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Lion in Winter
On the morning of September 11, Donald Kagan, the Hillhouse Professor of Classics and History, was eating breakfast at home in Hamden when his wife Myrna, a retired school teacher who had been watching the news, suddenly raced into the kitchen.
“Like everyone else, my first reaction was horror and confusion, and when it became clear what it was all about, I was angry,” says Kagan, an expert on the history of warfare who has taught at Yale since 1969.
But he was not surprised.
Two years ago, in a provocative book titled While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), Kagan and his son and coauthor Frederick '91, ‘95PhD, a professor of history at West Point, issued a stern warning about this country’s vulnerability. (Kagan’s other son, Robert '80, is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.)
“America is in danger,” the Kagans wrote. “Unless its leaders change their national security policy, the peace and safety its power and influence have ensured since the end of the Cold War will disappear.”
In their eerily prescient assessment, the Kagans explained that the United States in the 1990s and the current decade was in many ways chillingly similar to Great Britain after the First World War. Two earlier works—While England Slept, by Winston Churchill, and Why England Slept, by John F. Kennedy—had examined the implications of Great Britain’s failure to play the role of peacekeeper in the 1920s and 1930s. The failure, Churchill and Kennedy argued, led to the Second World War. Don Kagan expressed the fear that this country was on the same and, in his view, avoidable path.
“If there was one word we meant to communicate in our book it was worry,” says Kagan. “People might think of us as alarmists, but we think there’s something to be alarmed about. The peace does not keep itself, and though it may be intellectually unfashionable to say so, the world needs a policeman.”
Such blunt pronouncements have been Kagan’s stock-in-trade ever since he arrived at Yale. Long admired by conservatives, the professor—who counts Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Otto von Bismarck among his heroes-has been at the center of some of the University’s most bitter controversies, most notably the Bass gift fiasco seven years ago. (See Summer 1995.)
But though his right-of-center jeremiads regularly thunder from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and the New York Times, Kagan is as likely to be writing about baseball (he opens one of his courses by asking students to decide whether Ted Williams was a clutch hitter) as about his specialty, the Peloponnesian War. And while his longtime embrace at Yale of the politically incorrect, particularly his staunch defense of the importance of studying Western civilization, often puts him at odds with mainstream campus sentiment, Kagan is devilishly difficult to pin down.
“He’s an unorthodox conservative,” says Paul Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History who has worked with Kagan for the past 12 years on a postdoctoral program in military history and been his frequent intellectual sparring partner. “Scratch Don and you’ll find a combination of Winston Churchill and John Wayne.”
You’ll also find a large measure of Brooklyn street fighter.
Kagan was born in Lithuania in 1932. His father died soon thereafter, and when he was 2 his family emigrated to New York City, settling in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was largely Jewish, but the surroundings were less welcoming to Jews. “When I walked to school, I had to worry over whether I’d be attacked,” he says. “And I sometimes was.”
But the situation had improved by the time he entered Thomas Jefferson High School, “a real ethnically mixed, All-American melting pot where my enemies were now my teammates.” In this environment, Kagan became an “old-fashioned, Roosevelt, New Deal liberal.” However, his early experiences and the Second World War would temper his beliefs. “Seeing what Hitler and the Nazis had done, I knew there was real evil in the world,” he says, “and after that, I couldn’t take pacifists seriously.”
As he began to study history, first at Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1954, and later at Brown University, where he received his master’s in classics in 1955, and Ohio State, where he earned a doctorate in history in 1958, Kagan gravitated towards scholars who summarized the planet’s situation in stark terms: It’s a jungle out there, and why? Because there are no cops.
“My life made me see the truth of this observation,” he said, “and if you look at the past, especially at the 20th century, how often do you have to get hit on the head before you face up to reality? But we don’t get the message.”
To Kagan, the message that comes through loud and clear in his study of history ranging from ancient Greece to modern Europe is simply this: War is the default state of the human species.
“I used to believe that peace was the normal situation for humanity, but the more I looked, the more I saw that peace was very rare,” he says. “Wars are happening all the time, so I had to ask, ‘Why is there ever peace?’”
Kagan began finding answers in graduate school when he read the accounts of the Greek historian Thucydides, the chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict that raged between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BC. “Thucydides was a great student of human nature, and he explained that nations fought for three reasons: fear, self-interest, and honor,” Kagan says.
The Yale historian describes how this trio of behaviors played out in Greece in his classic four-volume investigation of the Peloponnesian War, as well as in On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace—a book published in 1995 that had its beginnings in a course he taught—and in While America Sleeps, his most recent of 12 books. Kagan, who turns 70 next month, has also had plenty of opportunities to see how Thucydides' behavioral triad has played out in academia. And though he may be a lion in winter, he has lost none of his bite. Or irreverence.
