The Words of War

How the GI Bill enabled Richard Pipes to study Russian history at Harvard.

“Because of widespread fear of an imminent war with the Soviet Union, I decided to take my master’s degree so as to have at least some concrete result of my studies in case I was unable to complete the doctoral program. This merely required me to make a degree application. At the commencement in June 1947 the speaker was General George Marshall. I paid close attention to his address and was disappointed to find in it nothing by commonplaces. So apparently did everyone else, including the heads of European governments, until the Department of State alerted them to the programmatic passages that invited the Europeans to present the United States with a coordinated plan of postwar economic reconstruction. These remarks gave birth to the Marshall Plan, and thus the 1947 commencement address may be classed as one of the most important public speeches of the century. It certainly did not appear so at the time of delivery.”

 Richard Pipes, Vixi:  Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, p. 65.    

The above passage from a young graduate student at Harvard University in the immediate years after the end of World War II is interesting for several reasons. First, like many tens of thousands of other returned veterans from the war, Richard Pipes was part of a vast social and educational transformation taking place in the United States after the war. Second, the young student of Russian history was in a catbird seat to witness the changing realities of Soviet-American relations and the rising Cold War. Third, even though he did not realize it at the time, he was witnessing at the commencement a turning point in world affairs as the United States committed itself to an unprecedented historical initiative to rebuild the economic foundations of Europe, in the hopes of avoiding the historical mistakes made only a few decades before, and in defense against a new and looming Soviet threat.

As noted in my last post, Richard Pipes witnessed the German invasion of Poland and the destruction of Warsaw as a 16-year-old boy in 1939. After escaping Europe and becoming an American, he was ready to resume his education after the war. Pipes was part of a unique moment in the history of American education. The GI Bill passed in 1944 made college accessible through government loans for returning military veterans to advance their careers. Concerning the entry of the young veterans into Harvard after the war, Pipes would later write in his memoir: “Into this splendid vessel, virtually emptied during the war, poured in 1946 and 1947 thousands of recently demobilized students. Most had been on active service for several years; they were starved for knowledge as probably no generation before or since. They thronged to classes; they devoured books. I do not recall any discussions among graduate students during these years of jobs, a subject of increasing concern to those who would follow them. . . . The air was permeated with respect for intellectual achievement. I had never experienced anything like it.”  (Vixi, p. 63-64). This passage illuminates something that should be emphasized about the WWII generation: The war’s impact on their lives did not end in 1945, but shaped their futures as they sought to enrich themselves in peace not just materially, but culturally and spiritually as well.

After taking his MA degree in June 1947, the 24-year-old Pipes soon began working on his doctoral dissertation on nationality policy within the Soviet Union. Nationality struck Pipes as an intriguing problem to confront and comprehend in a society whose official ideology stressed the superiority of economic classes and their loyalties, including across international lines. In his subsequent career, Pipes’s work showed that contrary to official Soviet interpretations, the 1917 revolution was more characteristic of a coup d’etat than a popularly supported spontaneous uprising, and that the fundamental blueprints and development of the Soviet state and its repressive apparatus were in fact created by Lenin, and followed and enhanced by Stalin—not a new system begun under Stalin. 

In 1947, Stalin was seeking to consolidate his powers gained by the Red Army in Eastern Europe at the end of the war. This is what makes Pipes’s reflections on the commencement ceremony so interesting. General George Marshall, now President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, announced the launch of what became known as the Marshall Plan at Harvard’s commencement on June 5, 1947. Within a few years, American taxpayers generously paid over $12 billion to the recipient nations of Europe to rebuild their economies, in the process stabilizing their nascent democratic governments. Having been devastated by the Nazis, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites were eligible to receive Marshall Plan funds. But Stalin forbid acceptance, as the socialist systems could not validate their claims of economic superiority if they accepted financial help from the supposedly weaker capitalist nations. The budding young historian Pipes was, in Dean Acheson’s later phrase, “Present at the Creation” of a new American foreign policy and deeper, permanent American engagement in world affairs—but he didn’t recognize that sitting in the audience!

After graduating with his doctorate in 1950, Richard Pipes went on to a long career as a professor of Russian history at Harvard. His influence on American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union was most directly felt in his roles as an advisor within the Central Intelligence Agency (as leader of the famed “Team B” analysts in 1976) and as an aide in the Reagan administration in 1981–1982. His books on the Russian Revolution and its consequences, however, are his greatest professional legacies. His works remain respected as comprehensive historical accounts that shed crucial light on how history has evolved ever since. As Pipes himself has acknowledged, the causes, effects, and events of the Russian Revolution need to be deeply and clearly understood, because without the revolution it is highly likely that there would have been no fascism, no Nazi Germany, and no Second World War.

When he initially arrived from a combusting Europe to an America still at peace, Richard Pipes had a confrontation with his father because he strongly desired to continue his studies, rather than go into business with his father. He wrote in his memoir: “I felt that God had saved me from the hell of German-ruled Poland for some higher purpose, for an existence beyond mere survival and self-gratification. This feeling has never left me.” (Vixi, p. 42). He lost many members of his family in Poland in the German death camps during the war, and did not write about the Holocaust as a historian because it struck too close to his spirit. Pipes found his purpose and meaning as a historian of totalitarianism, and used his voice to spread understanding of what challenges the world faced by the Soviet Union’s primacy in the aftermath of World War II. He passed away on May 18, 2018, having witnessed not only the worst aspects of totalitarian rule in World War II, but also some of the best aspects of democracy, and with the satisfaction of personally contributing to the defeat of the two most violent and aggressive totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.

Note: This is the second of two posts. See Part One here.

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“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
 – Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum

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Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
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