story | Reza Alam, Senior Writer
photo | Terry Nardin, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Common Curriculum
Professor Terry Nardin is a professor of political science at Yale-NUS College and the Director of the Common Curriculum. He did his undergraduate studies in Philosophy at the University of Chicago before transferring to New York University in his junior year in 1961. He gained his Ph.D. in International Relations from Northwestern University. He now specializes in the intersection between political philosophy, intellectual history, and international politics.
R: Let’s start with a bit about your background. Where did you grow up and in what kind of community?
TN: I grew up in New York, and my family shared a house with two dancers from the New York City Ballet Company. My mother was [a] photographer, my father a designer and architect. I grew up amidst books and art, in company with people from the arts. In fact, I was briefly a professional actor in an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Later, my family moved to a suburb, but I found it dull and was glad to leave to attend college.
R: So, I heard you went to the University of Chicago and New York University in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Can you describe what it was like being an undergraduate in those institutions at that time?
TN: Chicago was exhilarating: we called it “The University,” as if there were no others. I thought only UChicago students got to read Plato. We took Common Curriculum-style courses: History of Western Civilization, two years of admittedly west-centric Social Sciences. I remember reading Thucydides, Hobbes, Burke, Marx, Durkheim, Freud, and this experience seems to have shaped my career and life.
New York University was different, more conventional. There, I majored in Philosophy, where I remember taking courses in logical positivism and philosophy of science. One class that especially left a deep mark on me was a history course on Soviet totalitarianism.
R: Having spent much of your youth prior to 1964 in America, what can you tell us about what race relations were like in America before the Civil Rights Act? Do you think racism is less prevalent now in comparison with pre-1964 America? If so, to what extent is that the result of the Civil Rights Act?
TN: As a young person, I did not have direct experience with other races. I lived in a white suburban community, went to an almost entirely white high school, and, in my high school years, paid little attention to news or public affairs, unless it concerned foreign policy. As a child, I was interested in the Chinese revolution because my parents were rooting for the Communists, not because they were so great but because they felt that the Nationalists were so bad.
I also remember following the Korean War, but I had no idea what a ghastly war it actually was. But as for race relations, I was tone deaf. It took me quite a while to appreciate the depth of racism in the United States, which seems never to disappear even though it has ameliorated in some ways. Today, a growing non-white population drives racial fear and hatred that is used, as it has been for many decades, by the Republican party to hang on to power. It is a national disgrace.
R: I know you have lived through a lot of major events in America, one of which being the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event described by Bertrand Russell as a “threat to humanity” in his telegram to then-President John F. Kennedy. Did you share a similar sentiment back then?
TN: Yes. I had grown up with a sense of impending doom. I recall “duck and cover” drills in primary school and “know your enemy” courses on communism in high school. I was not anti-communist, but neither did I grasp how inappropriate it was to teach students such patriotic nonsense. I was a student at Chicago when the US launched its failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. I recall arguing about it with a fellow student, a foreign policy know-it-all, who insisted that the US would not invade. I lost the debate but won on truth: the US did invade.
I knew that the US was anti-communist, imperialist, and would find it hard to tolerate a communist regime in “our backyard,” as politicians called the Caribbean. I also knew that nuclear weapons were a threat to humanity, and I gradually came to see them as immoral as well because they involved killing or threatening innocent people. I believed that using the atomic bomb against Japan was immoral, even if it shortened the war. People like President Truman or airmen who dropped the bombs who said they had never lost a night’s sleep over it are monsters, in my opinion.
The Cuban missile crisis was the last straw. I thought both Kennedy and Khrushchev were playing games with the fate of humanity and hated them for it. I remember Kennedy’s assassination, too—and like many people, I have not forgotten just where I was when I heard the news. The world seemed to be coming unglued.
R: You mentioned that you had done your undergraduate work in philosophy. So why did
you study international relations in graduate school?
TN: I was always interested in international affairs, and by the time I had graduated from college, it seemed important to study something that would enable me to make a difference in the world. I think young people today sometimes make similar decisions, and for similar reasons: faced with the existential threat of global warming, they don’t want to fiddle while Rome burns. But the world needs more than firefighters.
R: Let’s move on to the topic of the Vietnam War. What are your thoughts about it?
TN: Another horror show. I knew that the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, was wrong from the beginning. Elections were supposed to be held and never were because the South Vietnamese regime would have lost. I knew South Vietnam for what it was: corrupt, unrepresentative, and a US puppet. As far as I was concerned, the growing US military involvement in Vietnam was “an American war, fought for American purposes, in someone else’s country,” as Michael Walzer later summed it up in his book Just and Unjust Wars.
As the war escalated, its brutality brought home to me that the US was enmeshed in an unjust and futile war. All the American presidents knew it, yet cynically kept it going to stay in office. I was less critical of the Viet Cong and Hanoi. Only later did I come to understand the ruthlessness of that side as well.
R: You told me before this interview that you were a professor during the Vietnam War. Did you witness any student protests at your campus? If so, what were they like?
TN: With a colleague, I organized a teach-in at my university on the model of those going on in other universities around the country. I also refused a research grant offered by the US Defense Department. I guess you could call that a protest. But I did not participate in any demonstrations, either as a student or young faculty member.
I did once witness a clash between protesters and police in which the police used tear gas. My main concern was to retrieve my young daughter and other children from a nursery school downwind of the gas. It seemed comic, not tragic. Then came the Democratic Convention, Kent State, and other violently repressed demonstrations. I became aware that many people blamed the violence in such encounters on the protesters, not the police, and later wrote some papers about this.
R: Another major event of the 1960s was the moon landing. Where were you when that happened and, in your opinion, how did that event impact American society in general?
TN: I have no idea where I was when an American landed on the moon. That sort of thing
did not interest me.
R: Speaking of events in early 70s, do you think the political norms in America have shifted? When Nixon was caught stealing tapes from the Democrats, there was a bipartisan majority effort to impeach him. Do you think that if there is a “smoking gun” evidence that Trump is guilty of colluding with Russia, members of the Congress from both sides of the aisle will do the same?
TN: The US is having a fascist moment, and it is not the only country in this situation. Some Congressional Republicans are frightened of the racist, ignorant, and manipulated voters on whom they depend for re-election in their gerrymandered districts. Others agree with those voters. The US is experiencing a cold civil war.
R: What was it like living under the Reagan administration? Was it really a golden era as
many Republicans have described?
TN: There are no golden eras: the past, especially the political past, will always look tarnished, even nasty, when you inspect it carefully. I despised [former President] Ronald Reagan and the selfish, harsh neoliberalism he shared with Britain’s [former Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher. He was an instrument of the same coalition of businesses, rich people, and racists that afflicts the US and the world today.
R: Looking back, is there any domain in American politics and society that have regressed.
TN: Everything except gay rights.
R: What did you think about the fall of the Berlin Wall? Did you get the sense that it was the “end of history,” to borrow Fukuyama’s term? In other words, did you think that the fall of the Berlin wall was a triumph for Western liberal democracy?
TN: Like many others around the world, I celebrated the toppling of the wall and keep a piece of it, given to me by a young German, in my office to this day. But no, I did not think it signaled the end of history. I’ve always thought that the idea that the world had arrived at the endpoint of its political development was naïve, even stupid. History is not a fixed cycle but an irregular oscillation between poles. Politically, these poles might be called “liberty” and “tyranny.” Right now, tyranny is having its day. I hope that day will end soon.