William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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Mr. Pfaff, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

How did you became an American writer living in Paris? You were educated in the United States ...

Oh yes, I was born in Iowa and grew up in Georgia and went to Notre Dame. I suppose the answer is to be careful what you pray for, because when I was at Notre Dame, if you had said to me, "What you like to one day find yourself being?" I would have said, "Well, I suppose that I would like to comment on public affairs, to be a publicist" -- in the old sense of the word. I studied English at Notre Dame, but it was an English that was really a philosophical, humanist, humanities program rather more than specifically English. But I was increasingly interested in international affairs, and I suppose I would have said that I would like to comment on international affairs, and actually, I would like to do it for The New Yorker. And it would be nice to live in Paris. And somehow, that's the way it all worked out.

From school, you went to the Hudson Institute?

No. From school I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I didn't want to go to graduate school, which is what most of my friends seemed to be doing, because I had a sense that that wasn't the real world. I had spent too many years in school already and I wanted to get out and do things and mix with the grown-ups. So I went off for that summer. I graduated in '49 so this was the summer of '49. I wrote to the CIA; we were all fighting Stalin in those days. I applied for the State Department, for the Foreign Service. I don't think I ever got an answer from the CIA, but I got invited to the State Department, they were having Foreign Service interviews. I was living in Columbus, Georgia, and I was invited to Foreign Service interviews in Atlanta. Maybe I even went.

In any case, that was fairly far advanced when a letter came one day from the Commonweal magazine in New York, from the editor, Edward Skillin, which said, "Professor O'Mally at Notre Dame has given us your name. We're looking for a junior editor. We are offering $75 a week, would you like to try your hand?" My father said, "Try your hand? What's that supposed to mean? A magazine, the Commonweal, I've never heard of the Commonweal. You're going to give up a good civil service job with a retirement?" But I went to New York to try my hand at Commonweal. The next year the Korean War came along and so I took leave and went off to that, but came back and was with Commonweal until '55.

Then I took such money as I had and set off to go as far as the money would take me, which eventually turned out to be Baghdad, including getting there by way of the old Narrain buses, which were semi-trailer vans fixed up as desert crossing buses, crossing in the night. It was all very romantic in those days. And into Africa, in the Belgian Congo, while there still was a Belgian Congo. And then back to Europe where, in fact, I went into the Herald Tribune, which in those days was the New York Herald Tribune, asked them if they had a job. They gave me a bored look, since they had at least ten people a day coming in in the same way, and they said no.

So I came back to New York with exactly five cents in my pocket to ring up my ex-roommate and say, "Can you please come around and pick me up and put me up for the night?"

I worked for a couple of years at ABC, simply to have something to make a living. And then the Free Europe Committee, which was the parent organization of Radio Free Europe (and something called Free Europe Press, dealing with East European affairs), offered me a job, which was one of the formative experiences of my life, because I was the "young American," I was one of the people who ran it. The East European exiles were on the run. But here I was twenty-five or twenty-six ...

This would be what year now?

This was '57 to '61.

I would say, "Well, Dr. Palka, what did you do during the war?" And he would say, "Well, actually Mr. Pfaff, I was in Dachau." And, "Dr. So-and-so, what did you do?" And he would say, "Well, I was rector of Charles University." This was the generation of exiles that had left mainly in the Second World War and had been in London, and they had tried to go back after the war and had run into Stalinism and came back for the second time. But it was a short, sharp introduction into the world of Central Europe, of a kind of a density of politics that, for a young American, was extremely illuminating. The friends I made there, including the Americans (there was a remarkable group of Americans there), were the people that I've stayed friends with, more than almost any other people with whom I've been professionally connected.

In '61, I had left Free Europe feeling that I had gained what I could from that, and a friend of a friend told me that Herman Kahn was starting the Hudson Institute. I had reviewed Kahn's book unfavorably on the problems of communism, but I was looking for a job, so I went around to see him. Herman would hire anybody who walked in off the street, and he hired me. So I was one of the earliest people there and was with them in New York until the end of the sixties, when Hudson started up in Europe. I wrangled myself an opportunity to go over and help set it up there, and stayed there.

Throughout this period and to the present, what international events had the greatest impact on your intellectual development? The Vietnam War?

Well, first of all, the East European revolts, I would say. Although Hungary and Poland took place before I was at Free Europe, obviously I was already greatly interested in international affairs, and then, finding myself among the East Europeans in the aftermath of that was very important in my development. It was one of the reasons that I stayed, kept an interest in Eastern Europe, long after it had dropped off the American horizon for everyone else. And then the Vietnam War.

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