Analysis

Yale’s Grand Strategy Program Has Always Been Broken

The university set out to train the next generation of U.S. leaders—but it often failed to educate them.

By , a former lecturer in political science at Yale University and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York.
Yale University buildings
Buildings on the campus of Yale University are shown in New Haven, Connecticut, on April 15, 2008. Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images

Yale history professor Beverly Gage has been praised widely for defending academic freedom by announcing her resignation (effective in December) from the directorship of Yale University’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which she took over in 2017 from Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. But there are more politically urgent, and arguably profound, questions at issue here beyond professors’ right to design their courses free of outside interference.

Since the program’s inception more than two decades ago, Grand Strategy’s intensive seminars have engaged undergraduate as well as graduate students with close readings of classical works on strategy, stressful crisis decision-making simulations, and meetings with accomplished policymakers. In 2010, David Petraeus, at the time the four-star Army general commanding U.S. military operations in the Middle East (and later to become director of the CIA), visited the seminar, as have former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, observers from the CIA, and U.S. Military Academy cadets.

That the program, prior to Gage’s arrival, nudged students toward embracing the U.S. military and national security state was hardly a secret. “A Yale Class Seeks to Change the World … Before Graduation,” read a headline on a Columbia News Service report in 2004, when Grand Strategy was directed by Gaddis. “We are looking for leaders,” the late Charles Hill, a program co-founder, career Foreign Service officer, and Yale’s diplomat-in-residence, told the reporter. “This course gives us a great opportunity to get our hooks into them early. We are not … looking for the kind of person who would be protesting the [World Trade Organization] at Davos,” the World Economic Forum.

Yale history professor Beverly Gage has been praised widely for defending academic freedom by announcing her resignation (effective in December) from the directorship of Yale University’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which she took over in 2017 from Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. But there are more politically urgent, and arguably profound, questions at issue here beyond professors’ right to design their courses free of outside interference.

Since the program’s inception more than two decades ago, Grand Strategy’s intensive seminars have engaged undergraduate as well as graduate students with close readings of classical works on strategy, stressful crisis decision-making simulations, and meetings with accomplished policymakers. In 2010, David Petraeus, at the time the four-star Army general commanding U.S. military operations in the Middle East (and later to become director of the CIA), visited the seminar, as have former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, observers from the CIA, and U.S. Military Academy cadets.

That the program, prior to Gage’s arrival, nudged students toward embracing the U.S. military and national security state was hardly a secret. “A Yale Class Seeks to Change the World … Before Graduation,” read a headline on a Columbia News Service report in 2004, when Grand Strategy was directed by Gaddis. “We are looking for leaders,” the late Charles Hill, a program co-founder, career Foreign Service officer, and Yale’s diplomat-in-residence, told the reporter. “This course gives us a great opportunity to get our hooks into them early. We are not … looking for the kind of person who would be protesting the [World Trade Organization] at Davos,” the World Economic Forum.

But Gage wanted students to scrutinize foreign-policy elites, not elevate them. She welcomed social movement activists in civil rights, environmental, and other domestic causes, expanding Grand Strategy’s horizons to include people who challenge the dominant world arrangements that other visitors defend. Soon she was “second guessed and undermined,” as she put it, by the Yale administration’s failure to resist a conservative board of program overseers demanded by Grand Strategy’s benefactors: former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, a former director of the Mitre Corporation and manager of federally funded research and development projects for the Defense Department; and Brady’s billionaire business associate Charles B. Johnson, an overseer of the conservative Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. The two had endowed Grand Strategy with $17.5 million in 2006.

In an essay for the recently published anthology Rethinking American Grand Strategy, Gage writes that “as a citizen, I have, for better or worse, been as likely to be a protester as a policy maker,” and she urges anyone drawn to the latter “to pay more attention to voices bubbling up from below.” To Grand Strategy’s emphasis on foreign-policy decision-making, she added “the art of … channeling collective grievances into effective action.”

Gaddis, Hill, and other original faculty had sided generally with the powerful. “We hauled the entire Grand Strategy class down to New York to meet Henry Kissinger and hear about his sense of the great deficit that exists in grand-strategic thinking,” Gaddis told a large assembly of Yale alumni (including me) at a reunion in 2004. “A student was outraged by Christopher Hitchens’s book accusing Henry of war crimes. So I said, ‘Why not do a senior essay on Kissinger’s ethics?’ I saw a draft, called Henry, and he said ‘Bring him in.’ He hired him on the spot, … to fact check Christopher Hitchens.”

Many alumni swooned, not least over Gaddis’s exhibition of first-name familiarity with the famous and powerful. This was how things had been done at Yale in their time, and by God, Gaddis was bringing back the old elan! But nobody stopped to ask how that fits with a college education for undergrads, or whether intermingling national security professionalism with liberal education prematurely narrows their intellectual and moral development.


