Remembering Samuel Huntington

A man of towering intellect, who never shied away from going for the jugular.

The first time I met Sam Huntington, I was not yet his student; I was an intern for the New Republic. I was still an undergraduate at Yale, and there was a peculiar campaign being waged by a Yale math professor named Serge Lang to deny Sam Huntington a seat in the National Academy of Sciences. I was intrigued by the whole thing, so I went to interview Huntington.

He was more troubled by the campaign than I would have ever imagined. The basic premise was this: Sam was a hawk in general, and during the Vietnam War, he had written a number of pieces, including a long report for the government and a couple of articles in Foreign Affairs, on the matter. Lang believed that this made him effectively a war criminal and argued that Sam should therefore not be part of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, while he was a hawk on this particular issue, Sam was actually on the dovish side of the debate. He was arguing that the United States needed a much more political, rather than military, strategy in Vietnam. But Lang was fixated on one page of Sam’s work.

What I remember most, however, isn’t the details of the case, but how transfixed I was just sitting there talking to Huntington, thinking to myself, "this is so fascinating." He was able to take policy debates and frame them in a much broader theoretical context. Sam was able to explain to you what confirms and what falsifies your argument.

A couple of years later, as a Ph.D. student at Harvard, I started working for Sam myself.

Today, in commemoration of Huntington’s work at Harvard, I imagine the question for most of you is why you should care about Sam Huntington and why you should read his books. I think more than anything else, Sam Huntington represented the view that social science is about connecting two large variables: the dependent and independent variable. Sam would often say to me, "You have to find a big independent variable and a big dependent variable." In other words, you’ve got to start with something big to explain. If you’re trying to explain something trivial, who cares? Then, if you try to explain the French Revolution, you have to have a powerful reason to explain it. If you have 19 reasons that explain the French Revolution, nobody cares. He once said to me, "If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon."

That’s always stayed with me as the central insight that Sam Huntington had for his students, particularly at a time, and in an academic profession, in which the instinct was to go for the capillary rather than the jugular. Sam always went for the jugular. If you look at his books, he always asked, what are the biggest things in the world that need to be explained? And what do I think is going on there? He did it with post-colonial development, with American politics when it seemed to be spiraling out of control in the 1970s, with the end of the Cold War, where he saw a resurgence of ethnic and religious identity. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, what is striking is how he never shied away from taking on big questions. Walter Lippmann once said, "Most people mumble because they are afraid of the sound of their own voices." When you put yourself out there, people will disagree with you, and Sam had his fair share of that. People disagreed with him vigorously, but he was trying to shed some very powerful light on what was going on in the world. And he did so in so many different fields.

To me, Sam Huntington’s most important book remains Political Order in Changing Societies. That’s the book that really changed the way I look at the world. Today, if you are puzzling the question of whether China will get more democratic as it gets richer, this is the book to read. Huntington takes you back in history and makes you understand why the United States has a tough time understanding whether societies become democratic as their economies modernize. I read the book when I was 22 or 23 years old, and I can still remember it vividly. How many books can you say that about when you’re 46, in my case?

Sam Huntington was also a man of great character, with a very strong will and very strong beliefs. I remember once reading a furious attack of his work and asking him why he didn’t respond. He said, "Well you know, Fareed, my view has always been that you put your best work out, you let people attack you, and then you move on. You can spend your whole life getting caught up in letters to the editor, and ‘I didn’t say this and I didn’t say that,’ but it’s pointless. The best thing you can do is write the next book which will cause disagreements among people." I thought that was such a fascinating way to look at his role as an intellectual. In many ways, he was thin-skinned like all of us. But he was able to rise above it and act out of this higher mission, this calling.

He was also a man of great principle. It was not always a principle that was popular, a principle that people agreed with. I remember one case when he was chairing an administrative session at the Olin Institute, of which he was the director. The administrative assistant explained that there was a lot of pressure from the university for the institute’s brochure to say something like, "We especially welcome and invite blacks and Hispanics to apply to these fellowships." The dean had thought that this would be just a matter of course — to just throw in the phrase and it would be fine. But Sam said, "You know, I really can’t go along with that. I feel very awkward sending special invitations to people based on their descriptive qualities, so you’ll have to tell the dean I won’t do it." As I say, you may agree or disagree with it, but there’s a certain steel to his core that he simply would not compromise, even when it was a trivial matter.

Finally, Sam was a great mentor and believed very much in the human dimension of mentoring. He was a WASP in every sense of the word, and he was emotive very rarely. But there were very few professors who would invite vast numbers of students to their place on Martha’s Vineyard and plan a whole day of fun and festivities. He and his wife Nancy used to have us over for these sorts of things. He was representative of some of the best qualities that make Harvard great: great intellectual standards but also a very real emphasis on the human element.

So I think back on Sam Huntington first and foremost as one of the most towering intellects I have ever come across, but also as a great human being and a man of enormous character. As I get older, I feel as though one learns a lot from books, but one also learns a lot from human beings — and from the character of a man.

Fareed Zakaria is an author and host of Fareed Zakaria GPS Twitter: @FareedZakaria

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