Philip Habib Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Ambassador Habib, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you Harry. I'm very glad to be back.
Do you find the campus very different from the way it was in '48?
It's more crowded, there's no question. There are a lot of new buildings since I was here.
And do you find the students a little scruffier than they were in those days, in the late '40s?
Quite a bit scruffier. But quite as intelligent, I might say.
Do you find, in their questioning of you in these sessions, that they are pretty interested in world affairs?
Most definitely. In fact, I'm quite pleased at the opportunity to talk to the students. I find them not only interested and well informed, but I haven't had a bad question yet, and I've been in at least seven or eight different seminars and meetings so far.
In looking at your biography, I noticed that you started in Brooklyn, actually, you were born in a Jewish neighborhood, and your father was a Lebanese grocer.
It was a long trek to Idaho, and then to Berkeley. How did you happen to go west in seeking your education?
Well, in some ways, I'm a child of the Depression of the '30s. First of all, I wanted in those days to be a forester. I went to Idaho, which has an excellent forestry school (as does the University of California); it was also not so costly to go to school in the small state universities in those days. So the trek westward was a natural consequence of both my interests and my finances.
You were on scholarship and worked your way through school.
Constantly. In those days, you didn't fly home for Christmas vacation, you didn't go to Fort Lauderdale for Easter, you stayed on at campus (well, I did anyway), and all summer long you worked. I used to work in the woods every summer and pick up enough money to buy a pair of pants to go back to school in the fall. Those were not affluent days, by any means. The present generation of students, if my own children are representative, don't really want to hear about the olden days, Harry, and how difficult it was for us.
Did you come to Berkeley because of your interest in agricultural economics or because of the opportunities here?
Before the war I had been given a fellowship to Berkeley, and I decided after I got out of the army, which interfered with everything, of course, to pick up where I had been previously. Of course, the fellowship was gone by that time, but we had the GI Bill, which was even better. Like most graduate students, I got a research assistantship and then a teaching assistantship, and between that and making your wife go to work every day, you survive as a student.
Are there any experiences at Berkeley that you still recall, any teachers that especially influenced you?
Oh, there's no question that the experience here -- you want to remember that many of the students in that period had spent three, four, in some cases five years in the army. When they came out of the army, the campus was a place to get back into civilian life. It was a place to reconstitute yourself. I was very fortunate. I was in the Department of Agricultural Economics. The atmosphere around Giannini Hall is very informal, it's a close family, and you just can't help but think back to those days. People like Harry Wellman, the late Sid Hoos, who was marvelous and whose research assistant I was, George Kuznets, who's still on the campus, Ivan Lee, Murray Benedict, who passed away not too long ago; people like that were an inspiration to the returning veterans. They brought us back into the academic world. It was the foundation for whatever future you found for yourself. I also ought to mention Henry Vaux, who was the chairman of my doctoral committee, under whom I did my thesis work. I wrote a thesis on the economics of the California lumber industry. A great preparation for diplomacy, I might say. As I'm fond of telling people, at least I learned how to tell the difference between the forest and the trees, which is important in diplomacy.
Did you take any political science courses?
I never took a political science course in my life, I'm sorry to say to a political scientist. No, I was trained in science and economics, but that's as good a training as any other, very frankly. The discipline that goes into science and economics is useful in terms of conditioning you to think, and of course the accumulation of knowledge is an equally important element of any education.
Did you ever consider an academic career?
I had considered it, but one day there was a recruiting team from the State Department that came to the campus and spoke to the graduate students. They made it very clear that they were looking for people with different backgrounds. They were sort of tired of the traditional political scientists, international relations majors, the guy who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. The old stereotype of the diplomat in striped pants was disappearing in that period, and they were looking for a wider selection of candidates for the career diplomatic service. Several of us who went to the meeting decided to take the examination. In those days it was a three-day written exam, including a language exam. It was not an easy examination. I was fortunate. I passed it and I went on to an oral examination some time later and was appointed. And that was the beginning.
That was the heyday of American diplomacy, in some sense. Was it an exciting period for you?
The entire period since then has been an exciting period. After all, when you look at international affairs and the role of the United States in the world, the period from World War II to the present day and, I presume, on into the future, is a period of the greatest American diplomatic activity in history. The United States emerged as the superpower, and then sharing superpower rank, you might say. No question but that this was a time for diplomacy. It was also a time in which international affairs became a constant preoccupation of the American administration, and the American people, no matter what administration and at what period in the postwar time.
As you look back at your career, what diplomatic achievement are you proudest of?
Well, achievements are not something that one likes to talk about. If you asked me, "What are the great failures that I was a part of?" I could tell you those too. No, there's no question that, from my standpoint, I had a wide variety of assignments. I mean everything from routine matters to involvement in some of the most significant diplomatic problems of the day. I was involved in the Vietnam experience at great length, including three and a half years at the peace talks in Paris. I was involved in a wide range of preliminary negotiations with respect to the Middle East in the mid-'70s. Of course, most recently, I came out of retirement and once again performed a function which had some utility and, in addition, gave me an opportunity to get back in the harness again. You know, if you're an old fire-horse, you like to go to fires, and crises are the fires of diplomacy. When a crisis occurs and somebody wants to call for a fireman, if you happen to be the one that they call on, there's a certain degree of satisfaction in that achievement, if you succeed. There's no question that the Foreign Service is a career which provides ample opportunity for exciting involvement.
So, if any of the students might want to consider diplomacy as a career (obviously, I'm biased), I spent over 30 years at it and I don't think I ever, ever had a dull day, even when I was doing routine things. Because one characteristic of the diplomatic service is that if you don't like what you are doing, just wait a little time and you'll be assigned somewhere else, or you'll do something else. The variety is amazingly wide. If you're an economist, there's plenty of room for economic analysis and expertise. Economic diplomacy is an important element of our foreign policy. If you're interested in politics, there it is. If you want to be an administrator, there are plenty of opportunities. It's a very human profession in the sense that you are constantly dealing with human beings and human problems, and social problems, including political problems. So a career in the diplomatic service provides an opportunity not only to serve, but to serve with fascination. That's important.
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