Yale College has often been a crucible of U.S. national statesmanship and espionage: Nathan Hale, class of 1773, was hanged for spying on British-colonial troop movements; the CIA was founded at Yale during World War II; and the State Department and its diplomatic corps have been instructed and advised by Yale professors for decades. Yale’s president from 1951 to 1963, A. Whitney Griswold, a descendant of colonial Connecticut governors and an “establishment” figure par excellence, abolished Yale’s Institute for International Studies, which had been funneling students into murky foreign missions with help from conservative alumni, but even then the university continued to serve as a recruitment grounds for the foreign-policy establishment.

So it was hardly surprising that Yale established a center for International Security Studies (ISS) in 1988 to encourage “teaching and research in grand strategy,” with diplomatic historian Paul Kennedy its first director and, roughly a decade later, a co-founder with Gaddis and Hill of the Grand Strategy program. ISS was funded mainly by the John M. Olin and Smith Richardson Foundations, two avowedly right-wing funders of initiatives to offset liberal “diversity” and activist projects.

The Grand Strategy program itself was conceived in the late 1990s during extensive conversations among Kennedy, Gaddis, Hill, and others critical of what they saw as yawning deficits in the education and training of U.S. policymakers. They agreed students should be taught to embrace their responsibility to become leaders of a U.S.-led global order.

Gaddis made an extensive argument for U.S. world hegemony in a 1999 article for the Atlantic, warning that although the liberal-capitalist world order following the collapse of the Iron Curtain seemed open and cosmopolitan, new tectonic shifts could produce new divisions, even between capitalism and democracy in the West. Societies would need coordinates, constitutive fictions, and strategies deeper than neoliberal bromides to navigate the new abysses and face down the demons in them.

What coordinates might enable civil societies and governments to navigate these new depths? The question was as anthropological as it was historical, driven partly by humans’ timeless cravings for myths about their origins and destinies that explain compellingly who they are and how they’re obligated to others. In resilient societies, such constitutive fictions are internalized by youths in “rites of passage” to full, adult membership in intergenerational communities. Such rites involve arduous, frightening, but profoundly instructive tests of prowess, courage, and commitment, ratified by authoritative elders. A society that has lost such rites loses its unity and strength and generates vapid “countercultures” and curdled “militias” among people who lack direction, no matter how impressive their societies’ armies and wealth are.

The Grand Strategy program was designed at first to provide—or inculcate—such direction to undergraduates. But toward what ends? In his article, Gaddis discussed the plausibility and even necessity of establishing an empire—the word appears 25 times in the text. Empires are built on authoritative, illiberal hierarchies that separate individuals and groups, he acknowledged, but their breadth and strength provide some stability and authority, within which residents find semi-sacred spaces for public virtues and beliefs that neoliberal capitalist nations no longer sustain—that, indeed, their constantly innovating marketing and employment practices dissolve.

In the past, Gaddis wrote, “it was easy to applaud the formation of new states when the result was to break up the old European colonial empires, or to bring down the former Soviet Union. But the process has not stopped there” because individual states’ “authority is diminishing” amid global economic, technological, and migratory riptides. Grand Strategy’s mission was to stabilize the upheavals by harnessing U.S. nationalism to U.S. global hegemony and enlisting talented and ambitious youth to that project.

A 2011 report, “Serving Empire: Grand Strategy at the Long War University,” by American historian Allen Ruff and investigative journalist Steve Horn gives the most extensive (and scathing) account I’ve seen of the Yale program’s conception, proliferation, and emulation at a dozen other U.S. universities after 9/11 and during the Iraq War. “Ostensibly created to train an up-and-coming elite to see a global ‘big picture,’ this grand strategy network has brought together numbers of ‘liberal hawk’ and conservative foreign policy wonks heavily invested, literally and figuratively, in an unending quest to maintain U.S. global supremacy,” they write.

Ruff and Horn recount conservative venture capitalist Roger Hertog’s admiration and propagation of Yale’s Grand Strategy’s ethos: “In September, 2008, some 20 younger historians and political scientists from around the country gathered in New Haven at an unpublicized location nearby Yale … to meet with Hertog,” who invited them to apply for some of the $10 million he was devoting to build on what Gaddis, Hill, and Kennedy were doing.


The program received head-turning attention from national media and investors as well as from Yale students after the new tectonic shift Gaddis predicted arrived on Sept. 11, 2001. Four hours after the 9/11 attacks, as most Yale professors groped for words to reassure shaken students, Hill, former speechwriter for Kissinger and senior advisor to former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, opened his class on international ideas and institutions with arresting, almost eerie, clarity. He sketched “the backstory of the terrorist wars beginning in the 1970s,” as recalled by his and Gaddis’s former student Molly Worthen in The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill.

