The Death of a Grand Strategist


Charles Hill wasn’t like other professors. He clomped into class attired in a stone-colored suit and motorcycle boots, which inspired much fascinated whispering. (I later learned that he started riding a motorcycle during his years in Saigon.) At first he hung back, assigning one of us to begin discussion. If the student had forgotten to prepare, he did not come to the rescue; he stared, silent, ready to endure the self-conscious flailing for as long as necessary. But he never let our conversation meander for too long without some oracular intervention. A flick of the wrist, deliberate white lines on the blackboard: this six-part schematic is the way Thucydides explained the fate of Athenian civilization, he would declare. Or: here, this ragged line is Machiavelli’s real meaning. Our pens raced to copy these cryptic chalkboard diagrams. Maybe we too could see, if we looked closely enough.

Hill, who died on March 27 at the age of 84, was the most important American diplomat you’ve probably never heard of. His influence on foreign affairs—writing speeches for Henry Kissinger, working as George Shultz’s chief assistant during the Reagan years—was significant precisely because he fled the limelight and let his ideas do the work without bothering to claim credit.

He left an even greater legacy in a generation of students who met him during his second career, nearly three decades of teaching at Yale. Over the years, in his lessons and through his own example, he modeled an intellectual style that is deeply unfashionable in the professional worlds he occupied. Hill was a brazen generalist. He believed that a person who wants to understand must probe at bookshelves like a scavenging shorebird, reading anything available on the centuries of history, literature and philosophy that lie beneath and around the subject at hand. One must pay close attention to every detail of text and experience, he believed, and then find a clean way though, without getting lost in the details.

Hill was old-fashioned, in that nowadays it seems old-fashioned to know something about many things rather than to have three graduate degrees in one thing. It seems old-fashioned to focus on ideas, to take theology, poetry or political theory as more than a pious varnish on material interests or base prejudice. When Hill first came to Yale in the early 1990s, he despaired of the narrow PhD dissertations at elite universities and the myopic wonkishness of Washington in the Clinton years. It was a time when the major ideological battles seemed to be over, and many in power thought democracy’s global victory was now merely a matter of technocratic administration. Hill taught me and my classmates that ideology still mattered very much. It’s true that he was a conservative, an admirer of Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan. But he taught us that studying the world through the lens of big ideas was not a partisan enterprise—it was a vital one. And it could be great fun.

When I was Hill’s student in the early 2000s, I often tromped up to his garret office on Hillhouse Avenue to ask a question about the week’s reading or pick his brain for advice. I’d join the line of students waiting outside his door, crammed in the narrow hallway, leafing through his cast-off copies of Foreign Affairs or a National Rifle Association newsletter scattered on the hall table. I was eager to see him, but dreaded the first part—the part where I sat down, he looked up, and remained silent until my semi-prepared ramblings trailed off and I looked around awkwardly at the bookshelves crammed with Plato, Chinese poetry, Emerson, Du Bois, books on Buddhism.

At Yale, Hill was a “diplomat in residence,” a made-up position that allowed him to exist outside the normal academic incentive structure, which rewards scholars who publish a great deal on a narrow topic and invest the bare minimum of time in teaching. Instead, Hill was always cooking up courses as a way to learn something new or bring together books and ideas that don’t ordinarily go together. He taught classes on subjects ranging from ancient political philosophy and the history of Tibet to “The Mississippi and Nationhood” and “Baseball as Grand Strategy.” One semester, his proposal for a new class called “The Democratic Epic” offered this description: “Works of epic ambition which, taken together, may form a national epic sequence of meaning: Cooper to Whitman to Kerouac; Civil War, World War II, Cold War texts; examples from science, law, music, and counter-cultures, each probing the relation of the self to the state in the context of democracy as a ‘force of history.’” Readings (and recordings) ranged from Moby Dick and Charles Ives’ sonatas to W.E.B. Du Bois on John Brown and Ann Douglas on Black Manhattan.

Hill’s most famous course was Studies in Grand Strategy, which he co-founded with Yale historians John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy. Skeptical progressives assumed a class that asked students to read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and talk openly about how to wield power must be radically conservative. But the course did not have an inherent politics. What was radical about Grand Strategy was its eclectic method, the rambling syllabus of readings from vastly different times and places, and summer funding that supported student projects ranging from travel to Mexico for research on drug cartel violence, to research in Rome on Hadrian’s grand strategy, to a study of “grand strategies for writing the great American novel.”

As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by Hill, this reserved man who seemed to have all the answers and a mysterious diplomatic career that he alluded to but never explained. I wanted to know where his own grand strategy came from. What began as a few conversations and a seminar paper took on a life of its own, and I ended up writing a full biography. The research took me deep into arcane episodes in Cold War diplomacy. I interviewed his family and friends, his admirers and his critics. I learned the sorts of things a biographer has to learn about any human being: that Hill made mistakes; that his devotion to his career came with personal costs—and that I didn’t have to idealize him to learn from him.

Hill was an intellectual magpie from the beginning of his life, rummaging around in his aunt’s attic for the odd book, reading the encyclopedia straight through when he was twelve, growing impatient with law school because it was so narrow (he graduated and then did a masters degree in American material culture before joining the Foreign Service).

Hill honed his omnivorous approach in one of his first Foreign Service postings, in Hong Kong as a China watcher during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. The People’s Republic was closed to most Western diplomats, so Hill and his colleagues spent hours scrutinizing the propaganda of rival Red Guard factions; interviewing refugees with dubious stories; studying the nuances of official Party photographs (where was that official who had been in the front row last month? Was he now in the countryside, being reeducated by the peasants?). Hill stayed up late reading histories of imperial Beijing, classical Chinese poetry, old missionary accounts, treatises on regional Buddhist practices. He set out to understand China from every angle.

In the spring of 1967, the chaos on the mainland came to Hong Kong. Bloody clashes between communist rioters and police spilled over from the Kowloon slums into wealthier neighborhoods, where residents stockpiled buckets of water in their apartments and peered through the banyan trees. Hill remembered standing on the roof of the American consulate as columns of Red Guards marched for hours around the building and down Garden Hill Road. “I’ve never been perturbed by things like that,” he later told me. “It’s just a sense that that’s the way the world is.”

To me, this image captures Hill: standing phlegmatic and mostly silent, finding a way to “dial up the exact mood that he must project,” as he later told me a good grand strategist must always do; noting the details, the waving Little Red Books, the bloodied shirts and noses, the conspicuous Mercedes-Benzes of the top Hong Kong cadres on their way to the governor’s mansion. Decades later in the classroom, he might draw an audacious diagram to help us see the big picture, but that did not mean he didn’t attend to minutae.

As the years passed, he became an increasingly meticulous notetaker who recorded nearly verbatim accounts of every conversation he took part in. Over the course of his four years working for George Shultz, he produced over 20,000 notebook pages (a conscientious colleague filled a measly 4,500). He made himself indispensable as the State Department’s chief amateur anthropologist who always produced the most credible narrative, who understood the power of putting things into words. Taking notes, writing speeches, and drafting memos meant that “you became a policymaker,” he later said.

His teaching resonated with a generation of students for the same reason he was such an effective adviser to great statesmen: He taught a style of thinking, a way of noticing things and making sense of it all. But his role in shaping some of Kissinger’s most important speeches, or framing the argument about human rights that Shultz and Reagan pursued with Mikhail Gorbachev, remained behind the scenes. “The fundamental principle is that you never look back. You keep going forward. If you give someone a memo, never thereafter say, ‘Did you look at that? What did you think of it?’” he told me. “Following up is important, but if you’re in an idea-producing status or situation, you just throw ideas in and move on to the next problem. If something works, you’ll hear about it in some form.”

In an era when pervasive social media encourages us to think that nothing matters unless we document it for public consumption, when career counselors encourage 18-year-olds to get going on “building their brand,” Hill’s quiet confidence was an antidote for his students. He reminded us that if you’re obsessed with getting recognition (or garnering retweets), you can’t possibly listen as well or understand as much. He often complained that no one takes good notes anymore—either in academia, where glowing screens are a crutch, or in Washington, where in the years since Watergate, a written record has proven an obstacle to “plausible deniability.” Students once asked him to teach an informal course on notetaking—of course, he agreed.

Hill’s obituaries describe him as “laconic,” a quiet presence, an eminence grise. He was all of those things. But he would also send us into fits of laughter with dead-on imitations of famous statesmen (all that close observation made him a talented mimic). He loved to pass out bizarrely eclectic packets at the start of class and watch us squirm as we tried to figure out the connections between a xerox of a German romantic painting, a verse from a 4th-century Chinese poem, an excerpt from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, a news clipping about global warming, and other bits of evidence about the human condition.

He appeared serious, and he was, but the quality that bewitched Hill’s students was the same quality that made his analysis of world affairs so powerful: his playfulness. He derived great joy from linking poetry to religion to children’s books to professional sports to political theory and diplomacy, and he loved nothing more than batting around ideas with us, fellow amateurs.

Years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified this playfulness as a key feature of a true intellectual, a counterbalance to the stultifying piety that is all too common in government and in academia, and keeps a person from asking interesting questions. Conventional scholars and policy wonks might mistake a generalist like Hill for an unserious dabbler, an impractical amateur. This is a grave error. “In using the terms play and playfulness, I do not intend to suggest any lack of seriousness; quite the contrary,” Hofstadter wrote. “Anyone who has watched children, or adults, at play will recognize that there is no contradiction between play and seriousness, and that some forms of play induce a measure of grave concentration not so readily called forth by work.” By making us comrades in this play, Hill took us seriously in a way that few professors did.

There are superficial signs that his approach is no longer so strange. The Yale course that Hill co-founded helped to make the catchphrase “grand strategy” trendy in academia. Programs with “Grand Strategy” in the title popped up at other elite universities, each with its own approach to the project of training ambitious young leaders. A raft of books appeared on the topic (including Hill’s own Grand Strategies, published in 2010). Now that I’m a professor myself, I am building my own modest stockpile of bold chalkboard diagrams, and I will try to channel Hill next fall, when I will co-teach a recklessly broad new course called “Humans and the Cosmos.” But I have a feeling that grand strategy as Hill understood it—fervently anti-specialist, relentless yet impish—still remains an awkward fit in the policy world and in the academy. He had no illusions about starting a movement or changing a culture. But he did succeed in the goal that, I think, he had in mind: he left behind a generation of students who are doing our best to notice things, reflect, and make a small, sly smile.

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