Richard H. Immerman


On his book Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

Cover Interview of April 27, 2010

A close-up

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most readers will first want to take a look at the Paul Wolfowitz chapter.

As a public intellectual with a Ph.D. as well as a second-tier official whose government service dated to the years, Paul Wolfowitz had an out-of-proportion role in encouraging as well as formulating the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and strategy.  And this role was a central to my decision to write this book.

Moreover, it was intellectually exciting to write about Wolfowitz.  And because Cornell University is so integral to his story, I probably found it more exciting to focus on Wolfowitz than many others would.  (Selfishly, I hope some readers will pause on pages 198-200; here I situate Wolfowitz within the context of the occupation of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall and anti-Vietnam War protests, his residency at Telluride, where he met of Allan Bloom, and his decision to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago—in political science instead of biochemistry.)

But to appreciate how I reached the judgment that I could not have invented a more appropriate figure for this book’s last chapter than Paul Wolfowitz, readers must stumble onto several other passages.

The first of those is a paragraph within the discussion of Cornell that runs from the bottom on page 198 to the top of page 199.  This is where I introduce the reader to Wolfowitz’s engagement with the Holocaust from a very young age.  Influenced largely by his father, who had escaped Poland just prior to Hitler’s invasion, Wolfowitz read what he later conceded were “probably too many” books on the Holocaust.  What is more, he read almost as much about Hiroshima, which he coupled with the Holocaust and labeled the “polar horrors.”  Even before he graduated high school, Wolfowitz came to see world politics as a struggle between good and evil.

A bit further on, on pages 207-208, there is a snapshot of Wolfowitz’s three-year stint as ambassador to Indonesia.  Secretary of State George Shultz appointed his Jewish assistant ambassador to this Muslim country as a reward for what Schultz assessed as a positive contribution to easing Ferdinand Marcos out of the Philippines.

Wolfowitz sought this position because his wife, an anthropologist, studied the Archipelago.  But once there it was Wolfowitz who went native.  He learned the language and he toured the neighborhoods—even won a cooking context.  And he developed a close friendship with Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim and a democrat.  Wahid’s subsequent election as president confirmed to Wolfowitz that his service in Indonesia was part of a larger project of replacing the world’s evil with good.

Paul Wolfowitz turns out to be an extremely complicated individual—much like the American Empire.