Samuel P. Huntington: A Great American Patriot and A Giant Among Scholars (1927-2008)

04/23/2009 01:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cushing Strout, The New Heavens and New Earth: "But we have his promise, and look forward to new heavens and a new earth..." 2 Peter 3:13 in the New English Bible A memorial service for Prof. Samuel P. Huntington was held on April 22 in the Memorial Church of Harvard University. In the basement lair of one of the world's greatest political scientists--who was, incidentally, a member of two different departments of government--I remember this scene in his home on Beacon Hill in Boston: Rows of books, suggestive of stages in his most productive life, lined the walls of the Niebuhrian realist's work room. (I am a child of Niebuhr, he once told an interviewer, attracted by the theologian's compelling combination of morality and practical realism.) Stacks of bulging file folders full of clips and journal articles and academic papers burden the tables in between. His relentless curiosity had always served as his main research assistant. Samuel Huntington, it was said, had

an intellectual Midas touch.

The mounds of research material could be imagined as a series of powder kegs linked to a single fuse of intellect--

a force of intellectual nature

--that had been boldly prescient in vision and provocative in action. II On a high bookshelf, his major works were lined up, full of iconoclasms. (Telford Taylor once said that Huntington had stored up a virtually inexhaustible supply of such asms!): There was The Soldier and the State . Our liberal civil society required the protection of a professional military. The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics . It was a significant revelation at the beginning of the 1960's that strategic programs were the product not necessarily of some strategic overview or a rational assessment of the threat, but instead the outcome of political negotiations between the military services and the executive and legislative branches. And it was my baptism as his research assistant at the Institute of War & Peace Studies of Columbia University. Political Power: USA/USSR, with Zbigniew Brzezinski as co-author, compared the principal similarities and differences between two very different political systems; and posed the question: convergence or separate evolution? Political Order in Changing Societies depicted modernization as a disruptive process that could spark instability; and that would not necessarily metamorphose into Westernization. Yet: "Organization is the road to political power, but it is also the foundation of political stability and thus the precondition of political liberty." The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century demonstrated that, in many countries, democratic political institutions were becoming the custodians of political order. "In dealing with departing autocrats, the least unsatisfactory course may well be, do not punish, do not forgive, and above all do not forget." And, most famously, the pre-9/11/01 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order foreshadowed the collision of Islam with the West. Professor Rosovsky of Harvard has given us the key to Sam's importance: all of his major works dealt with a centrally important issue of our time, with a broad brush, and always asked big questions. Huntington once wrote: "If a scholar has nothing new to say, he should keep quiet. The quest for truths is synonymous with intellectual controversy."

Ideas have consequences, looking back or looking forward. And his insights could be disturbingly uncanny. From "The Clash" of 1996: Somewhere in the Middle East, a half dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner. It has been written of Sam, by Robert Kaplan:

in the decades ahead his view of the world will be the way it really works

. III By the rear courtyard window, there was a comfortable chair, with stacks of books at hand by younger colleagues: Walt (Taming American Power); Nye (Bound to Lead); Allison (Nuclear Terrorism). And The Israeli Lobby, recently dedicated to Sam by its two authors, in part because he understood that "scholarship is not a popularity contest." Nearby, the Holy Bible (Revised Version). Behind the chair, and above the clock, a 1957 painting of Martha's Vineyard by Molita Phillips featuring wild flowers growing along the coastline of a sound, with a lighthouse on a far island; a collage of photos of grandchildren at the shore, and grandpa in a tall hat. As his wife, Nancy, told the Harvard Crimson:

He loved the Vineyard, loved his garden, and lived a fairly simple life

--remembering her husband's remark--

I can breathe again

, after returning to his favorite refuge, where they had spent summers for 40 years. IV Along the other wall, past another mound of files and journals--the edibles of a voracious appetite for facts about the outside world--the trail led to his primary work station in a swivel chair at the electric typewriter. Here, neurons fired in his brain forming synapses that mysteriously produced ideas, with the body sustained by self-administered insulin shots (all his adult life). Beside him, photos of Nancy and two sons at Harvard graduations, with a proud father in red and black regalia. The scene above was very similar to his environment in the fourth-floor warren of a brownstone walkup on West 116th, Morningside Heights , Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia , forty five years earlier. A Victorian man of honor, highly inquisitive, peering out through black-rimmed glasses, at immoral society. A Burkean by conviction--"the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"--and a Hobbesian through historical observation. The American political genius is manifest not in our ideas but in our liberal institutions--e.g. the separation of powers and checks and balances in the Constitution.

