we were going from island to island, making our way eventually to the Philippines itself.

And then I left at that point. I had finished my missions. And the Air Force was at that point preparing for the invasion of Japan, which, of course, didn’t actually take place.

HEDGES: Where were you when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

WOLIN: I was on a road to Miami Beach to visit–I had my wife, and we were going to visit my mother.

HEDGES: Did you at the time recognize the significance of that?

WOLIN: I didn’t, I don’t think. We quickly learned something about it, because there were some people I was associated with who knew some of the men involved in the development of it, and they used to tell me things about Oppenheimer and the others that–especially, of course, you became aware of this when Oppenheimer ran into his own trouble with the Un-American Activities people.

HEDGES: Well, and this is because he turned on the nuclear program after–

WOLIN: Right, yes, he did.

HEDGES: –producing the weaponry.

WOLIN: Yes, he did. Yeah.

HEDGES: What, from your own experience, because you write about the military and you write about superpower–but your own experience in the military, what did you learn from that? What did–it wasn’t theoretical for you. You were in war. You were in the giant bureaucracy of the military itself.

WOLIN: Well, you must remember the cardinal fact, which is we were all so young. I was 19. And the other members of our crew, there was only one who was about 23 or 24. So we were all extremely inexperienced and impressionable, and we were flying these giant bombers and going into combat not knowing anything about what it meant except, you know, in sort of formal lectures, which we might have had. So the experience was always quite traumatic in a lot of ways. Some of it didn’t register until much later, but for some of them, some of the people I knew, it registered very soon, and we had quite a few psychological casualties of men, boys, who just couldn’t take it anymore, just couldn’t stand the strain of getting up at five in the morning and proceeding to get into these aircraft and go and getting shot at for a while and coming back to rest for another day.

It was a difficult time. It was very difficult time. And I think the fact that saved us was that we were so young, we didn’t know what was going on, basically. And I think there was a lot of coming to grips with it later in the lives of most of us, that we began to appreciate and realize what we had been through. And that didn’t help terribly much, but it did allow you in some sense to come to grips with what it had meant, especially the kind of suppressed memories you had of bad incidents that happened.

HEDGES: How did it affect you? Did you walk way differently both emotionally and intellectually, do you think, from the war?

WOLIN: Yeah, I think–as I look back, I think I went through a period of being very inward-looking.

And the other thing to be remembered is the pace of things from the moment you got out. In my case, I had to go back to undergraduate school to finish my degree, so I was back for a year. Then you jump right into graduate training. And graduate education was at that point so overwhelmed by numbers that everything was kind of compressed and brief, and not terribly much time to digest things, and then you were scouting for a job, so that one had the impression that the pressure that had been building up in the war and in the war service just kept on going, and that you never really had a chance to relax, because now you were faced with tenure and the problems of tenure and the problems of publication and teaching, so that it exacted a toll. There’s no question about it. We never really managed to relax, because we–I suppose we did relax a bit when we finally got tenure, but even then it was very competitive, because the password was publication. And so you were constantly pressured to write and write and write.

HEDGES: And you did.

WOLIN: Yeah, you did. But I think I was fortunate enough to enjoy it, actually, enjoy the writing. But for a lot of my colleagues, they would manage it, but it exacted a price. It’s hard to explain to people how difficult it is to write when one simply has to write when it simply has to be forced in a lot of ways.

HEDGES: Well, see, the difference is you are a writer. I mean, you’re quite a good writer, which is not common among academics.

WOLIN: Yeah, I had always enjoyed writing, from the time I was grammar school to the time I went to college. I enjoyed it very much. But some of my colleagues, who loved the subject matter and were good teachers, just couldn’t write. And it was tragic, because they had a lot to give, and they couldn’t get tenure because they hadn’t passed this particular bar.

HEDGES: Well, and you also had–so you were at Harvard in the 1950s, and this was when the academy was being purged,–

WOLIN: Oh, yeah.

