Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 1 of 6


Peter, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Tell us a little about your past. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City in the late 1930s and my family lived in Brooklyn until I was six, at which time we moved to Florida for a year for business reasons, and then came back to New York where I lived until I was twelve. My parents divorced at that time and my mother married a Canadian so I then spent the last year of grammar school and high school in Montreal in Quebec, and then went on to Colgate University for my undergraduate work.

And how did your parents shape your character, looking back in retrospect?

Well they were very nurturing, which was important. But I think that they helped me in a deeper sense in a couple of ways. They were great readers, mainly novels but some classic historical novels as well. I know that my father prided himself as a young man, before I was born he had bought the Harvard three-yard shelf, as I remember it, of bound books in red covers with novels of the past three or four hundred years, not only in the English languages but translated -- some of the great Russian novels, for example. And secondly, although he was a businessman, he really hoped that his son, and I was his oldest son, would go into some form of public service. He thought that it would be wonderful to try to give back to the country something that he and his father, who had immigrated from Russia, had received. And therefore he was very pleased and encouraging when I chose to go into the foreign service of the State Department in the early 1960s.

So in the vast library that he had given you, any books that you read when you were growing up that you recall and that really influenced you?

I was quite struck by Hemingway and Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos, at the time. And then the great, for the most part, nineteenth-century Russian novelists, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy. But we read, not together as a family unit, reams and reams of novels and would talk about them. And the existence of the shelf and the collection was a fixture that I remember from a very early time in my life, long before I could read, much less absorb what was in it.

Did you travel a lot as a young person?

Not all that much. Certainly not overseas. The first time I left the United States, except for my time in Canada when I was in high school, was in 1956 when I was at Colgate and went to France for a junior year. That was the first time that I left North America.

Were there any mentors that stand out from this period in your life? People who especially influenced you other than your parents?

At Colgate I majored in philosophy and there were two or three quite wonderful teachers of philosophy who convinced me, although they weren't out to persuade me, to major in philosophy, but really opened up an intellectual world that I had not known existed. And for quite a while I thought I wanted to teach philosophy and I began to prepare a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago. But I think in terms of impact on the way I thought about the world and my life, the three or four professors, none of whom are known, but who were at Colgate at that time, had a very, very strong influence. Once I came into government I was exposed to people of more prominence. But those early years, especially at the undergraduate level, were very important to me.

They must have taught you to think about both what you were saying and what you were writing in a way that became very useful later on.

Yes. That's right, exactly. The use of words, the human condition. During my junior year in France, 1956-1957, I spent a lot of time studying the French Catholic philosophers but also the existentialists. And I was intensely involved, almost emotionally involved, in what I was reading. And it was a difficult choice for me a couple of years later when I had to choose between a career in the State Department, foreign service, or to become a professor of philosophy.

And what pushed you over the edge in one direction as opposed to the other?

The fact that in 1956-1957 there were events of a momentous nature taking place in the world. This was the time of the Suez Crisis. And there was a lot of agitation in Europe. The Hungarian uprising as well. And I found myself in Europe at a time when human events and political events were quite dramatic. I think that if I had not been in Europe at all, or certainly during that year, I might have continued on with philosophy and become a philosophy professor and never thought about the foreign service. But being, if not on the spot, close to the place where momentous events were taking place propelled me in the direction of trying to participate in a modest way in what was happening in the world rather than being a teacher of philosophy.

This was a time when you could feel that you could make a difference by going into the foreign service.

Yes, that's right.

And also there probably were not the ambiguities about America's role in the world that we all came to experience in later years.

There was a sense of mission. Naturally I didn't come into the State Department until the Kennedy administration, so it wasn't as if I made a decision and came right in. And you're right. There was a feeling of mission, of purpose, of knowing what America's role would be in the world, who our friends were, who our enemies were. And, as John Kennedy said in his inaugural address, that the country should be prepared to do whatever was necessary to defend democracy around the world, which did not have a practical application at that moment, but soon afterwards in Vietnam and other places it became apparent that he was serious about this kind of a commitment. And those of us who were coming into government service were very much motivated by it.

Next page: Features of U.S. Foreign Policy

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California