Every so often a certain kind of person involved in public affairs arouses within those who disagree an emotional response so strong, so angry, that you get a little curious about what it is that causes all the snorts and sighs when his name comes up.

One of those people in Washington right now is Richard Pipes, a Polish-born Harvard professor of Russian history. Pipes became important in 1976 when a team of hardline analysts he headed totally revised CIA estimates of Soviet strength. Since January he has been on leave from Harvard, serving at the White House as senior advisor on Soviet and Eastern European affairs, a critical National Security Council post.

Paul Warnke, an otherwise discreet Washington lawyer and former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says that some of Pipes’s views on the Soviets are “just full of crap.” Averell Harriman, irascible octogenarian that he is, went a little further than usual a couple of years ago when he advised a visitor that Pipes is “nothing but a damn fool.” George Kistiakowsky, Eisenhower’s science advisor and a well-known expert on arms control issues, told me something utterly libelous about Pipes, took it off the record, then added simply, “I can’t rationalize the man for you—that’s not possible.”

Now, whenever something like this happens— and I’ve left out many similar examples—it’s a good bet that either I) the person in question has turned out to be at least partially right about a subject on which his critics were sure he was entirely wrong, or 2) he is in fact the arrogant ideologue his detractors claim, and he does in fact overstate his case to the point of being irresponsible if not dangerous.

It has to be admitted that Richard Pipes, superhawk, falls a little into the first category. Like other hardliners, he has at least some reason to feel a perverse sense of vindication over the course of U.S.-Soviet relations. For those more hopeful about detente, the invasion of Afghanistan was a double whammy—it was abhorrent in itself, but it also hurt a little to have to chalk one up for the Cassandras, whose dire warnings turned out to contain a grain of truth.

Conceding that is tough, and it probably makes those of us more dovish about the world feel a bit bitter toward someone like Pipes, who was dishing up tales of Soviet perfidy for his Committee on the Present Danger crowd long before anti-Sovietism became the rage.

But sour grapes doesn’t really explain why his opponents go beyond merely disagreeing with someone like Richard Pipes. For that you have to look to the second category. Pipes does suffer an acute case of sonorous self-importance, and, in his attitude toward the Soviets, he does cross that thin line separating responsible vigilance from irresponsible provocation. In Washington, professors can usually get away with being either arrogant or inflammatory, but Pipes seems to have ended up in the worst of both worlds. He combines the unpleasant characteristics professors sometimes bring to government with some of the more dubious views associated with today’s hardliners. That’s a potent mix, and one worth paying attention to when it congeals in the person of the president’s top Sovietologist.

Taxing Rock-and-Roll

The only problem is, Pipes isn’t really a “Sovietologist” as it’s usually defined—that is, a scholar who studies the modern-day Soviet Union. At least he wasn’t until a few years ago when he began trading on his name as a Harvard historian of imperial Russia to become an instant expert on current Soviet affairs, the latter being a bear of a very different color. Some professors roam far afield with success, but in Pipes’s case, it doesn’t work well. His foray into politics leaves him looking like the Noam Chomsky of the Right.

Not surprisingly, none of this has affected the willingness of conservative senators, representatives, and assorted panel hosts to invoke the Harvard pedigree and pit Pipes against the likes of George Kennan and others who are Soviet experts in a more legitimate sense. Nor has it dampened Pipes’s willingness, now that he is in government, to speak publicly for the administration on U.S.-Soviet issues. That got him into some trouble in mid-March when he aroused the wrath of numerous other self-styled administration spokesmen by suggesting in an interview with a Reuters reporter that the Soviets will face a choice between reforming their system or “going to war.” The knuckle-rapping for speaking out of turn was reported by all three networks, and all press interviews—including mine—were abruptly canceled.

In typical fashion, Pipes, once chastened, sought a scapegoat for his indiscretion, who in this case proved to be the Reuters reporter. Though he had said such things about the Soviets before, and would, in fact, reiterate the basic points of the interview at a conference the following weekend, Pipes passed the word that the reporter’s career was “finished.” “He’ll never get another interview in Washington,” he assured friends, as if the Reuters man had been one of those Harvard graduate students whose academic careers. Pipes can (and does) jettison with a wave of the hand.

