Last week, I found myself at Yale University, and took the opportunity to record a couple of Q&A podcasts — with two venerable professors, who teach Grand Strategy. One of them is Charles Hill; the other is John Lewis Gaddis. (A third such professor is Paul Kennedy — whom I hope to catch on a future occasion.)
For the Q&A with Hill, go here.
Charlie Hill grew up in southern New Jersey. He went to Brown and Penn. He had a career in the Foreign Service, posted to the Far East, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He was an aide to Kissinger and Shultz. Then he was an aide at the U.N. to Boutros-Ghali.
In our conversation, I mentioned that Ralph Bunche, too, was an American diplomat at the U.N. Hill said, “I had his office, for a while” (meaning his physical office).
Hill’s upbringing in South Jersey was a lucky thing, according to the man himself. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he was having a classic American small-town experience — an experience that is hard to come by today. At one point, there was an influx of Japanese, or Japanese Americans. This was not long after the war — not long at all. There was no animosity. With amazing speed, these people became part of the furniture.
One kid was captain of the football team; another was president of the senior class; one girl, Charlie had a crush on. Etc. America’s powers of absorption are considerable.
“I thought college was the greatest thing ever,” Hill says. “Kind of a paradise. I was then in a culture we don’t have anymore. But it was wonderful. I thought it would be great spending a life in college, being a college teacher.” It took him a while, but he got there.
Early in his Foreign Service career, he was in Taiwan, learning Chinese. As we talked, I asked him whether Taiwan could hang on — whether the island, or the republic, could remain independent, in the face of PRC designs. “Depends on the Americans,” said Hill, “and the Americans are not dependable any longer.”
Presidents 44 and 45, Obama and Trump, are very different in any number of ways, says Hill. But they are similar in at least one. “Both have conveyed to the world that the Americans are leaving the building.”
The day before we met, Hill had a meeting at Yale with some 35 foreign-affairs specialists from something like eleven countries — countries spread all over the world. “We had a really rich conversation.” In previous years, such groups had bellyached about America, as people do: America the bully, America the ever-present, America the self-imposer, and so on. But “in the last couple of years, they’re not saying that. They’re saying, ‘Please stop going away from us.’”
I recall something that John Bolton told me once in an interview: The world may gripe about America now, “but they’ll miss us when we’re gone.” So true.
I’ll give you one more tidbit from Charles Hill. Yale has a program with the simple, innocuous name of “Directed Studies.” It is essentially a Great Books program for freshmen. “It has been able to survive,” says Hill, “because it’s called ‘Directed Studies.’ If it had been called ‘Civilization,’ it would have been destroyed, and that’s what happened at Stanford. … At Yale, we kind of hunkered down and nobody knew what we were doing, so they left us alone.”
Isn’t that amazing? You will enjoy spending some time in the company of Charlie Hill — again, here.
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