National Security & Defense

Arnaud de Borchgrave: A Surprising, Natural American

Remembering the Anglo-Belgian aristocrat, war hero, journalist, and publisher.

A remarkable story that began in 1940 with the German invasion of Belgium ends today in Washington, D.C., at the offices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies where a memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. When the Germans tore into Belgium and its king sought an armistice, many Belgians fled their country to seek refuge from which to fight again from England. Among them was a 14-year-old Anglo-Belgian aristocrat, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who on reaching safety in London promptly ran away, lied about his age, and joined the Royal Navy.

He was accepted. On one of His Majesty’s warships, however, mere Able Seaman de Borchgave felt that he wasn’t contributing as much to the Allied war effort as he would like. After all, he knew Belgium well, had many highly placed contacts there, and could speak the local languages. So he sent a letter to the Free Belgian authorities in London and proposed himself as a spy to be landed on the Belgian coast.

A few weeks later he was summoned to an address in Eaton Square and, after a brief waiting time, marched into a room to find himself facing a panel of three senior officers, one of whom was his father. Until that moment he had not known that his father was head of Belgian intelligence with a network of agents throughout the occupied country.

“Age?” he was asked.

“Seventeen,” he replied. His father had difficulty suppressing a smile.

So Arnaud was never parachuted into Brussels and had to return to a less glamorous but equally dangerous form of war service. That was one of the few times that he failed to add glamour to danger in an extraordinary career that after 1945 proceeded smoothly from military service into journalism. He soon became one of the most celebrated foreign correspondents of his age.

As in 1940 he didn’t start out at the top. He was hired by United Press, where one of his first tasks was to send out before anyone else the names of the winners at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. The women’s 100 meters was won by the Dutch runner Fanny Blankers-Koen, but it was so close that the reporters all hesitated for a moment before sending out the verdict. Arnaud got there first with the line that went round the world: “It’s Fanny — by a nipple.”

That almost got Arnaud fired, but it also got him noticed. At United Press (later UPI) and at Newsweek, he quickly became the foreign correspondent whom everyone followed from the early 1950s to the 1980s. In those days he was famous among his peers for three things: First, he was always where the action was; second, he seemed to know everybody; third, he interviewed everybody.

He was on the last French helicopter out of Dien Bien Phu as it was falling to the North Vietnamese. (While still on the helicopter, however, he was scooped on it by Priscilla Buckley, who in the Paris office of UPI noticed an apparently minor change in a North Vietnamese war communiqué which, she realized, meant that they now held the French fortress.) He flew into Kabul on the night before the Soviet invasion on a tip-off from a friend in French intelligence. So he was almost the only Western correspondent there as an eyewitness to a major turning point in the Cold War.

And there are innumerable stories around the following scenario: tired, hot, thirsty, and irritated journalists, kept waiting for hours to interview some ruler at the center of events when eventually out strolls the dignitary, late by 90 minutes, accompanied by his lunch guest, Arnaud de Borchgave, cool, relaxed, and (as Marty Sieff notes) always immaculate in his neatly pressed Abercrombie and Fitch safari suit. King Hussein of Jordan was certainly one such host, but Anwar Sadat or the king of Morocco or any one of a dozen European leaders would have fit into a similar story.

Arnaud did not get these interviews just out of social contacts (though he had the best), or by chasing them energetically (he chased hard but so did all the rivals he left behind), or by favoritism in his reporting (he interviewed both sides when he could). All those things played a part, sometimes astonishingly so — he would surprise his colleagues by saying offhand, “Oh, Osama bin Laden; I knew him when he was a little boy.” No, he got them because he was always well informed, always scrupulously fair (hence the North Vietnamese and Mullah Omar were willing to talk to him even though they would have known that his personal sympathies went against them), and always uncannily far-sighted.

Indeed, as Marty Sieff points out in his two powerfully affectionate tributes, Arnaud had something like second sight in being able to predict what the next big international story was going to be. He predicted the collapse of Soviet communism a decade before it occurred, after which he followed up with a prediction that America’s southern border would soon become a porous traffic jam controlled by narco-terrorists and people smugglers as much as by the U.S.