The whole affair was vintage Pipes, and it showed that, unlike Kissinger, Brzezinski, and other Machiavellian emigres from academe, this professor has no subtle bureaucratic skills with which to make his way in Washington. What Pipes does have in common with those (more powerful) predecessors is an ability to use his role as resident White House foreign policy intellectual to good advantage by beefing up the natural inclinations of the administration with a little theory and professorial analysis. In this case, that means applying what he knows about Russian history to what Reagan, Richard Allen, and others believe to be the Soviet “grand strategy” to dominate the world.

Pipes argues that the imperialism of Soviet leadership is rooted in the expansionist impulses of czarist Russia, and that the “present danger” is as much the product of the Russian character as it is the result of communism. Using history in this way to make policy is always a tricky business—can you imagine the American expert in the Kremlin evaluating our foreign policy on the basis of 19th century attitudes toward the frontier? It’s even trickier when the lesson is controversial—even on the Right.

In recent years, for instance, Pipes’s dim view of Russian character has given rise to a bitter dispute with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who believes that the current state of affairs is the fault of the communist regime, not the Russian people, that the problem is “Soviets” rather than “Russians.” (Pipes blames both.) Solzhenitsyn is not alone in his assessment of Pipes’s most influential but also most bitterly disputed book, Russia Under the Old Regime, which Solzhenitsyn says shows Pipes “willfully ignor[ing] those events, persons, or aspects of Russian life which would not prove conducive to his thesis, which is that the entire history of Russia has but a single purpose—the creation of a police state.” Pipes’s selective use of evidence, Solzhenitsyn concluded last year in Foreign Affairs, “affects me in much the same way as I imagine Rostropovich would feel if he had to listen to a wolf playing the cello.”

Notwithstanding that, Pipes and Solzhenitsyn play the same general tune. They share, for instance, a distaste for what they see as the fatigue of American liberal intellectuals and the weakness of modern American culture, both of which were themes of Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard oration in 1978. Pipes weighed in on the fatigue issue last year at a Kennedy School of Government panel discussion when he accused his colleague Stanley Hoffmann of thinking like “a tired Vichy-ite.” His attack, on modern Western culture has been known to take an even stranger form. Once, at an after-dinner seminar, Pipes reportedly suggested that ten percent of the U.S. GNP be devoted to nuclear arms alone. How could we possibly afford that, a student asked. One way, Pipes replied, would be a value added tax. On what, the student pressed. “On rock-and-roll records, to start,” Pipes answered, Solzhenitsyn-style.

That could have been a genuinely funny remark, but witnesses at the seminar absolutely swear the professor wasn’t joking. As anyone who has had contact with him will tell you, Pipes is not exactly a smiler. The charming European gentleman in him shows itself on occasion, but the general consensus at Harvard is that he goes well beyond the norm in the arrogance and sourness of his attitude, especially toward students. Shuffling through wintry Cambridge under his fur hat, Pipes has the pensive, troubled look of a man carrying the weight of the Free World on his shoulders. It’s as if he wants us to know our future depended not only on general vigilance, but on the correctness—no, the infallibility—of Richard Pipes’s particular analysis.

Soviet Anschluss

When colleagues, friendly or otherwise, try to account for the passion of Pipes’s approach to the Soviet Union, most point to his background. His perspective is that of an upper-class Polish Jew who escaped from Europe in 1940, not long after Hitler violated his pact with Stalin and invaded Poland alone instead of in tandem with Russia. Understandably, Poles of Pipes’s stock have classically considered Russians to be barbarians—not only aggressive, but culturally inferior. One former graduate student recalls that when Pipes returned from his last visit to the Soviet Union a few years ago, he complained bitterly about the shabbiness of his accommodations and the backwardness of the Russian people. By contrast, he returned from a visit to mainland China enthused about the basic goodness of the Chinese.

