In the early 1990s National Review was looking for a senior editor to oversee our editorial policy on foreign affairs. I had someone in mind, but the rules were that we should ask around and consider all reasonable nominations. WFB rang me to say that several people had suggested one Peter Rodman, a former Deputy Assistant to President Reagan on foreign policy, but perhaps better known as a long-term aide and literary amanuensis to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Bill may have been slightly nervous that I would regard as self-confessed Kissingerian as overly “realistic” and stressed the need for a broad conservative debate at NR. Then, a day or so later, Henry himself (as I did not then call him) rang to stress Rodman’s strong conservatism overall and his service to Reagan in particular. Others wrote to sing his praises.
As it happened, Peter was the man I had in mind all along. I knew him very well. We had become acquainted twelve years before through that wonderful rascal, Miles Copeland (known to his friends as “the only man who ever used the CIA as a cover”), who introduced me to a bubbly vivacious Franco-Egyptian blonde with the discouraging words: “Don’t get your hopes up, O’Sullivan, she’s engaged to Peter Rodman, the cleverest foreign policy mind in the Republican party.” When I met Peter himself at one of Miles’s parties a few days later, I thought that this quiet, shy, serious man was an odd match for the vivacious blonde — an impression that lasted at least three or four minutes before I started listening to Peter’s conversation.
Peter’s conversation, when he wasn’t being seriously analytical (and sometimes when he was), was littered with jokes, irony, wit, anecdote, and quotations. His most characteristic form of humor was the depth-charge joke when the joke is sent out unnoticed, disappears into the depths, and a moment later explodes in the minds of listeners. Until I learned to “listen” properly to Peter, I was continually catching up with his sallies three seconds late. Not that Peter’s taste in humor was confined to dry wit; his favorite film in those days was Porky’s and his favorite television comedian was Benny Hill. In short Peter and Veronique were wonderful company. We became close friends after their marriage, had dinner, saw movies, went to parties (often at Miles’s vast apartment), and enjoyed the reviving Washington of the early Reagan years.
Peter was respected in the small circle of Washington foreign-policy mavens in those years, but he was not well-known publicly. In part that because his literary life was conducted behind the arras. In government, as special assistant to Secretary Kissinger for eight years, he wrote policy analyses and position papers marked “Top Secret”; out of office, as a fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, he wrote other policy papers for a small audience. He also helped others, notably Kissinger, on the drafting and editing of books and memoirs. His first real sally into public controversy under his own name was a review, “Sideswipe,” in the American Spectator of April 1981 of Sideshow, William Shawcross’s attack on the Nixon-Kissinger policy towards Cambodia. It was a lengthy, detailed, and persuasive excoriation of Shawcross’s main argument to which the author replied, also effectively and at length, in the magazine, which then gave the final word to Peter. In later years Shawcross came to reconsider his earlier views in a humbler light and became a strong critic of anti-Americanism. The two men were introduced (by Devon Cross) on a visit Peter was making to London. And in June last year they wrote a joint oped on Iraq in the New York Times that contained this passage:
“One of us (Mr. Shawcross) published a book, “Sideshow,” that bitterly criticized Nixon administration policy. The other (Mr. Rodman), a longtime associate of Henry Kissinger, issued a rebuttal in The American Spectator, defending American policy. Decades later, we have not changed our views. But we agreed even then that the outcome in Indochina was indeed disastrous, both in human and geopolitical terms, for the United States and the region. Today we agree equally strongly that the consequences of defeat in Iraq would be even more serious and lasting.”
In the very different circumstances of 1981, however, “Sideswipe” pushed Peter briefly into the limelight. And after a few years his growing reputation pushed him back behind the arras. He entered the Reagan administration in 1983 and held the following post over the next seven years:
April 1984 – March 1986, director of the State Department policy-planning staff.
March 1986 – January 1987, deputy assistant to the president for national-security affairs.
1987-1990, special assistant to the president for national-security affairs as well as National Security Council counselor.
Following his second escape from government, he expressed interest in joining NR and we pleased ourselves and others by asking him to become a senior editor overseeing foreign policy.
If you look back at the unsigned editorials on foreign policy (almost all written by Peter) and at the articles signed by him for the years 1992-98 in National Review, you will find a treasure-trove of mature, conservative, far-sighted, prudent wisdom on foreign policy. He foresaw, for instance, the rise of radical Islamism as a serious threat to the West as early as 1994 — and warned against our treating it as mainly a response to mistaken Western foreign policies. Indeed, almost any single article would serve as a good example of Peter’s prescience, but here is one: a warning from 1994 about the Clinton administration’s doctrine of “interdependence”:
No one can doubt the value of cooperating with other nations, but this is an Administration that sees a great advance of civilization in American self-denial. American unilateralism is the principal sin to be avoided; our blood and treasure are to be spent only at the behest of others, not for anything so primitive as U.S. self-interest. This mushy multilateralism is another example of the apparently incurable liberal preoccupation with America’s moral insufficiency.
And it has, does it not, an oddly topical ring?
But as Rick Brookhiser and other NR colleagues have already recalled, Peter was much more than a foreign-policy strategist in his NR years. He was a very fine writer — clear, readable, and witty — on a range of topics that included his love of Benny Hill. He was a strong force for commonsense in our editorial discussions. He managed to reconcile colleagues who were itching to disagree terminally. And he was, quite simply, terrific company.
Peter also took the opportunity of being out of office in those years to write his important book, More Precious Than Peace: Fighting and Winning the Cold War in the Third World. Published in 1994, it came out too soon for a public that had not yet realized that Reagan’s presidency had been a great historical success. It surely needs to be republished in paperback, for it tells the important story of how the Reagan doctrine helped tipped the balance against Communism in the very third world that the Kremlin had made a priority for its intelligence and foreign policies. Much of it may well have originally appeared under the rubric “Top Secret.”
Peter’s final time in government was as a senior figure in the Pentagon. The Iraq war was not one of his direct responsibilities — and Peter anyway was always extremely discreet and loyal in office — but he defended its strategic importance strongly. He was in particular a strong backer of the surge. His last book, fortunately almost finished before illness struck him down, will likely cover Iraq among other matters pertaining to what makes a good foreign-policy president. But it is a tragedy compounding a tragedy that he should have been lost to us at the very moment when he would have been able to share his extended reflections with the world on almost 40 years in and around the making of U.S. foreign policy.
Peter and I took our families on a joint vacation to Turkey last year. We had a wonderful time and planned to do the same against next year. Peter was full of his subversive jokes. On hearing that the library at Ephesus was connected by a secret passage to a brothel: “I think the time has come to check a few footnotes.” So I will miss a dear friend as well as valued colleague.
What is telling is that, to judge from the tributes pouring in, so many people feel as I do about Peter. Students who met him only a few times remember a helpful and kindly guide almost as vividly as friends of long years remember an entertaining friend who was always there when things went wrong. He combined all sorts of virtues. He was kind and tough-minded, sharply witty and gentle, firm and understanding, intellectually serious and light-hearted.
Or maybe the mystery is easy to solve: Peter was not simply good company. He was a good man. And almost everyone recognized it.
We at National Review send our deepest condolences to Veronique, Theodora, and Nicholas and pray humbly but confidently for the repose of Peter’s soul.
– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.