The Sound of Silence

The way Stanley Hoffmann phrases the question, it sounds like a dilemma from a Moral Reasoning course. You’re an international relations expert at a top university. Your country is about to embark on a war that you think is ill-advised, maybe even disastrous.

Must you speak out publicly against the war?

To Hoffmann, who has been studying international relations for more than a half century, the answer is simple: “If one does see a train wreck coming, say so.”

That, he said, is “the responsibility of the intellectual.”

In 2002 and 2003, many international relations and policy experts at Harvard took the opposite course: They opposed the Iraq War, but made no effort to voice their concerns.

Five years later, with the United States still embroiled in a difficult conflict, these experts are weighing the implications of their silence.

Should they have spoken out? Would it have made a difference?

To some, silence now looks like a failure of responsibility. Others say speaking out would have had no effect.

“In 2002, I don’t think all the academics in the world could have had much impact on American public opinion,” economics professor Jeffry A. Frieden said. “I don’t think academics matter.”


Both Congress and the media have faced widespread criticism for failing to ask hard questions during the march to war—especially about weapons intelligence that later proved to be “dead wrong,” according to the findings of a commission appointed by President Bush.

“The institutions had been warped,” said historian Charles S. Maier ’60, who opposed the war at the time but did not speak out publicly.

“I think you can say the academic institutions and the institution of public debate had been warped in a certain sense too,” he said. “The voices against this thing never emerged.”

In Cambridge, there were anti-war protestors among the faculty who held meetings and participated in protests and teach-ins. More than 120 faculty members had signed an online petition opposing the invasion by Oct. 2002.

But in a matter of foreign policy, the influence of most of these professors was probably no greater than the average citizen, said Richard F. Thomas, who organized several anti-war meetings for faculty members.

“It’s hard to know what one could have done. I’m a Classics professor, after all,” Thomas said.

What was missing were academics with relevant expertise—scholars of government and international relations who could speak as professionals, not just citizens—who publicly opposed the war.

“There never was an authentic or open policy debate in the six months leading up [to the invasion],” said Harvard Kennedy School professor Stephen M. Walt, an international relations theorist and one of the most prominent opponents of the war at Harvard.


What cannot be underestimated, almost every professor interviewed said, was the effect of Sept. 11. The shock of the attack was still being felt a year later, when Bush asked Congress to give him authorization to attack Iraq.

Hoffmann, a French historian who came to Harvard in 1955, said American nationalism on campus was stronger and more pervasive after Sept. 11 than at any other time in his half-century here.

“There was an atmosphere of conformity,” he said. “No one was interested in what dissenters had to say.”

When Alexander Keyssar ’69, a Kennedy School democratization expert, voiced some opposition to the war in Iraq during a radio interview, a conservative policy expert also being interviewed called him “a friend of Saddam Hussein.”

There was a sense across the country that the commander-in-chief should be given the leeway to act as he saw fit, said Kennedy School professor Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62. Even in Cambridge, “there was a degree of defence that was unusual,” he said.

“If Bush had said after Sept. 11 that in order to defend Americans we have to attack China, you could have almost done it,” Allison said.

Several professors said the weapons intelligence cited by the Bush administration as reason for war left them uncertain about speaking against the invasion—especially once the intelligence was presented to the United Nations by Colin Powell, the widely-respected secretary of state at the time.

“Even among people who were skeptics there was a certain disbelief that the government would be stating things that were demonstrably false in order to make its case,” Keyssar said.

“God knows, even though we’ve seen it before,” he said. “That, in some sense, may have been part of the failure of academics, that we weren’t skeptical enough.”

Some professors said blame for a lack of skepticism should rest on the media, not academics.

“It’s kind of hard for intellectuals in isolation to take a strong stand when the information that’s in the public sphere is just plain false,” Government professor Theda R. Skocpol said.

But even given the uncertainty over the case for invasion, more academics could still have gone public with analysis about what might happen after Baghdad was won, said Linda J. Bilmes ’80, a lecturer at the Kennedy School and the author of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”

“People kind of gave a pass to the administration for the justification of it [the war],” Bilmes said, “and they gave a pass for thinking about the possibility that the whole thing would bog down into an unimaginable quagmire.”

“Somehow there was a failure of the academic community, a massive failure of the academic community to do what we should have been doing: to think about the consequences.”


Part of the reluctance of academics to speak out against the war stemmed from their impression that no one in the Bush administration would listen if they did.

This was more than the typical divide between a Republican administration and liberal academics, professors said.

“This administration was unusually impervious to outside advice,” said Ashton B. Carter, a Kennedy School professor who served in the Clinton administration.

No amount of academic protest, many professors argued, would have made a difference.

“The invasion was going to happen, no matter if every faculty member in the United States had written an op-ed,” Keyssar said.

That was not just the perception of outsiders, said Allison, a former assistant secretary of defense with long-time connections to both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.