As a foreign correspondent, Arnaud eventually reached that point of fame where he could get interviews with world figures because they wanted to meet him as much as the reverse. Certainly, as my wife, Melissa, pointed out in her own tribute, “Remembering Arnaud,” on Ricochet, it was revealing to see him at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner less table-hopping to the great and the good than being table-hopped by them. By the late 1970s, however, it was too easy. He needed to do something else to keep his mojo working. He promptly wrote a Cold War thriller, The Spike, with co-author Robert Moss, that became a best-seller when friend and candidate Ronald Reagan was photographed reading it on a plane. Arnaud moved into the world of think tanks as head of a futurist committee at CSIS on national-security threats, and took on the editorship of the Washington Times and (later) of UPI.

Arnaud breathed new life into these media enterprises — the first suffering from a shaky launch, the second suffering from a long decline. In both cases he injected energy and a high-octane journalistic leadership, spending long hours at the office, even keeping a bed there, recruiting people in whom he had confidence to run the various departments, subjecting every story to the tests of accuracy and timeliness, carpeting those who were not giving of their best, being a damned nuisance of course (that goes with the territory) with his calls at 7 in the morning, but making everyone enthusiastic about what we all were doing, and, finally, trying to make the much better-resourced Washington Post sweat.

He succeeded in that aim occasionally, too: When Kay Graham’s daughter, Lally Weymouth, who interviewed world leaders for the Post as Arnaud had done for Newsweek, had a discreet row with her family, Arnaud found out through his extensive social contacts and offered her a column in the Times. He swore that she thought long and hard before declining. 

Was Arnaud a conservative? Well, in his private opinions, Arnaud greatly admired Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He was broadly in favor of democratic capitalism and the West and against Communism and violent jihadism. He took such dangers very seriously, but he was skeptical equally of appeasement and of ill-thought-out adventurism against them. He had no qualms about giving up his Belgian title nor any sympathy for an aristocratic conservatism. He was in fact a very modern man, fascinated by technology and the future. He became an American with the same easy patriotic enthusiasm as he became an able seaman. And he was never a movement conservative because he was never a movement anything. He followed the story wherever it went, and not where ideological convenience directed. But he believed in America and the West even if he sometimes wondered whether they believed in themselves.

He was, after all, a “conservative journalist” and thought that in that expression the noun should be “journalist” and “conservative” the qualifying adjective. His objection to the elite journalism that had taken off after Watergate was that liberal journalists never seemed to get that syntax right. Hence, though he talent-spotted some reporters and analysts of the greatest talent for the Times and UPI — I think pre-eminently of Martin Walker on the center-left and Marty Sieff on the center-right — he wanted them for their professional abilities rather than for their opinions.

My most important professional dealings with him were when I was editor-in-chief of UPI. We agreed in early summer of 2001 that he should take advantage of his old friendships to seek an interview with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. At age 75, handicapped by a bad back, Arnaud set off on the rocky roads through Afghanistan to the camp where bin Laden was resting. Bin Laden agreed to the interview. Only 15 minutes before it was supposed to take place, the Afghans withdrew their permission — fearing, Arnaud supposed, U.S. reactions. But Mullah Omar offered an interview with himself as a substitute. Arnaud duly returned with it.

But he was crestfallen. I reassured him that his interview with Mullah Omar was extraordinarily important. It was like an interview with a gathering storm. Anyone who read it would have felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. It proclaimed in Arnaud’s controlled prose: Something wicked this way comes. Three months before 9/11, no one was interested. We couldn’t sell it. Our regular clients liked it, but no one else gave a damn. After the Twin Towers fell, everyone recognized it as the stuff of world exclusives.

That interview with Mullah Omar has a claim to be the most important interview he ever conducted. And it was the only interview he couldn’t sell to the world’s front pages. It is like something out of Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh.

Arnaud picked himself up, however, and continued writing, reporting, analyzing, editing, and, at CSIS, thinking about the unthinkables in our collective future. He continued enjoying a wildly happy married life with the beautiful Alexandra — nothing ever deterred him from that — and, indeed, promoting her book and her career as a writer and biographer. We three dined very pleasantly last summer and promised to meet again when I was next in Washington. Arnaud seemed a little more tired and a little more careful about how much he drank than on my previous visits. But his mind and wit were as sharp as ever. And, besides, it was never sensible to bet against Arnaud.

Then God gave him a deadline. And he never missed one of those.

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