“He hates Russia—period,” says another former graduate student. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, Pipes has reportedly not been able to bear meeting or attending conferences with anyone from the Soviet Union, save dissidents. None. No contact. He sees no reason to, because he believes all Soviet leaders essentially think alike. “The whole notion of hawks and doves [in the Kremlin] leaves me very cold,” Pipes told a Senate committee last year. This is one of his arguments that leave most people with common sense very cold. “I think there is more reality than Professor Pipes thinks in that distinction,” George Kennan told the committee. “There are differences [within the Kremlin] as there would be in any great government confronted with a complexity of foreign policy problems.. ..” The internal bickering over policy isn’t always less pronounced in a closed society: witness, for instance, the dispute over invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the one that preceded Nixon’s visit to Moscow in 1972, both of which have recently come to light. In both cases, important Politburo members are now known to have dissented.

Perhaps the real reason Pipes adopts his “no hawks or doves” line is that it conforms to his idea of a monolithic totalitarian state. Unlike some others who conjure up the memory of appeasement at Munich, Pipes does not make a passing, cursory comparison between the Soviets and the Nazis. For him, the analogy fits nearly perfectly. That the Soviets, like the Nazis, are bound by no “rational” strategy is the very essence of Pipes’s thinking about the Russian threat. He argues the irrationality point most forcefully in a famous July 1977 Commentary piece entitled “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” which was reprinted widely at the time and is today considered by many Reagan administration officials to be their keyhole on the Soviet menace. It puts on paper what many of them believe but cannot articulate.

“Soviet doctrine asserts that while an all-out nuclear war would indeed prove extremely destructive to both parties, its outcome would not be mutual suicide: the country better prepared for it and in possession of a superior strategy could win and emerge a viable society,” Pipes writes. The real problem, as he has put it over and over, is that Americans are guilty of “mirror-imaging,” that is, “assuming [the Russians] to be essentially like us.”

The “mirror-imaging” charge is fair enough, although mistaking Russians for Americans is not what you would call a major problem for most U.S. policy-makers nowadays. Where Pipes comes up short is in his suggestion that Soviet leaders not only think differently about war, but even among themselves think in one way about it, and that one way is based on something written in the 19th century by Karl von Clausewitz, the German military strategist. Clausewitz, like Horace Greeley or Lord Acton, is remembered best for only one sentence, which in Clausewitz’s case reads: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

To most of us, of course, that ambiguous phrase doesn’t signify very much beyond, perhaps, some long-forgotten term paper or class discussion devoted to speculating on its obscure meaning. But to Richard Pipes, burrowed in at the White House, Clausewitz’s words lie at “the center of the [current] strategic debate.” Pipes not only knows what the words mean for him, he has an idea about what they mean for the Soviets, too. He wrote in Commentary that “as long as the Russians persist in adhering to the Clausewitzian maxim on the function of war, mutual deterrence does not really exist.”

That’s a strange enough statement, but Pipes reviews Soviet military journals and comes to the conclusion that there is virtually no difference of opinion on this matter among Soviet leaders; that’s the party line, he claims. Nuclear war is thinkable because Lenin read this German author who said so (even if he did die more than a hundred years before the nuclear age). Pipes cites two principal sources for this view of Soviet intentions. One is an important Soviet strategist named V. D. Sokolovskii. The other is a “confidential” journal called Military Thought, which circulates exclusively to Soviet military leaders (the CIA has obtained copies). American Soviet experts generally agree with Pipes that both contain little propaganda and are thus reflective of the thinking of Soviet military strategists.

Pipes quotes Sokolovskii: “It is well known that the essential nature of war as a continuation of politics does not change with changing technology and armament” [Pipes’s italics]. This, Pipes believes, says it all about Soviet intentions. It is a code phrase that signifies the rejection by Soviet leaders of the idea that nuclear war is suicidal. Furthermore, Pipes testified before a House committee, two other American scholars (much of his research in this area is secondary) have found “that in not a single issue of Military Thought which they have is there any advocacy of the principle of mutually assured destruction.”

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.