Thomas Russell Wingate
► February 1971 (earliest document on website)
This was written at the behest of the U.S. Department of State when I was applying to be political officer in the Foreign Service.
That year the written examination was taken by 10,300 persons. Of these, 321(3%) passed. I was one of them. There were forty vacancies, so applicants were expected to qualify for two positions: economics officer and political officer. No one told this to the applicants. Seven of eight had to be rejected. I was among the seven.
Diplomacy’s loss was literature’s gain.
A NARRATIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Wisdom is acquired, not by reading of books, but of men.
I was introspective, bookish, and usually alone when I was a child. This was no doing of mine, and I turned my resentment of this condition into constructive channels. I had no siblings, and my parents were the sort who live with a minimum of social life. I was sickly and fat, and this prevented me from growing up with the company of children my own age. Not until I was thirteen or so did I come to acquire a lasting circle of friends.
My father was a career sergeant in the Army, and when I was seven he was transferred to the Netherlands, where I lived until I was nine. I knew no Dutch and my respiratory afflictions kept me bedridden much of the time, so the B.B.C. and Mark Twain served me as friends. A fortnight’s tour of Western Europe made me conscious that I am American and that most people are not. I saw the Palace of Versailles and a Nazi extermination camp, the best and the worst of Europe, and this made me almost excessively patriotic.
When I was nine the Army sent my father to California, where I have been ever since. The following year Sputnik I was placed in orbit, and I became aware that history is not something written in books, but something made by men around me—and something that made me what I am and what I am to be. I took it into my head that I wanted to be a physicist or an astronomer, but my unconscious had different ideas; I was given a psychological preference test when I was twelve, and, to my horror, I scored only 32% for interest in science. But I scored 99 3/4% for “persuasive”; looking back a dozen years later, I wonder why I missed a perfect score by so little.
By the time I was seventeen, my interest in the sciences had dwindled, but I had one love in that area: pure mathematics. But it was a presidential election year, and this emphasized a disparity that had sorely vexed me: the world of mathematics was perfect and unchanging, while the people around me were neither. I found myself challenged more by the task of understanding men than by that of fathoming parabolas and cosines. Almost certainly, my principal drive is to bring system and order where none was before, and the real world of men and history seemed to be crying out for it more urgently than the world Plato’s imagination filled with numbers. So I resolved to study the “pure” no more, save insofar as it might be helpful in bringing the “impure” into clearer focus.
I have always had an extremely logical mind, and, to some degree, I have found this a hindrance in understanding men and their motivations. The chief advantage of an evidence-oriented, systematic mind, however, is that it is (to borrow a phrase from the physicists) a self-correcting mechanism. Since men are inspired to a larger degree than is generally admitted by the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death,” I entered the University of California with a declared major in political science. After two years I grew sick of it, since my textbooks and professors seemed mainly concerned with preaching sermons and explaining the most ordinary things in an obtuse, quasi-mathematical jargon which was intended to convey more certitude than the evidence warranted. I changed my major to history, and liked it well enough to earn a master’s in that field.
History is the evidence of what men really do over long periods of time. To know where we have been is to divine where we are most likely to be heading, and this foresight is better than rubies for deciding what action to take. I have wished to know, that I may act. “You’ll be a Man, my son,” wrote Kipling, “if you can think and not make thoughts your aim.”
As a freshman, I had intended to become a lawyer, but I found legal reasoning overly dry. The spirit gives life while the letter kills, and life contains a great deal more than nitpicking. By my senior year I had resolved to become a professor of history and spend my life writing tomes about the rise and fall of the British Empire. Graduate study cured me of this ambition; it consisted too largely of exegesis of the Sybilline Books of generations of scholars bent on refuting each other. A castrating cynicism crept over me and my fellow graduate students, and this struck me as unhealthy. “If you can dream and not make dreams your master” is better advice than any my professors (some of whom were the finest men I have known) could offer me.
My principal drive, as I have said, is to bring system and order where none was before, and this is the very definition of political activity. It is not the theoretical understanding of the “pure”; it is what Bismarck called it, the art of the possible.
My boyhood stay in the Netherlands had an unexpected effect on me: it made me more curious about foreigners than about my countrymen. News from abroad is of greater moment to me than local or national news, and while in college I avoided the study of the United States. (I think this oddly characteristic of my generation, the first born after the Cold War began.) Although I have always been the most widely-read person my age of my acquaintance, I have learned more from closely observing those around me than from any books that have passed my eyes. Continuing self-education by direct observation of men (especially foreigners) from every clime and walk of life is something I crave as a starving man wants bread. The world is bigger than I am, and it was here first; I yearn to know more than I ever can, and to put what little I know to my country’s good use.
The Iranian hostage crisis (1979–1981) would have caused my eloquent and noisy departure from the Foreign Service. I might have been in that luckless embassy.
Sometime in 2016 the fifty-three hostages (or their estates: thirty-seven are still alive) are to receive $4.4 million each.
The funds were seized from a criminal French bank—not from the criminal regime in Iran—thirty-six years later.
Our rupture with Iran was never about the hostages or the fugitive Shah. They were entertainment which diverted us from pondering our own lack of honor and courage. Our policymakers do not think in such terms. Their successors will have to.
We paid for 9/11 long in advance. The prequel taught us nothing.