V Sam Huntington was always a "man at work" (a Protestant and American virtue) fueled by intellectual fearlessness, and political courage, a "democratic Machiavelli" who was anything but an ideological triumphalist. He was not solely a creature of the academy, as in Vietnam (on which we strongly disagreed), or NSC PD-18 (on which we secretly collaborated in the Carter administration), or Iraq (we agreed that it was a disaster for the United States). He would look the world in the eye, as it was. But not without mischief. For

he thrived by adopting an oppositional position to much of political science

. Serious scholars had to confront this "geek with a backbone of steel" in their path; and his impulse was to scrap, defending the scholar's duty to say what he actually thinks in stark and general terms. The practice of this duty is most clearly on display in Who Are We: The Challenges to America's National Identity.

Per Kaplan, Huntington saw the job of the political scientist as that of not improving the world

but to say what he thinks is going on in it--and then to prescribe a course of action that serves the national interests of his government

.

As a life-long Democrat, Sam Huntington held liberal ideals, as should have been obvious to those who knew him; but he recognized that such ideals could not survive without physical security, even as the Cold War became history. Posit: In the modern world, he controls the future who organizes its political thought as manifested in politics. No cultural determinist--and an enemy of multiculturalism--Sam agreed with Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Heady stuff. VI In his own last testament in Who Are We--"a gift outright" Huntington bequeathed his countrymen and dedicated to his grandchildren--he declared his identities as "a patriot and a scholar," in that order. And he made perfectly clear his overriding purpose:

As a patriot, I am deeply concerned about the unity and strength of my country as a society based on liberty, equality, law, and individual rights. *** I believe that ... Americans should recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions and that have been the source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force for good in the world. *** THAT IS THE AMERICA I KNOW AND LOVE.

Emphasis added.

The American Creed was

the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America...Key elements of that culture include: the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief
that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, 'a city on a hill'.

With Robert Frost, Sam reminded us that "the land was ours before we were the land's." Huntington the teacher (or Puritan preacher), bound by realism but sustained by hope:

All societies face recurring threats to their existence, to which they eventually succumb. Yet some societies ... are also capable of postponing their demise by halting and reversing the processes of decline and renewing their vitality and identity. *** If that commitment is sustained, America will still be America long after the WASPish descendants of its founders

have been eclipsed. Was he confusing good intentions with clarity of analysis? Let us hope not.


VII


This sermon was given by the namesake of an earlier Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the Continental Congress--whose framed lithograph hangs in the stairwell of the Huntington home, just off Charles St. on Beacon Hill. Sam's feet were always wet from Democratic politics in the American Republic. (Rep. Fisher Ames, 1795: A republic will not sink, but one's feet are always wet.) Such as he was, Sam Huntington gave himself outright.


A modern-day founding father and public intellectual calling upon Americans to conserve America, this sage left us with a warning: America can go the way of Sparta and Rome. But adherence to the "American Creed" may yet provide the glue that holds together our national life. American civilization is predominantly the product of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, after all. Our values are rooted in a unique set of circumstances, however universal we might wish them to be--say, in Iraq or Afghanistan .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This was the scene Samuel Huntington left behind when he last moved with Nancy Arkelyan to Martha's Vineyard south of the Cape.


Epitaphs:

Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope,

SPH concluded in American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony.

The great advantage of the American is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that he is born free without having to become so.

DeTocqueville, as quoted on the title page in Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America.