In Memoriam: A Man Who Helped Win the Cold War


Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.

The most respected academic authority on the Russian Revolution, 20th century communism and the Cold War has died. He was Richard Pipes, longtime professor of Russian history at Harvard, and a remarkable man.

Where to start with an adequate tribute to Professor Pipes? I’ll start with some biographical observations and then finish with personal reflections.

Pipes was born in Poland on July 11, 1923. As a 16-year-old Jew at the time of Hitler’s invasion, Pipes mercifully escaped, thanks to a clever and shrewd father. He credited not only his father but also Providential intervention. That experience, and those that followed, taught Pipes several life lessons. In his memoir, “Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger,” he wrote: “The main effect of the Holocaust on my psyche was to make me delight in every day of life that has been granted to me, for I was saved from certain death.”

Pipes observed: “I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self-indulgence or self-aggrandizement but to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences. Since scholars have written enough on the Holocaust, I thought it my mission to demonstrate this truth using the example of communism.”

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Pipes would do exactly that.

Pipes earned a doctorate in history at Harvard in 1950. He spent the next 50-plus years there, as professor of Russian history, director of the Russian Research Center, and principal investigator of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies. He was well-received at Harvard, with full classrooms, even as one of its few outspoken conservatives.

In 1996, he retired, though his association with Harvard continued under emeritus status. Among his most important publications were “Russia Under the Old Regime” (1974), “The Russian Revolution” (1990), “Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime” (1994), “The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive” (1996), and “Communism: A History” (2001). The latter is a concise go-to book for understanding communism in theory, practice and history.

But among Pipes’ greatest contributions were outside the classroom, as he helped win the Cold War at a practical-policy level. To that end, he joined President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council in 1981, where he was the NSC’s senior Kremlinologist.

He did great work for Ronald Reagan, which means he was loathed by the Kremlin.

In January 1982, Pipes was described in Pravda as “one of the ideological mentors of the U.S. administration.” The Moscow Domestic Service excoriated this “odious figure” who “plowed the furrow of ardent anti-sovietism and anti-communism.” He was a “dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, hysterically fighting for nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.” Pipes was a favorite bogeyman of the likes of the disgraceful disinformation artist Georgi Arbatov. He would confess satisfaction over arousing the contempt of such “vile people.”

Pipes certainly had Reagan’s respect, and vice versa. He was impressed at how Reagan had “grasped that the Soviet Union was in the throes of terminal illness” at a time when “nearly all the licensed physicians” — academic Sovietologists, the State Department, the CIA, journalists, ambassadors — “certified its robustness.” Pipes said that Reagan “instinctively understood, as all great statesmen do, what matters and what does not.” This quality, said Pipes, cannot be taught: “like perfect pitch, one is born with it.”

Pipes’ most lasting contribution to the Reagan team was his hand in writing one of the most critical documents in the take-down strategy against the USSR: NSDD-75. Released on January 17, 1983, it became probably the most important document in Cold War strategy under Reagan’s and Bill Clark’s NSC. As Pipes put it, the nine-page directive “said our goal was no longer to coexist with the Soviet Union but to change the Soviet system.” Norman Bailey would call NSDD-75 “The Strategic Plan That Won the Cold War.” Bailey’s NSC colleague, Tom Reed, called it “the blueprint for the endgame.”

The Soviets certainly saw it that way, as evidenced by an article in one Soviet publication in March 1983, which carried the telling title, “Pipes Threatens History.” It alleged (correctly) that NSDD-75 “speaks of changing the Soviet Union’s domestic policy. In other words, the powers that be in Washington are threatening the course of world history, neither more nor less.”

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They were indeed.

Warnings About Putin

It was two decades after NSDD-75 that I met Pipes in person. It was September 27, 2005, and he came to Grove City College to give our annual J. Howard Pew Lecture. (Click here for our Q&A.) A few things from that day have stuck with me.

I’ve never forgotten Pipes’ assessment of Vladimir Putin, which has stood the test of time. I asked his opinion of Russia’s prospects for a democratic future. Pipes described what he called a “very discouraging picture”:

I had high hopes that after the dissolution of the communist regime, Russia would take the path of democracy — imperfect, but a democratic path nonetheless. Instead, they went right back to autocracy. I have no hopes now…. Russia 10 to 20 years from now will be a kind of a mild dictatorship. If Russians elect their leaders, they will likely do so in skewed elections…

Of course, Russia today is certainly better than it was under the communist regime…. But it is not a democracy. It’s not what we hoped for. It’s an autocracy. Not a tyranny. Not a totalitarian regime. An autocracy…

According to the Russian constitution, the president can only serve two terms, but there is already talk in the Duma that he should be begged to run for a third term, that it is undemocratic to deny the people the right to vote for a man they want just because he has served two terms. Putin repeatedly says that he will not run for a third term, but I would not bet on that.

I argued with Pipes about that. At the time, I had a much more positive view on Putin and Russia, and I was surprised by Pipes’ pessimism. As usual, he was right.

Pipes and Ted Kennedy

Beyond that, two other things really struck me about that Pipes visit in September 2005.

I handed him two things that really piqued his interest: One was that March 1983 article from the Soviet press, “Pipes Threatens History,” which Pipes hadn’t seen. (I found it in Soviet press archives.) He loved it. It made him proud to so rattle the Kremlin.

The other document was unworthy of pride: it concerned Ted Kennedy’s private overture to the Kremlin.

