Hans Morgenthau

Memorial Remarks for Hans Morgenthau

Hans Morgenthau was my teacher. And he was my friend. I must say that at the outset because so many obituaries have stressed his disagreement with policies with which I have become identified.

We knew each other for a decade and a half before I entered office. We remained in sporadic contact while I served the government. We saw more of each other afterwards.

It is not often possible that one can identify a seminal figure in contemporary political thought or in one’s own life. Hans Morgenthau made the study of contemporary international relations a major and separate discipline. All of us who taught the subject after him, however much we differed from each other, had to start with his reflections. Not everybody agreed with Hans Morgenthau; nobody could ignore him. And on a personal level, he and I remained close through all the intellectual upheavals and disputes of two and a half decades.

To establish international relations as a discipline was not an easy matter in the United States. For the temptation to treat the subject by analogy to our domestic experience was overwhelming. There existed in America a well-developed literature on international law that saw international relations in terms of legal processes. There was a pragmatic tradition of solving issues that arose “on their merits.” There was the belief in American’s moral mission that had produced both isolationism and, later on, global involvement.

Morgenthau sought to transcend all these disparate tendencies. He was passionately convinced that peace was a statesman’s noblest objective; but he did not believe that this yearning alone would avoid war. He was a liberal in his political view, but he thought his convictions required not simply an affirmation but sufficient stability at least to enable man’s humane aspirations to prevail. He was willing to confront the political leader’s fundamental dilemma that moral aims can be reached only in stages, each of which is imperfect. Morality provides the compass course, the inner strength to face the ambiguities of choice.

So Hans set out to understand what he considered the “real” world of international politics, not as he would like it to be but as he found it. He wrote his seminal work on Politics Among Nations, analyzing international relations in terms of power and national interest. He believed that a proper understanding of the national interest would illuminate a country’s possibilities as well as dictate the limits to which it could push its aspirations.

Hans was much criticized for his alleged amorality in those days. His critics did not understand him. Being himself passionate, he did not trust passion as the regulator of conduct. Being committed to peace, he was prepared to enter the cold world of power politics to achieve it.

In the 1960s, Hans proved that he was beyond the manipulation of military calculations. He opposed the war in Vietnam when it was still supported by all fashionable opinion. In 1966, he and I debated the issue in Look magazine. He considered America overextended, the war unwinnable, the stakes not worth the cost. I maintained that the size of our commitment had determined our stake; that we had an obligation to seek our way out of the morass through negotiation rather than unconditional abandonment of the enterprise. He was right in his analysis, probably in his policy conclusions as applied to 1966. Three years later – quite unexpectedly – I was faced with the problem as a policymaker. We both stuck to our convictions.

I will not debate their ultimate merit in this place. But I think it is important to understand that we shared almost identical premises. We both believed America was overextended; we both sought a way out of the morass. Hans wanted to cut the Gordian knot in one dramatic move; I chose a different route. But we were both, in a way, lonely among our associates. Hans is not correctly understood as a protester. He was a teacher trying to bring home to his beloved adopted country the limits of its power, just as earlier he had insisted on its central role. Through all these disagreements, I never ceased admiring him or remembering the profound intellectual debt I owed him.

With the end of the war, our paths became increasingly parallel again, though I do not wish to burden Hans’ memory with the army of my critics. Hans remained always himself: clear in his perception, uncompromising in his insistence on getting to the essence of a problem. He meant much to me.

A word must be said about Hans as a human being. Few eminent men correspond to their image. Hans made his reputation as an analyst of power, but he was a gentle, loving man. He was a great teacher, yet quite shy. He had a marvelous, slightly sardonic, sense of humor which never stooped to the malicious. Yet he was slightly tentative – at least in his dealings with me – in showing this side of himself. He would make a witty remark with an absolutely straight face, peering from behind his bushy eyebrows to see what the response would be. Only when he saw that his sally had been understood would his whole face crease in the smile of a slightly mischievous little boy. He was a lovable man.

Hans Morgenthau was deeply conscious of his Jewish heritage. He knew that no people was more likely to be the victim of injustice and passion. He thus felt a special obligation to resist intolerance and hatred. And he understood that, in this battle, he must never stoop to the methods he was combating. He was a noble man.

I saw Hans for the last time at breakfast a few months ago. He had grown quite frail, though mentally he was as alert as ever. His professorship at the New School had just ended. He spoke of how much teaching meant to him. Everyone must feel he makes a difference to the world, he said. And his vocation was teaching, which he hoped to continue. I told him that he had already made a big difference to the world; he did not have to prove himself constantly. He did not quite believe it. His life was his work, and, as he said on another occasion, he saw no sense in extending the one by cutting down on the other.

We promised each other to meet regularly. It was not to be. He settled our little dialogue by his sudden death. There would be no gap between Hans Morgenthau’s life and his work; he had made a difference.

And the nature of that difference is best shown in the sorrow of his friends and in the fact that all who remember Hans Morgenthau recall his passion for justice, his fertile intellect, his warmth and his honesty. It will be a lonelier world without him.