Walter Russell Mead Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Political Tradition: Conversation with Walter Russell Mead, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; February 25, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Walter, welcome to Berkeley.

It's good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in South Carolina, in Columbia, but I was raised in a lot of different places. My dad is an Episcopal minister, so we traveled from town to town. I was in the South until I was seventeen.

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

A lot of different ways. We were in the South during the Civil Rights era, and my dad was one of the Episcopal clergy who was very active and marched with Martin Luther King. Both my grandfather and my father were involved in desegregation efforts in the places that they lived, and there were some real confrontational situations. A lot of people didn't welcome the changes. I think the experience of seeing that kind of social change, close up, shaped me profoundly, and not always in ways I understand. To see how a society can believe that segregation is right -- and a lot of good, good, honest people absolutely saw nothing wrong with it, yet it was a terrible era in history -- and watch people change their minds and learn; that was something that is always with me.

Where was your schooling?

When I was thirteen I got a scholarship to a prep school up North, Groton School. My scholarship included three round-trip bus tickets a year from North Carolina to Massachusetts. They said I was the most bused kid in the South. I mean, talk about busing, it was a seventeen-hour trip! Groton was and is a very well-known prep school with a lot of very rich people and a very distinguished history. I was from the South; I didn't know "nothing" about any of that stuff. I had to learn to sink or swim up there. I did some of both.

Then you did your undergraduate work at Yale?

At Yale, right.

In this educational journey, did any teachers or mentors stand out as shaping your thinking?

I was lucky to have great teachers along the way. In fact, in Special Providence, which I dedicated to my teachers, I mentioned five men by name: Bruce Cooper was a seventh grade English teacher who exposed me to literature in a new way. A couple of history teachers I had at Groton: a guy named Doc Irons, who is mentioned in The Best and the Brightest because he was McGeorge Bundy's high school history teacher as well, and David Halberstam [also] has a couple of pages about Doc Irons' teaching methods, which had not changed much from the 1930s to when I had him; and Acosta Nichols, a history teacher. Every now and then we'd get to the point in history where some boy's family had made their money, often by rather nefarious ways, and Mr. Nichols would take the kid aside and say, "Well, now, let me explain to you how your family made its money. People did a lot of complaining about war profiteers in World War I, and .... " And then at Yale, a man named Richard Broadhead, who is now the Dean of Yale College, taught a phenomenal seminar on American studies.

At Yale, you majored in literature.

That's right. I took a lot of history and American studies courses, but I wanted to read and read literature. I still belong to book groups and we read novels. I still probably spend as much time reading literature as I do anything else.

Is that an important way to get a handle on a civilization or a culture?

I absolutely think so. I think that understanding the poetry of a culture, certainly understanding the language of a society, gives you an understanding of what Hopkins would call the "inscape" of a culture or a people. I do find that many people in the field of foreign policy who've had only an academic political science training sometimes lack the feel for the reality of a culture or a people. Since I've come to the Council, we've started -- just begun, recently -- to do things like take our staff over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have an exhibit this spring on art of Central Asia. Just to see this stuff, to enrich the foreign policy-making process with more of an understanding of cultural issues and cultural realities.

What got you interested in foreign policy?

I decided I was always interested in foreign policy. I grew up in the Vietnam era, and McGeorge Bundy, a fellow alumni of Groton, was on the Board of Trustees of Groton at the time, and he was the National Security Advisor in the Kennedy - Johnson administrations. He was one of the architects of the war. A lot of my friends' parents had important roles in that war. So in a negative way, seeing that, I realized just how important foreign policy is for people, and when it goes wrong, what kinds of devastating things can happen.

So for a long time, I wanted nothing to do with foreign policy. I thought, "That's how you make Vietnam wars; I don't want to do that for a living!" And there's also the thought of, "Boy, you make a mistake and a million people die, how great ... maybe you should go into a profession where you make a mistake and the pizza isn't as good that evening." That kind of responsibility. So I shied away from that for a while, and only gradually did I begin to think, "On the other hand, there's a sense of [the sins of] omission as well as sins of commission. If you feel like you have a talent for something, and you're not using it, maybe as much harm can come that way."

Before you got to foreign policy as a field of study, what sorts of things did you do after you got your degree?

I taught for a while. I worked in a federal anti-poverty program in Massachusetts. I edited a labor union newsletter in New York City. I wrote my first book, Mortal Splendor. Basically, by day I was doing temp work, a "Kelly Girl" essentially, doing word processing, and at night I would work on my book. I sort of knocked around. I felt that graduate school wasn't the right place for me; I still wanted to be a generalist and wanted to read literature, but I didn't want to be an English critic. I wanted to read history but I didn't want to be a professional historian, learning a very specific set of skills. At the time, there weren't that many places that taught that, and there may still not be very many.

Probably fewer, if any.

Yes, right. You know, they want to turn you into a member of a profession rather than giving you a broad background in the history and culture of your society and others. I just couldn't find a match between my aspirations and the way the educational system works. So I decided to save the money and just do the reading on my own.

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