HEDGES: –Staughton Lynd, you may know, driven out of Yale, you know Chandler Davis, I mean, a long list of great, great scholars and academics who were targeted from outside and within the academy and pushed out. And this was something that coincided with the development of your own formation as an intellectual and as a writer. And I wondered how that experience also affected you, because you held fast to a very kind of radical critique of–.

WOLIN: Well, I mean, I had a very peculiar experience when I get hired at Berkeley, because I didn’t realize when I went there that the position I was taking was one occupied by a man who refused to take the loyalty oath. And I didn’t know that at the time. And so when I did learn it, of course, I felt kind of guilty about the whole thing. Yeah, he lost the job. He quit.

And it was–in one sense, you know, you sort of said to yourself, well, I don’t have to worry about the loyalty oath, ’cause I’ve taken it in the military many, many times, so that it’s nothing new to me. But later on you began to think about it more and realize that maybe there was a larger issue there than you thought, because it meant that you were accepting a certain orthodoxy from the outset and that you weren’t quite as free as notions of academic freedom suggested you were. And it was a kind of rude awakening for a lot of us, I think, because we also were carrying the wartime propaganda about we represent the forces of freedom and open society and all the rest of it. And then to find ourselves really kind of cramped for expression in that very tense kind of postwar Cold War war period, it was not a pleasant time. I didn’t enjoy those years of teaching. It settled down later, but didn’t settle down for much, because we then had the fracas of the ’60s, too, which was very disturbing and upsetting to all the academic routines.

HEDGES: How much damage do you think those purges, triggered by the McCarthy era in the early ’50s, did to the academy?

WOLIN: I think it did a lot to people, but often in ways they weren’t quite aware of. It had a definite chastening and deadening effect on academic inquiry and political expression. And what happened was, I think, the worst part of it, was that once that got into the air, it became normal. You accepted those things really unconsciously.

HEDGES: When you say “those things”, what are you talking about?

WOLIN: You’re talking about how far you question government policies, how far you question dominant values, what you said about the economy, and things of that sort. And the problem was that you faced the students with a far less critical attitude than you should have had, and it took a long while, I think, to kind of disentangle yourself from that kind of coverage which the loyalty of the period gave to people. And since academic jobs then were scarce, you always kind of swallowed whatever you had to swallow to get a job. So you may have been a radical in graduate school or undergraduate school, but you knew that you couldn’t carry that torch as a prospective faculty member.

HEDGES: I talked to Larry Hamm, who at Princeton organized the anti-apartheid movement. This would have been in the ’70s. And he said of roughly 500 Princeton faculty, there were only three or four, yourself included, who joined those demonstrations.

WOLIN: Yeah, that’s true. It was–. Yeah, we paid a price. I think the most humiliating episode for me was when some of the undergraduates were protesting Princeton investment in South Africa and they wanted to present their case to the alumni. And the alumni had a meeting, and the kids were supposed to present it. And at the last minute, the kid that was leading the group got a little cold feet, and he said, would you come in with me? And I should have said no, but I didn’t. So I went in with him. And I’ve never been jeered quite so roundly by the alumni sitting there waiting to be talked to by the students about investment in South Africa. Some of them called me 50-year-old sophomores and that kind of thing. It was a difficult experience. But the students did well. They held their own.

HEDGES: It was one of the largest–at Princeton, surprisingly, one of the largest student–well, largely ’cause of Larry, who’s a remarkable organizer and very charismatic and deep integrity and–

WOLIN: Yes, he was.

HEDGES: –and still doing it in Newark today.

I wondered whether that experience says something about the University, about its cowardice and, I guess, let’s say, the faculty in particular.