In the months leading up to the invasion, Graham said he was in frequent conversation with “people in the first and second circle of the government.”

“By June of 2002, the summer of 2002, this argument is over within the administration,” Allison said. “They’ve decided they’re going to Iraq.”

“The sense,” Keyssar said, was that “the train had left the station.”


But in 2002 and 2003, expert academic perspectives were lacking not only on the broader question of whether or not to go to war, but also on specific points of the Bush administration’s justification for the invasion.

A 2003 Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans believed, as Bush had suggested, that there was a direct link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida’s Sept. 11 attacks.

“I knew that to be false,” said Louise Richardson, the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute and the author of “What Terrorists Want.”

In the early 1990s, Richardson said, Osama Bin Laden had volunteered to fight against Saddam Hussein, who represented everything Bin Laden despised.

But Richardson said she never made a special effort to correct the widespread public misinformation.

“Why do we not write op-eds on all kinds of subjects?” she said. “We’re busy. Not a day goes by we don’t have arguments we’d like to see expressed.”

Now, Richardson said, she wishes she had been more vocal.

“If a large number of people were submitting op-eds saying this link is bogus, this claim is false, then maybe we would have penetrated the broader media consciousness,” she said.

“One lone voice wouldn’t have made it through.”

Jessica E. Stern, a terrorism expert at the Kennedy School, also had reservations about the war. Her research suggested that invading Iraq might create more problems than it would solve.

But in the months leading up to the war, Stern said she voiced her opposition only if reporters asked her directly.

Like Richardson, she said she made no special effort to share her concerns in the public sphere.

“Did I fulfill a moral obligation? Maybe I didn’t,” Stern said. “But then here’s the second question: Had I fulfilled that obligation, would it have had an impact? And I think the answer is no.”


Looking back on the months preceding the war, academics who say they should have spoken out alternate between feelings of guilt and impotence.

“I feel a sense of responsibility, but I’m not sure how I should have behaved much differently,” Maier said.

Then again, he said, “I didn’t stand up, so it’s easier to say there’s no way it would be effective.”

Much of the individual choice not to speak came down to personality, not principle, Maier said in an interview in his office, a book-lined room in a building constructed to look like a European villa.

He has always felt uncomfortable in the public sphere, Maier said. It takes a different kind of character to stand up and push for policy change.

“We locate our intellectuals in the academy...They’re usually a type of personality that likes to study and be bookish and sit in nice offices like this,” Maier said. “It’s not the same as a culture where intellectuals are outside the academy.”

Walt, on the other hand, seems to thrive in areas of controversy. Since the war, his paper “The Israel Lobby,” an extended critique of the influence of advocates of Israel on U.S. foreign policy, has kept Walt and his co-author John J. Mearsheimer in the center of a fierce public debate.

Many Harvard professors said they believe that their role is to be scholars, not pundits.

“The Ivory Tower mentality is more pronounced now than it was when I started graduate school, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Walt said. “If we spend all this time learning how international politics supposedly works and learning about these issues and then remain silent...when the issues of the day are issues that we are supposedly expert on, it’s both regrettable and irresponsible.”

Because of the draft, the embrace of the Ivory Tower was more difficult in the 1960s and 1970s, Skocpol said.

Today, Skocpol said she thinks few Harvard faculty members have direct ties to soldiers serving in Iraq.

“Most of the cost of the war is not borne by people in the intellectual class,” she said. “It creates a luxury for confusion of a kind that didn’t exist during the Vietnam War.”


Professors who failed to speak before the invasion have gained their voices in the tumultuous years of occupation and insurgency.

In an Aug. 2003 New York Times editorial, Stern became one of the first to argue that the American occupation had transformed Iraq into a haven and recruiting ground for terrorists.

Maier’s most recent book, “Among Empires,” analyzes America’s foreign policy role in comparison with past imperial powers. It’s his own after-the-fact way of commenting on America’s role in Iraq, he said.

But these contributions came too late to make a difference in the public perception of whether or not the United States should invade Iraq.

“We give academics tenure and then they never use the freedom that tenure is supposed to provide,” Walt said. “It’s hard to imagine anything a country does that’s more important than when it goes to war.”

Looking back, Keyssar said, despite how powerless he felt, there were still reasons to go public with his doubts about the invasion.

“I think that we ended up being too passively pessimistic,” he said.

“Speaking out gives courage to others. You’re establishing or you’re setting the ground for the notion that if it was a huge mistake, it wasn’t an unavoidable huge mistake.”

By choosing not to speak, Hoffmann said, “one betrays what is part of the responsibility of the intellectual, which is to use his expertise when he sees huge mistakes being made by the government, mistakes that will be paid in blood for years to come.”

Whether or not anyone listens, he said, is not the point.

There is “a duty,” Hoffmann said, “to play the role of Cassandra.”

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at

For comprehensive coverage of the Iraq War's impact at Harvard five years later, check out The Crimson's Iraq Supplement.