Feature

Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941-2010

Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941-2010

As it turned out, I was the last person to have lunch with Richard Holbrooke. We ate last Thursday in the State Department cafeteria — sushi that, frankly, looked a bit green around the edges; his idea, not mine — and the ambassador was in his element. There were hands to shake, aides scurrying about with details of the last-minute trip he had to make that afternoon to Capitol Hill, an interesting new backdoor conduit to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to consider. Lunch with his successor at Foreign Policy was an unnecessary gesture in his packed schedule but he had overruled his staff to keep our date that morning.

And the only purpose of it was to say thank you in person. 

Just a few days earlier, Foreign Policy celebrated its 40th anniversary with an event at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. The honoree we chose that night to mark the occasion was Holbrooke, a contributor to the very first issue of Foreign Policy in the winter of 1970 who went on to become our editor for five years in the 1970s. Holbrooke’s moving speech that night took him back four decades, to the intellectual turmoil of Washington in the Vietnam era, when the new journal was born in reaction to the dangerous conformity of the establishment that had helped allow the disaster of Vietnam to unfold.

Our award to him was a framed copy of that first issue, when Holbrooke — as a serving Foreign Service officer — had penned a scathing indictment of the way the Vietnam-era State Department worked, calling it "The Machine That Fails." In many ways it was a prescient piece — and in giving Holbrooke the award, Washington Post Co. Chairman Don Graham read out loud to our guests that night a particularly prescient passage from it in this WikiLeaked-obsessed moment. "The chances of catastrophe grow, as organizations grow in number and size, and internal communications become more time consuming, less intelligible, and less controllable." It was classic Holbrooke that he had brought the passage with him that night and showed it to Graham, underlined in black pen; he was chuckling over it all night.

But Holbrooke forgot the award (after closing out the party talking to the young foreign policy types for whom he was a legend). When I emailed that we had found it, he insisted I return it in person. And over our cafeteria sushi, he couldn’t have been more generous. Aside from reminiscing about Foreign Policy‘s considerably more luxe early days — co-founder Warren Demian Manshel was not only bankrolling the venture, but liked to do the winter issue in Palm Beach and the summer one in Cap d’Antibes, Holbrooke told me — he asked sharp and serious questions about FP‘s future in a fast-changing media landscape. And volunteered, unasked, to do whatever he could to help us in the future. He told me repeatedly in the several times I saw him over the last couple weeks how much the award meant to him. In short, he was kind, classy, and generous to a fault.

And here are his remarks, his own last word on a long-ago time in his life. – Susan Glasser

*****

The five years I spent as an editor at FP were among the most important in my life and my career, and we don’t really get a chance to talk about why this great magazine was founded, but I think it’s directly relevant to the situation today.

In 1969, [the war in] Vietnam was at its height. Senator [John] Kerry, then, was back from Vietnam and about to make his historic appearance in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Families didn’t talk to each other, friendships were destroyed, this city was seething in a way that is unimaginable today, even in a time when we talk about the partisan divisions that evidently divide our city — but not like they did in 1969, Richard Nixon’s first year, a year when millions of people descended on this city to protest the war, and [national security advisor Henry] Kissinger was engaged, but people didn’t know it yet, in secret talks.

In that year of 1969, Foreign Affairs was the only magazine in the game. There were no others; the magazines you see around today did not exist. And the magazine Foreign Affairs was sliding into irrelevance; it may be hard for you to believe this now, but Foreign Affairs did not run articles on Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam debate. Their quintessential article, as we used to joke, was an article called "Mexico Looks North and South," or, "Whither Spain." They were very academic; their past was behind them. And two friends, Warren Manshel and [Samuel] Huntington — very close friends who passionately disagreed about the course of American foreign policy, and particularly Vietnam — decided to form a new magazine, and that’s how FP was conceived. Warren was a wealthy investor; Sam as you all know was a distinguished professor at Harvard.

They believed in promoting dialogue even among people who disagreed violently. They decided to create this new magazine to debate the big issues; Vietnam and beyond, and they called it Foreign Policy because they wanted to emphasize it was about our policies, not simply these articles I mentioned earlier. This magazine would have a new shape, literally and figuratively. They chose an American designer from New York [who] designed the very slim, elegant initial magazine, with that curious long shape, the concept being that you could fit it into your breast pocket, though if you did you were going to ruin your suit because it got pretty thick.

That fall, in 1969, Sam Huntington called me; I didn’t know him, but he called and said he wanted me to consider being the first editor of this new magazine. I was at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, long before my dear friend Anne-Marie Slaughter took over as dean. I was at Princeton, on an assignment from the Foreign Service, a one-year assignment at the Wilson School, and it was an intriguing offer, but I had already made a commitment to the government to go to Morocco as Peace Corps director, so I recommended a very dear friend of mine named John Campbell, as their first editor. He had entered the Foreign Service with me, a brilliant man. He took over, and the article Don quoted from was in his first issue.

Life rarely offers you an opportunity to do the same thing twice, but a tragic series of events led to my becoming the editor. In 1970 and [1971], John Campbell set out to create this magazine with Warren Manshel and Sam Huntington, and you go back and look at those issues and you’ll see lots of names of people who became very prominent. The first article of the first issue was co-authored by Les Gelb, and we printed other famous people subsequently. John Campbell, at the age of 31, suddenly died of thyroid cancer that was undiagnosed. I remember that day so vividly because I was in Nepal visiting the Peace Corps operations there, as part of my learning about the Peace Corps; I was in Morocco at the time. I got a call from his widow and she asked if I could come back, and I came back to New York and spoke at the funeral and then Sam and Warren asked me to reconsider the magazine.

This time, having almost completed my tour in Morocco, I said yes and that led to five incredible years at the magazine and with Warren and Sam. We printed long investigative articles on Vietnam and the Middle East; we aggravated people enormously although not the way WikiLeaks has caused problems in the last few days, although people like Henry Kissinger were incredibly angry at the magazine for what we published. We published people from Paul Nitze to Albert Wohlstetter to Francis Fitzgerald. The first piece in the first issue I edited was the 25th anniversary of [the famous "X" article], and very symbolically George Kennan chose to revisit that article in our magazine. So the magazine was launched.

After I left the magazine, editors and owners, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made a critical decision to change the shape. While it was an elegant shape, it simply was too confining. The new shape allowed the magazine to breathe.

Today, after two superb editors, Moisés [Naím] and Susan [Glasser], you have what you have today — a magazine that has outgrown any of the dreams that we had 40 years ago, a magazine which has become a benchmark with a website and a visionary new leader in Don Graham, who was so farsighted to acquire it. I congratulate them, Susan and Don, and all the people from Sam and Warren to today. I’m honored to be here Susan, Don; I’m honored to be a small part of this terrific evening. Thank you very much.