WOLIN: Oh, I think it did. I think all those events of the ’60s on, on through the ’70s, did. It’s hard to realize at the outset of the [incompr.] particularly I’m speaking from my experience at Berkeley. It’s really hard to recognize the moment when the faculty suddenly realized that they were a kind of corporate body that could stand up against the regents and take a stand when they thought there was interference with academic freedom, as there tended to be with the regents. They did kind of mess around with curriculum and tried to influence faculty hiring and so on. It was a very, very grim chapter. But the effect of it was to make you very, very much on guard against the rule of the graduated students and their influence in the university, because at Princeton you had, like at very few other places, lots of concentrated money, and the university were dependent on that to a large extent, so that the alumni had a kind of position that I didn’t experience anywhere else in terms of their prominence and, I think, the informal influence that they exercise over a lot of matters that they had no business dealing with. It was an education in alumni relations, the like of which I never had anyplace else.

HEDGES: When you came back from the war, you went to Oberlin, and then you went to Harvard.

WOLIN: Yeah.

HEDGES: Many of the academics at these institutions during the war had served in positions of some authority in Washington, had certainly integrated themselves into the war effort. And I wondered if you thought this was a kind of turning point in terms of academia fusing itself, the way business had, with the military, you know, intellectually, in terms of serving the ends of superpower?

WOLIN: Well, I think it certainly had some influence, in the sense that I guess one of the things that struck me at Harvard, in terms of going to seminars where the professor had been active in Washington during the war, was the–I mean, they were always interesting because of inside stories, but they were also really quite uncritical of anything that they either were doing or the government was doing during this period. In other words, there was no detachment, because they were so, in a certain sense, carried away by their own experience and their kind of self-assumption about their importance and so on that it–I found some of the early years at Harvard, experience with faculty, to be very unnerving in a lot of ways.

Now, it isn’t true of all of them. Some of them, like–I don’t know whether you knew Merle Fainsod or not, but Merle was chairman of the department. But he was a wonderful person, and he had been in Washington during the war with one of the agencies controlling prices and wages. But he was–he never threw his weight around or tried to rely on Washington experience as the answer to all lectures. He was a very good man and a very, very serious academic.

But others, like Bill Elliott, as I say, were just so infatuated with their own self-importance that I learned absolutely nothing from them in class, and I don’t think any of the other students did. They never came prepared. They always would kind of talk off the top of their head. And more often than not, it would be autobiographical. And it just was a very disheartening kind of experience.

I remember when I first came to Harvard, at graduate school, there was a man who taught the history of political theory named Charles McIlwain. And McIlwain was of the old school. He was a very careful, very erudite scholar with very few if any axes to grind. And I, unfortunately, didn’t come to Harvard till his very last year there, but I did manage to sit in on some of his lectures.

Well, he was succeeded by another man, Carl Friedrich, who was so infatuated with himself and his self-importance and his role in the postwar constitutions that were written for the German states, the provinces, that he could hardly bother teaching you the subject matter and was much more concerned that you shared his experiences and the kind of role he had played in the postwar world. And I have never seen such a parade of academic egos in my life as that moment, when so many of them were clearly so marked by the Washington experience.

HEDGES: I’m wondering if that isn’t an important rupture for academia, going back to Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, where he writes about how it is not the role of the intellectual to formulate policy, to adjust the system, but to stand back with a kind of integrity and critique it. But you had that combination of the fusion of academia with Washington, carried forward in the ’60s under Kennedy and others, coupled with the anticommunism. And I wondered whether you thought that that was a kind of radical break or a destructive force within academia when set against the prewar–.

WOLIN: Well, yes, it certainly cast a kind of set of constraints, many of which you didn’t really recognize till later, about what you could teach and how you would teach and what you wouldn’t teach. And its influence was really simply very great, because people–it’s not so much what they said as what they didn’t inquire into.

HEDGES: Well, and also it’s who’s let into the club.

WOLIN: Yeah. Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.

HEDGES: I mean, [Staughton Lynd], one of our great historians, pushed out of Yale for going on a peace delegation to Hanoi during the war, blacklisted, gets a law degree–he’s still working on behalf of, at this point, prisoners and workers in Youngstown, Ohio.

Please join me for part six of my interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin (thank you) later on.


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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.