Quantcast

A Little Education Can Be a Dangerous Thing | The Nation

  •  

A Little Education Can Be a Dangerous Thing

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Most teachers delight at being remembered by their former students. But when the student is Dick Cheney, it can be embarrassing.

About the Author

John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

Also by the Author

More than a wish list, he offers a framework for 2015 legislative fights and the 2016 campaign.

Consider the case of Dr. H. Bradford Westerfield.

Westerfield started hearing in the 1980s that a very right-wing Republican member of Congress was dropping his name at gatherings of Yale Clubs in the Western United States. "Yale graduates join these clubs and get together in places like Wyoming and Colorado and Montana. They like to invite speakers who have ties to Yale, and apparently Dick Cheney was one of them," recalled Westerfield, the Damon Wells Professor Emeritus of International Studies and Political Science at Yale, where he taught more than 10,000 students between 1957 and 2000. "The reason people contacted me was because he was apparently mentioning my name as someone who had an influence on his thinking."

It is usually an honor for an academic to be cited as an influence upon the thinking of a powerful player on the national scene. But for Westerfield, the Cheney connection seemed a stretch. He could barely recall Cheney as a student, and they had not been in contact since the Republican representative was asked to withdraw from Yale in the early 1960s. Besides, Cheney was a hawkish proponent of American military adventurism abroad, while Westerfield had a more nuanced view of the role the United States ought to play in international affairs. But the reports from Cheney's appearances at those Yale Clubs persisted. As Cheney became ever more prominent, in Congress, then as Defense Secretary, and finally as the most powerful Vice President in the history of the United States, Westerfield kept hearing that Cheney was telling people about how he had been inspired by the one class he took from the professor. In a profile of Cheney published by Time in 2002, in which the writer described the Vice President's penchant for unilateral warmaking, one of the explanations proffered by analysts was, "During a stint at Yale, Cheney was moved by a course he took from H. Bradford Westerfield, then a self-described ardent hawk who believed the U.S. should use its role as the leader of the free world to fight communism wherever it took hold."

That sounded like a plausible explanation for Cheney's worldview, which was obviously not grounded in contemporary experience or knowledge of realities on the ground in countries such as Iraq. But it was discomforting to Westerfield.

The crowded introduction to the "US International Relations" course Cheney took with Westerfield was, according to the professor, "effectively a course about the United States in the cold war. I was at the peak of my hawkishness about the cold war, and that was the perspective from which I was teaching. Whatever he picked up from me had that flavor, which is unfortunate."

Unfortunate? How so?

"I came to understand that the hawkish view was unrealistic," says Westerfield, who, like so many Americans, was jarred into a new way of thinking by watching the country's presence in Vietnam degenerate into disaster. "I remained hawkish until late 1967, early 1968, when I began to feel the war really was unwinnable. Until then, I think I was the last hawk on campus that anyone would listen to.

"I've remained dovish ever since," says the professor, a well-regarded author of numerous books on US foreign policy, including Inside CIA's Private World.

Westerfield's dovishness puts him in a very different camp from that of his former student. "I do not agree with his worldview today," says the professor. "I'm not even sure I understand it. He is so at odds with what we know about the world today. Unfortunately, I think it is clear that Bush is quite dependent on him. He prefers a backroom role, but he is obviously very influential. Even Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz I do not think have the influence that Cheney does."

Westerfield last spoke with Cheney in the mid-1990s, at a memorial service for Les Aspin, Cheney's successor as Defense Secretary. Cheney greeted the professor warmly but showed no interest in serious discussion with the internationally respected academic. Does Westerfield wish that he could sit Cheney down and set his former student straight? Westerfield does not think more course work would do much good. "He's obviously incorrigible. He seems to be determined to go his own way, no matter what facts he is confronted with. It's disturbing."

What to do? As the 2004 campaign heated up, Westerfield said that he had settled "very comfortably" into the camp of those who seek to bring an end to his former student's tenure in the White House. "Yes, I really want to beat Bush and Cheney. I feel that this Administration doesn't want to work in coalition with the rest of the world; they really do not want to cooperate with the world. And that is precisely the wrong approach for the United States at this point."

As an expert in such matters, Westerfield says, "There is a great deal of work that needs to be done to re-establish American credibility in the world. And the first step, I think, is to elect an administration that takes our relationships with other countries more seriously."

And just for the record, what about Dick Cheney's grades in the course that so influenced him? "His grades were not particularly good," the professor says sheepishly. Pressed, Westerfield explains, "Allowing for grade inflation, his final grade would probably be a low B." Translation: Dick Cheney passed the course that sent him on the way to guiding the affairs of state with a gentleman's C.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size