Q&A with Carl Kaysen

September 1, 2008

CIS Scholar Spotlight on Carl Kaysen

Carl Kaysen joined the MIT faculty in 1976 and currently co-chairs the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Study Committee on International Security Studies. Among his many posts during his distinctive career was deputy special assistant for national security affairs to President Kennedy. Kaysen sat down with CIS in late July to discuss his current work, his advice to the next administration, and his proudest moments.

Carl Kaysen's scholarly work has ranged widely in the areas where economics, sociology, politics and law overlap. His current research centers on arms control and international politics. He co-chairs the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Study Committee on International Security Studies. Prior to joining the MIT faculty in 1976, he was on the faculty of the economics department at Harvard University. He served as deputy special assistant for national security affairs to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963 and was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1966 to 1976. He has been a junior fellow at Harvard University and a Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He was vice chairman and director of research for the Sloan Commission on Higher Education from 1978 to 1980.


CIS: You're here everyday "post-retirement." What are you working on?

CK: Mainly, I'm reading. Most of my efforts are focused on international politics. That's why I sit here instead of some place else. A lot of my activity, other than reading, centers around the Study Committee on International Security Studies at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. I'm co-chairman of the committee along with John Steinbruner of the University of Maryland. We produce research papers. That's what I do.


CIS: How is your work influencing public policy?

CK: It's very hard to tell. I'll give you an example of something that had no influence a couple of years ago. We had put out a study in 2002 called War with Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives. Some people paid attention, but not the right people. So all we can say is that it offers a fairly good example of "I told you so!"

That said, this government is at the extreme of not listening. However, I adhere to the fundamental belief that academics who dabble in fields that aren't purely scholarly.i.e., economics, politics, law, whatever...add to the stock of knowledge that affect how people and governments behave. I see myself as contributing to this.


CIS: You spent two years working for the Kennedy administration. Drawing from that experience, what's your advice to the next administration?

CK: Let's assume that Barack Obama becomes the next president, I would say that he would need to ask himself a very broad question, framing everything he does in foreign policy with: What can the U.S. do to build up the rule of law internationally? I think our deepest interest is to do that. The Bush administration has said that we are the dominant power, that we can make the world what we want it to be. We can see how unsuccessful that idea has been. We won't go on being the dominant power forever. There are China, India perhaps, growing stronger. We're not interested in conquest and we don't want an empire. When I say "we" I am referring to what I think of as the desires and interests of the American people. Thus, to the extent that there is an international rule of law which constrains both others and us, we'll live in a more orderly and peaceful world.


"I adhere to the fundamental belief that academics who dabble in fields that aren't purely scholarly.i.e., economics, politics, law, whatever...add to the stock of knowledge that affect how people and governments behave. I see myself as contributing to this."


Let me give you an example: We have with some difficulty and a certain amount of foot dragging joined almost all the nations of the world in a Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty talks about what areas states can have as their exclusive economic zones, rights of free passage for ships; many other things. It's a much better world for us, especially since we are a substantial trading nation.

Let's take another example where we haven't yet learned to behave sensibly: The question about rules of space. In particular, the proposal which has been under discussion for a long time and which we've been opposing: an agreement that says we won't put weapons in space, that nobody should put weapons in space, and no one should be interfering with other people's peaceful use of space. We have a bigger investment than any other country in the peacetime use of space—communication satellites, navigation, scientific use—and yet we have resisted for some time an effort put forth by other nations—the Russians and Chinese—who want such a treaty. Part of our resistance has been based on the notion that it's a major defense priority for us to develop antiballistic missiles, but technical consensus is that it isn't an effective idea. For example, it's five, a notional number, times harder to shoot down a missile than to land one. To put it another way, if you want to overwhelm defense by adding more offensive weapons, it's much cheaper to build up the offense than the defense. This is true if you credit the defense with even more technical efficacy than it most likely would have. So we're resisting a particular code of international conduct that would serve our interest in the pursuit of sappy, fanciful ideas of weapon development. And that in itself is an expression that says that we want to be militarily dominant. Every place, everywhere and in every mode of conflict.


CIS: Many people site parallels between Barack Obama and President Kennedy. What similarities and/or differences do you see?

CK: I didn't know John F. Kennedy very well when I went to work for him. I was on the Harvard faculty and he was a member of the Board of Overseers so I did have occasions to meet him, but not much more than saying hello. Many of my colleagues at Harvard were heavily involved in the campaign, I wasn't because I had spent 1959-60 abroad, so I didn't get back until mid-September. Still, he was not an entirely unknown figure to me. I've heard Barack Obama speak; my wife and I went for a day to the national convention when it was here in Boston. It was an electrifying speech. The Democratic National Convention is a big hubbub, everyone is talking, walking around. Even when Teddy Kennedy was speaking, people were talking among themselves, but when Obama spoke, everyone was totally still, totally quiet.

Some parallels: The anti-Catholic feeling was very strong in 1960, yet I don't think it was as deep as the anti-black feeling. But, I think, the heartland of America and in the South—aside from the two coasts and the bigger cities—which are overwhelmingly Protestant, folks were suspicious of Kennedy's Catholicism. Anti-Catholic sentiment was more allowable to express in 1960 than it is to express anti-black prejudice in 2008.

