John Mearsheimer Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Through the Realist Lens: Conversation with John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago; April 8, 2002 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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John, welcome to Berkeley.

Glad to be here, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in December 1947, John Mearsheimer as a boyjust as the Cold War was getting started. And I was raised in New York City until I was 8 years old, at which point my parents moved to the suburbs. They moved to Westchester County -- Croton, New York, where I grew up.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

That's a very interesting question. My parents were actually not at all interested in politics, so they had almost no influence on pushing me into political science and the study of international relations. That all came much later in life. I think what my parents taught me was to be very honest, Mearsheimer and his grandmother in New Yorkto be what they used to call a "truth-teller," and also to work very hard. My parents had very old-fashioned values, and they believed that God put you on earth to work hard. They instilled the value of hard work and the value of truth-telling in their children, and I think that's had a significant effect on me over the years.

Were there any books that you read as a young person that affected you?

I would say that there were a handful of books that I read when I was in my late teens and early twenties that had a significant impact on me. One in particular was David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. John Mearsheimer with his brotherI grew up during the Vietnam years, in fact, I was in the American military from the years 1965 to 1975, which was coterminous with the Vietnam War. I often used to say to myself in those days, "How in God's name did we get into this horrible war? How did it happen?" And reading David Halberstam's book, which provides a very powerful and cogent explanation, had a very significant impact on my thinking.

You did your undergraduate work at West Point. How did you wind up there?

I went into the American military in 1965. I went into the army, and I was in for two years. And at the end of that first year as an enlisted man, I had two choices -- one, I could go to West Point; or, two, I could go to Vietnam. What happened in those days was that they often looked at people who were in the army, and those enlisted men in the army who had talent, they would offer appointments to West Point. That's what happened to me. At first I decided I would go to Vietnam; I did not like the military at all. Although I spent ten years of my life in the military and I'm deeply appreciative of that experience, I actually didn't like the military as an institution. I don't like shaving. I don't like sleeping in the woods. I actually don't like guns. I don't like uniforms. I don't like authority. So there was nothing about the military that I found congenial to my basic personality.

But, anyway, my father greatly wanted me to go to West Point; Mearshiemer with his mother on Graduation Day at West Pointhe was deeply convinced that I should do that. When he heard that I was thinking about not accepting the appointment to West Point, and instead going to Vietnam as an infantryman, he basically gave me compound fractures of both arms to get me to go to West Point.

In what ways was the military a positive influence, if any? What did you take out of that experience that proved useful later in life?

I learned a lot of things in the military. First of all, I just learned a lot about the subject that I now study from having been in the American military. If you do international relations and focus on military strategy and the use of force, there's no question that having been in the American military provided me with a lot of experiences and a lot of insights that helped me in my later work.

But on a more personal level, I think that West Point prepared me to be a scholar in two very important ways. First of all, West Point taught you to suffer, it taught you to work hard, to be able to deal with the adversity that comes with producing scholarship. Many people look at a book that a scholar writes or an article that a scholar writes and they think that this person just sort of sat down and in a few hours in the case of an article, or in a few weeks in the case of a book, produced this terrific piece of scholarship. In fact, as you well know, it takes years of hard work to produce a first-rate piece of scholarship. And it's often very painful. In fact, it's almost always very painful to write a really good book. It requires a lot of suffering. Mearshiemer at West PointWest Point taught me to get up every day and to wrestle with the bear. Even when it looked like things were not going to work out, to nevertheless get up out of bed and go to work. So that was one very important lesson that it taught me, the importance of hard work and fighting through adversity.

The other thing that West Point taught me wasto tell the truth. It placed a very high emphasis on saying things that might go against the conventional wisdom, that people might not want to hear, just because it was the truth. So I learned there to speak my mind, even if people don't like what I have to say. I think that's an important quality in an academic, as well.

How did it affect you being in the military at the time of the Vietnam War, when there was so much despair about that war and the military's role in it?

It was very tough to be at West Point when I was there. I was there from 1966 to 1970. I graduated on June 3rd, 1970. If my memory is correct, Kent State [National Guard massacre of students] took place on May 4th, 1970. So those were definitely tumultuous times. It was difficult to go home at Christmas or during summer vacation because we all had very short hair, and virtually all the kids that I grew up with, who were then in college, had long hair. Many of them had been radicalized and were very much opposed to the Vietnam War, and saw me as somebody who was a symbol of the Establishment, and, therefore, the enemy.

Probably some of my most searing experiences during those years were marching in Armed Forces Day parades in New York City. Every spring we would go to New York City and we would march down Fifth Avenue on what was called Armed Forces Day. And invariably, in later years, let's say, '68, '69 and '70, there would be huge numbers of demonstrators on either side of us as we marched down Fifth Avenue, oftentimes throwing bags of pig's blood at us, plastic bags filled with pig's blood or urine, spitting at us, screaming at the top of their lungs. Oftentimes, before we went, we had extensive drills on how to deal with the crowd should it charge us and try and get to the American flag, which we carried in our midst.

So those were very difficult times for a young person to be at West Point.

What did you learn about the military as an instrument of political power from that experience?

I learned a couple things. First, I learned that militaries tend to be rather conservative institutions. Many people think, especially people who have had no affiliation with the military, that military officers like war, they like to go fight. In fact, I think the exact opposite is the case. If you think about it, it makes good sense. Those are the people who are going to get shot or killed if they get sent to war. So the military, generally speaking, is quite reticent about fighting wars. It's very rarely the case that military officers are clamoring to get a shooting war started. That was one thing I learned.

The second thing I learned is that there's a great deal of corruption in the military, as there is in any large institution. Whether it's the Catholic Church or the academic world, the military has its share of corruption. I think this was especially true during the Vietnam War, which I believe had a corrupting influence on the military. So those were the two principal things I learned about the American military from my experience.

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