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A Little Education Can Be a Dangerous Thing | The Nation

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A Little Education Can Be a Dangerous Thing

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

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

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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.

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