So it has been since he came to Yale 33 years ago from Cornell. He had remained a liberal there, once even speaking for the left in a debate with William F. Buckley Jr. '50 over the welfare state. But what he saw as the capitulation of the Cornell administration to black student activists during their takeover of university buildings in 1969 was, Kagan recalls, “a disillusioning experience. Watching administrators demonstrate all the courage of Neville Chamberlain had a great impact on me, and I became much more conservative.”
Kagan brought that principled, and, some would say, uncompromising, even autocratic, turn-to-the-right to Yale. “I started giving [then-President] Kingman Brewster serious grief in 1971, and I have been a pain in the ass ever since,” says Kagan, a measure of pride and amusement in his voice. “To punish me, I’ve been given a steady stream of honors and administrative positions.”
In the course of his long career, Kagan has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the DeVane Medal in 1975 and the Byrnes/Sewall Teaching Prize in 1998. “Don is the best teacher I’ve ever had,” recalls John Hale '73, an archaeologist and director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville. “Like Demosthenes, he has a great gift for rhetoric, so his lectures are compelling. But he’s also genuinely interested in a student’s ideas and can stimulate Socratic dialogue-the discussions he shaped and guided during seminars were among the most fascinating hours I’ve ever spent in class.”
This is a common sentiment voiced by students of varying political persuasions, but, however ironic, it was an issue about teaching that caused Kagan the most trouble he ever experienced during his Yale tenure. He'd served as chairman of the classics department from 1972 to 1975, as master of Timothy Dwight College from 1976 to 1978 (he frequently butted heads with opponents as a member of TDs intramural football team), as acting director of athletics from 1987 to 1988, and as dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992.
But even the fact that he would resign the deanship in protest during a bitter fight between professors and administrators over then-President Benno Schmidt’s plan to restructure the faculty did not prove as wrenching as the controversy that came to a head in 1995, when Yale decided to return the $20-million gift that had been given to the University in 1991 by Lee Bass '79 to set up an interdisciplinary program for the study of Western civilization.
The program’s centerpiece was to have been a four-credit sequence modeled on Directed Studies and on a course called “Periclean Athens,” both of which Kagan had a role in shaping and teaching. The professor, whose multivolume text, The Western Heritage, is considered definitive, and at least six of his senior colleagues planned to assemble “a comprehensive, intensive, interdisciplinary program to examine the length and breadth of Western civ” for a select group of undergraduates.
While left-of-center critics pointed out that Yale hardly needed any new offerings in the area, Kagan contends that they missed the point. “It was never a matter of not having enough courses in the subject,” he says. “But in the humanities at Yale, there’s a cafeteria-style approach to learning in which individuals take a bunch of courses and put information together as best as they can. We wanted to provide an alternative, which we thought would have been an extraordinary and unusual learning experience—we weren’t planning to be uncritical cheerleaders.”
The motivation for Bass’s $20-million gift was a speech Kagan had given to freshmen in 1991 in which the then-dean called for putting Western civ “at the center of our studies.”
It is a viewpoint he continues to hold. “We are the product of Western civilization, so it’s necessary to understand yourself before you can understand anyone else,” says Kagan.
But in the early 1990s, a “culture war” was raging, and, following the departure of Schmidt and Kagan from the administration, the Bass program no longer had a strong advocate. It went dormant, resurfacing with a vengeance late in 1994 when allegations—first in the conservative campus publication Light and Truth, and later, in the Wall Street Journal—appeared that accused the University of attempting to use the gift for something other than its intended purposes. Although President Levin denied the charge and attempted to engage in some behind-the-scenes fence-mending, the damage was done. In March 1995, Lee Bass asked for, and later received, his money back.
Kagan still regrets the loss of the Bass program, for it would have afforded him and his fellow professors a chance to work together. And it would have given undergraduates the opportunity to watch their teachers do intellectual battle. “Students rarely get to observe an important truth firsthand: that learned people can and do disagree,” he says. “But when that happens, they can explore their differences in a civilized manner.”
These days, however, there is scant opportunity for such essential conversations, he claims. “Too many students move only in the realm of politically correct opinion,” says Kagan, adding that too few professors hold off-the-beaten-track beliefs to break through this complacency. “That’s a devastating failure of a Yale education, because even if we conservatives are all stupid, crazy, and ill-informed, we have the absolute value of providing an alternative to what students are being told by everyone else and helping them see through the cant. Without that counterweight, they’re not being educated—at least, not fully.”
For all his criticisms of the University, however, Kagan remains “a Yale chauvinist. There’s something about this place—something that ultimately comes down to character—that makes me an optimist,” he says.
Kagan’s historical studies have also buoyed his assessment of the planet’s fate. “The world is always in a dangerous predicament,” he says, “but nothing is inevitable, not as long as there are people of strength, courage, and character.”
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