Jim Sleeper is a journalist and alumnus of Yale, as well as a lecturer there. He published an enlightening article about the role of Yale University in forging the Grand Strategy, a strategy of American imperial power to safeguard the world (and American interests). For those of us who came of age in the 1950s, it seemed like the American Colossus was invincible and profoundly moral. But since the debacles in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the Grand Strategy no longer looks so grand, and America’s role as the “world’s policeman” appears to be a fruitless enterprise. To understand the Grand Strategy and Yale’s role in shaping it, read Sleeper’s article.

Sleeper urged me to post a larger portion of his excellent essay. Here it is.

When a new leader of the Grand Strategy program tied to change its focus, she was forced out.

Sleeper begins:

Yale history professor Beverly Gage has been praised widely for defending academic freedom from donors’ meddling by announcing her resignation (effective in December) from the directorship of Yale University’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which she took over in 2017 from Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. But there are more politically urgent, and arguably profound, questions at issue here beyond professors’ right to design their courses free of outside interference.

Since the program’s inception more than two decades ago, Grand Strategy’s intensive seminars have engaged undergraduate as well as graduate students with close readings of classical works on strategy, stressful crisis decision-making simulations, and meetings with accomplished policymakers. In 2010, David Petraeus, at the time the four-star Army general commanding U.S. military operations in the Middle East (and later to become director of the CIA), visited the seminar, as did former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, observers from the CIA, and U.S. Military Academy cadets.

That the program, prior to Gage’s arrival, nudged students toward embracing the U.S. military and national security state was hardly a secret. “A Yale Class Seeks to Change the World … Before Graduation,” read a headline on a Columbia News Service report in 2004, when Grand Strategy was directed by Gaddis. “We are looking for leaders,” the late Charles Hill, a program co-founder, career Foreign Service officer, and Yale’s diplomat-in-residence, told the reporter. “This course gives us a great opportunity to get our hooks into them early. We are not … looking for the kind of person who would be protesting the [World Trade Organization] at Davos,” the World Economic Forum.

But Gage wanted students to scrutinize foreign-policy elites, not elevate them. She welcomed social movement activists in civil rights, environmental, and other domestic causes, expanding Grand Strategy’s horizons to include people who challenge the dominant world arrangements that other visitors defend. Soon she was “second guessed and undermined,” as she put it, by the Yale administration’s failure to resist a demand for a conservative board of program overseers made by Grand Strategy’s benefactors: former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, a former director of the Mitre Corporation and manager of federally funded research and development projects for the Defense Department; and Brady’s billionaire business associate Charles B. Johnson, an overseer of the conservative Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. The two had endowed Grand Strategy with $17.5 million in 2006.

In an essay for the recently published anthology Rethinking American Grand Strategy, Gage writes that “as a citizen, I have, for better or worse, been as likely to be a protester as a policy maker,” and she urges anyone drawn to the latter “to pay more attention to voices bubbling up from below.” To Grand Strategy’s emphasis on foreign-policy decision-making, she added “the art of … channeling collective grievances into effective action.”

Gaddis, Hill, and other original faculty had sided generally with the powerful. “We hauled the entire Grand Strategy class down to New York to meet Henry Kissinger and hear about his sense of the great deficit that exists in grand-strategic thinking,” Gaddis told a large assembly of Yale alumni (including me) at a reunion in 2004. “A student was outraged by Christopher Hitchens’s book accusing Henry of war crimes. So I said, ‘Why not do a senior essay on Kissinger’s ethics?’ I saw a draft, called Henry, and he said ‘Bring him in.’ He hired him on the spot, … to fact check Christopher Hitchens.”

Many alumni swooned, not least over Gaddis’s exhibition of first-name familiarity with the famous and powerful. This was how things had been done at Yale in their time, and by God, Gaddis was bringing back the old elan! But nobody stopped to ask how that fits with a college education for undergrads, or whether intermingling national security professionalism with liberal education prematurely narrows their intellectual and moral development.

Yale College has often been a crucible of U.S. national statesmanship and espionage: Nathan Hale, class of 1773, was hanged for spying on British-colonial troop movements; the CIA was founded at Yale during World War II; and the State Department and its diplomatic corps have been instructed and advised by Yale professors for decades. Yale’s president from 1951 to 1963, A. Whitney Griswold, a descendant of colonial Connecticut governors and an “establishment” figure par excellence, abolished Yale’s Institute for International Studies, which had been funneling students into murky foreign missions with help from conservative alumni, but even then the university continued to serve as a recruitment grounds for the foreign-policy establishment.