Harold Wilensky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Comparing Rich Democracies: Conversation with Harold L. Wilensky, Professor Emeritus of Political Science; October 29, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Hal, welcome to our program.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New Rochelle, New York, and raised in that place for about eleven years. When I was about twelve, we moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, where my family remained. My brother was later mayor of Stamford, Connecticut, and my mother stayed in Norwalk until she was ninety-three and died. And so that was our home, really -- Connecticut.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

They shaped it in a great many ways. They had a mom-and-pop store. It was a grocery store in New Rochelle, and during the Great Depression it went bankrupt. So we were down and out, as far as income went, in the thirties when I was growing up -- that was from the time I was eight years to something like eleven or twelve. We had to move to Norwalk because it was cheaper rent, and a cheaper place. So that was the first thing.

Now what does a mom-and-pop store, with a fiercely independent, entrepreneurial family do for you? It makes you fiercely independent. So that's one fact. The other was that they were political in the sense that they talked politics at the dinner table. Remember, they were immigrants. When they came over, they were eight and twelve, so they didn't know much, but they learned pretty damn fast, for which I give them great credit.

And, also, there's one other thing. This was a Jewish family of immigrants from the border of Russia and Poland, but Russian, and they were, like all the Jews I knew at that time, committed to education. Even in the middle of the Depression, they saw to it that their kids got an education by begging, borrowing -- any way you could get the kids into college, they did. The kids didn't always respond. Of my two brothers, one of them didn't and the other did, and I did. So the valuing of education, and the value, also, of doing something with the natural-born talents you have. That was a strong idea. They didn't care what I became, so long as I got an education and used my talents. It was very important.

In addition to the Depression, which you've just described, World War II must have been a formative experience in your life.

You bet. The Depression and World War II, if you came of age at that time, shook you up. They account for my interest in the social sciences and society and politics because of the extraordinary disruption in my life that they imposed. Obviously, you'd start thinking about larger things than, say, your little cocoon at home, and I did. Indeed, I became a B-17 pilot. I joined the service in '42, and while I was in the service I even read a book about the Nazis called Behemoth by Franz L. Neumann, which was the first really solid social science treatment of totalitarianism that I had encountered, and I became very interested in all of this.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

I did it, first, at Goddard College in Vermont, a progressive college. Then after two years, I transferred to Antioch College in Ohio in '42. I spent only a quarter at Antioch, during which I joined the Aviation Cadets. They were hoarding manpower for the Air Corps -- "Victory through air power!" -- and I was part of the hoard, and therefore, they didn't call me up for months. Meanwhile, I got a job in the labor movement. I'd already had some union jobs.

Antioch is known for work while getting a degree.

This was one of those co-op jobs, so-called. And also Goddard had that, too.

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