“‘This was an act of war, and that requires you to go to war,’ [Hill] said. For most in his class, … his was the first voice to try to overcome the shock. … ‘Some generations of Americans—thank God not everyone—have a war. … This is your war. I believe it can be fought honorably, and it can be fought for good reasons. … You have to decide to fight it and decide that you can win.’”

Students who usually slouched sleepily in their seats straightened up at Hill’s summons to a rendezvous with destiny that justified Yale’s gothic splendor and grand memorials, where sculpted Periclean warriors stand vigil over thousands of Yale students who had died at war, their names in marble under graven admonitions like “courage disdains fame and wins it.” Speaking with two of Hill’s students after a university candlelight vigil that I attended the night of 9/11, I grasped what was elementally true in his summons to battle—but also what was concealed in it. “Hill and Gaddis think that Yale kids are paralyzed by liberal guilt, and they want to convince ‘natural born’ leaders to take the positions they deserve,” a former Hill student told me.

Notwithstanding the program’s euphemisms about teaching broad leadership and strategic skills, Gaddis told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2003 that “we’re training the next generation of world leaders, and Washington has taken notice.” Indeed it had: Gaddis was invited to the White House to collaborate on writing then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. His and Hill’s teaching seemed tested and proven not only in scholarship and seminars but also at or near the helm of the state. Many of their students became intoxicated by intimacy with power: Here was humanism in armor for those historic moments when truth-seekers and guardians of republican power must stand together and fight.

To the classical liberal claim that a society’s true strengths often live in its refusal to be too sure it’s right, the Grand Strategists responded that leaders of a liberal republic must be trained all the more intensively to discipline their own and their students’ doubts to defend society against illiberal enemies.

Worthen describes another student who received a job offer to work for Halliburton in Kuwait after the onset of the Iraq War. “Her parents were horrified by the idea,” Worthen writes. “So instead [she] accepted an offer from Morgan Stanley in New York.” When Hill learned of the decision, he sent “a one-line e-mail that said, ‘Come to my office. We need to reexamine your decision.’”

The reexamination was an abuse of pedagogical authority. “I understand your parents’ concern,” Hill told the student, “but think about it, and do it because you want to”—which the student felt compelled her to go to Kuwait. She did go, and afterward promoted the Iraq War from within the conservative American Enterprise Institute.


The old Yale deserves some credit for having built and sustained its own rites of passage to national leadership. Cold War Secretary of State Dean Acheson and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Averell Harriman both rowed crew at Groton School and Yale, where they’d also bonded with other future national leaders in secret societies. When Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former member of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, taught political science at Yale in 2005, he told me that as a West Point cadet, he’d spent a few days at Yale in 1953 and, in discussions with his Yale student hosts, “I was surprised to discover that they shared a lot of the commitment to ‘duty honor, country’ that I was taught at West Point. I and my fellow cadets were made that we were visiting a national leadership recruitment institution.”

“I learned to take off my hat as I walked through the Woolsey Hall Rotunda, where the names of alumni fallen in war are on the wall. Several students told me about talks with the college masters on their larger civic duty as a responsibility one had to take to repay the opportunity [to] go to Yale,” Odom added. “But now [in 2005], I occasionally ask Yale students if they experience any of this socialization. Most don’t understand what I am talking about. A few admit that they yearn for it; more are indifferent. They’re starved beneath their apathy. Grand Strategy can’t make the difference. … It matters how Yale selects them more than how much it can expect to really inculcate in them by the time they’re in college.”

Ironically and instructively enough, Odom came out publicly against the Iraq War in an article for the democratic-socialist quarterly Dissent. His own rites of passage at West Point had taught him the equivalent of Gage’s truth—that courage isn’t exclusive to the keepers of established power but belongs also to those who must challenge it.

Gage’s recent essay for Rethinking American Grand Strategy emphasizes that although “no competent statesman can afford to ignore populist and people’s movements, … no effective activist can avoid the question of how to engage with and influence institutions of power.” She observes that while anti-establishment activists often lack power and resources, they develop “grand” strategies too, whether those of civil rights activist Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, or of three seniors at Yale I watched become felons and risk five years’ imprisonment when they returned their Vietnam War draft cards to the Selective Service System by handing them to Yale’s anti-war chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr., in a small demonstration in 1968.

Gage’s effort to help students understand such strategies—and, yes, to learn whether and how to emulate them—has brought out the moneymen and conservative polemicists. But Yale can accommodate them only by compromising the students’ educations—and the United States’ strategic prospects.

Jim Sleeper is a former lecturer in political science at Yale University and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York.

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