Both Kennedy and Obama are young. Kennedy was about 42 and Obama's 46. Kennedy was relatively inexperienced, he had been both a congressman and a senator—and a senator longer than Obama. Their total experience in public office was not that much different. Neither has had experience as an executive in public office, i.e., as a mayor or governor. Obama ran a community service operation in Chicago, Kennedy hadn't run anything.

Kennedy was a war hero, a big difference, and big political advantage. One of the striking things, much remarked on, was how attractive the Kennedy campaign was to intellectuals and how accessible Kennedy was to intellectuals. I would expect the same to be true of Obama. On the surface, Obama has more of an intellectual record than Kennedy. Kennedy was a "B" student; Obama was a superstar. To get to be president of the Harvard Law Review, you're winning in a very, very tough league. These are very bright people. Now, having said that, Kennedy had a very lively mind. He had an enormously important quality for president: he was intellectually curious and that meant that if someone said this was the right thing to do, he always asked why. His intellectual curiosity was wide-ranging. It wasn't only focused on what he had to do before him.

I have a favorite Kennedy story that I always tell: Kennedy had accepted a request from Willy Brandt to meet with an old German politician of the Social Democratic Party. This sort of session is usually down for 15 minutes at the most. And as is customary for presidential meetings with non-government people, there was a note taker, me. I can't remember the politician's name, but the relevant thing is that he was very old and he had been in the Reichstag in 1914. Kennedy asked him about his experience and why in 1914 the Social Democrats voted for the war credits to finance Germany. The old man liked to talk and the conversation went on and on. Kennedy's appointment secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, put his head in at least twice to signal the president that his next appointment was waiting. But Kennedy continued to listen to the old man. Later in the day, Kennedy said to me, 'Kenny was impatient, when would I ever have another chance to talk with someone who sat in the Reichstag in 1914?'

That quality of mind is very important for the president of the United States. One simply can't imagine Bush responding like that.


CIS: Another "parallel" question: Share your thoughts on the Iraq War versus the Vietnam War.

CK: The biggest non-parallel is that there's no draft. The biggest parallel is that the country is fed up with Iraq and the country was fed up with Vietnam. In my mind, the Vietnam War lost Hubert Humphrey the election. 

Another anecdote: I knew Humphrey a bit and I had some interaction with the administration when Johnson succeeded and Humphrey became vice president. A bunch of us folks got the idea of getting Humphrey to make a speech to disassociate himself from Johnson and Vietnam when he was the presidential nominee in 1968. We couldn't get him to do it. Partly he was intimidated by Johnson; Johnson was a powerful personality. It's sheer speculation to ask whether if Humphrey had spoken out, it would have made a difference, but it was a close election. The Iraq War will be a big factor and if Obama wins, it will have contributed to his win. 

The idea of Americanizing the Vietnam War, as Johnson did in 1965, was a bad idea. Until 1965, we had military advisors, we had spent a lot of money, but we weren't directly fighting the Viet Cong. Johnson started sending American troops and the war became an American war. One of my colleagues wrote a pamphlet: No Good Choices: LBJ and Vietnam, this was another production of the committee. But at least there was a semi-plausible context for that. There was a worldwide Cold War going on, there was no question that the North Vietnamese were being helped a lot by the Russians, some by the Chinese. The idea that we should resist the expansion of the Sino-Soviet bloc (as it used to be called) was the heart of our foreign policy, so it wasn't a question of going out and looking for trouble. It was a question of judgment of how bad would it be if we lost Vietnam and how likely we were to stop that from happening. That was a hard judgment. Whereas, with the Iraq war, there was no threatening context. This was a war that we invented for a perfectly implausible purpose.


CIS: You've had an illustrious career. What are your proudest moments?

CK: I was on the American mission that negotiated the Test Ban Treaty with the Russians in the summer of 1963. Having such a treaty was something that I'd been pushing for, and I sold the idea of having Averell Harriman head the negotiating team. Dean Rusk, secretary of state, had a different idea, but I believe that another negotiator might not have succeeded even though the Russians wanted a treaty. There were questions on various side issues that someone who wasn't as enthusiastic might have pursued to the detriment of an agreement. Harriman was enthusiastic, so we got our treaty. I treasure a photo of the president, Harriman, and me in Hyannis Port when we got back from Moscow. 

A difficult moment in the process came when there was a hang up on the technical question of how Germany should be treated. We didn't recognize East Germany, so there was some business about trying to draft language that would finesse this issue on how the treaty would be signed and ratified, since we wanted it to be as universal as possible. The lawyer in our delegation was worried about this language, and we were going to call a recess. I said to Harriman, 'Why don't I just go back to the embassy and call Washington?' Harriman replied, 'Why go to the embassy? They tap the phone there, too, so you might as well use the phone here.' So I called Washington and got McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor, and the president on the phone, and they approved the language and we marched on. A small point, but it made me feel proud.

I felt a certain thrill when I published my first book, "United States vs. United Shoe Machinery Corporation. An economic analysis of an anti-trust case." I didn't expect it to become a best seller, and it didn't. It was published in 1957.