I had been with Pipes all day, from the airport to dinner to the lecture and then getting him back to his room at Grove City College’s Cunningham House. Late that evening I showed Pipes the now-infamous May 1983 Ted Kennedy-KGB document of which I had recently come into possession. I was considering publishing it in my coming (2006) book on Ronald Reagan, but only if I could verify its authenticity. Given his expertise in Soviet archival work, Pipes was a perfect person to examine the document.

I handed Pipes the five-page memo in Russian, followed by an English translation. He sat in a chair in the corner, legs crossed, and began with the Russian version. I waited on the sofa, thumbing through a coffee-table book of Norman Rockwell illustrations. I impatiently headed to the entryway and then the kitchen in search of a piece of paper to jot down his conclusions.

Pipes calmly stared at the document and then muttered a curse word in reference to Kennedy. I immediately wrote down every word that followed. I’ve debated back and forth in writing this tribute whether I should quote Pipes verbatim. His reaction was visceral, and I implore readers to consider it in full:

After studying the document in silence, Pipes looked up at me and shared his immediate emotional reaction, “This is treason.” When I cautioned that it might indeed be close to treason but not necessarily, Pipes nodded, retreated, and reevaluated, speaking more carefully, “Yes, at least very close to treason.” He then provided a rough summation of what he read: “He (Kennedy) was operating behind the back of the president of the United States, reaching out directly to a major head of state, to work against the president.” He paused and added simply, in his typical style: “Terrible.”

I implore people to interpret this in the proper spirit: Pipes’ initial reaction was to curse Kennedy and utter the “T” word. It’s a natural first-reaction I’ve seen many times. But after his initial anger cooled, he stepped back, thought more deeply, and assessed that, yes, at the very least, what Kennedy did was bad. Treason? Maybe, maybe not. Pipes knew that treason was a significant legal, technical, constitutional matter. He knew that far more information would be needed to level such a formal charge. But it was bad.

I told Pipes my understanding of the provenance of the document. Before I could ask my main question, he affirmed, in his distinctive voice: “I’m sure it’s authentic.” I pressed him (and many others, incidentally) on that, inquiring whether the memo might be a forgery. “Oh, no,” he said. “I have no doubt that this is authentic.”

I told him that I felt history needed to know about the document and what it describes. He completely agreed: “Yes, yes… I hope you can publish it.”

I shared with him my concern that Kennedy and his liberal admirers in the media would tear into me for questioning their vaunted “Lion of the Senate.” Pipes advised me on that and wished me luck. It turned out I had nothing to worry about it. Kennedy and his press sycophants simply ignored the document, and still do to this day.

“Fools and Useful Idiots”

I would remain in touch with Pipes over the years. He was an invaluable expert and eyewitness. I could give example after example.

As I searched my email box today, the most recent Pipes’ email that I hadn’t deleted is dated April 7, 2014. I had asked him his thoughts on the role of the Soviets in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. He wrote:

Thank you for your letter of April 3 which arrived while I was in Moscow. I certainly was not skeptical about Moscow’s role in the attempt on the life of John Paul II while working in the White House in 1981: I believed then and believe now that the assassination attempt was initiated and organized by the USSR…

I trust you are well. All the best, RP

Like Ronald Reagan, like Bill Clark, like Bill Casey at the CIA, Pipes never had any hesitation in thinking Moscow capable of all sorts of malice and mischief.

Another of my favorites was an email thanking me for exposing what Pipes called “the fools and useful idiots” among the American left who said stunningly ignorant things glowing about Lenin’s and Stalin’s USSR. It reminds me of when I saw Pipes at a Philadelphia Society conference in April 2012. I was speaking on dupes from the 1920s and 1930s, quoting the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells and Margaret Sanger and their outlandish encomiums for Stalin’s Russia, as well as Malcolm Muggeridge’s bewildered amazement at the spectacle of Western progressives raving about Bolshevism. I lifted my eyes from my text and caught Pipes with an impish grin, loving every minute of the roast.

And then there was a correspondence we carried on over the prospect and possibility that Moscow considered a full-scale invasion of Poland in 1980-81, with President Reagan contemplating a military counter-response, which, as Pipes said dramatically, would have erupted into “World War III.”

Well, those discussions are gone now. In fact, each time I received an email from Dr. Pipes I wondered how much longer they would continue, because his email address included the year of his birth: 1923. Each year that date grew older.

It ended last week, at age 94.

In God’s Image

I’d like to finish with a favorite Pipes’ reflection, which I’ve shared every year with my Modern Civilization course at Grove City College. It deals with what matters most to Pipes now, at this very moment. It concerned keeping rather than losing the faith. Pipes wrote:

“Many Jews — my father among them — lost their religious beliefs because of the Holocaust. Mine, if anything, were strengthened. The mass murder (including those that occurred simultaneously in the Soviet Union) demonstrated what happens when people renounce faith in God, deny that human beings were created in His image, and reduce them to soulless and therefore expendable material objects.”

As noted, surviving the Holocaust made Pipes delight in every day that God had given him. There would be many such days. He felt a “duty” to defy Hitler by living a joyful and contented life. To be sad and morose and to complain would thereafter strike him as “forms of blasphemy” in light of his Providential gift of survival.

Above all, he would spend the remainder of his long and scholarly life exposing godless ideologies and the totalitarian tyrants who deny that human beings are made in God’s image. Few human beings in the academy did that as nobly and expertly as Richard Pipes.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is “A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.” He is also the author of “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.” His other books include “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

A version of this Op-Ed previously appeared on The Center for Vision & Values website. 

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Dr. Paul Kengor is a New York Times best-selling author. He has authored many books, including "Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century," and his latest, "The Devil and Karl Marx." Headshot photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr.