Charles Hill: Subject of a former student's biography

Historians in the News

Toward the end of her freshman year at Yale, Molly Worthen, who was taking a history and politics seminar with Professor Charles Hill, wrote on the inside cover of her notebook: "Charles Hill is God."

She was not alone in her adulation. As Ms. Worthen, class of 2003, tells it, Mr. Hill was something of an icon on the Yale campus — revered as a wise man by his ardent disciples and reviled by others as a reactionary cult figure. "His pedagogy is Puritan, fashioned around an enlightened elect," Ms. Worthen writes in her new book. "Outsiders are damned to the darkness of ignorance. There is no middle ground. And there is nothing more powerful — or more dangerous — than true belief."

"The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost" is at once a biography of Mr. Hill and an account of Ms. Worthen's evolving relationship with her professor — an account that is part bildungsroman, part detective story, part political history. Although the book is overly long (and long-winded in its reconstruction of Mr. Hill's career as a diplomat and foreign policy adviser), it gives the reader an unusual angle on the roles that philosophy and personality can play in policy-making, while at the same time laying out a fascinating portrait of the relationship between a student and her teacher, who become biographer and subject. It is a story that often reads like a combination of Philip Roth's "Ghost Writer" and A. S. Byatt's "Possession," a story about an apprentice's move from starry-eyed devotion to disillusionment to a mature skepticism.

A former adviser to Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Mr. Hill was best known at Yale for teaching (along with Professors John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy) a course known as the Grand Strategy seminar, a yearlong curriculum that, in Ms. Worthen's words, "combines study of the classic texts of strategic thought with real-world practice." In addition to reading works by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Winston Churchill and Mr. Kissinger, students meet with diplomats, analysts and policy makers, including many friends and former colleagues of Mr. Hill.

"The Grand Strategy course arose out of a desire to reaffirm the power of the big idea," Ms. Worthen notes. "It came from the professors' alarm at the rise of the 'wonk,' the Clinton-era policy expert with no concept of broad context." The course was designed to nurture old-fashioned generalists at home with history, foreign policy and philosophy, and it was meant to inculcate in students a "unified worldview" that would give them a bird's eye view of global politics.

In the case of Mr. Hill, Ms. Worthen suggests, this worldview was based on "a fundamental faith in the righteousness of American power, properly wielded." Mr. Hill emerges from this volume as a conservative, who warned that if the momentum of the Reagan-era 80's is not recaptured, "a neo-Marxist, restored liberal-leftist socialism will take root" in America; and a hawk, who responds to bleak reports about the on-going violence in Iraq with harangues about the "liberal media conspiracy."

As depicted in this book, many of Mr. Hill's views echo those of the Bush White House, and they also align him with some followers of the political theorist Leo Strauss, like Paul Wolfowitz, who have promoted a neo-conservative agenda. Like many Straussians, Mr. Hill eschews moral relativism, advocates the ability of Great Men to shape the course of history, and embraces a willfully elitist view of education.

What Mr. Hill also shares with many members of the Bush administration is a sense of certainty, a conviction that there are right ideas and wrong ideas, and little gray space in between. "Hill does not hesitate," Ms. Worthen writes. "He always knows. He considers it his duty to redeem those misguided minds that disagree with him, and the cold simplicity of his arguments seduces us."

The problem with such certainty is that it can lead to the cherry-picking of evidence to support an idée fixe — as in the case of the decision to go to war against Iraq — and the dismissal of more inconvenient facts. And as Ms. Worthen took Mr. Hill off the pedestal she'd placed him on and began to examine his arguments closely, she came to the conclusion that "Grand Strategy — the class and the way of life — turns on a flawed but human compromise: the selective disregard of details that don't fit neatly into one's worldview. Charlie is a master of judicious ignorance. When U.S. forces, after swiftly toppling Saddam Hussein, faced an increasingly stormy 'peace' in Iraq, Charlie remained unswervingly optimistic."

She attributes Mr. Hill's rise in the Foreign Service to his ability to "translate his editorialized version of fact into a conclusive logic chain" — that is, "to subtly control the facts of an argument." And she writes that "the professor whom so many of today's students see as a paragon of ethical judgment did, whatever his rationalizations, withhold evidence from federal investigators" during the Iran-Contra investigation. As for Mr. Hill's teaching of the Grand Strategy course, she comes to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that "there are plenty of things about the class that sit uncomfortably in the gut, that smack of placing abstract ideas above individual human lives."

In addition to giving Ms. Worthen access to his policy papers, Mr. Hill allowed her to peruse his personal diaries and correspondence, and answered questions about his marriage, the breakup of that marriage, his childhood and his love life. Why, the reader wonders, would he grant such access? "Any anxieties he had about the biography," Ms. Worthen writes, "must have been trumped by his sense of duty to history, his habit of confident self-appraisal, and his belief that I was out to capture a story rather than assign blame or uncover dirty secrets." ...

Read entire article at Michiko Kakutani in the NYT

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